… rolls & staggers into sex worker Marlene Dietrich’s establishment in TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) in search of Tanya’s pianola, chili and crystal ball. Hank Quinlan is an obscenely obese police chief on the U.S. / Mexican border: bloated, pocked and crippled by bitterness, prejudice, hate, alcohol and food.
“Have you forgotten your old friend?”.
Dark-eyed semi-gypsy Tanya glares at him blankly over the stained enamel cooking pot:
“I didn’t recognise you…you should lay off the candy bars …you’re a mess, honey”.
Tanya is a dusky cigar-smoking chili-brewing madam who offers all kinds of obscure pornographic services:
” The customers go for it. It’s old it’s new…we got the television too…we run movies…” (and the way in which she says this! Lewdness of lewdery!)”…what can I offer you?”.
Dietrich and Welles were old friends – “when I’m with him I’m like a plant that’s been watered” – and he was fascinated by her, though apparently not sexually. She complained that he liked only blondes¤ but hinted that he saw her in a new light once she’d got Tanya’s black wig fitted.
That wig! Marlene apparently went through the wardrobe department and assembled her own costume of bits and bobs (a kind of hommage to Frida Kahlo). The wardrobe girls told her the wig had originally been worn by La Liz in RAINTREE COUNTY. Well, thought MD, it was made for a tart and I’m playing one so how apt. She loathed Taylor who had a disturbing trend of making off with her own lovers – Fisher, Todd, Wilding, maybe Burton…¤¤. Tanya has only four short scenes in TOUCH OF EVIL (all said to have been shot on location in a single night) – Dietrich and Welles were in high spirits improvising her role as they went along and giving Tanya the final (and best?) shot of the movie.
If you know THE BLUE ANGEL it is clear that Tanya is a sketch of Lola Lola grown well…not old, but ageless. She now has not only a pianola at home – “zu Haus in mein’ Salon” – but chili too : “Better be careful! It may be too hot for you.” Maybe she emigrated to Mexico pre-war or, more likely, was chased out of Germany in ’45 as a Mitlaufer. Lola is just the sort of little chancer who would have gone along with Hitler if she thought there was anything in it for her. Tanya’s cluttered dusty apartment is crammed with beaded fringed lamps, kitschy knick-knacks and even a stuffed bull’s head** that all remind us of BLUE ANGEL props. There are toys and so-shy’s (including a facetious plaster chipmunk) that echo the presence of Marlene’s own dolls that sat around in so many of her pictures in the early days. Above all there is the haunting rippling wonderful music (Henry Mancini’s finest hour) of the pianola (“at home my pianola Is played for all its worth”) echoing spectrally through the dusty, boiling hot-windy night which heaves with corruption, vitriol throwings, rapists and drug gangs; luring men and women to their doom like Lola’s burning moths.
This is still a shocking film, despite (or because of) being stuffed with outrageous black comedy – the Galgenhumor in which Orson and Marlene both revelled. Director as well as star, Welles has a lot of ironic fun with the placing & wording of signs – one of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s strippers, Zita, is blown to bits by a car bomb as her street wall poster – “ZITA: For this week only!” – is obliterated by acid. Back at Zsa Zsa’s joint there’s a sign prominently reading ‘Dining Room’ – presumably not an overused part of the house except for the proprietress’s preying on young flesh and the frailty of dirty old men. A dining room for vultures & vampires.
Charlton Heston (the good cop to Welles’s fiend: his face stained with the same walnut juice as used on Marlene) makes a call from a drugstore and the camera lingers on the placard “If you’re mean enough to steal from the blind help yourself “. Meanwhile the visually challenged proprietress exudes in close up a chumbling motiveless menacing
malevolence. At the climax of the movie Hank Quinlan commits murder in a hotel bedroom and fatally leaves his incriminating cane behind on the bed rail as the ” Stop! Forget Anything?” sign swings unseen on the door.
LW might write a dozen blogs on TOUCH OF EVIL without ever exhausting its wit and febrile fascination. But, for now, to touch on smells – if ever a movie stank it’s this; and there’s another Wellesian irony here because one of the main preoccupations of the camera is a knowing prurient voyeurism. The camera becomes the lubricious evil eye of Quinlan as Janet Leigh gratuitously lolls on her motel bed in boned white satin underwear – one of several prognostications of Hitcock’s PSYCHO. Then as Leigh is (apparently)*** gang-raped by Mercedes McCambridge’s leather gang – “I wanna watch!” growls the voice that later dubbed Linda Blair’s possession in THE EXORCIST. Mercedes was another chum of Welles and Dietrich – she doesn’t even get a credit for her terrifying cameo. All done just for fun. And so, to complement this voyeuristic motif, we have simultaneously a bombardment of words and images to conjure a powerful sense of smell and corruption: “it stinks in here! It’s a mess, a stinking mess!”. Choking clouds of marijuana; stained sweaty clothes; corrosive acid; chili; old perfume; grubby old beds; tobacco; blood; hair lacquer; Uncle Joe’s greasy toupee – “you lost ya rug!”; heat; petrol; cordite; electricity; leather jackets; hair cream; burning flesh; sex; fear; panic. And finally, the dark river choked with rot and ordure and refuse, with Hank Quinlan floating dead on his back in the black oil-slicked ooze. Tanya, lured from her den, wrapped in a coat that might be black silk or leather, watches like an omniscient ambiguous Aztec spirit of the night wind:
“What does it matter what you say about people? He was some kind of a man…”
ORSON WELLES 1915 – 1985
MARLENE DIETRICH 1901 – 1992
¤ but what of his marriage to Rita Hayworth? Her famous red hair was of course dyed but Welles also had a long affair with gleaming brunette Dolores del Rio. Maybe MD was barking up the wrong tree here.
¤¤ a piece of paper was found in the avenue Montaigne apartment after her death “Open letter to Elizabeth Taylor … why don’t you swollow (sic) your diamonds and shut up?” Paris Match at once published it. MD was certainly dotty about Burton, though if they had an actual physical affair this has yet to come to light. “I’m behind you, Marlene!” – remember?
# and wait for the wonderful shot of Welles posed beneath the bull and its halo of banderillas – Quinlan’s own vision of himself as the brave old beast martyred in the pursuit of his duty.
* the naïve censor is placated by a weasel line of dialogue later on: Welles laughing up his sleeve again.