Touch of Evil Orson Wells (USA;1958) Charlton Heston, Orson Wells, Janet Leigh
viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 20 Nov 2022; ticket: £7
Wells set ‘Touch of Evil’ on the border between USA and Mexico. For him it was a political statement. In retrospect the setting comes across as less political rather more a psychic divide: a voodoo border where sanity and madness, derangement and clarity, dark priests and spirits merge inseparably…. an hallucinogenic zone triggered by the car bomb which detonates at the end of the opening shot pitching all the players into a maelstrom of chaos.
The story line, the prized narrative flow that bedraggles and condemns to insipid mediocrity so many contemporary films is ditched in favour of attributes that film language expresses superlatively well; presence, atmospherics and settings (Film Noir directors such Dmitryk Hawkes Huston all in own way prioritised mood over plot). In these respects Wells is masterful: it’s the effect that matters and on leaving the cinema the audience is left with an abiding sense of experiencing being ‘touched’ by evil.
The film’s dominating presence is Wells as detective Quinian. His vast bulked out body fills the screen with menace and malice, a presence that seems to suck the light out of the picture casting us all into darkness. A corrupt and corrupting influence in the border area, he stalks the streets like an out of control venomous soul called up out of some primal cosmic soup by the towns resident priestess, Tana. Wells’ vision of Quinian is expansive: his engrained corruption and his unremitting service to the forces of evil are depicted as the characteristic traits underpinning the agencies of law enforcement in the USA, in particular the FBI. It is possible that Wells’ development of Quinian’s character was primarily based on J Edgar Hoover. Hoover was first director of the FBI, whose embrace of voodoo law enforcement shifting it away from criminals to his political opponents, employed cynical use of all the dirty arts to frame and neutralise targeted individuals. Like Quinian, Hoover was a self appointed amoral upholder of a personalised agenda, whose objective was primarily to extend and protect his own power over life and death. Wells surrounds Quinian with a posse of men in suits – again similar to the FBI look – all the agents in ill fitting suits, shirt tie and black shoes. A respectable gang of ‘yes’ men and time serving courtiers lending Quinian a sort of specious plausibility and legitimacy.
In Citizen Kane Wells established his reputation as a director who could use the cinematic camera language of film to to define the register of his scenario. Likewise in ‘Touch of Evil’ it is the movement vision and lighting design adopted by the camera that comprises the quick of ‘Touch of Evil’. The long crane tracking shots with deep focus unify the disparate elements in the first shot, and continue throughout the film to sustain the tension between the characters and their location. The lighting through use the obtuse angles and vignetting about Quinian, renders the settings as simulacrums of hellish antechambers.
The interiors though a little sparse, perhaps reflecting a pared down budget, work because they are replete with the presence of men or of victim Janet Leigh. But the exteriors, the town streets and above all the fantastical ending shot against the industrial background of Venice (California) signs off the film against a claustrophobic nightmarish setting. In best film tradition the sign off setting was not part of the original scenario, but taken up by Wells late in production when he came across it. It has some of the qualities of Tarkovsky’s Stalker setting.