PG-13. I guess this one was reviewed by the MPAA retroactively, but it also makes my job way easier in this section. Touch of Evil is actually pretty intense for an older film. I mean, it's 1958. It's not that old and the roaring '60s are around the corner. There's a lot of content that could be considered pretty offensive. There's on-screen murder, involving one character's eyes bulging out. There's an implied gang rape. A character is forced to use drugs. Also, and this is more of a cultural thing than anything else, there's a pretty intense use of makeup to change races. I don't know why I'm dancing around this: it's pretty close to blackface and I want to say that with the full severity of the term. While the actors don't play stereotypes and aren't in makeup to be laughed at, it's still really uncomfortable. Regardless, PG-13...
DIRECTOR: Orson Welles
So let me tell you the State of the Union on this blog. Most of my publicity comes from Facebook and Twitter. Someone decided to flag me as abusive spam. That's fun for me. So the big thing right now is that I feel like I'm writing to the void. I don't think I have a following enough to have people bookmark my page, so we'll see if I can break through the void. It is really hard to write this on a daily basis. While overall it brings me joy, I am really an incentive based person. Sometimes, I need a carrot dangling to get me to be productive. I realized fairly recently that I don't give myself a lot of downtime. My self-care has to be positive and active. The two things that I do for me are writing and exercising and it's hilarious that I don't love doing either while they are happening. I just feel good after I exercise and I feel accomplished after I write. (BTW, when do I watch movies? While I exercise. Ouroboros.)
Anyway, I might have a lot to say about this movie. For those people who have been following, this week is film noir week, mainly because I have to catch up on all of the things that I watched for my film noir class. The kicker on this one is that Touch of Evil is the film I'm presenting on, so I have done way more research on this movie than I have for other films. I watched the movie, then watched a commentary for another cut of the movie, and then read a whole bunch of books on it. A lot of the writing I do about movie is me shooting from the hip. When you write about a movie every day, sometimes you have to cut a little bit of the fat from the writing. It can't all be quality. But there's something remarkably soothing about low-stakes writing with my other movies. If I'm wrong, then I'm wrong. No big deal. But there's something absolutely exciting knowing that you have the right interpretation and that there's a whole bunch of evidence backing you up.
But given all that, I want to talk about something that none of the things I researched talked about: the look of the movie. Part of this probably comes down to tone. But there's something about Touch of Evil that feels akin to a low budget beach movie. I know it's not a low budget film. Charleton Heston called it the greatest B-movie ever made, but it's definitely not a B-movie. Instead, it just didn't get the publicity that it deserved at the time because of Orson Welles and his reputation as being a difficult director to work with. It's just that the way that the camera moves. Welles loved have a kinetic camera and it shows in his other films. I know that cinematographer Russell Metty was an absolute genius with a camera and a crane shot. After all, I've shown the opening of Touch of Evil to every film class I taught. But the rest of the film is absolutely bananas, and I say that in the best way possible. It takes a little getting used to, but the movie looks and feels more like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!than anything that came out of the film noir era. It's really nuts, but I really dig it.
If there's nothing else to say about Touch of Evil is that it just feels gutsy. Welles is acting as a guerrilla filmmaker despite the fact that he is an expert at his craft. There's nothing really safe about this movie. It's 1958. It's not the first movie to be critical of Americans openly, but it definitely is a pioneer when it comes to that distinction. I'm probably never going to write amazing things about Charleton Heston, not out of a political stance or anything like that, but more out of he has just never really impressed me all that much. But Heston kind of works in this role. Because he's not even attempting to do an accent or a dialect, but rather just being Heston in uncomfortable racist makeup, it kind of gets forgettable. But the hero of the story is the Mexican and the bad guy is the American. That's pretty insane. It's calling the U.S. on its casual racist history while, somehow, making the villain also somewhat sympathetic.
Welles hated everything that Quinlan stood for. The movie is openly criticizing the way that police were working in the era. While border police were getting results, they were cutting corners and entrenched in a bias that they could no longer see. He deals with a drug epidemic in a pretty hilarious way by today's standards, but acknowledges that there is a drug problem. It seems like such a risque movie compared to all of the other film noir entries that I've watched. (Admittedly, there's some debate whether or not Touch of Evil technically counts as film noir, so there's that.) It's just that with all of the other entries in this class I'm watching the crime is always kind of ambiguous. We know that someone is evil because they're sitting in a well-lit basement bemoaning the police and stuff like that. We often deal with the consequence of crime and not the actual crime itself. But Touch of Evil really lets us see that crime is happening. Uncle Joe is this heavy who keeps pressuring things his own way. We get a rowdy gang that drives Mrs. Vargas insane. This is a world of chaos and it is really interesting to see it play out.
There's two elements of the movie that I absolutely adore. (I'm actually finding this harder to write than I care to admit because I like the movie so much. When a movie is simply okay, I can write page after page. I just hate gushing.) It's a bit on the nose because those two elements are the things that Orson Welles set out to accomplish. The first thing I adore is the relationship and downfall of Quinlan. Quinlan is a great villain. He's so good because he knows that he's the hero of the story. He's a guy who keeps shifting his moral code by an inch time-and-time again. Touch of Evil is a look at a man who has moved that line so many times that by the time we meet him, he's morally kind of bankrupt. Yet he holds onto his victories and his morals as justification for all the evils he does. I love that Quinlan starts the film as a recovering alcoholic. He's gotten fat on candy bars, which makes his girth indicative of a man who has just given up. But he uses that sobriety as a high horse. It's this double effect of pride in failure. It's really excellent. Yeah, the movie goes "Demon in a Bottle" on him when he returns to the booze, but it explains so much about his character.
Similarly, and this is kind of gross on my part, I really find the whole B-plot of Mrs. Vargas interesting. For someone married to a higher up in the Mexican police force, her choices in the film are a bit bizarre. I don't think that Welles is commenting on the ineptitude of women, at least I hope he isn't. But she starts the film with such agency. She chooses not to define herself by her husband. She addresses a threat to their domestic bliss by accepting the invitation to meet Uncle Joe. It's just that we, as audience members, quickly recognize her mistake. As gross as it is from today's standards, watching Janet Leigh get flung into the insane criminal underworld is haunting. I think I know why I like it so much and it doesn't really let me off the hook. Janet Leigh's portion of the movie is a horror film. She's completely overwhelmed by her situation. While there's no blood or death, she's tortured throughout the film and we want to see her as the final girl get revenge on those who tortured her. I'm also a fan of bummer endings, knowing that everything doesn't quite work out for her. She gets a bittersweet ending, freed from the torture of the gang. But the gang continues to live on, without justice being brought to them.
One of the things in the commentary blew my mind. There's a really weird performance in the movie that I instantly made the connection to Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates. Dennis Weaver plays the night manager of the motel and his performance is insane. It was clear the archetypal connections between Norman Bates and Touch of Evil's night manager, mainly because they serve the same role in the film and are also very clearly insane. There's something in the costume, too, that Hitchcock may have picked up on. Perkins is genius in his subtlety of Norman Bates. Weaver is an acid trip. But I didn't exactly make the really obvious connection that Janet Leigh is the one being tortured in a hotel room by a Norman Bates type. I'll talk about it in my presentation, but I can't believe I didn't pick up on this.
Hopefully, I'll get out of Facebook jail soon once it is reviewed. But until then, I will yell into the darkness until I get too depressed to write anymore. Touch of Evil is definitely worth a watch. It's a little weird and can get a little tedious at times, but it absolutely is a work of genius.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.