American Film of the 50s- Touch of Evil, by Aaron Pinkston
In his introduction of Touch of Evil at the Gene Siskel Film Center, School of the Art Institute professor Fred Camper called the 1950s the last period of pure celluloid filmmaking. The rise of home television certainly started during this decade, and filmmakers and film studios began to take notice. The 1950s saw one of cinema’s most innovative techniques, CinemaScope, a technology I’m sure to write about during this exploration, and a direct response to small-set viewing. Moreover, the 1970s began to see home and digital video, a total game changer for the American film industry. With this shift, filmmakers not only had to think about how their film would work on the big screen, but also how it could be consumed in the home. Today we may have giant televisions with incredible quality of picture and sound, but it wasn’t always that way, and so cinema after the 1950s had these influences pulling at it.
Orson Welles’s 1958 noir Touch of Evil is undoubtedly a “cinematic” film, even without the use of vibrant colors and CinemaScope vistas we would often see in this period. With its big ideas, monumental shots and larger-than-life characters, Touch of Evil is a masterpiece from one of classic Hollywood’s greatest film artists. This was the first time I had seen Touch of Evil on the big screen, and in this particular viewing of the film what I was struck by the most was the film’s cinematography. Obviously, the film is heralded for an opening shot that is the shot to end all shots and, being a Welles film, cinematography and shot composition is a major star — the film was shot by Russell Metty, who isn’t a name I immediately recognize, but looking at his credits, this won’t be the only film in this series in which he helmed the camera. One aspect of the cinematography that absolutely fits in with this idea of filmmakers making films for the big screen as opposed to home video is the placement of the camera at low angles. A significant number of the film’s shots come from below, and from a particular vantage of sitting in a theater, where one already has to look up at the screen, this effect is intensified.
I wouldn’t necessarily call it the most appropriate “50s film” to kick off a series on the decade, but there are interesting themes that are sure to come up again through the next 15 weeks. The first that comes to mind is the film’s attitudes towards race and power. The 50s may not be labelled as tumultuous as the following decade’s civil rights movement, but there is a cookie-cutter mentality to the 50s that is often shattered by crime film noirs of the time. For the briefest of plot summary, the film involves two policemen, the American Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and the Mexican Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston — yes, the same Heston you know as a prime example of the gun-totin’ red-blooded American) are at dueling odds over a murder and the criminal control of the Grandi family on a small border town. Due to this manufactured dichotomy in character and geography, sharp contrasts are made between America and Mexico. That isn’t to say that America is always good and Mexico is always bad, especially considering the dueling cops, but there is a lot of coded language throughout the film putting the two sides at odds. The American side of the border is often referred to as “safer” and “more comfortable” for the American citizen. The particular casting of Heston as Vargas is obviously interesting. Vargas is the “most” Mexican character of the film, as we’re told he comes from Mexico City, but he is incredibly white-washed. Though Heston’s skin is darkened and he’s given a mustache apparently for ethnicity sake, he doesn’t speak with an accent and other characters refer to him as not being “very Mexican.” I imagine this is done to differentiate him from the Grandi clan, the criminal family of the film who are very ethnically signified — one member of the family is called “Poncho” in a pretty blatantly racist dig and another non-Mexican actor (Akim Tamiroff) is done-over to resemble and speak like he is Mexican.
Perhaps a bit stronger tie-in to the decade and race is the widespread American paranoia of the time. Many noir films deal with paranoia in relation to the most major political event of the 1950s, the “invasion” of Communism. Touch of Evil is no different, though Communists are substituted with Mexican criminals. Characters in “safe” American environments are infiltrated by Mexicans bringing in their influences of drugs and crime. The American investigation of the murdered couple in the opening scene is even interrupted by the Mexican detective, throwing a wrench into the American hero Quinlan’s way of working. Toward the end of the film, Quinlan even ventures to say that idealists are the biggest threat to his way of life — though idealists would certainly have more presence during the 1960s in regards to Vietnam and the hippie movement, they would certainly have been an enemy to the nostalgic visions we have of the decade — the status quo people like Quinlan are desperately trying to hold onto.
A major vision that I have of the 1950s is the rise of suburban culture, with people (white people, that is) leaving the cities to experience the American dream of the white picket fence and their own back yard. Obviously, the border town setting of Touch of Evil has nothing to do with this vision of the decade, but a major theme of the film is connectedness and community. From the first shot onward, the film is very interested in how people relate to each spatially and idealistically. The film also explores other and how communities impede on each other. In that landmark opening tracking shot, we are given major characters and driving (no pun intended) plot events in one contained shot — editing is often to best tool in showing the relationships between people, places, objects and ideas, but this shot shows us almost everything we need to know about this environment and how characters relate to it. This is in sharp contrast to the decade’s trend of more and more people residing in the suburbs than in the cities, but also emphasizes the weird need of gaining an individualistic identity while creating and maintaining a community.
I’m not sure exactly how Hank Quinlan relates to the ideas of the 1950s, but he sure is damn interesting to think about. The Battleship Pretension top 100 characters has two Orson Welles roles (in the top 5, no less), but for me, Quinlan deserves to be the third. He is both the film’s villain and hero, a completely despicable human being that isn’t forgiven by film’s end, but more deeply understood. He’s not really sympathetic, even in his eventual death, but the character gives the sense that he believes his every action is for the greater good. Is he a pitiful racist? Unquestionably. But he’s also the type of character that makes the film noir style thrive — the blurring of the criminal and the hero is rarely mastered as well as in this performance. Called “a great detective” and “a lousy cop” in the same breath, he always got the job done, but with the thinnest of moral codes. Above all, though, he is an astonishing presence, with an already overweight Welles padding himself to create a grotesque mountain of a man, filling the screen on a number of occasions. As a director, Welles often consumed the entire frame through deep focus, and in this case his character does too, devouring every moment he is on screen.
Touch of Evil is a complex masterpiece — a film that blurs all moral lines during a time nostalgically looked on as a moral standard. Using one of Hollywood’s greatest genres of the period, it attacks American ideas of race, xenophobia and community. There may prove better direct examples of films representing the decade throughout this series, but you can’t go wrong with seeing Touch of Evil on the big screen.