Sunday, June 5, 2011

A Touch of Evil

Orson Welles's last American fillum, (a B-movie that bombed,) was a touch of Evil.

The original cut was destroyed and the we know that the studio-released version differed quite a bit indeed from what Orson intended, as there was additional scenes shot and some of the main scenes completely re-done. The 1998 version is an attempt at getting it to something like Welles's original vision.

When you think of how Orson Welles began in Hollywood, as the rebellious young turk with a really great contract, who starts his 'Big-Movie-Career' with Citizen Kane, it seems especially tragic that a Touch of Evil is his Hollywood swan-song.

Not that it's a completely awful fillum: it's not, but it's hailed nowadays as a 'Classic Noir', and good as it is, I don't reckon it's that good and it in no way compares to the promise shown by something like 'Kane'.

The blame for all of this might well lie with the studio and the seemingly vindictive hatchet-job that they made of the fillum, I don't know.

I do know, that for me, the fillum that I just saw didn't work.

Why didn't it work? Well...
you might think Charlton Heston playing a Mexican ( Exactly as Charlton Heston, only darker and with a moustache ) is something that nobody could take seriously, I mean ,it sounds a bit silly.
You might think that that was why it didn't work,— but that element actually seemed to operate fine.

You might think it didn't work because for all it's determination to show us the 'sleazy' side of life, it's depiction and description of the 'drug-using underground' was laughably ill-informed ( it's inferred several times that they inject themselves and others with marijuana).

You might think it didn't work because the heroine-in-peril is Janet Leigh from 'Psycho', trapped in a motel, in the middle of nowhere, run by a weirdo who seems to have the hots for her ( in fairness 'Psycho' was made after 'a touch of Evil', but there's no getting it out of my head at this stage), but that's not why it doesn't work either.

I think that my personal problem was actually with Orson. He's directed the look of it brilliantly: the cinematography is excellent, ( the opening shot is a lovely 'all-around-the-houses-and-then-right-in' tracking shot that was definitely the inspiration for the opening of 'Boogie Nights' ), but the point that he's trying to make, ( about policing and society), doesn't stick,- and the reason for this is his own character: Mr Quinlan.

Mr Quinlan has good old fashioned hard-boiled cop instincts and always gets his man; Hestons' Miguel ( in contrast ) sees policing as an ugly, difficult and fundamentally unrewarding job, that in order to be done effectively and well involves following every last part of procedure to the letter, ( even if it means the bad guy gets away,) because protecting the public comes first and catching the crooks comes second.

This is the big conflict behind the story, and it's an interesting one. Unfortunately, because Welles presents himself as a pantomime villain from the outset, it doesn't work. More ambiguous performances from both the main characters would have led me more into making up my own mind, and making in up my own mind I would have taken on board the theme and the issue.

It's an interesting point; it's almost a response or antidote to the 'Death wish/Dirty Harry' ethos that fillum coppers happily held right into the 90's. Unfortunately between studio butchery and Orsons' hammy delivery, it's a point that this fillum never really makes properly.

Very nice in places but ultimately unsatisfying. Worth watching though, if only for Marlene Deitrich's fantastic cameo ( She does deliver what must be the best 'you-googly' [eulogy] in history of film noir ):
"He was some kind of a man...

What does it matter what you say about people?"

EDIT: Apparently it does matter what you say about people: it matters whatyou say about Orson Welles anyway. Here's his, tragically resigned, response to a critic's take on the original fillum:

Without being quite so foolish as to set my name to that odious thing, a 'reply to the critic', perhaps I may add a few oddments of information to Mr. Whitebait's brief reference to my picture TOUCH OF EVIL (what a silly title, by the way; it's the first time I've heard it). Most serious film reviewers appear to be quite without knowledge of the hard facts involved in manufacturing and, especially, merchandising a motion picture. Such innocence, I'm sure, is very proper to their position; it is, therefore, not your critic I venture to set straight, but my own record. As author-director I was not and normally would not be-consulted on the matter of the 'release' of my film without a press showing. That this is an 'odd subterfuge', I agree; but there can be no speculation as to the responsibility for such a decision.

As to the reason, one can only assume that the distributor was so terrified of what the critics might write about it that a rash attempt was made to evade them altogether and smuggle TOUCH OF EVIL directly to the public. This is understandable in the light of the wholesale re-editing of the film by the executive producer, a process of re-hashing in which I was forbidden to participate. Confusion was further confounded by several added scenes which I did not write and was not invited to direct. No wonder Mr. Whitebait speaks of muddle. He is kind enough to say that 'Like Graham Greene' I have 'two levels'. To his charge that I have 'let the higher slip' I plead not guilty. When Mr. Greene finishes one of his 'entertainment's' he is immediately free to set his hand to more challenging enterprises. His typewriter is always available; my camera is not. A typewriter needs only paper; a camera uses film, requires subsidiary equipment by the truck-load and several hundreds of technicians. That is always the central fact about the film-maker as opposed to any other artist: he can never afford to own his own tools. The minimum kit is incredibly expensive; and one's opportunities to work with it are rarer less numerous than might be supposed. In my case, I've. been given the use of my tools exactly eight times in 20 years. Just once my own editing of the film has been the version put into release; and (excepting the Shakespearean experiments) I have only twice been given any voice at all as to the 'level' of my, subject matter. In my trunks stuffed with unproduced films scripts, there are no thrillers. When I make this sort of picture -- for which I can pretend to no special interest or aptitude -- it is not 'for the money' (I support myself as an actor), but because of a greedy need to exercise, in some way, the function of my choice: the function of director. Quite baldly, this is my only choice. I have to take whatever comes along from time to time, or accept, the alternative, which is not working.

Mr. Whitebait revives my own distress at the shapeless poverty of Macbeth's castle. The paper mache' stagy effect in my film was dictated by a 'B-Minus' budget with a 'quickie' shooting schedule of 20 days.. Returning to the current picture, since he comments on the richness of the urban scenery of the Mexican border' perhaps Mr. Whitebait will be amused to learn that all shooting was in Hollywood. There was no attempt to approximate reality; the film's entire 'world' being the director's invention. Finally, while the style of TOUCH OF EVIL may be somewhat overly baroque, there are positively no camera tricks. Nowadays the eye is tamed, I think, by the new wide screens. These 'systems' with their rigid technical limitations are in such monopoly that any vigorous use of the old black -and-white, normal aperture camera runs the risk of seeming tricky by comparison. The old camera permits use of a range of visual conventions as removed from 'realism' as grand opera. This is a language not a bag of tricks. If it is now a dead language, as a candid partisan of the old eloquence, I must face the likelihood that I shall not again be able to put it to the service of any theme of my own choosing.


No comments:

Post a Comment