Wednesday, May 27, 2015

An Hour Ago Rudy Linnekar Had This Town In His Pocket Now You Can Strain Him Through a Sieve

The ninth film I was able to see in the Orson Welles series was projected in 35mm and it made a big difference.


So, I've seen Touch of Evil (1958, Welles) a few times on dvd before. And lately I've been realizing more and more the benefits of seeing something on a big screen in a theater over my tv at home; and, film over digital. But seeing Touch of Evil in a theater was like discovering it for the first time--this might also have to do with that I'm older, and maybe also because I've seen ten other Orson Welles movies in a theater in the last month.

First of what's most important in Touch of Evil is the setting: Mexico. Specifically the US-Mexico border. Welles had already photographed parts of the films The Lady from Shanghai (1947) and Confidential Report (1955) in Mexico. Welles is also one of few filmmakers who has chosen not to employ subtitles when characters speak in a foreign language. And Touch of Evil features a lot of Spanish.

Secondly the Noir aspect. Let's presume I can use darkness synonymously with evil, alright? And noir also translates as black. So, the darkness in Touch of Evil can be read in many ways other than Hank Quinlan's (Welles) corruption. The Mexican setting delves into the dark criminal underworld of murder, blackmail, reefers, mainlining, brothels, stripclubs, leather jackets, hot rodding JDs, molotov cocktails, and peeping through windows. And this is the last Film Noir ever made. No I don't have evidence to support my claim, but I'm convinced. Trust me on this one.

Dark lurid trash was the producer of this film, Albert Zugsmith's specialty. Zugsmith also produced Douglas Sirk's trashy melodrama masterpiece Written on the Wind (1956, Douglas Sirk) and Tarnished Angels (1958, Sirk). Compare Written on the Wind and Tarnished Angels to any of Sirk's other films and you will definitely see Zugsmith's influence--they're way trashy darker than anything else Sirk ever did. Leather Daddy Butch Mercedes McCambridge's cameo as the Mexican villain who says "You know what a Maryjane is? You know what a mainliner is?" and "Let me stay. I wanna watch," is probably the most bizarrely vulgar one of Welles's films has ever gotten. She's awesome.

Tertiary is the Shakespearean tragedy of the whole affair. Quinlan refuses, like Macbeth, to sleep. This gives the film a unique dramatic unity and urgency--it will be resolved before he falls asleep, we know it. Quinlan is dying. Holy crap, the scene where Quinlan frames Vargas' wife for Uncle Joe Grandi's murder is shot with these slowly paced out strobes from somewhere outside through the small apartment room where the final struggle between Quinlan and Grandi takes place--the light bursts are evocative of Quinlan's life slowly dying out of him: the beat of a heart visualized; the light that's left of him diminishing into darkness; the poetry of that scene is very important.

Once Quinlan falls off the wagon and starts drinking bourbon--my own worst poison, but also the most seductive--he starts talking about his dead ex-wife. And the sheer madness and dementia that appears in the insomniac, old, tired, obese, man makes us think for a second: wait a minute did he kill her, his own wife? But it's only a glimpse. Even more intriguing. Later Menzies (the Master Swallow to Quinlan's Falstaff) defends Quinlan saying that he only thinks about his ex wife while he's drunk until even later Quinlan:

I'm always thinking of her. Drunk or sober.
What else is there to think about, except my job?
My dirty job.

Okay this is like as darkly romantic as it gets. This is poetry. That this suffering man has one friend and somehow has still hung onto his career makes the setup for the great tragedy of him unnecessarily framing Linnekar's Mexican son-in-law that results in him destroying what's left of his job, securing his own ignominy, and murdering Menzies, his only friend, the only one who loved him, powerfully Shakespearean. But, like the stuffed spiked black bull's head that the desperate Quinlan rests under in the brothel, he is a magnificent beast that holds our attention in the ring because some part of us is fascinated by seeing him slowly, methodically killed by a hero. But we are here for the bull, not the bullfighter. Yet the bull has to die. That is tragedy.

We also get all of the best the B genre has to offer. Dennis Weaver as the motel clerk who postures as erratically as an ostrich on angel dust, being the only human the sexy pointy cone brassiered Janet Leigh is stuck with in this motel two years before she'd meet Anthony Perkins at the Bates creates a whole different brand of suspense. Weaver really makes Perkins look like a ladies man compared to his awkwardness. 

Oh and Welles is on point with his mise en scène, but not just the famous opening. This was the first time I noticed how long the take was when Quinlan interrogates Sanchez at his apartment. That's an impressive sequence. But the opening still takes the cake. Man, you really realize how close that bomb is to going off right next to Heston and Janet Leigh's characters. And the litter polluting the river where Quinlan goes to die is gorgeous. The Joseph Cotten cameo is also a treat for Welles aficionados.

Yet one thing I can't quite get over is that Quinlan has Menizies take Vargas' wife to a motel he knows Grandi owns. Do you realize how early in the film this happens? That truly is evil of Quinlan is he had the foresight for this that soon after meeting Vargas. How can he despise him so? Is is because he's Mexican? Because he's younger? Better at his job? Smarter? Has that smoking hot Janet Leigh wife? Or is it because he knows Vargas is onto him? Quinlan is a fat, ugly, evil, monster villain. But again, damn if I don't still love him. Welles knows his magic.

--Dregs

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