One of the great perks of going to CU-Boulder, as I have learned over the years, is the International Film Series that is held right on campus. It’s basically an art house theater, which is so nice because I don’t have to drive to Denver to catch foreign, documentary and independent films. But for me, the most exciting thing about IFS is times they bring in a classic film to screen. Being my age, I usually only get to see classic movies on DVD or off the TV, so seeing an actual print is such a treat. It’s also nice to have a moviegoing experience with mostly older people who want to be there, and aren’t talking or kicking the back of my chair the entire time.
I mentioned a few weeks ago getting to see The Killers at IFS. That was cool, but was totally topped by this past Sunday’s screening of Touch of Evil. It was the 1998 restored edition, a beautiful 35mm print from the Universal Archives. I mean, the print was nearly perfect. There were a few spots with some scratches, but most of the time I felt so lucky to be experiencing one of my favorite films this way. It seemed like the contrasts and the midtones of the black and white film were so much richer than even the pretty good transfer the DVD has. But that was kind of to be expected. As a film lover and photographer, to me, actual film stock always wins, especially for capturing the nuances of the black tones.
To me, Touch of Evil is everything I would think noir is. The first time I saw it, it made me feel stupid. That was kind of the same reaction I had to The Big Sleep as well, because their plots are so much more dense and twisty than say, Double Indemnity. Now, I think the reason I got a little confused with The Big Sleep was because they were name-dropping these people who never showed up and I started to get everyone mixed up. And, I was probably watching it in bed after doing homework or something, so that never helps. Touch of Evil is ambiguous in that great noir way. The characters, especially Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan, have their own ideas about what is right, and how to go about proving things.
The story is set up in a brilliant three and a half minute tracking shot that opens the film. We see the setting (border town), are introduced to some of the main characters (Vargas and his wife) and the shot ends with the action which will start the whole movie off and running (the car explosion). Not only is the entire technicality of the shot amazing, but to be able to essentially set up and be done with most of Act 1 in the first three minutes is pretty darn awesome. It leaves the chunk of the movie for that Act 2 conflict, and there’s a lot of it to go around. Without spoiling it too much (because you should really see it for yourself if you haven’t yet), Vargas (Charlton Heston) is a high-up Mexican narcotics officer who has been working on a large case concerning the Grandi family, who have big ties in the drug trade. Since the explosion happened on the US side of the border, police captain Quinlan is brought in to investigate as well. Fearing the potential repercussions against his country since the bomb was planted on the Mexican side, Vargas tags along on the case. He starts to question Quinlan’s methods of gathering evidence, suspecting the larger-than-life cop is framing people to meet his ends.
My friend’s and I joke that if this movie was titled from Vargas’s wife’s perspective, it would be called, “Worst Honeymoon Ever.” Poor Janet Leigh ends up tangled in this entire mess, even being taken to a “safe” hotel in the middle of nowhere with a creepy manager (sound familiar?) in order to escape harassment from the Grandi family, who have taken this opportunity to work on framing Vargas as incompetent to meet their ends. Then, you start getting people trading favors, the Grandis with Quinlan, and Vargas with Quinlan’s partner Menzies, in order to get what they want.
I think Touch of Evil is considered to be the last of the “classic” film noirs by a lot of people, and that seems pretty fair. I think it’s really the last of the old style black and white noirs at least. Like most good noirs, the film made more sense to me upon repeat viewings, and the layers of depth start to come through.
So, the lesson here is, Touch of Evil is quite awesome, and if you live in the Denver metro area, come up to IFS sometime. There’s something for everyone, and on an actual film print!