Saturday, May 17, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Touch of Evil (1958) at the TCM Classic Film Festival

After watching STAGECOACH (1939), my Friday at the TCM Classic Film Festival continued with TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) at the Chinese Theatre.

Charlton Heston's son Fraser introduced the film, as I have previously described. Just prior to the screening his father was honored with the unveiling of a new postage stamp. The ceremony, covered by Raquel at Out of the Past, sounds absolutely wonderful. I really wish I'd been able to attend!

Although I had seen the famous opening tracking shot of TOUCH OF EVIL multiple times, this was my first time to actually watch the film. It was screened in a beautiful digital print. I've had some issues with a couple of the digital prints screened at the Chinese Theatre, but this wasn't one of them. It was gorgeous.

The film stars two favorite actors, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, playing a Mexican police detective, Mike Vargas, and his American bride, Susie. A car bomb sets off an investigation, with Vargas having to deal with his sleazy American counterpart, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles).

There are attempts to scare Vargas off the case by threatening his wife, and as the story unfolds it becomes ever stranger and more sordid.

The phrase that popped into my head watching this strange film was "carnival of weirdos." There's one peculiar character after another, from the motel manager (Dennis Weaver) to a biker chick (Mercedes McCambridge) to Tana (Marlene Dietrich). Even the character of Susie seems off-kilter, displaying a surprising lack of caution and then finding herself in increasingly improbable and scary situations.

I love my dark film noir classics, but this one just rated a "meh" reaction from me. There were individual things I loved, from Heston to that opening shot to Mancini's score to Joseph Cotten's cameo as a coroner, but the film struck me as meandering and pointlessly odd, though stylish in its messy way.

This was also a case where the film's publicity stills were hotter than the actual film! Heston and Leigh are apart for much of the movie, and we never get much of a chance to see what their relationship is all about. The movie is much more intently focused on revealing what a creep Welles' Quinlan is. (And I'm almost reluctant to voice this out loud, but I couldn't help wondering if Welles in this film inspired George Lucas's creation of Jabba the Hutt. Really.)

It's not very fashionable to say so, but while I have a certain appreciation for Welles' innovations, I've never been a particular fan. His films tend to strike me as self-consciously artsy-craftsy, particularly CITIZEN KANE (1941) and TOUCH OF EVIL. It's almost more that the story is serving the whims of the filmmaker rather than the filmmaker working in service of the story. Of those Welles films I've seen, I've most liked THE STRANGER (1946), where the focus is more on the three lead performances in a strong, well-plotted story.

I did pick up the TCM Vault Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947) at the festival, starring fave Rita Hayworth (aka Mrs. Orson Welles), so I'm curious to check that one out. I've also been meaning to revisit THE THIRD MAN (1949), which failed to impress me in my college days, but perhaps I'll be swayed next time around. I've always wondered if Welles will gradually grow on me or he's just not my thing. The jury's still out.

The version screened of TOUCH OF EVIL was a 110-minute "director's cut" edited by Rick Schmidlin. That edit is not without controversy, as discussed in the comments to my post on the TCM Festival schedule. At some point I plan to check out a different edit of the film via DVD.

TOUCH OF EVIL is available in a Limited Edition Blu-ray and has also been released in a two-disc 50th Anniversary DVD set. It was released on VHS in the Universal Noir Series in 1992. Additionally, it can be purchased for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

TOUCH OF EVIL was filmed by Russell Metty. The supporting cast includes Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Ray Collins, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Valentin de Vargas.

More reviews of individual TCM Festival screenings are coming soon! For the rest of my coverage of the TCM Classic Film Festival, please visit The 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival in Review.

3 Comments:

OpenID vienna said...

You nailed it,Laura - meandering and pointlessly odd.

11:08 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Vienna, it's nice to know I'm not the only one who reacted this way, LOL.

Brad, I'm glad you posted your thoughts because it's very interesting to see how different films hit people. When I saw the film at the TCM Fest there were many enthusiasts in the packed house!

I will definitely post word of the Criterion sale! I just checked and last year's sale began on July 9th so if it follows that pattern we have a few weeks to go. I'll be looking for THE FRESHMAN, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, and RIVER RIVER when it starts!

Best wishes,
Laura

12:23 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Vienna, it's nice to know I'm not the only one who reacted this way, LOL.

Brad, I'm glad you posted your thoughts because it's very interesting to see how different films hit people. When I saw the film at the TCM Fest there were many enthusiasts in the packed house!

I will definitely post word of the Criterion sale! I just checked and last year's sale began on July 9th so if it follows that pattern we have a few weeks to go. I'll be looking for THE FRESHMAN, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, and RED RIVER when it starts!

Best wishes,
Laura

7:53 AM  

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