Posted in: by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Essays, Film Noir, Film Reviews, Orson Welles

Touch of Evil

This program note was written in connection with the November 16, 1971 showing of Touch of Evil in the University of Washington Office of Lectures & Concerts Autumn Quarter Film Series “The Cinema of Orson Welles.” Since that was a long time ago and the only version of the movie available at the time was the 93-minute Universal cut, I’ve let the piece stand. Touch of Evil was the seventh installment in the series, and the note was written to be read by people who’d been watching Welles pictures and reading comparable notes on them for the previous six weeks. –RTJ

Van Stratten: “Where’s Sophie?”
Trebitsch: “Where is anybody?”
—Orson Welles, Mr. Arkadin

After his unhappy experiences with Macbeth in 1947–48, Welles spent the next eight years in Europe, managing to complete two features of his own, act both leading and supporting roles for other directors, and begin work on the still-uncompleted Don Quixote. In 1956 he returned to the States and, among other things, was sought by trash specialist Albert Zugsmith for a role in a police melodrama he was producing. Charlton Heston, set to star in the picture, heard about Welles’s involvement and strongly hinted to Zugsmith that Welles ought to be given directorial control as well. (Some accounts have it that Heston demanded Welles for the director, or else; others, that Heston was leery of appearing in what seemed a B-movie property but changed his tune when Welles entered the picture, saying, “I’d act in anything directed by Orson Welles!”) As it turned out, Welles got to rewrite the film entirely and direct it as well. He took his time cutting the picture and at the last left final cutting to the studio. Although Welles has muttered subsequently about how yet another of his films was ruined, he also claims never to have watched the final version. Russell Metty, cameraman on The Stranger, “confirms that Welles’s concept was followed to the letter,” according to Charles Higham. Higham further quotes Charlton Heston on the subject of some additional shooting supervised by Universal contract director Harry Keller: “The scenes Keller made were shot in less than half a day. Contrary to rumor, the footage does not replace any mysterious material shot by Orson, but is merely structural cement to clarify what the studio felt to be unnecessarily ambiguous sequences in Orson’s version of the film, explaining time and place and whatnot” (e.g., Mike and Susan’s discussion about her going to the motel). The studio evidently felt uneasy about the whole project. Touch of Evil (which Welles repudiates as a silly title) was leaked out rather than released; there was no press drumbeating, no preview screening, no anything. The film nosedived in this country but dazzled festival audiences internationally and won some prizes.

Welles has not directed a feature film in America since, and that is sad: sad because Welles has a special feeling for the American experience (Guy Van Stratten is essentially the boorish American tourist lifted to the nth power), and sad because, regardless of how brilliantly he has accommodated his camera and cutting style to the exigencies of slapdash foreign shooting, he can make such eloquent and demanding use of Hollywood technology when he has it at his disposal. No European director or crew of craftsmen has ever achieved anything like the breathtaking three-minute, ground-level and sky-high opening take of Touch of Evil, itself a kind of Welles film in miniature carrying its own time bomb.

Only the elegiac Magnificent Ambersons has such a powerful, all-pervading atmosphere as Touch of Evil, and apparently no two atmospheres could be further removed from one another. Touch of Evil evokes the Welles nightmare world as only the most extravagant sequences in Lady from Shanghai have approached doing. The bordertown of Los Robles (Welles moved the locale from the book’s San Diego to the international border) emanates a visual reek. The baroque architecture of Venice, California (which, according to Higham, “a Kane-like millionaire had once converted into an imitation of the Italian city”—scene of the opening of Welles’s Othello) admits of the most serpentine camera movements, encourages the most freakish deployments of light and shade, so that a man can run past another and be succeeded, from second to second, by one, two, three shadow-images of himself. The mythical Mexico envisioned by Welles pitches its come-ons in hysterically pulsing lights: “The Paradise,” “20 Sizzling Strippers,” “Jesus Saves”. Lang-like flashlights lance through the darkness and pin their prey. A kind of life goes on: Susan Vargas terrifies a pigeon as she leans out her hotel window, but it returns through the next day to build a nest and deposit its eggs—one of which nestles tenderly in Hank Quinlan’s fingers and explodes when he reflexively makes a fist.

"geometric shapes of light and shadow"

But more than the architecture of Venice is grotesquely celebrated in Welles’s homecoming film. So many aspects of the American cinema itself have come sordidly home. Welles’s almost compulsive honesty forces him to caricature himself as the massive center of gravity in the film; Kane’s conspicuous consumption in his Inquirer bedroom-office pointed to Quinlan’s entrance, virtually hoisting himself out of the back seat of a car. Players walk through from Kane and the other Forties films, all conspicuously aged. There are many echoes of previous Welles films, but there is also more. It is not out of order to see Susan Vargas’s motel room, first shot from a low angle and vividly demarcated into geometric shapes of light and shadow, as an unconscious, long-delayed refraction of the low-angle, gorgeously lit and composed way stations of John Ford’s Stagecoach, which Welles once said he watched “forty times” before making his first movie; one of the most giddily disturbing shots in the film features Dennis Weaver (then known as Gunsmoke’s Chester Good) skittering hysterically across an absolutely arid desert backdrop. More noticeably, Welles appears to pay rueful homage to the splendors of Josef von Sternberg and his luminous world of light-molded decor, shimmering screens of bead curtains, precisely placed clouds of cigarette smoke, and of course Marlene Dietrich.

Dietrich’s Tanya represents the nearest thing to stability in the moral and spatial chaos of the film’s world, and the index to Welles’s deepest feelings; he ends the film on her, as he focused Isabel Amberson’s death not on Isabel, not on George, but on the Major, lying bewildered on his bed, then groping off one side of the frame, then the other as Fanny arrives with the news. Tanya, her rooms full of bric-a-brac, and her pianola (cf. Rosebud, Banat’s record in Journey into Fear, Elsa’s song in Lady from Shanghai, Desdemona’s handkerchief) evoke memories for Quinlan, before the hootch, the candy bars, and the compulsion to purify the world after his own curious fashion got hold of him; he approaches their reunion through a street full of wind-drifted papers, an evocation of pastness familiar from Kane. He salutes the player piano and Tanya says, “The customers go for it—it’s so old, it’s new.” But then she traces the degradation of her establishment through the sophistication of the media devices added later: “We have television—and we show movies,” of a variety not in doubt. Ultimately Quinlan’s other old friend turns against him and becomes a “walking microphone.” The betrayal is mortal. Tanya speaks the epitaph of Quinlan and every Welles protagonist: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”

Any assessment of Welles’s oeuvre must take into account the fact that this specimen of grotesquerie represents his most finely shaded study of love. The sexual character of the relationships in all his films has been to some degree peculiar. Sexuality in Touch of Evil is poisoned from the first glimpse of the gross Rudi Linnekar and his newfound playmate Zita laughing their way into the light. Thereafter, signs sell it, posters flaunt it (in a doubly corrosive stroke Zita’s portrait is singed with acid moments after her corpse has been incinerated), the “night man” at the motel runs for cover at the word ‘bed’, and the leather-jacketed Grandi boys only semiconsciously make a mockery even of rape. Quinlan’s oral gratification can hardly be missed, and even Vargas is taking his new bride for a chocolate soda—a soda he tells that they’ll have to postpone, and one wonders what else is being postponed on this honeymoon. Their kiss is interrupted by the explosion of the time bomb, and as Linnekar’s car sizzles offscreen Vargas tells Susan, “This could be very bad for us.” “For us?” she asks in some bewilderment. “For Mexico, I mean.” The Vargases seem doubly estranged even before kidnapping forcibly separates them: He is devoted to protecting the interests of a countryman he fears is being railroaded by the gringo police; in attending to this case, he lets his wife be driven into the enemy camp, hangs up on her before she has finished on the telephone, avoids several hints that she is in danger, and manages to be the only person in the streets of Los Robles unaware that she stands screaming and shaken on a fire escape outside the Ritz Hotel. For her part, she remains nationally chauvinistic at a gut level: Joe Grandi asks why she called his nephew Pancho, and for a moment she doesn’t quite know. The other side of this coin of prejudice is a lurking fascination with the Mexicans she fears (even her husband? one wonders): she “knows very well” what Grandi’s nephew wants when he accosts her in the street; she goes outside just to tell another Grandi boy she doesn’t want any more postcards; and when the Grandis creepily invade her motel room, instead of diving for her husband’s revolver she flings herself on the bed like the lingerie-clad pin-up she has been affecting all day. We recall that she asks Uncle Joe Grandi, earlier in the film, whether she is free to leave, and he tells her of course, no one has been holding her, no one has laid a hand on her. We recall Isabel, Desdemona, and—an extreme case involving much more conscious duplicity—Elsa Bannister, “that poor little child.” We think, too, of that sign beside Mike Vargas’s head as he telephones from the blind woman’s store: “If you are mean enough to steal from the blind, help yourself.” To invite victimization is a form of self-congratulation.

Quinlan and Grandi

Sexuality is suggested elsewhere less overtly. Grandi’s overtures to Quinlan amount to a kind of seduction (savor Tamiroff’s splendidly lecherous anticipation as he carries two drinks from the bar to Quinlan’s table). Quinlan downs half a double before realizing what he’s doing: “I don’t—”…drink, he was going to say. Welles cuts to a high angle looking down over Grandi’s shoulder; Grandi straightens up, the camera lifts higher, and the wide-angle lens makes Quinlan seem to shrink precipitously; Grandi orders two more doubles, turns on the jukebox, and bends over Hank, their forms almost merging—and we cut to the motel where another seduction is being played out against the blare from that terrible concentric speaker in the wall. When Quinlan later murders Joe, his method is the same that robbed him of his own wife; before the actual killing he symbolically (if inadvertently) humiliates Grandi by ripping off half his clothes—like Susan, who writhes in a kind of obscene sympathy on the bed—knocking off his “rug”; the event is so invigorating that he manages to walk off without his cane.

Vargas’s own quest for revenge is not dissimilar to Quinlan’s. Both have been stirred to extreme action by the loss or near-loss of a wife. Although they appear to represent the opposite poles of liberal and conservative, both aim for a purification of the world, each in his own way, and each obsessively. Both are given to incantation: Vargas vowing not to drop the case until his wife’s name is “clean—clean!” (echoing both the scandal-fearing George Amberson Minafer and the obscenity-obsessed Mr. Wilson of The Stranger), Quinlan avowing that all are “guilty—guilty—every last one of them, guilty!” Quinlan’s fervor began at home, as it were; Vargas’s comes to a focus when his wife lies on a jail cot pleading “Take me home!” The conclusion of the film leaves no necessary sign that Mike and Susan have earned the right to speak of a mutual “home”; perhaps, perhaps not. About Quinlan there is no room for doubt. Acres of sympathy, however, both specific—the tear he sheds for the friend he killed, his own passionate need to be cleansed, even in the grimy waters of a fake lagoon—and by Wellesian association—Quinlan ends atop the rubble of the past, as Jacob Zouk prepared to die, as Charles Foster Kane did die. It is the only rendezvous possible after Tanya answers his question about the future: “You haven’t got any. Your future’s all used up. Why don’t you go home?”


Universal-International, 1957. Written for the screen and directed by Orson Welles. Source: the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson. Cinematography: Russell Metty. Art direction: Alexander Golitzen, Robert Clatworthy. Editing: Virgil W. Vogel, Aaron Stell. Supplementary scenes directed by Harry Keller (uncredited). Music: Henry Mancini. Produced by Albert Zugsmith. 93 minutes.

The Players:
Hank Quinlan: Orson Welles; Miguel “Mike” Vargas: Charlton Heston; Susan Vargas: Janet Leigh; Pete Menzies: Joseph Calleia; Joe Grandi: Akim Tamiroff; Tanya: Marlene Dietrich; Schwartz: Mort Mills; District Attorney Adair: Ray Collins; Chief Gould: Harry Shannon; Coroner: Joseph Cotten (uncredited); Sanchez: Victor Milian; Marcia Linnekar: Joanna Moore; “The night man”: Dennis Weaver; Farnum: Gus Schilling (uncredited); Foreman at Linnekar site: Billy House (uncredited); Butch hoodlum: Mercedes McCambridge (uncredited); Madam: Zsa Zsa Gabor.


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