The Maltese Falcon (1941)

2016 #142
John Huston | 96 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

The Maltese Falcon

Humphrey Bogart is private dick and consummate bullshitter Sam Spade in this (re-)adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, considered the first major film noir.

The twisty plot of murder and thievery is enlivened by duplicitous performances from femme fatale Mary Astor, an effeminate Peter Lorre, the always welcome Elisha Cook Jr., and the humungous presence of Sydney Greenstreet, making his film debut at 60 and stealing every scene.

It’s also the directorial debut of John Huston, whose work alongside cinematographer Arthur Edeson is the greatest star: the low-key lighting and dramatic angles are (like the rest of the film) archetypal noir.

4 out of 5

The Maltese Falcon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

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The Big Sleep (1946)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #11

The Violence-Screen’s
All-Time Rocker-Shocker!

(Yes, that is a real tagline.)

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 114 minutes
BBFC: A (pre-release, 1945) | A (1946) | PG (1988)

Original Release: 31st August 1946 (USA)
UK Release: June 1946 (BBFC)
First Seen: DVD (maybe), c.2004 (possibly)

Stars
Humphrey Bogart (Casablanca, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)
Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not, North West Frontier)
Martha Vickers (The Falcon in Mexico, The Big Bluff)
Dorothy Malone (The Fast and the Furious (not that one), Basic Instinct (yes, that one))

Director
Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

Screenwriters
Leigh Brackett (Rio Bravo, The Empire Strikes Back)
Jules Furthman (The Outlaw, Nightmare Alley)
William Faulkner (To Have and Have Not, Land of the Pharaohs)

Based on
The Big Sleep, a novel by Raymond Chandler.

The Story
Private detective Philip Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to settle the gambling debts his daughter, Carmen, owes to a man named Geiger. Sternwood’s other daughter, Vivian, suspects Marlowe has actually been hired to find Sean Reagan, the General’s friend who has disappeared. Arriving at Geiger’s home, Marlowe hears a shot, and inside finds Geiger dead, Carmen drugged, and a hidden camera with the film gone. So begins a complex web of blackmail and murder. Very complex. Very, very complex.

Our Hero
The archetypal downtrodden PI, Philip Marlowe makes up what he lacks in good fortune with a fast mouth and sharp mind. Has bad manners though, which he grieves over on long winter evenings.

Our Villain
It’s a mystery, let’s not give it away. The film certainly does its best not to.

Best Supporting Character
Lauren Bacall as headstrong Vivian Sternwood, a character who benefitted from the behind-the-scenes situation at the time: Bogie and Bacall’s chemistry in To Have and Have Not led the studio to want more of the same, and her agent was only too keen after the poor reviews of Confidential Agent threatened to sink her career before it had really begun. New sparky dialogue scenes took the place of exposition ones in the final cut, essentially creating the film’s reputation for confusion.

Memorable Quote
“She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up.” — Philip Marlowe

Memorable Scene
Bogie and Bacall discuss horse racing.
— “I like to see them work out a little first… You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free.”
Just horse racing.
— “I don’t know how far you can go.” “A lot depends on who’s in the saddle.”
Just horse racing.

Making of
Another part in the Bacall situation described above was supposedly played by original author Raymond Chandler. He reportedly observed that Martha Vickers was so good as Carmen that she overshadowed Bacall, and consequently much of Vickers’ material was removed.

Previously on…
The Big Sleep is the fourth screen adaptation of a Philip Marlowe story, though only the second to star the detective: 1942’s Time to Kill adapted The High Window into the Michael Shayne series, and the same year Farewell My Lovely was filmed as The Falcon Takes Over. The same novel was adapted again in 1944 as Murder, My Sweet (though, famously, retained the novel’s title for its UK release), starring Dick Powell as Marlowe.

Next time…
Bogart never played Marlowe again, but multiple film, TV and radio adaptations of Chandler’s novels have followed, with the lead role being occupied by the likes of James Garner, Elliott Gould, Robert Mitchum, Powers Boothe, Danny Glover, James Caan, and Toby Stephens. A remake of The Big Sleep, relocated to ’70s London and directed by Michael “calm down dear” Winner, was Marlowe’s final big screen outing to date.

Awards
Not a sausage.

What the Critics Said
“one of those pictures in which so many cryptic things occur amid so much involved and devious plotting that the mind becomes utterly confused. And, to make it more aggravating, the brilliant detective in the case is continuously making shrewd deductions which he stubbornly keeps to himself. What with two interlocking mysteries and a great many characters involved, the complex of blackmail and murder soon becomes a web of utter bafflement. Unfortunately, the cunning script-writers have done little to clear it at the end.” — Bosley Crowther, The New York Times

Score: 96%

What the Public Say
“you don’t watch The Big Sleep just to find out who did what to whom, when and for what reason. This is truly one of those movies where the journey is far more important than the destination. As we follow Marlowe around a moody and threatening Los Angeles, we go on a tour of the seedy underbelly of the city. Even though the time is spent in the company of high rollers and the glamorous set, it’s all merely a glittering veneer for a world of pornography, drugs, deviance, betrayal and violence.” — Colin, Riding the High Country

Verdict

Famed for having a plot so complicated even author Raymond Chandler doesn’t know who committed at least one of its murders, I’ve always found The Big Sleep very followable if you pay attention… just don’t expect me to be able to explain it after its finished. The film’s popularity in spite of its impenetrability confirmed director Howard Hawks’ theory that audiences didn’t care if a plot made sense as long as they had a good time, and he’s kinda right — the joys here are Bogie and Bacall’s verbal sparring, the exposure of LA’s seedy underbelly (albeit in a Production Code-friendly way), and the film’s whole noir-ish atmosphere.

The Big Sleep is finally released on US Blu-ray on Tuesday 23rd February.

#12 will be… a Marvellous vampire.

The Big Knife (1955)

2015 #8
Robert Aldrich | 107 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

The Big KnifeJack Palance is an actor wanting out of his studio contract in this stagey film noir.

The entire film takes place in his house, with a parade of supporting characters coming and going to variously persuade him to stay, persuade him to quit, or persuade him to do other things (saucy!) It’s not just the limited location that makes it feel stagey, though, but also the style of dialogue and the performances. I’m never quite able to put my finger on it, but there’s a certain way playwrights seem to pen dialogue that just feels like it’s from theatre, and The Big Knife (which is adapted from a stage play) has it.

Palance is very good, playing against expectations as an actor who sold out his artistry and is now struggling to be brave enough to stand up to the overbearing studio execs, who have an additional hold over him. Rod Steiger is a bit OTT as the studio’s head, Stanley Hoff, but then the character’s meant to be a bit like that. Somewhat heavy-handed pillorying of a real studio boss? Perhaps. Also worth watching is Rear Window’s Wendell Corey as Hoff’s assistant, Smiley Coy. His is a more subtle performance, conveying his opinions and enacting his schemes mostly with looks. I suppose you don’t get much less stagey than that.

ShoutyPartially driven by a seeming twist that’s obvious from the outset (which, in fairness, the film reveals only 40 minutes in), the story never quite comes alive. Palance and Corey make parts worth watching, but at other times it’s a bit of a slog, not helped by an awful score that chimes in now and then, loudly. Expansive cinematography (so much headroom — was it shot to be cropped for widescreen? Perhaps it was) combats any feeling of claustrophobia the single location and oppressive moral situation might have leant it.

The Big Knife is not the finest film noir (certainly, if anyone’s looking for familiar genre tropes, you’ll find few here), nor the finest behind-the-sets view of moviemaking, but some sporadically strong performances prevent it being meritless for the patient viewer.

3 out of 5

Parker (2013)

2015 #2
Taylor Hackford | 119 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

ParkerParker trailed well — funny lines, promising action, solid setup — but doesn’t deliver.

The funny lines remain funny, but the trailer has them all. The plot’s generic — not necessarily a problem, but here it’s hampered by pointless asides and subplots. The action only delivers once or twice, the best being a mano-a-mano brawl featuring a great climax on a hotel balcony.

Reportedly Hackford wanted to make this a film noir. You can spot story elements he must have been thinking of, but it doesn’t feel like one, and certainly doesn’t look like one.

Fitfully adequate, but not even among Statham’s best.

2 out of 5

Jason Statham stars in the superior Safe, on 5* tonight at 9pm and reviewed here.

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

2014 #127
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA & Cyprus / English | 18 / R

Sin City: A Dame to Kill ForBelated sequels can be a Terminator 2, but more often they’re a Terminator 3 — that is to say, they can be brilliant, but often it seems they’re a poor idea, a too-late money-grabbing re-hash. Mooted since before the first Sin City was even released back in 2005, this long-anticipated sequel finally appeared at the tail end of the summer, a nine-year wait, and met with poor critical reception and even poorer box office. Considering the first film isn’t just a fanboy favourite but also fairly well regarded (it still sits on the IMDb Top 250, which I know some disregard out of hand but does mean something), that’s quite a painful fall from grace. Having watched the original the night before, I rather fail to see why.

As with its predecessor, A Dame to Kill For is a collection of hyper-noir short stories, connected by location and overlapping characters, that flits between time periods with abandon — this is both a prequel and sequel to the first film, revealing both the story of how Dwight (Josh Brolin) came to change his face (to become Clive Owen in the original film), and what Nancy (Jessica Alba) did after the death of Hartigan (Bruce Willis, returning in a more spiritual form). There’s also the story of a cocky gambler, Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), taking on the city’s power-players, and a short pre-titles tale starring breakout character Marv (Mickey Rourke).

If the first film was noir with a comic book mentality, then the second is a comic book with a noir mentality. The plots are still hard-boiled, the extensive voiceovers overwritten to the point they wash over you meaninglessly, the characters a mix of downtrodden toughs (for the men) and whores (for the women), and there’s still no hope for anyone in a city which drags everyone down. Naturally the visual style is the same: high-contrast monochrome with dramatic splashes of colour, and the occasional artistic lapse into literal black-and-white.

Violent MarvBut the comic-book-ness of the first film — moments of almost metaphorical visual representation rather than literal reality, including physically-impossible action beats — has been ramped up. The value of the first film was never in its action, so the sequel’s lengthy punch-ups, crossbow-based guard-slaying, and all the rest, get boring fast. When it slips into this needless excess, A Dame to Kill For loses its way. When it sticks to what it does best — hard-boiled fatalistic crime tales with striking comic book-inspired cinematography — it does as well as the concept ever did.

The best story is probably the titular one, which makes up the bulk of the middle of the film. It’s the most traditionally noir-ish, with a killer performance from a perfectly-cast Eva Green as the eponymous dame. She also spends most of her screentime starkers, which — coupled with the ludicrous dialogue and increased action — does lend credence to accusations that this is a film made by 13-year-old boys. Enjoy the results or not, it’s a hard point to argue against.

As Nancy, Jessica Alba was somewhere on the spectrum from mediocre to awful in the first film, but she’s another of the best things in this sequel. It’s not just that she’s given a meatier role, but that she seems to know how to act better fullstop. For all the criticisms that the film is misogynistic, with its women all strippers or whores or manipulative bitches, it’s the actresses who get the best parts and deliver the best performances. Brolin is unremarkable, for instance, while Marv, undoubtedly the original film’s breakout character, is now shoehorned into every story. Sometimes it works, sometimes it feels forced.

Johnny come latelyThe intervening decade has lessened the impact of the first film’s sick ultra-violence, but there’s nothing even that extreme here, aside perhaps from one eyeball-related moment. On the other hand, nearly a decade of tech development means it looks better than the last one, both in terms of the CGI’s quality and the camerawork more generally — it’s less flatly shot; more filmic than the first one’s sometimes-webseries-y composition.

Rodriguez once said he hoped to film all of Miller’s Sin City stories, and across the two films they’ve got through six (plus two new ones), which leaves two more full-length tales and nine shorts. Based on the poor performance and reception of this instalment, a third go-round looks unlikely. But then, if there’s one filmmaker who seems to keep on producing even when no one expects more it’s… Uwe Boll. But if there’s another, it’s Robert Rodriguez. That said, the box office really was shockingly awful (just shy of $40 million worldwide; I read the budget was $60 million), so maybe even Rodriguez can’t save this project.

Many critics, even those who rate the first Sin City highly, slaughtered this sequel. I don’t really see why — on balance, I think it’s of a piece with the first one. To love the first and hate the second seems predicated on the notion that the original was innovative and groundbreaking, whereas the follow-up is the same thing again. Well, what did you expect? It promises more stories in the visual and thematic style of Ghost of movies pastits predecessor, and that’s exactly what it delivers. I suspect the first benefits from nostalgia because, watching them virtually back to back, I found I liked Sin City less than I remembered, but enjoyed A Dame to Kill For just as much. It’s flawed in several aspects, but for honest-to-themselves fans of the first movie, I think it’s a “more of what you liked”-style success.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Sin City: Recut & Extended (2005)

aka Sin City: Recut ∙ Extended ∙ Unrated

2014 #126
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
with Quentin Tarantino | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18

Sin CityAdapted from a series of graphic novels by Frank Miller, Sin City is a noir homage, replete with high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, dialogue so hard boiled you couldn’t crack it with a sledgehammer, and all the requisite downtrodden heroes, corrupt authority figures, dangerous dames, etc. There’s also the very modern inclusion of shocking ultra-violence and nudity, but I guess a fair degree of that would’ve crept into classic noir if the mores of the time allowed — pretty much the point of the genre is the dark grubbiness of the world, after all.

Anyway, Sin City: The Film is probably best known for its slavish faithfulness to Miller’s original comics; or rather the way that manifested itself: the film was shot digitally (when that was still remarkable rather than the norm, as it has become since) and almost entirely on green screen, with cast members who share scenes sometimes not even meeting, and whole roles being recorded in a day or two rather than the usual couple of weeks. It helps that the movie is a collection of short stories, meaning no one person is in it for more than about 40 minutes. The point of this was to then emulate the comic’s visuals: black-and-white with minimal grey in between, but occasional splashes of colour and other striking effects — blood is sometimes stark white, sometimes red; one character has blue eyes, another golden hair; plasters or necklaces are sometimes rendered as flat white blocks; and so on.

Hartigan got a gunThe DVD-premiering extended version, dubbed Recut & Extended (or, in the US, “Recut, Extended, Unrated”) is even more faithful to the comics than the theatrical version. Some of the books’ scenes that were excised are now included, and the structure has been rejigged to present each of the four stories one by one in their entirety (whereas the original version had a small amount of intercutting). The total running time is 17 minutes and 40 seconds longer, an increase of some 14.2%… which is a thoroughly misleading figure. As a presentational choice, each of the four stories is offered for individual viewing, plus option to “play all”. However, rather than that showing them as a single film, they play as four shorts back to back, with a full set of section-specific end credits rolling each time. The actual amount of new material in the film itself is reported to be 6 minutes and 55 seconds, or only a 5.6% increase from the theatrical cut. I’m sure the extensions are great for die-hard fans, but for most the additions are all but unnoticeable — look at that Movie-Censorship.com list and you’ll see there are only three or four new bits that could reasonably be described as “scenes” (ranging from under 30 seconds to about two minutes), and then just a bunch of extended ‘moments’.

The lack of notable new material isn’t the issue, though. The real problem is the re-structure. Let’s not beat around the bush: it scuttles the film. Individually, each of the three longer narratives is fine, but when watched back-to-back as if it were still one film, the structure is unbalanced. Then there’s the shorter story, The Customer is Always Right, starring Josh Hartnett as The Man. In the original cut, his character features in a standalone pre-titles style-establisher (both for the visuals and the kind of tough tales we’re about to be told), and then a neat coda bookend before the end credits. These two scenes have been placed together in this version, and it sucks.

They've got a bigger gunFor one, the second scene belongs more truly to The Big Fat Kill (the final story, starring Clive Owen’s Dwight and the whores of Old Town led by Rosaria Dawson). For another, because this recut purports to be in chronological order, The Customer is Always Right plays second. So we get 47 minutes of Bruce Willis protecting Jessica Alba from a paedophile in That Yellow Bastard, then we get a one-scene story that rightly belongs at the beginning (complete with title card, now 50 minutes into the ‘film’), then we get a scene that, actually, belongs in a completely different place. The next full story is The Hard Goodbye (the one with Mickey Rourke under a slab of prosthetics as Marv), followed by The Big Fat Kill — and it’s after this that the second scene with The Man belongs. Divorced of that context, the scene is robbed of almost all its meaning.

I guess Sin City: Recut & Extended isn’t really meant to be viewed as a single film — hence why there are four sets of end credits, and why the cool opening titles featuring Miller’s original art is nowhere to be seen. Even allowing for that, though, I think the second scene with The Man has been badly placed. A chronological cut of a non-chronological film is an interesting idea, but this doesn’t even get that right. And even if it weren’t for the regular interruption by lengthy credits sequences, the re-order makes for a very stop-start viewing experience, something the theatrical version avoided by divvying up one story and having characters make brief cameos in each other’s tales.

Tits 'n' effectsIn the end, I enjoyed Sin City considerably less than I did nine years ago in the cinema. This is partly down to the restructure, but I’m not sure wholly so. I don’t think it’s aged particularly well, as things produced at the forefront of emerging technology are wont to do: some of the CGI looks dirt cheap, the shot compositions are often unimaginatively flat, and there’s an occasional internet-video style to the picture quality. It’s not just the visuals, sadly, with amateurish performances from reliable actors, possibly a result of the hurried filming schedule. Just because you can capture an entire part in a single day doesn’t mean you should. Then there’s Jessica Alba, who’s just awful here.

For all that, there are shots that are striking, when the elements come together to make something that still looks fresh and creative even after nearly a decade of the film’s visual tricks being emulated by lesser movies or integrated into general cinematic language. One thing that struck me was that the most memorable moments were all from the trailer — Sin City did have one helluva trailer. The stories and characters aren’t bad, thanks to the hyper-noir style being a deliberate choice, though perhaps it sometimes goes too far with the voiceover narration. Maybe, again, this is the fault of watching the longer cut; maybe there’s just a little too much of it in any version.

Quite often an extended cut will become the definitive version of a film — these days, it’s often a way to get the originally-intended cut past a studio who insist on a shorter running time or PG-13 certificate; or it’s a chance to revisit and improve a project that hadn’t quite worked. Not so with Sin City. This is a version for fans of the books who want to see every last drop included… but even then it falls short, because apparently a few moments are still nowhere to be found. That yellow so-and-soNone of the present additions are game-changing, and though some are good in their own way, there’s nothing noteworthy enough to compensate for the destruction of the original cut’s well-balanced structure. For the average punter — and certainly for the first-time viewer — the theatrical cut is unquestionably the way to go.

4 out of 5

This year’s sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, will be reviewed tomorrow.

Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Sin City: Recut & Extended received a “dishonourable mention” on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here.

Union Station (1950)

2014 #19
Rudolph Maté | 77 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English

Union StationOften noted merely for being filmed in Los Angeles’ busy train station, there are some spirited defences of Union Station to be found. For my money, that’s nearer the truth: this isn’t some noir-era single-location-thriller, but a kidnap procedural with a significant role for trains and their locales. The best sequence isn’t even in the station: cops tail a suspect, get noticed, and the ensuing chase reaches a memorably grisly end.

Also in the mix are morally grey cops (“make it look like an accident”), one-step-ahead villains, and a blind girl in peril. The concoction produces an undervalued classic noir.

4 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Backfire (1950)

2014 #43
Vincent Sherman | 87 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English

BackfireBefore he was the romantic male lead in musicals like Tea for Two, Oklahoma! and Carousel, Gordon MacRae starred as a war veteran out to prove his friend’s innocence in this underrated film noir.

MacRae is Bob Corey, our hero, whose hospital bed is visited by a woman (Viveca Lindfors) who tells him his army buddy Steve (Edmond O’Brien) has been in a horrible accident. The staff dismiss his story as an hallucination, but when he gets out, Bob and his new love, nurse Julie (Virginia Mayo), set out to find out what’s happened to Steve — who, it turns out, is wanted for murder — and find themselves negotiating a complex web of past events and future dangers….

Backfire doesn’t seem to be very well regarded on the whole (though, in spite of that, there’s a surprising amount of production detail on Wikipedia). This may be because at times it feels more like an Agatha Christie mystery than a film noir: a pair of clean-cut amateur sleuths bumble their way through a string of clues, learning more and more about the plot thanks to other characters’ flashbacks. I like a good Christie mystery though, so the pairing of styles isn’t a problem for me.

Friend or foe?Besides, even if the film seems to forgo the usual gritty noir trappings for a pleasant “English murder mystery”-type tale at first, it actually has its fair share of dark elements and noir-ish features, which only increase as it goes on: secretive gangsters, nightclub singers, revenge shootings… Then there’s the photography which, again, transitions from a fairly ‘regular’ (for want of a better word) style early on, to a world of rain-slicked streets and high-contrast lighting.

The story is reportedly “lifted from other, many times better, films”, which may well be true, but clearly I’ve not seen them. It all builds to a twist that I didn’t see coming, which is always good in my book; plus a final shoot-out featuring something that never seems to happen in films: the villain loses because he runs out of bullets! Along the way, the movie challenges the audience to keep up with which flashback is taking place when and how they’re connected to each other — indeed, the really attentive viewer might be able to use that to correctly guess the ultimate reveal.

MacRae is perfectly decent as the perfectly decent chap, who somehow manages to be a much better detective than any of the detectives. He’s aided by a sterling supporting cast, from the club singer’s tag-along roommate (Sheila Stephens — later Sheila MacRae) to the ex-army buddy mortician (Dane Clark), from the slightly creepy hotel desk clerk (who isn’t adequately credited) to the wisecracking police chief (Ed Begley).

That White Heat girl turning it on againIt’s in the latter’s case that the writing gets a chance to shine, too: the chief’s flashback is littered with snappy dialogue that feels kinda like he’s telling you the story himself, not just a matter-of-fact “here’s what happened earlier” objective account. Other flashbacks retain a degree of subjectivity — we only see events the characters could have witnessed, and in some cases the way they witnessed them (like the cleaning lady who only sees customers’ feet, before spying through a keyhole in a shot complete with keyhole matte) — but there’s an idea there, briefly glimpsed in that detective’s flashback, that would’ve made for an even more interesting film.

As it stands, Backfire isn’t all it could be, but I think it’s good for more than the consensus allows.

4 out of 5

Backfire is on TCM (UK) tomorrow, Saturday 15th November 2014, at 1:15pm.

Touch of Evil (1958)

1998 Reconstructed Version

2013 #58
Orson Welles | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Touch of EvilA 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. Vargas and his wifeIt’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 QuinlanQuinlan 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.

Welles:

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).

a 58-page memo?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. It's enough to drive you to drinkTo 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.

5 out of 5

Touch of Evil was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 12 for 2013 project, which you can read more about here.

Journey into Fear (1943)

2014 #51
Norman Foster | 68 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG*

Journey into FearRemembered largely thanks to the involvement of Orson Welles (he has a supporting role, produced it, co-wrote it, and reportedly directed a fair bit too, though he denied that), Journey into Fear is an adequate if unsuspenseful World War 2 espionage thriller, redeemed by a strikingly-shot climax. The latter — a rain-drenched shoot-out between opponents edging their way around the outside of a hotel’s upper storey — was surely conducted by Welles; so too several striking compositions earlier in the movie.

Sadly there’s little else to commend the film, which takes a leisurely approach to its hero’s escape from Istanbul by a boat aboard which, unbeknownst to him until it’s too late, are assassins. Sounds tense and exciting? It isn’t; or, at least, nothing like as much as it could be. It doesn’t help that it was buggered about with by the studio, leaving subplots alluded to but deleted — the original version reportedly ran 91 minutes, a fair chunk longer than what we’re left with. (There’s also a version with opening and closing voiceovers and a pre-titles sequence, Fearful outfitall added by Welles after the studio had their way, which seems to be the one US viewers know. The version without those seems to be the only one shown on UK TV, however.)

On the bright side, it has a brisk running time, and as 70-minute ’40s thrillers go it’s at the upper end of their quality. And in spite of the mere adequacy of the rest, that climax honestly makes it a recommendable watch.

3 out of 5

* Having rated it U in 1986 and 1998, come 2010 the BBFC decided it needed to be a PG. ^