Film Noir is Not My Usual Thing, However Touch of Evil is Not Usual
Noir is not to everyone’s liking. The exception for guest writer Amanda Glenn is Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. The last, arguably good Noir film. Welles’ films reflect a variety of genres, as if he had to try them all. With Touch of Evil he got it right and to near perfection.
As they say, exception proves the rule. I do not usually care for Noir films. The exception for me is Touch of Evil (link), written and directed by Orson Welles. Welles created what is considered the last true representation of the dark and shadowy genre. It is the bookend companion to Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity which stands as the first official Noir. Of course, the titanic director managed to write in a fine fit of a roll for himself along the way, providing an iconic performance that would be remembered for generations. I have a personal suspicion that after Touch of Evil, premiered everyone believed that Noir had run its course, reaching a pinnacle that could not be surpassed. The accepted understanding was that it had all been done and nobody wanted to try and do it better.
When you look at Orson Welles’ life’s work you find a wide variety of efforts, as if he yearned to try every possible dramatic form, like variations on a theme. And when he got one done to his complete satisfaction he went on to explore new ones. A sort of been there done that attitude. And with Touch of Evil he got it so right that it remains an iconic representation of a genre that’s often difficult to define. So, much so that if anyone asks, “what the heck is noir, anyway”, I tell him or her to watch Touch of Evil as a primer. It helps save time and paves the way for all the other great examples, such as Out of the Past, and Welles’ earlier effort, The Third Man.
There was always a kind magic in Welles’ creative efforts. It is reasonably safe to say that not a Halloween will pass in the next hundred or so years (if ever) without several references and probable rebroadcasts of that creation of his which, despite disclaimers, had the American radio listeners sure the Martians were on the ground and headed their way. And so when he decided to explore noir, as usual he did the unusual. In 1958 his beleaguered hero was Hispanic, so he cast Charlton Heston. If you think that’s weird, can you imagine how audiences of the day felt? The man who parted the Red Sea was to play a Mexican cop. And Welles made it work! Heston made it work! A hero is after all a hero. A more multiple sided hero perhaps than Heston had ever played with his blue eyes and blond hair, but with black hair and dark contacts the shoulders are still wide, and the back is just as straight. After the first seconds of surprise wear off the viewer will find themselves buying in to Heston as the Hispanic policeman doing his duty, trying to stay alive, and struggling to keep the woman he cares for safe in an evil setting at an even more difficult time in the border towns than what now exists.
Marlene Dietrich of course was a natural for the Noir film. That beautifully chiseled face, those flashing eyes, and her provocative delivery were a natural for a dark and chilling mystery. But Janet Leigh seems at first a stretch for the stylized genre. Known for her portrayals of “Sister Eileen” types, or the pretty girl in romantic dramas and comedies, Leigh had not yet played a certain bloody red shower scene, nor had she helped Frank Sinatra thwart the Manchurians. However, Welles somehow knew she was capable of being as good as she could be in this serious drama. Perhaps it was even her portrayal in this film that opened the doors to those future roles, allowing other directors to see her as Welles did.
Then there is Orson Welles. He wrote the script, so his part fit like glove, and he played it to a perfection that leaves you feeling the slime of his character, the evil emanating from him and across the screen. Although, the first time I watched this movie I saw it on TV I still found myself clenching my fists and holding my breath. I didn’t want to look at that evil on the little screen and yet I couldn’t look away. Now I am looking forward to seeing it on the big screen at the TCM Classic Film Festival this April. I am a little afraid with the anticipation of all that darkness washing down on those of us sitting vulnerable in the theater. At the same time there is a gleeful part of me that can hardly wait! What other genre is so well suited for watching in a darkened room with a group of strangers? Fortunately, TCM knows this and gives us what we want. If you want to join me for the screening you can find me at the front of the line.