Touch of Evil – Screening Notes

“You’re future is all used up. Why don’t you go home?”

Touch of Evil takes place in a small town on the Mexico/United States border. Mexican cop Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) is newly married and about to begin his honeymoon with his American wife (Janet Leigh). A hero in his homeland for his battles with drug dealers, Vargas just wants to go on holiday, but the murder of a local businessman brings him into confrontation with Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). Quinlan’s intuitive methods of investigating crimes often lead him to act in ways that aren’t always lawful. One of these men is heading for a fall.

Touch of Evil was Orson Welles last shot at Hollywood. Hired to play the bad guy, leading man Charlton Heston demanded Welles also direct. Studio execs at Universal weren’t keen. Welles had an undeserved reputation for being difficult, his films considered highbrow, even though he always tried to make them with an audience in mind. Touch of Evil is his most entertaining work, a stylish thriller which transcends its pulp origins as a dime store novel. Everybody brings their A-game. Heston’s casting seems bizarre but few actors have ever been as dignified or as solid. Screen legend Marlene Dietrich steals the show as an enigmatic fortune teller. Director of photography Russell Metty and Welles experiment with unusual camera angles and long elaborate takes including a celebrated opening shot which lasts for three and a half minutes without any cuts. Composer Henry Mancini (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) jazz score suggests bourbon fuelled late nights, sweat, and sin.

Filming went well, but afterwards Welles was removed from the editing process. Touch of Evil played the B-movie circuit, usually as the second feature on a double-bill. Over the years the film’s reputation has grown and Touch of Evil is now recognised as being one of the last in the great cycle of Film Noir movies of the Forties and Fifties. These films were bleak, but exhilarating in the way the defied Hollywood conventions. They dealt with betrayal, and loss, and broken dreams and their cynical worldview struck a chord with post-War audiences.

It is easy to make comparisons between Quinlan and Welles – both are brilliant men but the architects of their own downfall. Welles directed his first movie Citizen Kane (1941) at the tender age of 25. Media mogul William Randolph Hearst took offence believing correctly the film was a thinly veiled biopic of him and set his media pack loose on Welles. The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was released in a truncated form after the studio RKO got fed up with waiting for Welles to return from filming a documentary in Rio and cut the film without him. Welles made other films on time and under budget, The Lady from Shanghai (1947) for instance, but the bad reputation stuck. After Touch of Evil Welles spent most of his time in Europe, occasionally appearing in big-budget Hollywood films like Casino Royale (1967) to raise funds for his own features.

Franz Kafka on Film

The movies were a regular pursuit for the writer Franz Kafka and his friends. Kafka died before the advent of sound, but lived long enough to see the best of the Silent Era. Willy Haas recounted (1) in the magazine he edited ‘The Literary World’ how he saw Kafka crying at footage of Berlin, his dream city; the place he longed to escape to. Kafka understood the power of the image, how it can haunt the viewer; the loss that can be involved in capturing in a place, or a person on film forever. “Dearest pictures are beautiful, pictures are something we can’t do without, but they are a torture too,’ (2) Kafka writes in his unfinished novel ‘Amerika.’

Kafka’s stories are cinematic; the images Kafka creates in the mind stay with you. Though the word Kafkaesque is often used to describe unyeilding beauracracy, and the powerlessness of the individual against the state Kafka’s stories deal mostly with maladjusted, fragile men, who seem to bring misfortune upon themselves despite their attempts to fit into the world around them. Kafka is also a great comic writer, his work can be tragic, but it is never without humour. A number of films have been adapted from his work, while others have used the author’s own life as inspiration.

The Trial (Orson Welles 1962)

As well as adapting ‘The Trial,’ Welles manages to find room for Kafka’s short story ‘At the Door of the Law.’ Welles opens the film by narrating this allegory about a man trying to gain access to the law, but being made to wait for a lifetime without ever knowing why. This addition suits The Trial perfectly. Josef K (Anthony Perkins) finds himself accused of an unnamed crime and tries to seek justice. Welles thought Josef K was guilty for being complicit in an unjust regime, but makes his Josef K more resistant to his fate than Kafka’s. Welles understands Kafka’s vein of black comedy though and brings a Noirish feel to The Trial.

The Insurance Man (Richard Eyre 1986)

One of two plays written by Alan Bennet about Kafka, the other being ‘Kafka’s Dick.’ Franz (Robert Hines), a young factory worker tries to ascertain whether he is entitled to compensation after blue patches appear on his skin. As he is sent from one part of a large building to another, he encounters various other claimants, in his search for the elusive Doctor Kafka (Daniel Day-Lewis). Darkly funny, with a brief world-weary show-stealing turn from Geoffrey Palmer, “people will be wanting compensation for being born next,” The Insurance Man is arguably the best Kafka film to date.

Kafka (Steven Soderbergh 1991)

Palme D’Or winner Steven Soderbergh crashed and burned with his second movie. Torn apart by US critics it eventually appeared on video in 1994. Jeremy Irons makes for a charming, diffident Kafka. Though Soderbergh and his screenwriter Lem Dobbs present a version of what author James Hawes (4) refers to as the ‘Kafka myth,’ it entertainingly combines Kafka’s life with elements of his own fiction. 

Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life (Peter Capaldi 1993)

Inspired by Capaldi’s wife mistakenly referring to the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, this Oscar-winning short sees Kafka (Richard E Grant) afflicted with writer’s block on Christmas Eve. Kafka struggles to find a theme for his short story ‘Metamorphosis’ but his work is continually interrupted by Christmas well-wishers. Cleverly riffing on Capra’s movie and Kafka’s writing the production design by John Beard is beautiful and lends a Brother’s Grimm element to the film.

The Castle (Michael Haneke 1997)

Austrian doom-meister Michael Haneke made this version of Kafka’s unfinished novel for television. The late Ulrich Muhe is the landscape surveyor forever waiting for an invite to the castle. As gloomy as you would expect from Haneke it is also quite funny, and one of the director’s best films. Characteristically spare and focusing on beauracracy and the misuse of authority, key themes in both Haneke and Kafka’s work.

Metamorphosis (Valeri Fokin 2002)

Though Kafka’s work is almost synonymous with the absurd bureaucracy of the Communist regime, he is not well known in Russia. No surprises there, as the Communists banned his work. Russian director Valeri Fokin puts together a fine production of ‘Metamorphosis’ yet it has one glaring flaw. Neil Jordan once wrote (5) about the difficulty of adapting ‘Metamorphosis.’ How do you show the protagonist Gregor Samsa was once human? Fokin tries to solve this by having the actor Yevgeni Mironov pretend to be an insect, but this does not work. Gregor must become something other, a physical transformation needs to take place for the story to work properly.

1. Haas, Willy ‘The Literary World’
2. Kafka, Franz ‘Amerika’
3. Interview with Huw Weldon, BBC 1962
4. Hawes, James ‘Excavating Kafka,’ Quercus, 2008
5. Jordan, Neil ‘The Crying Game – An Original Screenplay,” Vintage Random House 1993, pvii,