“It’s a bright, guilty world.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the distinctive film noirs of Orson Welles. The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958) represent an explorative trilogy of betrayal, corruption and irrationality.
Welles, the iconoclastic filmmaker, creates disorienting worlds enveloped by foreboding shadows and uncertainty, with the camera occasionally functioning as a voyeuristic observer. His characters range from emotionally shattered and trapped individuals (Michael O’Hara in The Lady from Shanghai) to men of power and potential greatness (Franz Kindler in The Stranger, Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil) who sell their souls to cover their tracks.
Though The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai are stylistically rooted in the 1940s noir tradition, Welles alternately distorts and transcends the genre — culminating in his masterpiece Touch of Evil. Viewed chronologically, the noirish elements in The Stranger serve as a springboard for the surreal odyssey of The Lady from Shanghai which, in turn, foreshadows the nightmarish Touch of Evil. What flows between these films is a bleak undercurrent of paranoia and despair.
Many critics, including Welles himself, have labeled The Stranger as his most impersonal and mainstream film. However, Welles imbues a haunting noir atmosphere into this postwar thriller, which emerges as a telling portrait of small-town America: Shadow of a Doubt meets Notorious. Beneath the simplistic surface of the film’s Connecticut community lies, in the words of Allied War Crimes Inspector Wilson (played by Edward G. Robinson), an “obscenity [that] must be destroyed.” That “obscenity” is Nazi fugitive Franz Kindler (Welles).
In the guise of history professor Charles Rankin, Kindler becomes a dictatorial and isolated character who gradually loses all rationality when he realizes that Wilson has learned his identity — not unlike Quinlan’s psychological unraveling when Vargas discovers the planted evidence in Touch of Evil. Once exposed, the viewer follows Kindler’s unstoppable descent into madness and guilt.
A particular noir characteristic is Kindler’s bizarre obsession with clocks, which he calls a “hobby that amounts to a mania.” The clock motif is integral to Welles’ film noirs because Kindler and Quinlan are doomed individuals whose time has run out. In The Stranger‘s climactic scene, Kindler is impaled on the sword of the clock tower, then falls to his death — a sordid end that parallels Quinlan’s undignified collapse in the murky canal waters. The deaths of Kindler and Quinlan are disturbing and lonely acts that Welles depicts with a poetic sense of tragedy. Welles’ unorthodox villains have an oddly sympathetic quality which add to their irrationality.
Another noirish aspect of The Stranger is the perverse relationship between Kindler and his small-town bride, Mary Longstreet (Loretta Young). On their wedding night, Kindler is more concerned with taking care of loose ends — such as burying the body of Konrad Meinike (Konstantin Shayne), a former Nazi colleague who the Allied War Crimes Commission set free in the hope of tracking down Kindler. In a disturbing sequence, Kindler confesses to his wife that he has committed murder. However, Mary chooses to protect him and keep his admission a secret, despite Kindler’s revealing comment to her: “Murder can be a chain — one link following another until it circles your neck.” When Wilson confronts Mary with information about her husband’s past in the form of Holocaust footage, she literally runs from the truth and into the dead of night.
Robinson’s performance as Wilson parallels his portrayal of Barton Keyes two years earlier in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, which makes his casting predictable. Perhaps The Stranger might have been more intriguing if producer Sam Spiegel allowed Welles to use Agnes Moorehead in the Wilson role — thereby resulting in an offbeat gender reversal.
The most noirish scenes in The Stranger are weighed heavily during the first half-hour. In the memorable opening sequence, Wilson ominously pursues Meinike through South America as the escaped Nazi nervously reassures himself, “I am traveling for my health.” The cinematography of Russell Metty (who later collaborated with Welles on Touch of Evil) develops a shadowy, menacing atmosphere that reflects Meinike’s uncertain frame of mind. Welles and Metty evoke noir stylistics in the unlikeliest of settings, such as a school gymnasium where Meinike knocks out the unrelenting Wilson.
In the most chilling and visually accomplished scene, Kindler strangles Meinike in the woods during their “absolution,” an unsettling image underscored by Metty’s fluid, naturalistic photography. Predating Touch of Evil‘s now-legendary opening shot, the Kindler-Meinike confrontation was filmed in a single four-minute take. Unfortunately, the film has too few of these Wellesian touches.
While The Stranger remains a conventional thriller, The Lady from Shanghai flaunts its cinematic iconoclasm from beginning to end. Welles defies Hollywood tradition with a nightmarish charade. Like Touch of Evil, he places the viewer in the middle of an evolving psychological hell. Since Orson’s Irish sailor is as unconvincing as Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale, The Lady from Shanghai can be viewed as a distorted, fun-house parody of classic noir. Modern-day critics who bemoan the film’s confused plotting and bizarre motivations never acknowledge its stream-of-consciousness framework established by Welles’ tongue-in-cheek narration as Michael O’Hara. There is a method to this chaos.
Told from O’Hara’s point of view, the viewer never is sure whether the film is a strange dream or the barroom ramblings of a drunken sailor. The Stranger and Touch of Evil focus on the gradual loss of power and sanity, but The Lady from Shanghai plunges into madness from the introductory moment when O’Hara says, “Some people can smell danger. Not me.” Though O’Hara supposedly is a romantic hero, there are no heroes in Wellesian noir — only trapped individuals tainted by evil. O’Hara is the biggest sucker of them all, thus making him fair game in the hands of the Bannisters and George Grisby.
With its abrupt shifts in tone and locale, The Lady from Shanghai is a noir of never-ending jolts. Like Touch of Evil, viewers never know exactly where they are, but they have a better idea than O’Hara as they follow his descent into the abyss. The film’s uncertain landscape is abetted by Welles’ evocative shooting off the Mexican coast and in the San Francisco Bay Area, which lends a bizarre travelogue quality to O’Hara’s disorienting voyage.
There is an undeniable sensuality in The Lady from Shanghai which cannot be found in Welles’ other film noirs. Hayworth’s Elsa Bannister is a highly desirable woman. When Elsa entices O’Hara with an exotic job opportunity (“Would you like to work for me? I’d like it”), it proves a temptation difficult to resist. However, this obsession goes beyond the character of O’Hara — the shots of Elsa swimming and sunbathing have a voyeuristic quality as Charles Lawton Jr.’s camera hovers provocatively over her body. The predatory point of view could well be that of Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), a powerful attorney who believes that all people can be bought.
Like many noir protagonists, O’Hara is a foolish man willing to do foolish things, thereby leading to some irrational decisions. Grisby (Glenn Anders) convinces O’Hara to accept $5,000 in exchange for taking the rap in Grisby’s fraudulent murder. O’Hara agrees to the deal and, of course, Bannister’s creepy associate ends up dead. Until his unfortunate exit, the eccentric Grisby lends a morbid touch of black humor to the proceedings, especially the manner in which he says “target practice.”
As the prime suspect in Grisby’s murder, O’Hara is “defended” by none other than Arthur Bannister, who offers his client these words of encouragement: “I want you to live as long as possible before you die, Michael.” Playing against convention, Welles adds comic punctuation to the courtroom scenes by making the attorneys orate like game-show hosts, having the jury continually sneeze and cough, and casting Erskine Sanford as an ineffectual judge. Evidently, Welles has a low opinion of the legal system. Ironically, O’Hara manages to escape before the verdict is read.
The Lady from Shanghai‘s famous “hall of mirrors” shootout parallels The Stranger‘s clock-tower climax. Like Kindler, the Bannisters’ future is all used up. Utilizing elements of German expressionism, Welles takes noir tradition and smashes it. After the bullets are fired and the mirrors (or psyches) are shattered, the viewer is left with a certain detachment and ambivalence toward the fate of O’Hara and the pitiful Bannisters. “One who follows his nature, keeps his original nature in the end,” O’Hara reminds Elsa as she breathes her last.
Elsa’s act of betrayal towards O’Hara and its outcome have less of an emotional impact than the Mary/Kindler and Menzies/Quinlan relationships. “I made a lot of mistakes,” the self-pitying Elsa tells O’Hara. “You can fight, but what good is it? We can’t win.” And she dies alone. There is a cruel irony when the dying Bannister condescendingly tells his wife, “You made a mistake, lover. You should have let me live. You’re going to need a good lawyer.” Like Quinlan and Kindler, he dies unrepentant.
What remains is a sordid, corruptible wasteland as O’Hara walks away from the woman of his nightmares. “Everybody is somebody’s fool,” he surmises. And in The Lady from Shanghai, it is the fool who survives.
The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai, for all of their visual bravura, remain wildly uneven works — flawed by studio interference (both films cry out for director’s cuts that never will be seen) and Welles’ eccentric miscasting in the pivotal roles of Kindler and O’Hara. Yet they serve as stepping stones for his definitive noir statement: Touch of Evil.
Perhaps his most accomplished and assured film since Citizen Kane (1941), Welles paves the road upon which other contemporary noirs will follow. More than 57 years after its release, Touch of Evil maintains a timeless quality. Even a director as visually hyperbolic as David Lynch has yet to make a movie as unsettling as this one.
Best of all, Welles is superbly cast. There’s not a trace of “acting” in his complex portrayal of police captain Hank Quinlan, whose voice sounds as though it emerged from the bottom of a sewer. Welles’ accomplishments as an actor always have been underrated in contrast to his filmmaking achievements, yet Touch of Evil reminds the viewer that he was a vital performer — not the hammy individual seen in The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai. With the exception of Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight (1966), Quinlan represents Welles’ most detailed character study.
Mostly shot on location in Venice, California, Welles creates a border-town hellhole bathed in darkness and surrounded by a gallery of disturbing characters. The result is somewhat akin to a carnival freak show. Strangely enough, viewers are so mesmerized by Welles’ seamless nocturnal vision that the daytime scenes (particularly those at the seedy Mirador Motel) appear somewhat jarring, as though the viewer has stepped out of a windowless, smoke-filled bar into the blinding sun of a midafternoon.
The breathtaking, expansive opening shot (culminating in the time-bomb explosion that kills millionaire Linnekar) establishes the film’s ominous tone, which is solidified once Quinlan arrives at the scene. A brief exchange between narcotics investigator Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and the cynical coroner (Joseph Cotten) provides a telling introduction to Quinlan — not only for Vargas, but for the viewer as well:
Vargas: “I’d like to meet [Quinlan].”
Coroner: “That’s what you think.”
Quinlan is an instinctively brilliant yet corrupt police captain mired in Shakespearean tragedy. His monstrous, though sympathetic presence dominates the film (even when he is off-screen) and sets in motion a sleazy labyrinth of drugs, perversity, murder and lawlessness. Touch of Evil proves to be an apt title, since every character (including Vargas) is tainted and corruptible. There are no innocents in this decaying world.
Of all the Wellesian creations, Quinlan is the epitome of film noir. Like Charles Foster Kane, he is a dictatorial individual plagued by regret, loneliness, immorality and loss (i.e., his wife’s murder). For years, Quinlan has been an isolationist (he lives near the border yet refuses to learn Spanish) and a law unto himself; therefore, it is inevitable that Quinlan creates his own downfall in a confused, paranoic state of irrationality — predating Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up. Welles’ distorted camera angles represent Quinlan’s tortured, inebriated frame of mind. He is a man lost in his own excesses, hence the classic reference by bordello madam Tanya (Marlene Dietrich): “You’re a mess, honey.”
During the first Quinlan/Vargas confrontation, Vargas asks, “Who’s the boss: the cop or the law?” In Wellesian noir, the law does not triumph — it remains hidden in the shadows. “Even though [Quinlan] doesn’t bring the guilty to justice, he assassinates them in the name of the law,” Welles told Peter Bogdanovich in the 1992 book This Is Orson Welles. “He wants to assume the right to judge, and no one has the right to judge except under the authority of law. . . . But what he stands for is detestable.”
Touch of Evil follows the paralleling descent of Quinlan and Vargas. They are moral opposites who, by the film’s conclusion, have much in common.
Quinlan was an honest cop who became corrupt through the tragedy of his wife’s strangulation — not unlike Vargas’ loss of control after his wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), was drugged and framed for the murder of Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). When Vargas enters Grandi’s bar and says, “I’m no cop now,” it is apparent that he has gone over the edge and lost the rationality to enforce the law. Quinlan’s obsession for vengeance now has become Vargas’ — in fact, Vargas resorts to Quinlan-style methods to hunt down his nemesis. Utilizing a bugging device (another Nixonian trait) to record Quinlan’s confession, Vargas has become what he despises and knows it.
When Quinlan loses his power, he rapidly deteriorates. The descent begins when Vargas accuses Quinlan of planting the sticks of dynamite to frame Sanchez, thereby making Quinlan vulnerable for the first time. In retaliation, Quinlan forms an unholy alliance with the slimy Grandi (a character of black comedy not unlike Grisby in The Lady from Shanghai) to kidnap and drug Susan — a short-lived partnership that Quinlan’s loyal partner, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), observes with disgust and heartbreak. When Quinlan strangles Grandi, he succumbs to irrevocable madness. This leads to the ultimate betrayal as Menzies resolves his moral dilemma by helping Vargas bring down Quinlan, but only after he discovers Quinlan’s cane near the body of Grandi.
“Quinlan is the god of Menzies,” Welles said in a 1958 Cahiers du Cinema interview. “And, because Menzies worships him, the real theme of the scenario is treason, the terrible impulsion that Menzies has to betray his friend.”
However, Quinlan already has betrayed Menzies’ trust through his manipulative deceit and corruption. “All these years, you’ve been playing me for a sucker,” Menzies angrily tells Quinlan. It is ironic yet poetic destiny that Quinlan and Menzies end up killing each other. For all his “famous intuition,” Quinlan’s disloyalty toward Menzies is the final act that does him in.
Touch of Evil can be considered a summary of the film noir themes Welles examined in The Stranger and The Lady from Shanghai. In his noir trilogy, the guilty are doomed to a violent demise in a world where evil is permitted and justice is distorted. As for humankind, they are best represented by the philosophical Tanya, who delivers Touch of Evil‘s closing line (“What does it matter what you say about people?”) and walks away into a bleak, uncertain future. In the end, the viewer remains surrounded by darkness.