Touch of Evil (1958)

I have long championed the critical recording by James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum on Criterion’s The Complete Mr. Arkadin as being one of the most pleasurable and informative DVD commentaries of recent years, and their new tag team recording on Universal’s 50th anniversary edition of Touch of Evil (released today) is a worthy followup. By and large, Naremore follows the content of his Touch of Evil chapter in his excellent book, The Magic World of Orson Welles, broaching such topics as the Civil Rights era, Welles’ formalism, moral ambiguity, and the use of fair lady/dark lady stereotypes, while Rosenbaum (Discovering Orson Welles) elaborates and clarifies, and offers particular insights into specific shots. Yet their conversation is fluid and far from rigid–it’s the result of two passionate cinephiles and Welles scholars who are also gifted communicators.

Their commentary accompanies the “Preview” version of the movie that was discovered in 1976, which includes some of the changes Welles requested after he was shut out of Universal’s editing process, as well as some of the studio’s own additions (most dramatically scenes shot by another director). I believe this is the version that was available on VHS for many years; the new DVD also includes the original 96-minute theatrical cut (1957) and the 111-minute “restored” version (1998). It’s a long-awaited and beautifully put together release (I was particularly pleased that the featurette I watched wasn’t full of movie clips, a DVD convention that has become tedious and repetitive) although there will certainly be some outcry about the presentation of Welles’ 58-page memo, printed in its entirety here for the first time but made to resemble an “authentic” document in miniature size that has been hastily stapled together. I was relieved that the pages were still intact after a single reading.

Touch of Evil presents Charlton Heston as a Mexican narcotics officer who has to divide his time between his new American bride (Janet Leigh) and upholding the law against a corrupt border cop (Welles) who tries to frame an immigrant. As Naremore and Rosenbaum point out, Welles often staged stories that pitted a liberal character against a fascist one, and though he sympathized the most with the former, he often portrayed the latter and thus humanized him. The critical duo is perceptive in pointing out ways in which Heston’s character increasingly becomes more fascist after his wife is threatened, the viewer is provoked by interracial rape fears that recall the work of D.W. Griffith, and how Welles’ character shows vulnerability and victimization of his own. As Naremore writes in his book, “[The film requires us] to distinguish between feelings and judgments, never allowing us to fall prey to an easy righteousness.”

The film was initially categorized as a pulp movie, but Naremore correctly rejects both Heston’s description of it as a “B movie” (there’s too much A-list talent involved) and Paul Schrader’s labeling it as a “film noir” (it’s less romanticized) to suggest that it’s something more–a quasi-neorealist examination (with its fine use of dilapidated, late-’50s Venice/Los Angeles locations) of racial fears and policies just four years after the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling that many police refused to enforce. “The policeman’s job is to enforce the law,” Welles pointedly told the press, “not to write it.” Watching the film again this year, it’s a stunning example of socially relevant dramaturgy that centers not only on immigration issues that still dominate the headlines, but also highlights issues such as the ethics of tyrannical power and torture versus criminal rights and legal procedures that have been (or should have been) equally front and center in the mainstream conscience the past five years.

A few weeks ago, I managed to see The Dark Knight, a movie extolled for tackling questions about the ethical limits of strongarm tactics and surveillance against crime, but upon close examination, the film totally squanders its topicality for emotional and rhetorical effects rather than extended, coherent, or even rational exploration of its issues. Welles’ film does a much better job of delineating the same terrain with clear-cut precision and sharply provocative shadings. The characters played by Heston and Welles represent opposite ends of a coherent ethical spectrum—evidence and shared legality versus intuition and unilateral power—that represents an ideological border brought into tension by the story’s physical border between nations, people, and classes.

Rosenbaum points out that although the film’s four-minute-plus opening tracking shot (parodied in Robert Altman’s The Player) may be its most famous tour-de-force moment, it actually pales in many respects to two other extended shots in the film that detail the interrogation of a suspect and the collection of evidence within a cramped apartment. Both are well over five minutes long in duration, and involve a highly choreographed movement of actors, both in front and behind the camera, a plethora of exact positions constantly in flux, as well as subtle camera movements. The actors shift around into so many different configurations that it provides a kind of innate “cutting” that distinguishes one conversation from another, but the preservation of the integrity of the space emphasizes the nefarious evidence planting that occurs “beneath the viewer’s gaze.” (Typical of Welles’ love of illusion.) It’s this kind of brilliant sense of space–and so many subsequent examples, such as when Welles mounts a camera to Heston’s car and films the actors as they literally speed through town–that immediately identifies Universal’s added footage, filmed as a typical two-shot between Heston and Leigh or as back-projected landscapes on studio automobile props. (Additionally, Rosenbaum and Naremore justifiably compare the scenes’ overlapping dialogue to a brilliant musical score in its rhythms and varying levels of volume.)

Rosenbaum also describes a camp perception of the film in the early-’60s that is completely missing in contemporary reactions by viewers who have become accustomed to the film’s semi-comical, even grotesque, wide-angled visual exaggerations, eccentric supporting roles, and villains who resemble comical buffoons. I’ve always considered Touch of Evil the best Coen movie not directed by a Coen brother, and the film’s sense of irony was easily thirty years ahead of its time; it also highlights the facile nature of today’s winking detachment in which nothing is taken seriously enough. Welles was undercutting Hollywood cliches, not perpetuating them, and unlike today’s cynical-hipster cinematic climate, as Rosenbaum points out, “Everyone has their moment, no one is really dismissed.” Naremore suggests that Welles’ playfulness heightens awareness of the issues it raises, placing the viewer both within and outside the film at the same time and creating a kind of dual perception. In a way, it’s just one more border the film enthusiastically crosses.

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