Friday, February 6, 2009

Touch of Evil: If only Janet had access to Hotwire

It's hard to watch Janet Leigh given her most famous role in Pyscho, in Touch of Evil, as she blunders her way through one dangerous situation after another to arrive at a lot of bad motels. True to form for her career, no good comes to her in a motel. In the early scenes in Mexico, where she is supposed to be on her honeymoon with Charleton Heston she witnesses a horrifying car bomb and is almost kidnapped from the lobby of her hotel. Next she is the victim of a creepy peeping tom before being driven out to the middle of nowhere to a very Batesian looking motel where she is nearly gang-raped and forced to over-dose. She is then taken unconcious to another hotel that is also possibly a brothel where he is left alone with a murder victim. I can't help but think that if she had access to Hotwire or some other modern day guide to accomodation she could have avoided a lot of problems. I can just see a review for the hotel in the desert: 1/2 star, inconvenient to public transportation, staff is made up of criminal underworld, no clean towels, noisy (there was some kind of sock hop/drug party/orgy in room next door), security is poor as adjoining door to room was easily forced and the telephones never work. On the plus side, the ice machine seemed well stocked, though I didn't have occasion to use it as I was busy over-dosing on heroin.

The biggest source of suspense in the movie is Heston's lack of attention to his new bride who seems so obviously vulnerable wherever she goes. He is off to investigate the car bomb, and gets entangled with an American sheriff (Orson Welles) who is determined to pin the crime on a local gigolo. When Heston decides to oppose the Sheriff, Welles feels no guilt about going after his wife. As film noir, I think that Touch of Evil is in the Pantheon because of its dark, surreal mood and Welles performance but as with many films in this genre, I wish it were more grounded in common sense. Heston's character is so wrapped up in his work that even when it becomes clear that he's in over his head and that he may loose his new bride, he keeps poking the angry wasps nest that is this crooked litle fifedom. Perhaps it is a chink in my film buff armor to admit that most film noir leaves me pretty cold and usually confused. There are some exceptions of course such as Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, The Killers and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Touch of Evil certainly is visually arresting and it is easier to follow than many entries in the genre, but in the end I just didn't love it.

Welles performance is certainly stylish and Marlene Dietrich has a nice cameo as an aging prostitute who has a nostalgic friendship with the Sheriff. One of the more interesting aspects of the plot is the way in which the film blurs the line between Mexico and California. You never really know which part of the action takes place in which country and that is part of the wonderful irony. Our American sense of superiority would teach us that the crooked cop is bound to be Mexican and the honest cop American, but that is just the opposite case here. Yet, as a villian, Welles' character is weirdly charming . At any rate he's a nice contrast to the tiresomely upright Heston (Can you tell I'm not a fan?) and I could imagine that it wouldn't have taken more than one or two changes to the script to switch the roles of hero and villian. Had this movie been made in the 70s, I think that's the way it would have gone down.

Perhaps I should set a goal for myself to watch more film noir in hopes of eventually "getting" what everyone always seems to love in this genre. I'd certainly be willing to take suggestions in the comments area for titles with which to start.


SteveQ said...

As a rabid fan of Film Noir, how short should I make the list? By the way, don't you love that the first shot of Touch of Evil is 8 minutes long?

kda0121 said...

I love Orson's performance in this. The irony of his being such a crooked cop, yet he had the right man.

As far as film noir recommendations, the genre really kicked in gear in the mid to late 40's. You might try Laura, Out of the Past, The Dark Mirror.

Jennythenipper said...

Thanks KDA.

Hooray for 8 minute shots. Isn't the shot at the start of the Player when they discuss the shot at the start of Touch of Evil, 8 minutes? Love it.

SteveQ said...

Indeed, the Player knew its in-jokes! My fave noir is the extremely low budget "Blast of Silence" but "Detour" is a great B-noir. Anything with Alan Ladd or Veronica Lake is a good place to start. Or Robert Mitchum ("Out of the Past" and "Night of the Hunter" especially).

kda0121 said...

I also like Ladd and Lake in The Blue Dahlia, the original version of The Narrow Margin, Murder My Sweet.

Nancy "Beaky" Bruce said...

ooooh... Both Out of the Past and Night of the Hunter are worth your time. Robert Mitchum is phenomenally creepy for my taste. It took me ages to get through Cape Fear. The Peck/Mitchum one.

Mitchum's creepiness makes Rachel and the Stranger close to noir for me, even though that isn't it's genre.

Which reminds me of a title w/ Orson Welles and Loretta Young (since she was in R&tS). and the oldest son from Big Valley -- oh, Richard Long. The Stranger. Different stranger. :-)

kda0121 said...

Double Indemnity, with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck..Cornerned with Dick Powell. And before director Anthony Mann made his famous westerns with Jimmy Stewart, he helmed several "B" film noirs: Two O'Clock Courage, Railroaded, T-Men, Raw Deal. I think we've all given you enough to chew on for awhile.

Joel said...

Ok.. not to an anal joy-kill hack, but since Touch of Evil is likely one of my favorite films of all time.. As well as the entire genre of Film Noir -- it's tenets, motifs, and antecedents to modern cinema : I must correct of few mis-statements of fact amidst this blogs appreciation for Touch of Evil, Film Noirs and Neo-Noirs (aka : The Player)

#1 - The opening scene in Touch of Evil is 3 minutes and 20 seconds, before the first cut. Not 8 mins. In 1957, this was quite a logistical and expensive accomplishment in cinema. As well, among cineastes especially, it is one of the best known trivia's of Touch of Evil. Also, to sort of underscore this point, there is also no difference in screen time from the original theatrical release, the 108 min. version discovered in the mid '70's known as the preview release, or the 1998 restored release, which is the one that is as close as could be (but is not..!.) a director's cut, since Orson Welles left a 58 page memo requesting editorial changes to the original theatrical release; ergo, the restored version.

#2 - The Player, long live the vision of Robert Altman, does have a difficult, challenging, coordinated and perfected 8 minute, 18 second opening shot. (!!) I think this might be where some of this confusion arose. Just spitballing..

Film Noir, my ever-evolving list :

#1 - Double Indemnity (1944)
#2 - The Big Sleep (1946)
#3 - Rififi (1955)
#4 - Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
#5 - Touch of Evil (1958)
#6 - The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
#7 - Out of the Past (1947)
#8 - The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
#9 - Sunset Blvd. (1950)
#10 - The Big Combo (1955)
#11 - Blade Runner (1982)

...and for god's sake, not that anyone here has raised this rookie cineaste misnomer, but, Casablanca is NOT, I repeat NOT, a Film Noir.

A Film Noir is NOT defined by it being in B&W and released in the 1940's - or '50's.

It's more a set of parameters about the characters, surrounding their actions and desires.. and what those characters do to accomplish their wishes, goals or aspirations therein.

Film Noir is often in B&W, often highly stylized through rather dramatic lighting and unusual camera angels, often told in flashback or told as a few stories with parallel editing layered into a single film. These dynamics are merely techniques though, they do not define a film as Film Noir genre or vice/versa -- despite how common many Film Noir's are that employ these techniques of cinema.

Mainly, Film Noir is about how a character can devolve into being ruled by their own inner, darker side and especially how blind their desires actually turn out to be, even to themselves. Hence, French film critics noticing many of these American films sharing this convention and so naming the genre, Film Noir. (Film "Black", "Black" Films, "Dark" Films)

Loving Film Noir, ;-)

Joel B. Martin

Jennythenipper said...

Hey Joel, you certainly aren't a kill-joy. The length of the shot in the Player is not only an homage to Touch of Evil, but also a reference to Sheltering Sky which also had a very long tracking shot and is also discussed by Griffin Mill and his cronies as a recent example of a film that used a long shot.

I've seen all but three of the films on your list (The Sweet Smell of Success,Out of the Past and The Big Combo). Maybe I'm not such a noir hater because I like all of those that you mentioned. I'm not in love with the Big Sleep (too confusing, too disjointed and long, in my book) but dang, Double Indemnity rocks my world. I just rewatched Sunset Boulevard today, specifically to address the question as to whether it's film noir. I can see why it makes the list, I've just never mentally categorized it that way. It's a movie about movies, a movie about writers, it does have a dark sense of humor and a dark view of the world, I suppose and of course it begins with a dead body. Oh and the voice over. Sigh. I'm going to kick this around a bit more and post on it in the next couple of days.

Thanks for your comments Joel!