September 11, 1998 [Touch of Evil]

I’m not sure I want to compare the “restored” Touch of Evil with whatever earlier version I’ve seen, to analyze the big Welles memo that inspired/guided Walter Murch as he re-edited and deleted and added and subtracted--so that, like Whitman’s “learn’d astronomer,” I can measure it out (probably do it in coffee spoons if I tried, Prufrock alone at a matinee).  I just wanted to make sure it still felt like a touch of evil.  What, as Marlene Dietrich reminds me, does it matter what you say?

Somewhere or other I read Thomas Merton describing W.C. Fields rehearsing--at least I think it was Merton, who in his usual fashion saw Fields at work as a sign of the ascendant search for perfection--in this case the perfect pratfall, over and over again until Fields was satisfied.  It was an act of pride--but not Satanic, not the what-about-me? pride that gets you the good lines and the worst end in Paradise Lost.  No, this is the kind we deserve, the pride of a job not just done well but fully.  Touch of Evil is such a pratfall, a continuous, perfect take--or at least as good as it gets, every shadow, every dingy room, every scrap of paper blown across the frame just where it needs to be--and all in madness, like Dennis Weaver’s motel man jittering like a monkey on a hotplate, as though Dali had calmed down long enough to think of a plot, more or less.  Welles stuffs his paunch as years later Brando would his Godfatherly cheeks and rumbles through the picture like an approaching zeppelin on its last legs, his motor sputtering and his expanse filling the screen--his lines, though, are not clean and curving but rumpled and soaked with dark, staining excretions from sewers and wounds.  It’s a sickening thing to see--but again, so perfect, even in the surrealism of Charlton Heston and his little mustache fooling nobody and Janet Leigh’s architectural underwear supporting flying buttresses that should tumble and spill but still stand straight up--even as Mercedes McCambridge comes sliding in, insinuating everything with silver eyes and a face like a cat with a nasty secret.  It’s all too much--but Welles holds it together, gives it everything it needs. 

In the Mystery Science Theater edition of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (I think; could be Bride of the Monster), one of the robots comments during one of Wood’s infamous long stretches of nothing, “You know, at some point it just stops being a movie.”  I thought the same thing during Touch of Evil, albeit for completely different reasons.  All I know is that I’ve never wanted to look so long and hard at such a sweat-shining, slobbering face, never felt such a desire to listen to Quinlin’s lies all night with the same damn tune playing over and over on the pianola while some kind of thick poisonous goo posing as chili bubbles thickly in the background.


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