Touch of Evil, the project with which—some 16 years after Citizen Kane—the 42-year-old Orson Welles tried (and failed) to stage a Hollywood comeback, is a movie of transcendent movie-ness and still-astonishing virtuosity. Revived for two weeks in a restored print, it is an even greater reproach to contemporary filmmaking than it was when it was dumped in neighborhood theaters on a double bill with Diana Dors in The Unholy Wife.
In December 1956, Welles was offered the role of the villain in a Universal thriller about a crooked cop. But the movie’s star, Charlton Heston, thought that Welles was to direct the picture, and from the acorn of that misunderstanding emerged a splendid oak. With all due respect to the truncated Magnificent Ambersons, blighted Othello, and mossy Chimes at Midnight, Touch of Evil is the tallest tree in the wilderness of Welles’s post-Kane career. “Unimaginably pleasurable to make,” the maestro told Peter Bogdanovich. It shows.
Touch of Evil is a sensational calling card—Welles is almost touchingly eager to demonstrate what he can do. The dialogue is as intricately overlapped as the lighting is cross-hatched; the cameos are as vivid as possible in a black-and-white movie; the camera work and blocking have the coordination of an Olympic pole vaulter. The very first day of shooting, Welles choreographed an astoundingly efficient 12-minute expository shot in which his camera glided from room to room to room while an assortment of cops, lawyers, and suspects pace in and out, yelling, fencing, and looking for evidence. (“Twelve pages in one take,” Heston noted in his journal that night.)
The movie is the pulpiest of Welles’s fictions—set on the U.S.-Mexican border in a nightmare town of Mancini bongos and sleazy menace where, for reasons known best to Kraft-Ebbing, a straitlaced Mexican cop (Heston) and his sexy American bride (Janet Leigh) arrive for their honeymoon. Leigh is menaced from the moment her new husband leaves her side to investigate the American investigation of a car that drives through customs and blows up in the middle of Main Street. Indeed, as the action moves back and forth across the border, all her repressed fears about Mexico (and then some) come true.
Unable to shoot on location in Tijuana, Welles came up with a wonderful alternative (and an implicit metaphor for Hollywood) by using the once fashionable seaside neighborhood of Venice—a designed community which, after oil was discovered there in 1927, deteriorated from a fantasy Europe to a wide-open sailor town to a beatnik slum of scummy canals and crumbling colonnades. As Welles’s set, the place has no normal life. It has been imbued with the sinister clutter of a derelict amusement park—tattered posters, windblown detritus, cars careening through the empty streets.
As the prince of this domain, rogue cop Hank Quinlan is the greatest film performance role Welles ever gave himself, save perhaps Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight. His entrance is superb, sidling his bulk (always accentuated by a low angle) out of a car, swollen face contorted around a stogie. Quinlan is bigoted, dyspeptic, and jovially sour. As if his unshaven, bleary-eyed, bloated, gratuitously nasty presence weren’t enough, Welles gives himself shameless bits of business—hobbling through the movie on a cane, upstaging Heston by plucking a bird’s egg off a windowsill, inadvertently crushing it, and then wondering where to wipe his hands.
But Welles is not acting in a vacuum, although the rest of the cast is more inflected toward comedy: Akim Tamiroff blusters through his hat as the town’s ineffectual godfather; Joseph Calleia is brilliantly nervous as Quinlan’s anxious, bewildered deputy; Dennis Weaver darts like a chicken as the motel night man. Welles has superb rapport with his erstwhile sidekick Marlene Dietrich, who graces the movie (while upping the absurdity) as the madam of a Mexican brothel. Meanwhile, the officious, confused, and humorless Heston is continually caught between the points of Welles’s putty nose and Leigh’s brassiere.
Touch of Evil wrapped in April 1957. After two months of editing, Welles was taken off the movie. Still, he persisted, writing the studio an amazingly detailed 58-page memo, excerpted and annotated by Jonathan Rosenbaum in the new edition of This Is Orson Welles. “I was so heartbroken when it turned out I couldn’t go on with it,” Welles told Bogdanovich. “I was so sure I was going to go on making a lot of pictures at Universal.” Although Universal hated the movie, most reviews were favorable—it’s striking that Touch of Evil got generally better notices than Vertigo, which opened a few weeks before. Welles, however, would never make another studio film.
As re-edited according to the Welles memo, the “restored” Touch of Evil is less transformed than it is more itself. The credits have been removed from the justly celebrated, four-minute, over-under-sideways-down opening crane shot. The Tamiroff scenes are funnier, the soundtrack is additionally layered, the chronology is sharper. It’s clear in the Welles cut that Leigh’s character could have been gang-raped while her husband compulsively ransacked the city records for evidence on Quinlan, thus making all the more piquant the fabulous shot in which this procedural straight-arrow pilots his ’57 Impala down Windward Avenue, oblivious to his wife screaming from the balcony above.
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.
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.