27 July 2009

Touch of Evil

Somewhere along the line, noir became something other than cheap, poorly-lit, B-grade crime flicks. It somehow took on a life of its own--a movie could actually, self-consciously, chose to be a noir film. Such is the case with Orson Welles' brilliant 1958 release Touch of Evil. Box-office superstar Charlton Heston got top-billing alongside the glamorous Janet Leigh. Welles' character, the corrupt police chief Hank Quinlan, was supposed to be a supporting role. Once Mr. Welles got his hands on the script and his eye behind the camera, however, Hank Quinlan took over. In an astonshing performance, Welles creates the ultimate bad cop. He's a bloated, hideous, sloppy man, thoroughly cynical, racist, and menacing. On-screen, Mr. Heston has no chance as the prim and proper Vargas, a painfully idealistic Mexican narcotics investigator. (It was an unfortunate bit of casting, as a moustache and rub-on tan fail to convince anyone that Heston is from México.) Even when Vargas finally goes after Quinlan, he does it "by the book," dutifully searching for evidence and enlisting witnesses. In the meantime, the gorgeous Ms. Leigh gets a scene on the bed in a slinky nightgown, but that's merely prelude to a night of harassment and torture in the hands of local thugs. She plays Vargas' wife, and his zealous pursuit of the truth takes him away from her at a critical time, rendering her vulnerable to Quinlan's machinations. It's as if Vargas' morally superior position--the pursit of justice--is mocked as self-serving by his failure to protect his bride on what is supposed to be their honeymoon. The movie is a dazzling visual treat, the opening sequence with the car and the border crossing is agonizingly tense, and the final showdown among the oil derricks and polluted riverbank is both creepy and suspenseful. Welles used every bit of noir style and trickery to create atmosphere and ambiguity, and the nearly two-hour running time never lags. There are some memorable folks in the cast, in particular Ray Hopper (from Perry Mason), Joseph Cotten, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. My favorite is the timeless Marlene Dietrich as a fortune-teller. When Quinlan asks her to tell his future, she says "you haven't got any." I'm watching Welles/Quinlan 50 years later, so maybe she wasn't quite right! The movie is based on the "Whit Masterson" novel Badge of Evil, authored by the famous pulp duo of Bob Wade and Bill Miller. (I blogged about their Hard Case reprint Branded Woman last December.)

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