TOUCH OF EVIL: Blowing up Film Noir

Producer, writer and director Fraser Heston—son of legendary actor Charlton Heston—was on hand today to introduce a new world premiere restoration of TOUCH OF EVIL, courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The younger Heston revealed it was his father who suggested Welles helm the picture, though the director was something of a persona non grata with the studios at the time due to his reputation for being difficult to work with and his tendency to run over budget. As was plain to everyone present at today’s screening, the suggestion was brilliant, and the end result was a “textbook example of noir.”

In a special moment that brought a collective gasp from the sizeable crowd at the Chinese Theatre, Fraser then produced and read from two personal letters he father had kept—one from Welles to Charlton, the other from Charlton to Lew Wasserman. The former was affectionate in tone, revealing how much Welles enjoyed working with the actor. In the latter, Charlton said of TOUCH OF EVIL, “It is not a great film. It is, however, the greatest B movie ever.”

It was clear to everyone watching this incredible restoration that TOUCH OF EVIL is at least that, and likely much more. The low key moments now reveal maximum detail in the shadows, and the high contrasts are striking without feeling overblown in the whites or too saturated in the darks. We get the sense we’re seeing things through Welles’ eyes, which is at once a thing of beauty and something difficult to assess—like Welles himself.

The trick with Welles is that he never seems to be interested in just telling a story. From his earliest experiments in film (and even earlier, in theater and radio), he played with storytelling conventions to confound audience expectations (e.g. The War of the Worlds broadcast, a science fiction fantasy done in a journalistic style). Over time this developed into a fascination with artifice that became increasingly self-conscious—as seen in moments like the double cross in The Lady from Shanghai (also playing in a premiere restoration at this year’s Festival), where Hayworth and Welles exchanges words that seal his fate as the sharks circle behind them in the walls of a giant aquarium.

TOE1TOUCH OF EVIL, in particular, seems to be focused as much on how it tells the story as on the story it tells. The opening sequence is an incredible three and a half minute tracking shot from a crane, which begins with a close-up of a bomb in someone’s hands. The person sets the timer on the bomb and puts it in the trunk of a car, just before a couple comes around the corner of a building and climbs into the car. Then the shot rises up in the air, giving us the sensation of this being an omniscient camera (and in the hands of Orson Welles, it is). The camera goes over the top of a dark building and drops down in front of it, then precedes the car as it works its way slowly through the congested traffic of a city in Mexico. This shot builds tremendous narrative tension, for we know the bomb ticking in the car’s trunk. But it clearly also begs us to notice what a complex shot it is.

In the film’s original theatrical release, the studio recut the open, running the title credits and Henry Mancini score over this sequence. Welles was furious, and fired off a 58-page memo in defense of his original cut. (A 1998 restoration of the film used his memo to reconstruct the opening sequence as accurately as possible, and the restoration that premiered today at the Fest treats viewers to that restored open.) A passage from that memo now opens the film, in which Welles begs the studio to “consent to this brief visual pattern to which I gave so many long hard days of work.”

TOE2An equally complex staging at the end of the film helps us to understand why Welles fought so passionately for his original vision, as well as what this “brief visual pattern” might be—for the two moments seem to both bookend the narrative action and create a game of mirrors, where the end forces us to reflect upon what Welles was up to in the beginning, and vice versa. The film ends with drug enforcement agent Mike Vargas (Heston) closing in on Hank Quinlan (Welles himself) with a recording device, trying to capture an incriminating conversation between Quinlan and his longtime associate Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia). As the lead actor closes in on the filmmaker (who is atop a broken bridge that seems to lead nowhere), a feedback loop is created and Quinlan hears the slightly delayed echo of his own voice. This moment signals his demise—for he is caught in a triangle between being in charge of the action (as director), caught up in the action (as actor), and at the mercy of the medium (as an artist). As the gap closes, the author/auteur must die.

TOE3If we look back at the opening sequence through the overt self-consciousness of the final scenes, it seems Welles opened the film by blowing apart noir conventions and concluded it by staging his own demise. It’s no wonder this film is often seen as the last film noir of the classic era (stretching from 1941′s The Maltese Falcon to TOUCH OF EVIL), for it pushes the self-consciousness that was always a part of the extreme stylization of noir so far that it was no longer possible to tell a straight, hard-boiled story. And it’s no wonder this was Welles’ last narrative film in Hollywood. Soon after, he departed for Europe, where he would take on projects increasingly focused on the collision of artist with artifice (like F for Fake, a documentary about his own career, as well as the careers of a famous art forger and a fraudulent biographer).

While it’s hard to know if audiences in 1958 would have had these same reactions to the film, it’s certain that one of the joys of revisiting classics is that we can see them through the lens of what followed. Looking back is prismatic, to be sure, but what we lose in clarity we gain in multivalent perspective—as was clear in the faces of those leaving the Chinese today, who seemed equally dazzled and introspective, as anyone who has seen true art is apt to be.