Ballad of a fat man

Orson Welles' recently reissued noir classic 'Touch of Evil' may be the sleaziest good movie ever made.

Published September 10, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Compared with Orson Welles' richest films ("The Magnificent Ambersons" and "Chimes at Midnight"), the 1958 "Touch of Evil" has always been a piece of "candy," as Pauline Kael once called it -- but a piece of candy that's been under the couch for a week, collecting hair and grit and all manner of unidentifiable fuzzies. This thriller about a corrupt, broken-down American cop (Welles) and an upright Mexican cop (Charlton Heston) investigating a double homicide in a squalid border town just may be the sleaziest good movie ever made, and it's hard to think of one so baroque in its grotesquerie. I'm not sure what director Paul Schrader meant when he called it "film noir's epitaph," but I can guess: Watching "Touch of Evil," you get the feeling that any other noir would be redundant. When Janet Leigh is trapped in a shabby motel room with a gang of leather-jacketed hoods planning to shoot her full of dope and do God knows what else, or when a thrown bottle of acid just misses Heston's face, or when the only place for Welles to wash a colleague's blood off his hands is a garbage-choked river, you're in the hands of a filmmaker who's descended about as far down into tawdriness as it's possible to go without sacrificing his art.

Viewed by Hollywood as a has-been at 43, Welles seized the chance to show what he was still capable of doing by rewriting a throwaway B-movie and dressing it up with distorted camera angles and Russell Metty's stark and shadowy photography. The effect is both trashy and exhilarating. But it also elevates film noir's grimy, worm's-eye view of the world to the magisterial heights of an overlord.

What makes "Touch of Evil" a truly characteristic Welles movie, apart from its director's singular style, is that the studio couldn't leave it alone. Realizing that Welles had made something considerably more complex and perverse than the efficient little B-movie they'd hired him to make, Universal executives ordered that nearly 15 minutes be cut from the film and several explanatory scenes added. In the '70s, the 96-minute studio cut was replaced by a then newly discovered 108-minute print that restored nearly all of Welles' original footage. The story might have ended there if producer Rick Schmidlin hadn't read an article by Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum about a 58-page memo written by Welles describing the changes he wanted made in the studio's version of "Touch of Evil." Schmidlin obtained not just the memo (detailing 50 specific changes) but also scripts, notes, cue sheets and continuity reports, as well as original negative footage and original soundtracks. Schmidlin enlisted Bob O'Neil, Universal's director of restoration, to restore the picture; Bill Varney to restore the cacophonous mixture of source music and direct, overlapping sound that Welles envisioned; and one of the real technical wizards of the movies, editor and sound editor Walter Murch ("The Unbearable Lightness of Being," "The Conversation") to achieve the intercutting pattern that Welles had outlined.

Anybody who cares about Welles' films and who knows how shabbily he was treated by the money men has to be heartened that one of his most distinctive pictures can now be seen in the manner he intended. (We'll never see his greatest movie, "The Magnificent Ambersons," as he envisioned, because RKO had the deleted footage destroyed.) This is a slightly different case, though, from the gorgeous restorations done on "The Leopard," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Spartacus," "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "Vertigo," instances in which bad prints were cleaned up or cut footage was restored. What's been done to "Touch of Evil" is less addition than rearrangement, and because of the way movies take root in our heads, any alteration to what we remember is bound to be at least a little jarring. The changes made by Schmidlin and his team are far from radical. The most obvious are the intercutting of scenes that ran sequentially in previous versions. And yet I'd be lying if I didn't admit to being initially thrown. It's not quite the same as going from, say, Julie Andrews' "My Favorite Things" to John Coltrane's, but it does require learning a familiar tune in a new rhythm. What's most important, though, is that "Touch of Evil" still whirs by like a hallucination; this is a movie that operates less on narrative logic than on nightmare logic.

The movie's legendary opening -- an unbroken three-minute, 20-second tracking shot that begins with a man placing a bomb in a car -- is Welles' way of announcing that the climaxes and flourishes of his film may not necessarily correspond to the story. The camera glides ahead of the car, not waiting for it to catch up, picking up the vehicle only seconds before the bomb goes off, as if by chance. Welles is so anxious to dazzle us, he's not about to be held back by the particulars of his two-bit story. It's fascinating, then, how the story becomes a weird metaphor for Welles' methods.

As Capt. Hank Quinlan, Welles might be playing out Hollywood's worst fantasy of himself: gross, broken-down, on his last legs. He trudges through the movie unshaven and sweating in a cheap, dirty suit (and fitted out with padding and a bulbous nose to balloon his already hefty frame). When the town's gypsy madam, Tana (Marlene Dietrich looking -- if it's possible -- even more ravishing than she did in the '30s), sees her old customer, she says, "You should lay off the candy bars, honey ... You're a mess." Welles seems to have done everything he could to make Quinlan repugnant, not only physically, but morally as well. A racist (seeing that Heston's new bride is Janet Leigh, he says, "She doesn't look Mexican") and a brute (he roughs up suspects), Quinlan owes his extraordinary record of cracking cases to his predilection for planting evidence that will convict the people his gut instincts tell him are guilty.

"Touch of Evil" hinges on the conflict between Quinlan and Heston's Mike Vargas after Vargas discovers Quinlan's modus operandi. But Welles complicates what might have been a simple noir confrontation between justice and corruption by the inclusion of one detail. Quinlan's hunches are almost always right, while Vargas, the clean, by-the-book cop, is the movie's version of Bob Dylan's Mr. Jones from "Ballad of a Thin Man": the straight who knows something is happening here but doesn't know what it is. (Though it should be said that Heston used his box-office clout to secure Welles the directing job, and for that he is owed a debt of gratitude.) Vargas spends much of the movie outraged about the sullying of his wife's "good name," but he's so ready to give up his honeymoon and tag along on Quinlan's case that his absence allows her to be terrorized by the drug kingpin "Uncle Joe" Grandi (Akim Tamiroff, greasy and mascaraed like an obscene, leering kewpie doll). The movie's ambivalence toward Quinlan seems played out on the bone-weary face of his partner, Menzies (Joseph Calleia), as his loyalty turns to disgust at what Quinlan has done, and even greater disgust at himself for betraying him.

What lifts "Touch of Evil" above the level of a "Dirty Harry"-style celebration of ruthless bastards who get the job done is that the movie isn't intended as a pulp prescription for society's ills. Its true subject is moviemaking. The actual story of the movie is, for Welles, a Guignol jest, and the noir conventions are his playland. He plays up the public's perception of him as a wreck, while behind the camera, his inventiveness unleashes one jolt after another. If his sympathy for Quinlan is genuine, that's because he understands him as someone who, like himself, can't operate by the book, and who doesn't gain a damn thing by insisting on things his way, but who gets results that nobody else could. Any hack could have filmed "Touch of Evil" as the cheap, fast crime programmer Universal wanted. But who could have made a movie that feels like a sustained version of the fun house-mirror sequence that ends Welles' "The Lady from Shanghai"? Who could have transformed the crumbling buildings of Venice, Calif., into a living ghost town of the night, so stark against the black sky they look unreal?

As Walter Murch wrote in last Sunday's New York Times, it may be inaccurate to hear the fortune Tana predicts for Quinlan -- "Your future is all used up" -- as Welles' own. Welles went on to make four more movies, one of them "Chimes at Midnight," the greatest Shakespearean film ever. But he always had trouble getting financing, and four completed films in 27 years isn't a lot for a director who was only in his early 40s when he made "Touch of Evil." Hearing Tana's line 40 years later sends a chill through you. You can't help but think of how "Touch of Evil," which was going to be Welles' Hollywood comeback, was the last time he ever worked in Hollywood. Maybe the more prophetic line is the one Dietrich offers as Quinlan's epitaph: "What does it matter what you say about people?" You can hear the parody of noir's portentous, romanticized fatalism in the way the line is written and in the way Dietrich delivers it (she once said she never delivered a line better in her life -- she was right). But now it also sounds like an uncanny defense against the conventional petty judgment of Welles as a former genius scrounging off the reputation he earned by debuting with one of the greatest and most influential films of all time, "Citizen Kane." The proof of what Welles could do with a trash entertainment is right on the screen in "Touch of Evil," just as what he could do with material of substance was right on the screen in "Ambersons," "Othello" and "Chimes at Midnight." What does it matter what was said about him?

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Movies The New York Times Thrillers