Jokers Wild

Although it would be a misnomer to call Touch of Evil kafkaesque, it's easy to see how, having successfully conjured up a seedy, comic, police-state terror, Welles would have been next inspired to adapt The Trial. But Touch of Evil is also a movie about arrogant overreaching. Quinlan is a great cop because, the movie suggests, he only frames the guilty. Although this artistic intuition parallels Welles's own, one need only look as far back as the Simpson trial to find a suggestion of the same modus operandi applied to the actual world. Citizen Kane gave what would eventually be called "film noir" a new visual vocabulary and narrative structure; Touch of Evil effectively rung down the curtain on one of the most fertile movements in American popular culture. (As far as Hollywood went, the next new move would be made by Alfred Hitchcock with Psycho.) Not for nothing did Welles have Dietrich tell him, "Your future is all used up."

There aren't many movies that wouldn't be diminished for being seen after Touch of Evil, but, even on its own terms, John Dahl's Rounders is a disappointing mediocrity. Dahl's low-budget Red Rock West was an enjoyably baroque and flashy neo-noir and even his less successful follow-up, The Last Seduction, was redeemed by Linda Fiorentino's outrageous femme fatale. But Rounders—a vehicle for Matt Damon as a poker-hustling whiz kid—is an unappealing, conventional, and somnolent piece of work in which, as glumly directed from David Levien and Brian Koppelman's corny script, every scene feels like it's being played for the second time. Damon's latest working-class genius may only feel fully alive when he's playing cards, but that's not something one could say for the movie.


Touch of Evil
Directed and written by Orson Welles
From the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson
An October Films release
At Film Forum, September 11-24

Directed by John Dahl
Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien
A Miramax Films release
Opens September 11

Miramax is promoting Rounders as this year's Swingers (harbinger of a trend for squandering your money in clammy basements?). The scenario, however, follows the Mean Streets paradigm. The honest Damon, whose lack of affect gives new meaning to the expression "poker face," is saddled with a self-destructive bad-boy best friend (Edward Norton). The latter is the juicier role—but, plodding singlemindedly toward disaster, even this character grows tiresome. As if to compensate, the stars are surrounded by colorful characters played, with minimal restraint, by John Turturro, Martin Landau, and John Malkovich, a Russian cardsharp with a "tell" so egregious it renders the movie's denouement, not to mention his characterization, utterly ridiculous.

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