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Friday, August 31, 2012

Orson Welles | Touch of Evil


some kind of man
by Douglas Messerli
 
Orson Welles, Paul Monash and Franklin Coen (based on a novel by Whit Masterson), Orson Welles (director) Touch of Evil / 1958

Reviewing the 1998 restored version of Welles' underrated film, Touch of Evil, the other day, I was struck by how strangely prescient this film was concerning border relations between the US and Mexico. The hero of this work, Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston), is set to testify against a Mexican drug lord in Mexico City, his life threatened by members of Grande's large family for his actions. The local US authorities, not at all sympathetic to Mexican issues, are satisfied to be arresting Mexican citizens by planting evidence. Although the film seems to be taking place in border towns in Texas it might as well have been in contemporary Arizona, with a Sherriff like Paul Babeu at the helm. The US authorities want to believe in the heroism of Welles' "mess" of a human-being—as his former lover, Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) describes him—detective Hank Quinlan, more than they desire truth, whatever that may be.

     The incident that sets off the series of dark events of Touch of Evil is a border bombing of a local American business leader, who has been partying with a whore on the Mexican side of the border, and whose car blows up as he moves to the American side. Walking alongside of that car is a newly married couple, the Mexican Vargas and his American-born wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), as they move among the various honky-tonk establishments, each blaring out various mambos, rock and roll, and jazz music, the effect of which Welles demanded was necessary to establish the tone of his film. At the border crossing each couple, the walking pair and the car-bound couple are briefly stopped and checked before the explosion sets the movie into motion.

      Various American authorities come running, including Detective Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), District Attorney Adair (the ever-shining Welles player, Ray Collins), and, finally, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), the latter looking like an unshaven, unkempt disaster of a human being. All are determined to get to the bottom of the event, with Quinlan—who relies more on the hunches his game leg provides him than the facts—in the lead, attended by Vargas, who is afraid of the implications of the event. As Vargas attempts to explain to his still all-too-American wife.
 
                        Vargas: This could be very bad for us.
                        Susan: For us?
                        Vargas: For Mexico, I mean.

 The "us" of his statement is revelatory, for Vargas is a man of international repute, a man who one might describe as caring more for his causes than for the cause of love. Indeed, studio execs complained to Welles and changed some of his scenes on account of what they saw as the unbelievability of Vargas' quick abandonment of his brand-new wife for the chase of the murderer. In a 58-page memorandum, outlining his disagreement with their reediting of his film—a problem Wells would face on nearly every one of his movies—the director explained Vargas' character this way:

                          A honeymoon couple, desperately in love, is abruptly
                          separated by a violent incident (the bombing of the car) -
                          an incident which, although it had no personal bearing on
                          either one of them, the man considers as a matter of his
                          urgent professional concern. This feeling of responsibility
                          by Vargas is, of course, an expression of the basic theme
                          of the whole picture; further, his wife (stet) resistance to such
                          masculine idealism, her failure, and even refusal to understand,
                          is human and very feminine reaction which any audience can
                          grasp easily and sympathize with. She is, after all, in a foreign
                          country and has been subjected to a series of indignities which
                          irritate and bewilder her, and which her husband fails to
                          completely appreciate. Vargas' behavior and her reaction, make
                          it necessary to dramatize and underline this temporary misunder-
                          standing between them. By minimizing it; by sweetening their
                          relationship at the wrong moment, and warming it up at
                          precisely where the distance separating the man and woman
                          should be at its greatest, there is a sharp loss in dimension, and
                          both Vargas and Susan emerge as stock characters - the sort
                          of routine "romantic leads" to be found in any programme
                          picture.

     Surely we might agree with Welles assessment of his script, but it does pose a problem, again and again, since Vargas' near total abandonment of her and her susceptibility to the local Grande's threats makes if difficult, at times, to comprehend the characters. When Vargas allows her to travel to an isolated hotel, empty in this off-season period, without even checking upon who owns the place (Joe Grande himself), we even wonder about his ability as a detective. Yet it is these very tensions, Vargas' determination to follow along with the corrupt Quinlin even though he has no authority to participate in the investigation, and Susan's feisty but ineffective battles with Grande's malicious young boys and girls that creates the marvelous tensions of the film.

      Both Vargas and his wife are swept up in the corrupt American battles that presume guilt and rely on bigotry and hate. Vargas, discovering an empty shoebox in the apartment of the bombing suspect Manolo Sanchez, is shocked when detectives soon after discover two sticks of dynamite in the same box. Determined to out Quinlin's chicanery, he investigates the American detective's chicken ranch to discover that he has purchased ten sticks of dynamite, two of which are now missing and, after investigating former cases, discovers that in almost all of Quinlin's investigations evidence was found on site that the criminals declared to have been planted.

      To fight back, Quinlin joins forces with the evil Joe Grande to torture Susan and link her—and ultimately Vargas—to drugs. In a kind a terrifying dry-run of Hitchcock's Psycho of a few years later, Janet Leigh as Susan must endure a horrifying attack in an isolated motel, where she is shot up with sodium pentothal (pretending to be a potent drug) and—after being transported back to town—is involved in what appears to be the murder of Grande, an act committed by Quinlan himself in a kind a mad revenge against both Vargas and the long-ago strangler of his own wife.

 Although this is an extraordinarily dark piece, a grand noir work, Welles seems also be having some fun when we discover that Quinlin has left behind, at the murder scene, his cane. As I mentioned earlier, Quinlin is a fat, bewhiskered man whom the authorities are desperate to believe in. So does Welles almost turn his figure into a kind of sweatu Santa, a drunken, dark man who, while standing in for all the values of goodness, is only to ready to twist and turn them inside out.

File:Touch of Evil-Marlene Dietrich2.JPG     Vargas, finally joining forces with Menzies, who has so dearly loved Quinlin that he has stupidly allowed himself to be a pawn for years, gets admissions on tape from Quinlin. Such a monstrous figure is Quinlan, however, that when he perceives he is being taped, he kills his own best friend—his only true companion—before turning the gun on Vargas. Just as he is about to kill again, however, Menzies, not quite dead, shoots the man he has loved to death, saving Vargas' life.

      Only now does Vargas finally return his attentions to his wife, as the couple is determined to move away from this border world—which, as Vargas has earlier told Susan, always brings out the worst of societies—to Mexico City where they can lead a better life. The final scenes represent the emptiness not only of the place but of the man so lionized thereabouts.

      As Tanya arrives at the scene, she asks "Isn't somebody gonna come and take him away?"

          The interchange between Tanya and Schwartz is one that has always intrigued me:

                     Schwartz: ....You really liked him didn't you?
                     Tanya: The cop did...the one who killed him...he loved him.
                     Schwartz: Well, Hank was a great detective all right.
                     Tanya: And a lousy cop.
                     Schwartz: Is that all you have to say from him?
                     Tanya: He was some kind of man... What does it matter what
                            you say about people?

For years, I interpreted that line, "He was some kind of man," as suggesting that despite Quinlin's evil failures that he was special, a kind of incredible man. But, for the first time, in seeing this film yesterday, I realized that Tanya was not speaking of him as a special being, as a kind of magical "saint" who so many perceived him to be, but simply recognizing that he was a failed human being, not a perverse Santa, but a man, a man without a future. It no longer matters what you say about the dead.

Los Angeles, August 30, 2012

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