Attention film buffs and cinephiles: Do you have a film(s) that fits your criteria to a T and yet you continually pass up every opportunity to watch it? If you’re like me you do. (Currently Hell or High Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri are in my perpetual queue.)
Why do we (I) do that?
For years, Citizen Kane was that movie for me. (Yeah, I know…What can I say? I’m ashamed.) Perhaps it was because I knew that I should watch it, because I knew that any and every self respecting buff absolutely must watch it, that I just never did–until a few years ago.
Newsflash: It was great. Even revolutionary. But not as good as Touch of Evil. To me.
Yes Touch of Evil is a recognized masterpiece, recorded in The National Film Registry, Library of Congress; ranking #64 on American Film Institutes 100 Years, 100 Thrills; coming in at #26 and #57 respectively on Sight and Sound’s directors and critics Greatest Films of All Time list and the accolades go on. Any fanboy or fangirl should be pleased with this representation and I am, (not so much with the fangirl part, but it is what it is) it’s just that Citizen Kane ranks #1 on these directories.
Do I think that’s fair? Umm…Nooo.
Do I think Touch of Evil should be #1? No. I do not. But # 64 on American Film Institutes 100 Years, 100 Thrills? Come on.
Then what should be #1? I’d rather not go there.
So then, where is this going? To an unspecified town on the Mexican border actually. And yes, it’s going to get messy…And complicated. (Duh. It’s a border town. And I’m interviewing myself.)
When critics talk about Touch of Evil they always talk about the opening scene. Let me see…How can I describe it? Well that’s hard because I haven’t got a clue as to the technical side of it. Of course I could brush up on the research but I’m going to skip the analysis since a lot of famous critics and directors admit they don’t know how Orson Welles pulled it off.
If you’ve seen the opening scene to La La Land, the spectacular choreography, to me that’s what’s going on here. Choreography. But in Touch of Evil, it’s even better (and that’s saying a lot since I love the La La Land opening scene) because instead of dancers, this choreography is with moving cars, pedestrians in crosswalks, vendors and peddlers pushing carts, a passel of goats, more pedestrians and cars intertwining at intersections, going through checkpoints and all the while, one particular car is intersecting at different points with one particular couple, walking. (Yes, there is a couple in the car of question. It is not driven by ghosts.)
Except for the opening establishing shot and the ones that are immediately subsequent, all of this is filmed moving toward the camera while the camera(s) is backing away in a beautiful collage of orchestrated chaos pulsing to a percussion heavy jazz intro. It is absolutely, unequivocally spectacular.
Oh, did I mention that it is suspenseful? And on the edge of your seat thrilling?
Well it is. That’s because that one particular car that is intersecting with that one particular couple (along with all the other people, cars and the passel of goats) has a ticking time bomb in its trunk. We know this because the ticking time bomb, in unidentifiable hands, is the opening establishing shot. And the fiend–whoever it is–is seen placing it in the trunk of the car in the immediate subsequent opening shots.
So this is what the movie’s about? Well…Yes and no.
What this movie is about is Charlton Heston in all of his overacting glory. Believe me, there are plenty of Damn you…Damn you…DAMN YOU…(Planet of the Apes) moments here.
What this movie is about is Janet Leigh, pre Psycho, giving a very nuanced and spunky, spirited performance.
What this movie is about is Denis Freaking Weaver executing one of the most bizarre, jittery, over-Kilimanjaro feats of acting in all of cinematic history. And it is wonderful.
But if you want to know about plot, you are just going to have to watch the movie. I’m not going to lay it out for you—it’s far too brilliant. I can’t give it justice. (Plus it’s really complicated and I’ve already taken up too much time and space interviewing myself.)
That said, I will delve into theme. (You didn’t think I’d let you off that easy did ya?)
At it’s core, Touch of Evil is about corruption. Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) is a nefarious, aging police captain in a border town on the U.S. side. When I say aging, I’m being kind. A more accurate adjective would be decaying. He’s a mess. Obese. Obviously diabetic. Lumbering, with a cane. So riddled by booze and sugar that he cannot speak without slurring his words.
He is terminally prejudiced and dangerously criminal. Even so, as I write this, there are tears in my eyes for him. And I’m not kidding.
Quinlan has a partner, of course. His name is Pete (Joseph Calleia) and he would be a thoroughly decent man and honest cop, if not for Quinlan. Even with him he’s a nice guy.
Pete is completely devoted to Quinlan. He admires him. Reveres him even. Why?
And he’s not the only one. The police chief, the District Attorney, just about all the old guard of the town hold this ugly, contemptible man in high esteem. Are they all in cahoots with him in his corruption? Possibly. Probably. To some extent. But it’s more than that.
There is an aging prostitute, a madam in this border town. Yes, sadly, there always is at least one. But unlike Quinlan, she has retained vestiges of her charm. She is in fact, still, exotically beautiful–and mysterious. Her name is Tanya. (She is portrayed by the great and legendary Marlene Dietrich.)
Quinlan wanders into her brothel in a perpetual stupor and when he sees her, when he recognizes her, his disease ravaged face is transfixed and just barely, but still, it is transformed…With kindness. With awe…With, even, love.
Later when Tanya is questioned about what she thinks of Quinlan, she talks about who he was before he completely disappeared into a fog of vile, “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”
This revelation is stunning as it hints at what has been lost not only in the character of Quinlan, but in Orson Welles himself. At the time Welles was suffering from chronic alcoholism, binge eating, drug dependency and numerous infidelities. For his old and much respected friend Marlene Dietrich to deliver these lines with such matter of fact poignancy is fitting and exploitatively sublime…Exactly the way Welles intended it to be.