‘Touch of Evil’
By David Templeton
David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he treats award-winning mystery novelist Julie Smith to her first viewing of Orson Welles’ seminal crime thriller Touch of Evil.
Frankly, I’m shocked.
Touch of Evil, directed in 1958 by Orson Welles–starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, and Welles himself–just might be the greatest B-movie mystery film ever made. Heston himself says so, and he knows a thing or two about B films.
Furthermore, at the risk of sounding like some nerdy regurgitator of fervent film-school vernacular, I could make the case that Welles’ seedy, black-and-white film noir classic stand as one of the seminal works of its kind, and that many of the film’s stylistic and structural innovations–reproduced so often since then that they are now considered cliché–influenced a generation of filmmakers, including Alfred Hitchcock–who appears to have borrowed whole pieces of Evil for his own 1960 masterpiece, Psycho.
So it is shocking, in light of the film’s far-reaching influence and renown, that Julie Smith has never seen it. Julie Smith, ranked as one of the best living writers of popular mystery fiction–with over a dozen novels to her name and a closet full of awards–has never seen Touch of Evil.
“I haven’t,” she laughs, cringing in mock shame. “I confess! I really don’t know how I missed it.”
“Well,” I reply, pushing PLAY on the VCR, “We’ll just have to take care of that for you.”
The New Orleans-based author–a former Bay Area resident and one-time star reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle–is revisiting her old stomping grounds for a few days, maneuvering through a series of readings and book signings. Her latest novel is 82 Desire (Fawcett, $24.00), the eighth to feature resourceful New Orleans police detective Skip Landon (the first, New Orleans Mourning, won an Edgar Award for best mystery novel); like the preceding Skip Langdon mysteries, 82 Desire puts Smith’s hard-boiled heroine in the midst of a case that unfolds gradually, in the time-honored tradition of a big old onion, to reveal ever-deepening (and ever-surprising) levels of malevolence and deceit.
Sort of like Touch of Evil.
In the film, a stalwart Mexican police official named Vargas (Heston), while on honeymoon with his American wife (Leigh), witnesses a car bombing at the Mexican/American border. Arriving on the scene is the charmingly repellent Detective Quinlan (Welles, in the best performance of his career), a local hero with a perfect professional record; for every case Quinlan has investigated, he’s never failed to find the culprit. Ever. Vargas soon discovers why, as Quinlan develops into one of cinema’s greatest screen villains, a self-loathing Bad Man of monumentally vile proportions.
Much ballyhooed of late, Touch of Evil–wrested away from Welles after principal filming and edited without Welles’ supervision–has now been restored by Oscar-winning film and sound editor Walter Murch, who re-edited the film according to a 58-page memo that Welles composed after seeing what the studio had done to his movie. In the memo, Welles conveyed hundreds of changes–some obvious, most very subtle–and all of them have been followed by Murch.
It is this new-and-improved version that Smith and I had expected to see today. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the secret downtown screening room where the film was to be unveiled–in advance of its public release–we learned that only half of the film’s reels have arrived, resulting in the cancellation of the screening.
“What do we do now?” Smith asks, brightly.
An hour later–after borrowing the uptown apartment of a friend’s friend, having stopped at a nearby video store to pick up a copy of the movie, in its original form–we are finally back in business. As long as the VCR works.
“I have to admit,” Julie Smith appreciatively nods, as the credits roll over Henry Mancini’s ominous jazz-tinged score, “that it was pretty darn noir.”
“It’s still kind of a jolt,” I mention, in reference to the film’s more “out there” elements: the abrupt, upside-down presentation of a strangled corpse; a nightmarish “reefer madness” scene with crazed dope fiends and leather-clad, greasy-haired “dyke” caricatures lurching about threateningly while torturous rock music blares away; the loony, hymn-singing motel clerk (Dennis Weaver, of all people!).
“I was never bored, that’s for sure,” Smith grins. “But what a dark movie. And what a great character!”
“Quinlan?” I assume.
“Quinlan,” she nods. “He’s really the one you end up interested in. Not an unrealistic portrayal of a cop, either.”
“Average cops aren’t out there fabricating evidence right and left,” I reply. “Or are they?”
“Oh, I think some cops do that, sure. Real cops will fabricate evidence,” she affirms. “And yeah–they do it because they believe it’s the right thing to do. They believe the end justifies the means. So Quinlan is probably a pretty realistic character.”
For several minutes, our conversation skitters about. We touch on several other crime movies, ending with the mention of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. That film–which Smith has seen several times–is “a study on the banality of evil.”
“I mean banality as in run-of-the-mill ordinariness,” she explains. “And yeah, to me evil is extremely banal,” she says. “Evil is two guys talking about cheeseburgers on their way to blow someone away.
“I have this theory,” she continues. “The detective story, on the whole, is about ‘mean streets,’ right? Anything can happen on the street. That’s where the evil is enacted. But where evil begins is in the ‘mean rooms.’ I’m talking about the places where child abuse takes place, certainly. But also I mean just plain everyday nastiness. The kind of tiny workplace evil that builds up until a mailman suddenly goes postal.
“We expect Evil to look really ugly,” she softly summarizes. “But more often it looks just like …” She pauses.
“Me and you?” I suggest.
“Well, I suppose we are capable of evil,” she laughs, shrugging. “Those seeds are in all of us. But my point here is that evil can look very ordinary. Imagine a drug trafficker sitting down for Sunday dinner, or sending his kids off to school while talking on the phone about the latest shipment. Quinlan is a good example of what I’m talking about. He looks like a law enforcement officer going about his routine business.
“But behind the closed doors, he’s committing monstrous acts of evil. He’s Evil, disguised as Good,” she says. “And evil–when it needs to–can be very, very, very good. More often than not, you never even know it’s there.”
Web extra to the September 17-23, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.