We usually start the night with a short film. Tonight it was, I don’t know, sort of a cross between a short film and a music video. It was really more of a music video – for a song that really isn’t exactly radio fodder. It was called The Fine Art of Poisoning and was directed by Bill Domonokos.
It’s basically composed of Victorian/Gothic scenic imagery of the kind the Smashing Pumpkins used around the “Adore” era. I think. And there’s a song about poisoning people that belongs in a Tim Burton movie.
The feature film promised to be a good bit better. It is one of the classics – Touch Of Evil by Orson Welles. Touch Of Evil is widely thought of as one of the last examples of film noir, and although it’s now thought of as one of the classics, it was poorly enough regarded by the studio that even the renowned Orson Welles, 16-17 years removed from The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane (so he was like…established), couldn’t prevent the film from being hacked up by Universal.
It turns out that after he saw a pre-screening of the studio version of his film, he wrote off an impassioned 58-page letter to the suits detailing how they could return the film to his vision. They ignored him, of course, but when the letter was rediscovered in the 90s somebody actually decided to do something about it, and as Welles’ original material was still around the studio finally recut and restored it in 1998. The 112-minute version (as opposed to the 95-minute original) is what we watched.
Touch Of Evil starts out with one of the greatest long shots in movie history – it starts with a shadowy figure planting a time bomb in the trunk of a car, pulls back to show the driver and passenger enter, and follows the car (initially from the opposite side of a building in a magnificent crane shot) as it pulls away, catches up with our protagonists on the street, and switches from following them, to the car, to them (as both are crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S.) until finally the bomb explodes offscreen while our protagonists are in the midst of a kiss. It’s so totally incredibly awesome you simply have to watch it. Here it is on YouTube. I’ll just wait here while you’re watching.
Yeah, that’s awesome. I’ll forgive them for having to make a cut before showing the exploding car (exploding in the middle of nowhere, I might add). I imagine the logistics behind getting the actors out of the car and having the car explode in the street probably was out of the realm of possibility. (Would have made it even awesomer, though.)
So anyway, our protagonist #1 is Charlton Heston playing the least-mexican Mexican drug enforcement official you’ve ever seen. It’s not quite Mickey-Rooney-in-Breakfast-At-Tiffany’s racially offensive, but it’s really marginal casting. Not that Heston did a poor job, but you’d think that they could get, say, an actual living hispanic actor. Protagonist #2 is Janet Leigh, the American beauty who has recently married Heston. While Heston is trying to investigate the explosion, he sends off Leigh to hit the town and the local police captain (Orson Welles) shows up. Thus, we set up the three complicated threads of the movie.
1. There is an investigation into a car bombing.
2. There is a naughty Sheriff in town whose naughtiness is only tangentially (and post hoc) related to the bombing.
3. There is an Italian crime family trying to intimidate Heston into not testifying against their own (in Mexico City).
I call them Italian because their patronym is Grandi (rhymes with “Randy”). Um, “Grande”, maybe? I don’t know. We learn about them as they threaten Leigh during the night while Heston is off investigating and stuff.
Marlene Dietrich has a small role as the owner of a bar or restaurant or hotel or something. Not quite sure what she runs, as there aren’t any clients outside of Welles, who is more interested in their past than actually giving her money for anything.
Around daybreak, Heston ships (the mildly frightened) Leigh off to an out-of-the-way motel to get some rest while he joins the Americans in chasing down leads in the bombing case. They zero in on the home of a man sleeping with the daughter of the murdered man. Seems daddy didn’t approve, and this may have been a motive. While the Americans are quizzing the suspect, Heston goes off to the head, accidentally knocking over an empty shoebox and picking it up. Aha! one immediately says, A plot point!
Sure enough, only a few minutes later the police find two sticks of dynamite in that very same shoebox, and Heston realizes that the police, specifically Welles, are dirty. Thus he begins his crusade to chase down some old police records to see if there are any other incidents of suspicious evidence.
Meanwhile, Janet Leigh is in the worst possible place for a Janet Leigh to be – in a lonely motel with a crazy night watchman (in this case, Dennis Weaver – Anthony Perkins was two years later). Owned by the Grandi family. And as Welles has learned the Grandis are putting pressure on Heston he gets himself in on the action, convincing them to drug Leigh and deliver her to another hotel.
Mission accomplished. Welles meets up with the big Grandi and a drugged Leigh, and he strangles Grandi in order to set up Leigh for the murder. This, he figures, will get Heston off his back. Strangulation, of course, is Welles’ favorite obsession.
You see, Welles has never gotten over the strangulation death of his own young wife, many years ago. Not only that, but he was unable to solve the crime. So now, he plants evidence and nails suspects without regard to whether they’re guilty or innocent. He’s not evil, he’s MISUNDERSTOOD.
Unfortunately, he leaves his cane at the scene, and a fellow officer (who was previously hostile to Heston’s insistence that Welles was framing folks) finds it and figures it out. So he comes over to Heston’s side, and agrees to wear a wire to get evidence against Welles. In the closing scene, Heston chases Welles and the other officer around in the night (the wire has a limited transmitter distance), and when Welles hears his own voice echoing from under a bridge he figures things out. You would think Heston would have had a volume control, but apparently not. After all the shooting, Welles and the other officer are dead, Heston heads off with his vindicated wife, just as you thought that the story about the bombing (Remember the bombing? There was a bombing.) has been totally forgotten, the police at the scene report that the framed suspect has confessed – he was guilty after all – and Marlene Dietrich says “Adios”.
It’s really a great movie – the pacing, the camera work, most of the dialogue…there have been complaints that the movie was confusing, but I think those were probably based off of the original cut, and the restored version may have helped alleviate that. The only complaint I really have is about Heston and his (non)accent. There was one scene, one whole scene where Heston tried to pull off a mexican accent. For the remainder of the film, nada. Yankee all the way. Again, great as Heston is, why not get a Hispanic actor? That’s all I ask.