What does it matter what you say about people?”
For all it’s dense structure and dialogue heavy script the plot is deceptively simple: Mexican drug enforcement official and moral advocate Miguel Vargas (played by Charlton Heston) runs afoul of corrupt, bigoted and thoroughly repugnant cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Heston threatens to expose Quinlan so the cop plots to discredit him by framing Vargas’ wife on charges of drug use and indecency.
Welles film isn’t so much Noir as pitch black. Quinlan is easily the most repugnant character the actor portrayed – Welles wore body padding and make-up to show that the corruption that infests Quinlan’s soul has also bloated his body. Using newly developed hand-held cameras and shooting mainly at night Welles gives the film a claustrophobic and slightly repellant feel. The scene were Vargas’ wife, played by Janet Leigh, is brutalised by a gang high on drugs is uncomfortable to watch.
However it wasn’t Welles’ direction or the subject matter that propelled the film into movie notoriety. Once the film was completed Welles left the country leaving the film’s final editing to the studio. Universal, disliking the film and believing it to be too difficult to follow, reshot some scenes and re-edited the film in an attempt to make the plot clearer. Their efforts, however, had the opposite effect. After being shown the new version Welles wrote a 58 page memo to the studio requesting (almost begging) them to re-instate the film to his vision. Universal refused, the film was released and flopped (although it did become a favourite for aspiring filmmakers as diverse as François Truffaut and George Lucas). The film then languished for 40 years until 1998 when Universal finally gave permission for the movie to be re-cut in accordance with Welles’ memo and it finally received the wider public recognition it deserved – too late for Welles though, he died in 1985.
It’s fitting that final mention should go to Marlene Dietrich who, even though she only appears in 3 short scenes, gets the last (and best) line in the film. Asked to comment on Quinlan’s fate she looks on wearily: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”. And with that she walks away into the night, turning only once to wish the audience “Adios”. Great stuff.
Touch of Evil at IMDB
Touch of Evil Blu-ray on Amazon