Orson Welles | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
A bomb is stuck to the underside of a car. As the vehicle pulls away, the camera drifts up into the sky, and proceeds to follow the automobile through the streets of a small Mexican border town, until it crosses the border into the US… and explodes. It’s probably the most famous long take in film history, and probably the thing Touch of Evil is most widely known for; that, and it being one of the most commonly-cited points at which the classic film noir era comes to an end.
So who planted the bomb? Who was their target? And why? None of those questions matter. I’m sure they’re answered, but I don’t recall what those answers were, because they’re not what the film is about. What it’s about is Charlton Heston vs Orson Welles. The former is Vargas, a righteous Mexican drugs enforcement officer who witnesses the bombing while out walking with his new American wife. The latter is Quinlan, the policeman charged with finding the culprit — and he isn’t an honest copper. When Quinlan works out who he thinks is guilty, he makes sure there’s the evidence to back that up. And I don’t mean by doing thorough police work. Vargas catches him more-or-less in the act; Quinlan won’t allow himself to be exposed. It’s a game of cat and mouse; at stake, not just two men’s reputations, but justice and the law (not the same thing); and just waiting to get tangled in the middle, Vargas’ new wife — sweet, innocent Janet Leigh.
This is not film noir as many think they know it. Instead of a doggedly determined wisecracking PI solving a slightly seedy case, Touch of Evil is suffused with a sweaty and disquieting atmosphere. It’s like a terrible fever dream, with events and characters that sometimes seem disconnected, but nonetheless interweave through a dense plot. In this sense Welles puts us quite effectively in the shoes of Vargas and his wife — out of our depth, out of our comfort zone, out of control, struggling to keep up and keep afloat. It might be unpleasant if it wasn’t so engrossing.
Similarly uncomfortable are the film’s moral implications. Well, possibly. In the booklet accompanying Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray release, French critics François Truffaut and André Bazin both assert that Welles’ Quinlan, while ostensibly the villain, is really a hero; that though he technically breaks the law, he’s morally right to do so. Essentially — or in Truffaut’s case, explicitly — they are defending policemen who fabricate evidence to ensure a conviction. Unfortunately for all their so-called intellectualising, Welles completely disagrees: “The personal element in the film is the hatred I feel for the way the police abuse their power… The things said by Vargas are what I would say myself… that’s the angle the film should be seen from; everything Vargas says, I say.”
Amusingly, Bazin is indeed forced to admit that “in the interviews which he gave me… Welles challenged this interpretation. He maintains that his moral position is unequivocal and he condemns [Quinlan] absolutely”. Meanwhile, Truffaut’s praise-filled essay asserts that, in the film’s ending, “[Vargas’] sneakiness and mediocrity have triumphed over [Quinlan’s] intuition and absolute justice.” Elsewhere, Welles summarises that “it’s a mistake to think I approve of Quinlan at all… there is not the least spark of genius in him; if there does seem to be one, I’ve made a mistake.” You can get pretentious about it all you want, and bring to bear political views that the film doesn’t support (after all, within the film Quinlan is punished for his crimes and the “mediocre” (Truffaut’s word) moral hero triumphs), but sometimes a spade is a spade; sometimes a villain is a villain; sometimes your disgusting moral perspective isn’t being covertly supported by a film that seems to condemn it.
What I want to say in the film is this: that in the modern world we have to choose between the law’s morality, and the morality of simple justice, that is to say between lynching someone and letting him go free. I prefer a murderer to go free, than to have the police arrest him by mistake. Quinlan doesn’t so much want to bring the guilty to justice, as to murder them in the name of the law, and that’s a fascist argument, a totalitarian argument contrary to the tradition of human law and justice such as I understand it.
So that’s the end of that.
Welles’ beliefs about filmmaking were similarly forthright, stating that “all of the eloquence of film is created in the editing room” — the images were important, but the real art was in how they were placed together in the edit. It must have been especially hard for him, then, that so many of his films were “violently torn from [his] hands”: as of 1965, he says only Citizen Kane, Othello and Don Quixote were movies he’d been allowed to edit to his own specification (and that last one barely counts).
Notably and obviously absent from that list is Touch of Evil. It was taken away from Welles during the editing process, and though he submitted an infamous 58-page memo of suggestions after seeing a later rough cut, only some were followed in the version ultimately released. Time has brought change, however, and there are now multiple versions of Touch of Evil for the viewer to choose from; but whereas history often resolves one version of a film to be the definitive article, it’s hard to know which that is in this case. Indeed, it’s so contentious that Masters of Cinema went so far as to include five versions on their 2011 Blu-ray (it would’ve been six, but Universal couldn’t/wouldn’t supply the final one in HD.) The version I chose to watch, dubbed the “Reconstructed Version”, tries to recreate Welles’ vision, using footage from the theatrical cut and a preview version discovered in the ’70s to follow his notes. Despite the best intentions of its creators, this can only ever be an attempt at restoring what Welles wanted. Equally, although it was the version originally released, the theatrical cut ignores many of the director’s wishes — so as neither version was finished by Welles, surely the one created by people trying to enact his wishes is preferable to the one assembled by people who only took his ideas on advisement?
But that’s not all, poor viewer! There’s also the issue of the film’s aspect ratio: Welles was forced to shoot the film for projection at 1.85:1, but he did so on the understanding that an open matte 1.37:1 version would be shown on TV. He penned an article the same year as Touch of Evil’s release, called “Ribbon of Dreams”, in which he firmly advocates the Academy ratio and shows a strong distaste for widescreen (reading it today, it’s reminiscent of and comparable to Christopher Nolan’s comments on the film vs digital debate). With that considered, the full screen version would seem the preferable choice. To quote from Master of Cinema’s booklet, “the familiar Wellesian framing appears in 1.37:1: indeed, the “world” of the film setting emerges with little or no empty space at the top and bottom of the frame, almost certainly beyond mere coincidence.” There are things to recommend the widescreen experience (“a more tightly-wound, claustrophobic atmosphere”), and undoubtedly the debate will continue… and such is the wonders of the modern film fan that, rather than having to make do with someone else’s decision on what to put out, all the alternatives are at our fingertips.
Obviously I can’t speak for all the different cuts of Touch of Evil, but considering its constituent elements, it’s hard to imagine a version that isn’t complex, thought-provoking, perhaps a bit uncomfortable, and all-round an impressive work of cinema.