The Rear-View Mirror: Touch of Evil (1958)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

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Touch of Evil most resembles a house of mirrors. In some parts you may feel you have gone backstage in some kind of carnival or circus. The direction is very Welles-ian, very masterful and very distinct. In the first minutes, we see a bomb placed in the boot of a car, and then the camera follows the car in one shot for a full 3 minutes and 20 seconds. We see shop-fronts, a souvenir seller moving his cart, some livestock and even two of our protagonists, who are walking the same route as the car. The bomb explodes, as it has to, and our story begins.

This is one of those Welles films which charts the epic fall of a titanic man: police captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles himself), so enormous he looms not just over the other characters, but over the entire movie. Welles was never a small man, but with extra padding and make-up he looks like a grotesque. When we first meet him at the site of the explosion, the camera looks up at him, sweaty and uncouth. Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) is reluctantly drawn into the investigation of the bombing. Meanwhile Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh), Vargas’ wife, is intercepted on her way to her hotel to meet another grotesque: ‘Uncle’ Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). A “ridiculous, old-fashioned, lopsided little Caesar”, in her words.

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All these characters will become part of an improbable, not to say labyrinthine, plot. But the plot is not the point. The direction is. Characters are filmed in close-up, so close together they seem cramped. Claustrophobic, even. People are filmed askew, or in reflections. And so it seems as though they themselves, their paths and their stories, become more and more distorted. In gorgeously composed deep focus shots the background shows as much of the action as the foreground. The score is mostly source music, so that the sounds become a distinctive theme: an indication of place; the sound of a pianola in particular. This will be the place Quinlan will return to, again and again, as his situation and his mind continue to deteriorate. “You’re a mess, honey”, says Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) whose establishment houses the instrument. He’ll get worse before the movie is over.

“Everyone has his reasons” Welles quotes Renoir in an interview with Leslie Megahey. And, to be sure, Quinlan has his. Once a celebrated officer, he is now a thoroughly revolting figure. Racist, embittered and corrupt, he ‘proves’ his ‘hunches’ by planting evidence. And although he never becomes sympathetic, we start to intuit that there is, or at least once was, more to the man than this. His downfall then, becomes tragedy. “The more human you make the monster,” says Welles “the more interesting the story must be.”

Theatricality (“the highest kind”) is something that interests Orson Welles. “What I was trying to do”, says Welles “was to make something which was unreal, but true”. The way this movie is filmed and written is an testament to this.

In 1998 this film was re-edited by Walter Murch (produced by Rick Schmidlin) to more closely resemble Welles’ original vision of the movie. This post refers to that version.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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