Touch of Evil

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

10 May

Rock around the Clock released, 1954

On this day in 1954, Bill Haley and His Comets released the single Rock around the Clock. It wasn’t the first rock and roll record – that was probably Rocket 88 by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm (though the label credited Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats, Brenston being Turner’s sax player) – and it was only moderately successful, hitting number 23 on the Billboard chart before dropping out completely after one week. Written in 1952 by Max Freedman and James Myers, it was first recorded by Sonny Dae and His Knights. Haley’s version was used in the film Blackboard Jungle – a drama set in an inner-city school and starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. It was at this point that the song became a success, rocketing back to the top of the Billboard chart and announcing the arrival of a new youth movement. Haley was 29 when he had the hit, quite old for a teenager. Meanwhile, in Memphis, a 19-year-old truck driver called Elvis Presley was warming up his pipes.

Touch of Evil (1958, dir: Orson Welles)

Touch of Evil is Orson Welles’s rock’n’roll film. Going large on transgression and youth culture, it places Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as a pair of newlyweds on the border between Mexico and the USA, where Heston’s Mexican detective gets caught up in the investigation into a car bomb, in a sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll town ruled over by lumbering hulk of corruption Sheriff Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). The film opens with the most famous continuous take in film history, with blonder-than-blonde Leigh and a brownface Heston moving slowly towards the checkpoint, while behind them, and advancing every second, comes the car with a bomb (we know, they don’t) in its trunk. Over the next 100-plus minutes, Welles feeds us a soup of lust and licentiousness, law-breaking and trans-racial coupling that is still fairly unusual today, unheard of back in 1958. The studio cut the picture to ribbons and removed a lot of the ambient rock music from the soundtrack, though the version now available (around 111 minutes) is an approximation of what Welles originally envisaged, since it follows fairly closely the 58 page memo he sent to the studio after their first hack through his long, audacious and unsettling film.

Whether the memo expresses Welles’s real wishes or his best compromise is now academic; this “restoration” is all there is left. Not all is perfect in this iconic masterpiece – neither Leigh nor Heston can act, and Leigh in particular seems to be struggling with basic line readings. And Heston as a Mexican? Well, you might say, if he can play an ancient Judean… But then so much of this film is improbable, over-ripe – the casting, the acting, and what about the fact that Susan (Leigh) appears to have been raped by a local gang, an event dealt with almost as if it didn’t happen? The answer might be: the film isn’t really about her, or her husband, even though they are billed as its stars and the film follows them from the start. It’s about the shadowy Quinlan, the sweating gargantuan brought low by his own chicanery, not least his attempts to frame the newlyweds on drugs and murder charges. Other delights include an unbilled Marlene Dietrich, shot so carefully you’d never guess she was nudging 60, as the gypsy brothel keeper and soothsayer who Kane, sorry Quinlan, confides in. Don’t follow the spotlight, Dietrich’s presence seems to be saying, the real show in Touch of Evil is all going on in the wings.

Why Watch?

  • A support cast including Dennis Weaver and Zsa Zsa Gabor
  • Russell Metty’s expressionistic monochrome cinematography
  • Henry Mancini’s score
  • Another Welles masterpiece

Touch of Evil – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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