film

Old School Review: “Touch of Evil” (1958)

Written and directed by Orson Welles, loosely based on the novel “The Badge of Evil” by Whit Masterson, “Touch of Evil” is the last studio backed film that Orson Welles made in Hollywood, and it’s quite the noir! For the record, I watched the ‘Reconstructed’ version of the film that was re-edited according to Orson Welles’ wishes per the fifty-eight page memo he sent to the studio following their edit of the film. This resulted in an additional half hour of footage merged back into the original studio edit. “Touch of Evil” begins with an incredibly well staged and executed shot that follows a bomb being planted in the trunk of a car as we meet two of our principal characters, Miguel ‘Mike’ (Charlton Heston) and Susan (Janet Leigh) Vargas, walking alongside the car as it weaves in and out of a busy small road as they cross the Mexican-U.S. border. It’s a gripping scene of about three and a half minutes until the car with the bomb gets just far enough out of frame and explodes as Mike (a Narcotics Official for the Mexican Government) investigates the scene of the burning car. It’s not long before Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) arrives at the scene of the crime, looming ominously over the wreckage as he boasts about ‘intuitions’ and hunches that a local Mexican gang is to blame for the murders.

Once Vargas is involved in the case, it becomes more about the detective work that Vargas engages in as he uncovers Captain Quinlan’s years of planting evidence and a corrupt system of criminal activities. There’s also some fun world building on the side with “Uncle” Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the brother of a criminal that Vargas indicted back in Mexico. He’s out to make Vargas’ life a living hell as revenge for his brother’s predicament, though Uncle Joe is very careful to keep his underlings’ crimes just vague and muddled enough not to attract any real retribution from the U.S. cops. Uncle Joe Grandi’s boys are mostly utilized to keep Susan paranoid while Mike’s out there trying to pin Quinlan to the dirt he’s tried to keep buried for years. The film has all the trappings of a good Noir, and Welles fully embraced the genre while imbuing it with stylish cinematography choices, near perfect shading, and just damn good direction and blocking. It’s considerably noteworthy that Orson Welles could take a B-movie thriller on a border town, and transform it into something larger that feels equal parts Machiavellian and Shakespearean at times.

Now, we have to address the elephant in the room, Charlton Heston as Mike Vargas. On one hand, to have a Mexican character not only be the lead in a major motion picture in 1958, but that he was also the hero of the story as well as the most moral character- that’s something to consider given the time the film was made and released. It’s also worth mentioning that Vargas’ character actions seem doubly righteous when juxtaposed against Welles’ Quinlan, the walking emodiment of bigotry and corruption. However, it can be cringe inducing seeing Charlton Heston caked in make-up to be depicted as a Mexican narcotics officer, especially when Heston provided no vocal work for any authenticity when concerned with accents. It’s not particularly well hidden, thus the film asks you to suspend your disbelief as Heston, clearly, is not Mexican. Whether or not that works for you in the grander scheme of the film as a whole, well, that will be a personal choice for each viewer to decide for themselves. I think it’s a bit of a toss up for me personally, it’s a bit uncomfortable- but it seems there were good intentions from Welles. For example, in the book, the character of Vargas was a white cop named Mitch. So, Welles intentionally made the choice to make his lead character of Mexican descent, it’s just disappointing that the character couldn’t have been played by a Latino. Alas, it was what seems like a thousand years ago. Your enjoyment of the film will be up to you given the circumstances.

If you’re a student of film, I highly recommend giving this one a watch. There’s a lot of work here that feels revolutionary for the time. I’ve always thought that about Orson Welles, he was a man ahead of his time when it came to filmmaking. Whether on the set of “Citizen Kane”, “The Third Man”, or in the recently crafted/discovered documentary on Netflix called “The Other Side of The Wind” (Which I highly recommend), Welles was always willing to take huge risks, break new ground, and change cinema. Even with the brownface Heston situation, there is enough good stuff in the film to consider giving it a watch if this piques your interest. Definitely recommended.

Final Score: 2 Sticks of Dynamite

film

Old School Review: “The Hidden Fortress” (1958)

Written by Ryûzô Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Akira Kurosawa and directed by Kurosawa, “The Hidden Fortress” is an adventure comedy that notably inspired George Lucas in his crafting of the original “Star Wars”. The film follows two peasants, Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) and Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) trying to return home after being conscripted into a regional war. They provide the levity in the film, which is more frequently in use here than the majority of Kurosawa’s work (of the films of his that I’ve seen at least). We begin the film with these two bemoaning their predicament after having gotten to the war two days late and forced to bury the dead. They wander across a desolate landscape towards home but find the border now controlled by the recently victorious kingdom, thus forcing them to find an alternate route home through separate kingdoms adjoining one another.

A few scenes later the two stumble across a gold bar lodged inside a wooden stick while making a fire for the night. Bewildered at their luck, Matashichi and Tahei make a mad dash in the morning to find more of the hidden gold. In their frantic efforts, which mostly consist of them bickering over how to divide the gold, they stumble into Rokurota Makabe (Toshirô Mifune), a well known general of the defeated kingdom- though they do not recognize him. After telling him their plan to travel through a neighboring region to avoid the newly established checkpoints, Rokurota recruits them to his cause through clever manipulation as he leads them to the eponymous Hidden Fortress. He keeps them busy for awhile by suggesting that the rest of the gold may be buried near the fortress. During that time he retreats to the waterfall hideout of Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara), the nobility left in power after his kingdom’s destruction. There they craft a plan alongside Izumi Nagakura (Takashi Shimura), the elder general, to use the peasants’ idea for their route and to enlist them to help carry the royal family’s remaining gold back home. They also decide to have the Princess pretend to be mute as to avoid detection as she could accidentally reveal herself through speech usually characteristic of nobility. The troupe, consisting of Rokurota, Princess Yuki, Matashichi and Tahei then depart hauling the hidden gold on their backs and in a large cart.

The rest of the adventure is full of high energy moments like the lance (spear?) duel between Rokurota and Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita), a general of equivalent rank and status. There’s also quieter beats of tension like the numerous times Matashichi and Tahei create new problems for Rokurota and Yuki by either plotting to steal the gold for themselves or their general fear of getting caught with all this gold. Eventually they sneak into a procession of people marching with hordes of wood towards a fire festival nearby- thus blending into the crowd to avoid being stopped by any watchmen. There’s a lot to like in “The Hidden Fortress” so I’ll spare you all the details for your own discovery, though it is most certainly worth a watch! This film feels like a tonal standout from Kurosawa’s other works. There’s no self serious moral message or compelling heroics, or even universally relatable characters as in other films of his. This film feels most at ease with it’s premise, a high stakes energetic comedy with a sensation similar to those punchy adventure serials from American cinema from the previous two decades before this film’s release. It’s clearly crafted by a master director if you’re paying attention though. Kurosawa’s deft hand at directing and filming is on display for those analyzing shot structure and the handling of movement and blocking. In fact, there’s a scene early in the film before Matashichi and Tahei encounter Rokurota, that’s reminiscent of the ‘Odessa Steps’ scene from “Battleship Potemkin” (also reviewed on the blog @ https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/spacecortezwrites.com/11007) in which dozens upon dozens of people descend down a huge staircase against a horde of guards with guns shooting into the crowd. There’s some question as to whether or not Kurosawa was directly homaging Potemkin, but I imagine he was aware of that uniquely important film at the very least.

If you have any interest in getting into Japanese cinema, this is an easy entry point and I highly recommend it. Especially because it will likely lead you to other excellent films by Kurosawa, or dare I say it, the work of Mizoguchi or Ozu. It’s like recent Academy Award winner Bong Joon-ho infamously said “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The man couldn’t be more right. So if you’re new to foreign cinema, welcome, and if you’re a well worn visitor to the land of subtitles and a difference in perspective, welcome back! ‘Til next time film nerds!

Final Score: Two Peasants, One Princess