This week's Flick of the Week takes us with Orson Welles from the noir of Vienna, in The Third Man to the noir of the American-Mexico border with Touch of Evil.
In the years after World War Two, as the glory of his peaks of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Andersons faded, Orson Welles became known in Hollywood as box office poison. The myth that Citizen Kane didn't make money came to be regarded as truth and backed up any reason not to hire Welles. As a result he spent most of his time in Europe acting in films of no worth or remembrance.
When Charlton Heston was hired to play the role of the Mexican detective, Vargos, he was told that Welles would be playing the role of dirty American cop, Quinlin. Heston just assumed that Welles would also be directing. When he found out he wasn't, Heston pretty much made it a condition of his acting in the movie. Thus Welles got the directing gig, and also the opportunity to re-write the script. Ironically Welles didn't actually want to act in the film, and only did so to fulfill a contract, but once he got the directing gig, he went to town - and did it his way.
The film involves the solving of the murder of a man and a woman blown up as they drove across the Mexico-US border by a bomb that had been placed in the boot of their car. As the crime occurred on the border, the police on either side work together. On the US side is Quinlan, a corrupt, racist cop who always gets his man (mostly because he plants evidence at the scene to frame him and ensure a conviction). On the Mexico side is Vargos, an honest detective from Tijuana, who (to Quinlan's disgust) is married to an American (Janet Leigh).
In the course of their investigation, Vargos comes to suspect the corrupt workings of Quinlan and moves to expose him, thereby setting off a game of cat and mouse by Quinlan and Vargos while they also try to solve the murder.
As with all noir films, the feel of the film is crucial. And this film is sleazy, rum soaked, jazz infused, and dark. Mostly it is shot at night - especially when over the Mexican side of the border. It also contains a bit of rock'n'roll when some hoodlums hired by Quinlan terrorise Janet Leigh.
I didn't get to see this film till only a few years ago. It was one of the those films that I kept knowing I needed to see. I knew I needed to see it when I first heard it referenced in 1992 when I saw Robert Altman's The Player. In that film what is mentioned (and parodied/honoured) is the famous long tracking shot which opens Touch of Evil. It is a brilliant bit of film-making that has justly been recognized as one of the greatest shots in the history of cinema.
I finally came across a DVD of it in Big W in a double pack with The Third Man. I rarely buy DVDs unseen, but with this one I knew the risk was worth it (and the price was right). In the end, it was no risk - the film is brilliant, and is a must have in any film lover's collection.
The movie is also seen as signalling the end of the noir genre of films. With the advent of the 1960s and the greater use of colour in films, the moody cigarette smoke infused black and white genre that had come about in the 1940s was showing its age. The films of French directors, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut (who ironically were both greatly influenced by this film and Welles in general), would spank cinema into the sixties, and would influence American directors to make crime films like Bonnie and Clyde, In the The Heat of the Night, and The French Connection. Noir was gone, until Roman Polanski rediscovered the genre with 1974's Chinatown.
Touch of Evil is truly a film that they don't make 'em like that anymore - for a start there's no way Charlton Heston and Marlene Dietrich (!) - she plays an aged Mexican prositute and Quinlan's old flame - would be cast as Mexicans now. And to be honest it was absurd even then, and yet it works. It works, just as the whole film does. A film made from a cheap, pulp novel that should have just been a quick, easy, forgettable movie, but instead was made into great cinematic art all due to the genius of Welles. And it starts with the amazing first 3 and half minutes.
Ironically after taking a risk with Welles, the film flopped, and Welles never directed another film of any note in America again.