Quinlan’s Rise And Fall – Orson Welles’s Touch Of Evil
To liberally borrow from the title of a Louis Malle film, Orson Welles’s Touch Of Evil is a film which is balanced between two ‘lifts to the scaffold’. The films famous opening sequence sees the camera, Welles’ eye, lifted up and elevated over the world below, instantly turning a film dealing with a relatively grim scenario in to one ground in pure fantasy. The second elevation comes in the films final scene, as our scurrying protagonist, who by that point might not even still actually be our protagonist, finds himself in the lowliest possible situation, burrowing in the undergrowth in an attempt to take down the Frankenstein’s Monster at the head of the picture.
Touch Of Evil is perhaps the ultimate 1950’s American dissection of the cinema. Welles’s Mexico is shot like a film set. It has the familiar backstage hustle and bustle one might associate with one of the great film studios, while one of the films protagonists accuses one of the figures that make up the aforementioned “hustle and bustle” of having “seen too many gangster movies”. Uncle Joe, the closest thing to a traditional crime lord in Touch Of Evil even wears a wig, having seemingly raided the nearest make up truck on the studio lot that is Welles’ Mexico border town. And of course Janet Leigh is best known for being one of the great monster sirens (itself the inversion of the femme fetale), with Quinlan a predatory, anti-Norman Bates (although of course Bates came later), a beast on a walking stick and coated in prosthetics, always shot from low angles and close-ups, his grotesque appearance the overriding factor whenever he’s on screen. And yet Quinlan is a monster at once humanized by a tragic backstory (has there ever been as humanizing a backstory as the story of Quinlan’s wife?), the influence of Shakespeare on Welles seeping through.
The opening sequence of Touch Of Evil is usually the section of the film most keenly focused upon by retrospective essays such as this, and for good reason. Fifty four years on, and in the age of the digitally aided, theoretically temporally infinitely long long-shot the sequence remains one of the great examples of the technique, with Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty channeling Murnau and Karl Freund’s unchained camera and creating something truly breathtaking. The fluidity of the opening crane shot is broken by the chaos of the aftermath of the explosion, which coincides with the entrance of Welles’s Quinlan, who himself serves as a physical manifestation of the chaos on display.
And yet the fantastic camerawork is not but limited to this opening long-take. Take the post-acid attack weaving chase between Vargas and one of the hoods employed to make his life hell. Or the atmospheric use of depth of field in the hall of records sequence, which, appropriately enough serves as a significant punctuation point in the trail of the film itself (similarly to how the opening sequence serves as a tone setter). Expressionism-recalling extreme close ups fill the frame, the human face becoming the most imposing feature in all of the cinema. As things to come the fore in this sequence, as Quinlan’s partner Menzies comes to his senses in understanding his partners true past, a realisation disguised as admission as everything comes crashing together. Meanwhile, and somewhere off in the distance (and unseen) Quinlan is away on havoc duty. The scene that immediately follows that shows off the level of depth beautifully too, as well as the films most chaotic, and downright bizarre moments. Dennis Weaver’s motel night manager stands out almost as much as Heston’s “Mexican”, but as he paces around under scrutiny from Vargas pressed on the whereabouts of the latter man’s wife, the visage of the Weaver clambering over the weathered desert trees makes for affecting, and striking viewing.
Menzies, Quinlan’s right hand man might actually be the most interesting character In the film. His redemption arc, which correlates nicely with the films third act, makes for a satisfying conclusion to what is ultimately a rather confused film (in its truncated, studio-handled theatrical cut at least). As both Quinlan and Menzies’ fates are decided Welles shoots from afar. The camera rises to a Vargas-in-the-rafters point-of-view, as the protagonist hides in the upper siding of an oil pump machination. Dutch angles and expressionist framing again lead the way, Welles portraying an unorthodox chase scene, in which modernity collides with the old, with as unorthodox a technique. Quinlan’s “hunch” ultimately reigns supreme, even if it does so too late, his downfall inevitable by the time instinct kicks in, while the contextually modern technology remains hampered by the necessity of the user to physically maintain a link with the situation that the technology would theoretically afford a dissection from.
That Quinlan’s instinct ultimately dominates in spite of the drama that has occurred as a result of the professional formulas not followed leaves us in a situation whereby the “real” hero of Welles’ Touch Of Evil is as ambiguous as anything else in the filmmakers oeuvre. As the penultimate scene of the film reaches its end, a defeated Quinlan seated on a throne of trash, one can’t help but feel that the at-once immoral code of judgment adhered to by the man, in which those he deems guilty are punished as such, in spite of whether or not evidence to prove his theories can be found, are actually relatively sound. It’s the methods that draw the madness, the theory itself is fine.