An Auteur’s Touch of Evil

The image of the director as auteur looms large within the cultures of both watching and writing about film. Used one way, this image is a framing device that helps to make sense of a movie’s look and feel, and perhaps its narrative themes and devices. At its roots, however, the concept is also romantic, picturing the director as visionary, as the controlling creative force behind a film.

This romantic sense of the director reaches its heights in stories of battles between the author/artist and the corporate hacks that control the means of distribution and production. Orson Welles, the patron saint of American independents, owes at least part of his mythic position in film history to his numerous studio fights. Amongst the glossiest of these is the one for control over Touch of Evil.

The status of Welles as auteur in relationship to the movie is at the center of the recent “50th Anniversary Edition” DVD set, which includes the 1998 “restoration” of Touch of Evil, and two additional versions: the original theatrical release and a “preview” of disputed origin and provenance, which is presented here as has having been “discovered” by Universal in 1976 (a more extensive look into the movie reveals differing versions of the dates, discoverers, and assumptions about the meaning and place of this last cut within the canon).

François Truffaut’s original argument for an “auteur’s cinema” was a call for the critical recognition of works by directors who saw film as its own medium of artistic expression, rather than as a minor or lesser form of literature (see “A certain tendency of the French Cinema”, Cahiers du Cinéma, 1954). It is this ideal, of film as a director’s art, that has been elevated by those in the film industry.

The historical irony is that in 1954 Truffaut was writing against the grain, and was seeking to disrupt and change conventional notions of quality in French cinema. Today his argument has been so mainstreamed that Universal, the studio with which Welles initially sparred over Touch of Evil, can exploit the director’s reputation as the exemplary auteur to mine profits not only from the movie’s original theatrical release, but also from the 1998 restoration/re-edit/recuperation/etc. and the previously lost third version.

Touch of Evil is a film noir from the genre’s “classic” period in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The requisite decent man caught in circumstances beyond his control here is Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston), a high-ranking Mexico City narcotics cop currently involved in the prosecution of the patriarch of a bi-national crime family, the Grandis. Vargas is on his honeymoon with American wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), when a bomb goes off in a car at the US-Mexico border (this moment is at the conclusion of the film’s famous nearly four-minute long opening tracking shot that follows the bomb in the car for four blocks).

Because of how near to the explosion he and Susan, or “Susie”, were and the apparently transnational nature of the crime, Mike takes an interest in the investigation. This decision causes him and Susie to become enmeshed in a cross-border web of corruption spun by Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) and Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a police captain on the American side. Mike soon realizes that the big fish to be caught is Quinlan, not Uncle Joe, and he starts his own side investigation with limited help from the local assistant District Attorney, Al Schwartz (Mort Mills) and, eventually, Quinlan’s subordinate and surrogate Sergeant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia).

For her part, Susie is assigned the leading role in Uncle Joe’s plans to discredit her husband by setting her up as a drug user and participant in all manner of sexual looseness and perversity. Much of the film’s lurid and sensationalistic aura stems from these scenes, particularly the ones set at the Grandi-owned Mirador Motel, where Susie is meant to wait for Mike.

In the US, Touch of Evil’s status as a masterpiece, “the greatest B-picture in history”, and as an important part of Welles’ work as a director, has emerged over time, and is clearly related to the intense interest the filmmaker attracts from so many in the world of cinema. Welles’ trail of unfinished, “lost”, and mangled works makes finds like Touch of Evil and all of its incarnations, irresistible to film students, teachers, and geeks alike. Universal’s “50th Anniversary” DVD set is designed to take advantage of this interest, promising that the 1998 edit is “the definitive cut of the film … restored to Orson Welles’ vision based on his 58-page memo to the studio”. Without irony, of course, the implication is that the other versions of the film are lesser for lacking the auteur’s full touch.

While the publicity materials for the DVD rest on the image of the director as auteur, the informants and materials gathered together for the set present a more complicated picture of Touch of Evil’s making, in all of its forms, than is captured by the former ideal of singular genius. More specifically, the two-part documentary included in the set draws attention to small, but important details that complicate narratives about its authorship.

In “Bringing Evil to Life” two salient points are highlighted. First, Welles was hired to direct the film, and, indeed, he was attached as an actor first. Second, the screenplay was adapted from a Whit Masterson novel, Badge of Evil (1956). Truffaut used the word “scenarist” to refer to individuals commissioned to write for the French cinema, often adaptations of literary works, but who left it to others to “add the pictures to” the script. By virtue of simply directing his own writing, let alone doing so with style and purpose, Welles is hardly a “scenarist” in relation to Touch of Evil, but the fact that he was working from other people’s original work and for a studio makes the film something other than purely his own, a point driven home by his “loss” of control over the editing, and even shooting, of the movie.

While the 1998 version is offered as a “restoration” of Welles’ Touch of Evil in the second part of the documentary extra, “Evil Lost and Found”, key participants in the re-edit, including producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch, discuss the compromises that had to be made in attempting to follow the director’s memo to the studio, a reproduction of which is included with the new DVD. Notably, the original raw footage from the shoot is no longer available. Schmidlin and Murch had to work from what was available from the theatrical and preview versions of the movie, and that includes scenes shot under the direction of Harry Keller, and not Orson Welles. Other patches, such as drawing on a secondary recording of Henry Mancini’s music for the opening tracking shot, are also discussed in the extras (Schmidlin’s commentary on the 1998 re-edit is also a resource for this kind of information).

The fact that the restored version of Touch of Evil is not a straightforward “director’s cut” should come as little surprise given not only the vintage of the film, but also that the director is dead. What is surprising is the characterization of the memo by Schmidlin et al, not as Welles’ plea for his singular vision, but rather as an attempt to work with his producers at Universal on a final cut that would be satisfactory to all parties. This suggests that the 1998 cut is more a collaborative vision than it is Welles’ alone, even aside from the obvious fact that the original director did not make or supervise the editing.

The more complicated picture of film authorship that becomes clear in the actual discussion of Touch of Evil, as opposed to the marketing of the anniversary DVD, mirrors wider critical and theoretical debates about auteurism.

There are, broadly, two, often interrelated, alternatives to the director as auteur. One counter-approach is to emphasize the contributions of other participants to the look, feel, and success (or failure) of a film.

Where Touch of Evil is concerned, there are some obvious points to be made in this regard, from the role of studio executives to that of Schmidlin and Murch in relation to the 1998 film, but there are also questions to be asked about, for example, the actors. How much of “Tanya” belongs to Welles and how much to Marlene Dietrich? If nothing else, Dietrich’s mere presence adds something to the quality of the film, particularly for audiences, and whatever that something is, belongs more to the actor than the director (or cinematographer, or producers, etc.).

With this, or any film, one can ask similar questions of any actor and character. In the case of Touch of Evil, on the DVD, Charlton Heston discusses his conversations with Welles about Mike, what he should look like, how he should talk, his background, etc. The resulting character is clearly a negotiation between actor and writer-director. Significantly, Mike is also a character original to Welles adaptation of the novel, and not one taken directly from the book. Heston also claims, in an anecdote supported by others on “Bringing Evil to Life”, that it was he who suggested hiring Welles as the director, arguably giving the actor a small piece of “Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil”.

The other alternative is to emphasize the context of film production, which partly includes the fact of other contributors, but also cultural, political, and economic factors that shape and influence a production. The corpulence of Welles’ Hank Quinlan, for example, is clearly meant to signify “corruption”, showing a man who has grown immense from gratifying his appetites, not just for food and drink, but also power. As with all visual signifiers, this choice is not drawn out of thins air, but draws on cultural codes, and other films/texts, to convey its message to audiences. The ownership of the film by the studio underlies the subsequent contestation of its form, and highlights the basic political economic fact of popular film: movies are not just art, but also commodities. That Welles was in a position of having to sell his labor, as an actor, as a director, as a writer, to work is also a result of the structural conditions of American film production.

The contexts of reception, that is, of audiences, always change. In that regard, the casting of Charlton Heston (!) as a Mexican (!?) law enforcement official has helped to sustain, even enhance, the sense that there is something strange and weird about the little border region that is the setting for the film. That effect is not one that Welles, nor the studio, nor the actor could have predicted. And yet it is present, and far more so today than it would have been in 1958 when the intimations of drug use, lesbianism, and rape would have been more inherently shocking for the presumptively white, heterosexual American audience, while seeing an Anglo in make-up playing a Mexican would not have seemed “off” to many in the cultural mainstream. By the same token, even though a Mexican, or, at least a natively Spanish speaking, actor would be far more likely to be cast as Mike today, it seems less likely that he would also be a “clean” cop and married to a white American without that fact creating palpable tensions between characters.

Noting the influence that the time and place of audiences has on the meanings of a film raises the specter of Roland Barthes declaration of the “death of the author”, or at least of the director as auteur, but that would be too easy. If filmmakers aren’t working in cultural vacuums, audiences aren’t either, and the contributions of a film’s authors at least bracket most readings of their work. And where Touch of Evil is concerned, for contemporary audiences it is Welles the director who is the star of the film. Even if this is, as Pauline Kael alleges in The Citizen Kane Book (Limelight Editions, 1984), mostly a matter of personae, and not any real “auteur-ness”, it still attaches him to his films in ways that are practically different than the others with whom he worked.

More to the point, it seems clear that directors are meaningful to the outcome of a film. For good or ill or indifference, some do have distinctive styles that result largely from choices they make, perhaps chiefly who they collaborate with, and not from choices made by others or by constraints imposed by contracts (on the other hand, budgets invariably seem to shape the look and feel of a film). Directors also develop reputations that result in who is willing or happy to work with them and in what capacity. I’m sure that there are writers, and editors, and cinematographers that actors, for example, admire or prefer not to work with, but for most, it seems unlikely that any one of those figures would be of greater interest than who the director is on a project. The pleasure that the cast of Touch of Evil took in working with Orson Welles seems to establish this much for directors at the very least.

That film authorship is, ultimately, more complicated than assigning that honor or responsibility to the director is a conclusion that seems present even within classic auteur theory. In 1954, Truffaut was advocating for an “auteur‘s cinema” as one possible, albeit superior, cinema, not declaring film to be, historically and formally, a director’s medium. Film critics, since Andew Sarris, if not Truffaut and André Bazin, will often, implicitly at least, rank order directors according to their degree of auteurism, that is, the distinctiveness of their style which marks them as “author”. Even if film is a director’s art, it isn’t every director who can claim to be an artist.

Where Touch of Evil is concerned, perhaps the best test of the complexities of authorship lies in the fact that one can find defenders of both the original theatrical release and the 1998 re-edit (the preview version appears to be mostly of historical interest). If both can be seen as “good” films, what does that tell us about authorship and the place of the director? There’s no simple way to answer such questions. In any case, my preference for the 1998 film probably has as much, if not more, to do with the fact that it was the first version I ever saw, than with the fact that it was cut together according to Welles’ memo. At the same time, the knowledge of the fight over the film and the fact of the memo undoubtedly bolsters my estimation of the re-edited and re-released film, not matter how long I can go on raising questions about directors and claims to authorship.

However one chooses to limit the mantle of auteur, or a director’s claim to it, one way to read the Touch of Evilsaga is that corporate owners of film properties can always find ways to turn even their own failures into profits. If valorizing Orson Welles in 2008, after having dismissed him in 1958, makes that happen, then so be it. As cynical as that seems, it hardly diminishes the value of the “50th Anniversary Edition” DVD to point out that it exists to make money for Universal and not simply to “restore” the director’s vision, assuming that such a thing is even possible to begin with.

For readings and historical notes on auteur theory see, Barry Keith Grant, ed., Auteurs and Authorship: A Film Reader, Blackwell, 2008, and Virginia Wright Wexman, ed., Film and Authorship, Rutgers University Press, 2003.