Day Four: Touch of Evil’s Relentless Wasteland
A bomb is planted in a small Mexican border town, and four minutes later, it explodes in the United States. What happens between these two events, one long, panic-soaked tracking shot, is the stuff of cinematic legend. The long take that opens Orson Welles’ 1958 masterpiece, Touch of Evil, has been lauded, dissected, and parodied to such an extent that it has, in many ways, overshadowed the film itself, but the explosion is only a prologue to set the tone for what’s to come. It’s treading water - rookie stuff. If you want to get dirty, and Touch of Evil wants you to get filthy, you have to sink with the ship.
Russell Metty’s camera is a fury loosed, an orgy of movement through bleak streets, decedent bars, and the second most terrifying motel room in which Janet Leigh would ever spent a night. Every one of Metty’s shots is a compositional paragon, and every moment under Welles’ direction is an exercise in unbearable tension. An early scene, in which Vargas (Charlton Heston) attempts to reach Quinlan (Welles) to complain about the harassment of his wife (Leigh), turns feverously disorienting. Henry Mancini’s sparse, syncopated piano compositions underlie a succession of dollies, as Vargas’ unknown pursuant zig-zags across the background. Much of Touch of Evil’s cinematographic grandeur stems from Welles and Metty’s unwillingness to spoon-feed the audience a focal point. The viewer’s eyes are made to dart, rapid-fire, across the canvas, searching for clues, catching glimpses of threats, as the camera swirls, off-kilter, taking in as much of the dizzying muck as possible.
Quinlan engulfs every frame with his immense, grotesque body, the personification of his own, irrevocable corruption. His eyes jitter. Sweat seeps from every pore. In a motel room, while Leigh’s Susie lies drugged on a mattress, Quinlan succumbs to madness, strangling a man in cold blood. Welles’ cuts between Quinlan’s face pulsing in and out of camera, the strobe lighting collapsing any polarity of night and day, good and evil, and Susie on the bed, naked and passed out, soft, sexual moans escaping her lips. Welles pushes the boundaries of even the most dedicated noir fan, looking to get his kicks with a little murder, a little sex.
How dark do you like ‘em?
Well, how dark can we get?
Pretty damn dark, is the answer, and Touch of Evil climaxes with another chase, one reminiscent of The Third Man’s finale, in which Welles flees for his life through a Vienna sewer system. Here, Vargas attempts to get Quinlan’s murder confession on tape as Quinlan exponentially sinks into the waste that is existence. An overhead shot captures his essence as he attempts to wash the blood from his hands in a filthy reservoir. Whatever Quinlan was before Touch of Evil, he’s now just another crumbling edifice of a ghost town. Whatever justice meant before Fritz Lang’s Fury is now nothing more than a recording of a dead man, a confession played out in some swamp in some run down hell-hole of a town, a disembodied voice that means nothing at all.