In one of my favorite moments of one of my favorite films (Ed Wood), Orson Welles (played by Vincent D’Onofrio but voiced by Maurice LaMarche) laments to the transvestite hero that the studio is always interfering with his movies, recutting his films and even going so far as demanding he make Charlton Heston a Mexican! This charming lament shows that genius, real or imagined, shares the same problems.
In fact, Welles was only supposed to act in Touch of Evil, and it was Heston who insisted on Welles being the director. Meanwhile it was Welles who changed Heston from a white, American lawman to a Mexican. He also race-swapped Janet Leigh, whose character was originally the hispanic. (Leigh and Marlene Detrich were there on the cheap because they wanted to be directed by Welles.) Welles actually noted that this was one of his favorite shoots, since he had so little interference, even though the film was re-cut by the studio. It would go on to be restored (back in the ’70s, originally, before such things were popular), and re-restored again in the ’90s.
Welles suffered through the shoot carrying 60 pounds of fake fat, looking much more convincingly older than he did in Citizen Kane. (The Flower, who has a fondness for the ’90s TV show “The Critic”, winces a little bit whenever there’s a fat joke about Welles or Brando.) It’s hard to know whether the film’s re-cut by the studio helped or harmed it, but it seems unlikely that its packaging as the “B” picture with Harry Keller’s indifferent soaper The Female Animal (featuring Hedy Lamar in a lamentable last performance) helped its box office much. (Keller shot some extra scenes the studio wanted to clarify elements of the plot, while Welles was going for The Big Sleep style confusion.)
Setting all this aside, and setting aside certain cinematic firsts, such as the lengthy opening tracking scene and the first non-rear-projected car filming, it’s interesting that this movie is, a la Casablanca, a rather extraordinary “B”-movie. It’s very much of its time—and the 15 years between this and Casablanca shows a marked degeneration in culture—but it also cares about every single character who utters a line. (Apparently, Welles conducted a lot of rehearsals and solicited a lot of feedback, encouraging the actors to re-write their parts.)
The plot is that newlywed Mexican lawman Vargas (Heston) has put away some bad hombres who now want him dead, or at least discredited, so they can go on with their drug-dealing. Meanwhile, American lawman Quinlan (Welles) has a reputation to uphold as a guy who catches the bad guys, which he maintains by planting evidence as needed. Vargas and his bride Susan (Leigh) are babes in the woods here, with Susan being set-up to look promiscuous and ultimately like the ’50s equivalent of a crack whore.
The tension is thick. Most of the time while Vargas is out doing the investigating, she’s in a seedy motel run by a creepy pervert (foreshadowing!), who doesn’t stab her in the shower but instead looks the other way while she’s menaced by a bunch of creepy Mexican teens (including the uncredited Mercedes McCambridge). Being that it was still the ’50s, the situation is resolved in an unlikely way—that is, it’s never explained why the bad guys wouldn’t just drug and rape her, and throw her into the Tijuana whore house—but I can’t express enough how okay I am with that.
The main character of the film, though, is Quinlan. He’s crooked, but he’s going by a simple standard: He has to think someone is guilty before he’ll frame them. We learn a bit about his tragic past from a madame (Marlene Dietrich), in whose establishment Quinlan morosely listens to a player piano. He’s fallen, for sure, but in the course of this movie, he finds himself having to make deal with Mexican drug lords to take out Vargas, and that’s when he really hits the skids.
It’s all very melodramatic, in its way, again much like Casablanca. But in the hands of skilled performers at the top of their respective games, it transcends. It manages to maintain a visceral interest while not sacrificing its art.
Definitely praise-worthy, even for non-cinephiles.