I would like to dedicate this retrospective to the “Save the UCLA Arts Library Petition” (AKA: Stop the closing of the library where Drew Morton gets his books so that he can continue to write thoughtful reviews like these). If you enjoyed the series and/or you’re a supporter of arts education, I strongly encourage you to sign the petition.
In the construction of this noir canon, I set myself two ground rules at the start: I would cover only the classical period from 1941 to 1958 and I would limit the selection to one film per director. Yet, as I began to re-watch a handful of my favorites in order to construct the list, I noticed I was beginning to set myself a previously undisclosed rule: I needed to try representing that seventeen-year range. Had I just constructed a list of my personal favorites, the retrospective would have devolved into films covering the end of the period, which is often described as being baroque due to an increased reliance on excessive style, violence, and plot twists. I decided to try to structure the list around a representative sample of the genre’s spectrum without abandoning my favorites. Therefore, I had a key choice to make; in order to try to be representative, I could put only one purely baroque title on the list: Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) or Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958). They’re both great noir films and while Kiss Me Deadly, “the masterpiece of film noir” according to scholar Paul Schrader, is beautiful to look at and deliciously perverse to watch, Touch of Evil is not only artistically significant as marking the end of the classical noir period but also one of my favorite films.
Like most cinephiles, I’ve always held a candle for my fellow Wisconsinite Orson Welles. His Citizen Kane (1941) has been justly dubbed the best film ever made by Sight & Sound and the American Film Institute. Yet, as Welles aficionados are quick to note, appreciation of Welles and his films came rather late in his career. For instance, despite the gravitas it holds now, Kane split film critics at the time. The first American film critic, Otis Ferguson (whose estate bestowed upon me the honor of a critical writing award in 2008), criticized Welles’s stylish presentation as “a retrogression.” To make matters worse, the film did not make a profit at the box office. While Kane began to gain prestige throughout the 1950s, it was not formally canonized until 1962, when it ranked number one in the Sight & Sound critics’ poll. The failure of Kane cost Welles a great deal. RKO had given him carte blanche to make Kane, a right the studio quickly re-negotiated. His follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), was re-edited by the studio and lost over $600,000 at the box office, another fiscal failure on Welles’s record. His subsequent projects frequently ran over budget, some were left unfinished and, in 1947, the politically progressive Welles left Hollywood for Europe, perhaps due to McCarthyism and the blacklist. He would not direct another film in America until Touch of Evil (based off Whit Masterson’s novel Badge of Evil) in 1958. While the film would ultimately mark the end of Welles’s directorial career in Hollywood, it is one of the most stunning pieces of cinema to emerge from the infamous dream factory.
The film begins, quite literally, with a bang. Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty provide us with a striking first image: a timer is set on a bomb, which is placed into the trunk of a car. As the camera cranes up, we’re assaulted with a barrage of Latin music and we watch as a man and his lover get into the car. The camera moves over the streets of the U.S./Mexican border town Los Robles before settling on newlyweds Mike (Charlton Heston) and Susie Vargas (Janet Leigh). The camera continues to follow them for roughly three-minutes, in an uninterrupted take, as they unknowingly watch the death car creep across the border before it finally explodes. The bombing sets off a minor international incident, as it was planted in Mexico but detonated on our side of the border. Mike, a Mexican drug enforcement agent, decides to carry out an investigation along side American police captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). Mike rightfully suspects that Hank, a detective employing dubious methods, is attempting to frame a Mexican shoe clerk (Victor Millan) as a suspect. Hank realizes that Mike is suspicious of him and, hoping to derail the Mexican agent’s investigation, begins constructing a scheme with the help of local gangster kingpin Joe Grande (Akim Tamiroff). Their plan? To blackmail Mike by kidnapping his wife Susie.
While this plot may sound complex, and noir plots are often known for their labyrinthine qualities, the film can be viewed as a simply realized allegory about the power that comes with being a law enforcement officer. While Quinlan is ultimately the film’s antagonist, allowing his racism and baseless hunches to overwhelm the objectivity sought in a police investigation, we often find ourselves, as in many of the noirs in this retrospective, feeling sympathetic towards him. While we do not condone his methods and Mike is undoubtedly correct when he tells Hank “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state,” we are able to recognize that Quinlan’s motives are personally justified. According to Welles scholar Joseph McBride, Quinlan isn’t a villain but a “sympathetic Welles hero” and his interpretation isn’t entirely without reason. Quinlan’s fascist approach to police work stems from a great personal loss: as a rookie cop, his wife was killed and the murderer walked free because the police we unable to prove the case. From that point on, as Quinlan notes, “That was the last killer that ever got out of my hands….I never framed someone who wasn’t guilty.”
Undoubtedly, as Welles and noir scholar James Naremore has noted, “Mike Vargas is the normal hero of the film and the bearer of Welles’s own political view-point.” Yet, the ideology Mike represents is continually undermined through Welles’s structure and staging. In one of my favorite sequences of shots in a film that continually dazzles the eye, Welles frames Quinlan and Vargas symbolically, linking Quinlan with a bull’s head hanging on a wall and Vargas with a photograph of a matador on the wall. While Quinlan ironically becomes a murderer himself, we cannot help but feel a loss when he stumbles into the dirty river at the end of the film, fallen by the matador’s plot. To put an added twist on the Vargas/Quinlan juxtaposition (be prepared for a spoiler here), Welles subverts the meaning of the climax when we discover that Quinlan’s suspicion of the shoe clerk was correct. On the surface, the film appears to have a happy conclusion (Quinlan is dead, Mike and Susie are reunited), yet we cannot help but feel uneasy.
I’ve always felt that the heart of Touch of Evil is linked to the tragedy of Quinlan. The film contains a hauntingly romantic exchange between the tragic figure and his partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) which serves as a great indicator of Quinlan’s personal loss:
MENZIES: You’re a killer.
QUINLAN: Partly. I’m a cop.
MENZIES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Drunk and crazy as you must have been when you strangled him. I guess you were somehow thinking of your wife, the way she was strangled.
QUINLAN: I’m always thinking of her, drunk or sober. What else is there to think about except my job…my dirty job?
Sure, the film has, like most on this list, many other virtues, the cinematography and music by Henry Mancini in particular. Yet, there is something Kane-esque about Quinlan, a man who holds true to his principles so sincerely that he ends up ultimately destroying himself. As McBride fittingly notes, “Quinlan dies in a world so foul that his malignity almost seems, because of its unsparing candor, to be a virtue.”
As I noted at the beginning of this analysis, Touch of Evil was the last film Welles completed as a director for a Hollywood studio. That said, it’s retrospectively ironic that Welles unintentionally fell into directing the film. Universal had originally approached Welles as an actor to co-star in the film. When Heston discovered Welles had been cast, he told the studio “You know, Orson Welles is a pretty good director. Did it ever occur to you to have him direct it?” Sadly, Touch of Evil experienced many of the post-production problems that The Magnificent Ambersons had. The film was re-cut by Universal, who sullied the glorious opening shot with screen credits and a new soundtrack. Welles was barred from the studio lot and wrote a passionate memo, which demanded that certain editorial changes be made. The studio’s cut was dumped onto the bottom half of a double bill and failed to find an audience in the United States theatrically. Yet, like Kane, Touch of Evil endured. In 1998, a restored version was prepared using Welles’s memo as a guide and the 50th anniversary DVD release contains three versions of the film, along with an amazing commentary by Welles scholars Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum. If you have yet to see it, I urge you to give it a viewing as soon as possible.
Looking for a hint as to the identity of our number one noir? Murder sometimes smells like honeysuckle.
For those of you just tuning into the “The Top 5 Noirs from the Classical Age” retrospective, you may want to check out the rest of the series:
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.