January 18, 2008

Touch of Evil

Writing, directing and starring along with a young and strikingly handsome Charlton Heston and the drop-dead gorgeous Janet Leigh, Orson Welles is at the top of his auteur form in this 1958 film noir classic. Playing the sheriff of a seedy border town caught framing a Hispanic murder suspect by Mexican cop Vargas (Heston), Welles leverages his sweating hulk into almost every scene, lumbering past the lense like a walrus waddling out of an oil slick, dragging a dark stain behind him.

Meanwhile, Vargas's wife, Leigh is being stalked by a local hood whose brother Vargas is preparing to testify against. Thus the downward spiral of menace, murder, recrimination, payback and double-cross commences.

Welles's Captain Hank Quinlan, all yin to Heston's steel-spring yang, disintegrates before our eyes as the darkness closes in around him. Welles's additional talents as a screenwriter are evident in how well the dialogue holds up. The "reefer madness" references typical of the genre are held to a minimum. The only distracting anachronism is Janet Leigh's bullet bra, a fashion accessory Madonna can have all to herself. (If capturing the male gaze is the goal, give me push-up any day of the week.)

I can't say if Hitchcock was trying to one-up Welles or tip his hat to the master, but two years before her very bad shower experience in Psycho (1960), Leigh ended up in a run-down motel run by a more unnerving nutcase than Anthony Perkins (Dennis Weaver, in fact). But perhaps because Psycho has since been homaged to the point of banality, I found Welles's version more frightening, even though everybody makes it out of this motel alive.

Even a quintessentially noir voyeur scene early on in Touch of Evil (lit by flashlight) out-creeps the peephole scene in Psycho. Film noir was originally an art form born of necessity, and the result of faster film stock making it possible to shoot low budget with minimal external lighting. Shooting at night with small crews and casts minimized location overhead. The stories best suited for the grainy, chiaroscuro look that resulted were those that also cast long shadows of moral confusion.

Yet there is no confusion about the existence of good and evil, a point often missed in celebrations of the film noir style. If anything, film noir is characterized by the sharp contrast--the absolute moral distance--between black and white. Rather, it is the confusion among competing "goods" and the diffusion of self-justifying "evils." In the light of day a body casts a strong, single shadow. It is at night, lit from multiple directions, that the shadows overlap and fade to gray.

A multiplicity of right choices scatters truth as much as dark absorbs it. There is no doubt about right and wrong in Touch of Evil. Calling something "evil" presupposes knowing the difference. Early on, Quinlan and Vargas engage in a terse debate about the difference between law and justice--two conflicting goods. The rest of the movie is shaped by what each will do to enforce their sense of what is right and what is lawful, what ends justify what means, and how evil inevitably diffuses into their decisions.

In the end, Vargas's white hat has been sullied in his impassioned, frenetic efforts to convict Quinlan, to the point of putting the lives of others, including his own wife, at mortal risk. Quinlan is in no way redeemed, but he does become comprehensible, even human. In contrast to the ubiquitous darkness of the noir world, it is the mere touch of evil that stains the lives of those who come into contact with it, like the garbage-strewn river water Vargas must wade through to spring the trap closed.

Even the final twist at the end is not there to surprise us, but to test our hasty willingness to choose up good guys and bad before all the evidence is in. And like Vargas maybe our final, overpowering impulse should be, not to stand there and "take responsibility" and debate the issue as "grownups" are supposed to, but to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible and run fast for the clean, bright light.