Prologue Books’ crime fiction curator, Greg Shepard of Stark House Press interviews noted noirchaelogist Eddie Muller about Whit Masterson’s Badge of Evil and the movie it inspired, Touch of Evil. (Photo by Craig Merrill)
Where does Touch of Evil fit in with the classic noir of the 40’s and 50’s?
For me, it’s something of a “go-for-baroque” finale to the classic noir era. At least it’s convenient to think of it that way. In Citizen Kane Welles fostered many of the stylistic flourishes associated with film noir, and in Touch of Evil he sort of brings the cycle to a big, bold conclusion. Nothing subtle about it; the style borders on the berserk.
How does the book differ from the movie?
The basic structure is the same, the same through-line—the search for the killer of Rudy Linneker—but Welles really bolstered the ethnic angles, more than Paul Monash did in his original draft of the script. There’s not a strong Mexican presence in the book, and it was largely Welles who brought that to the film, especially by switching the nationalities of Mike and Susan Vargas. It so much stronger to have Mike be the Mexican, rather than his wife. To me, that’s the best and most significant change from the novel. It also explains how Charlton Heston ended up being cast as a Mexican— which he wasn’t in the original script. But it was Heston (who’d just won an Oscar) who had the juice to get Welles cast as Hank Quinlan, and it was Heston who championed him to direct the picture, as well. It would have been better with Ricardo Montalban as Vargas, but no way was that going to happen.
The movie Quinlan is actually the character of Loren McCoy in the novel—and the character of Hank Quinlan from the book becomes Pete Menzies in the movie. You following? Their relationship remains the same, they just changed the names for some reason. Rightly, I think. “Hank Quinlan” fits Welles perfectly. Can’t see him playing a character named “Loren McCoy.”
Susan Vargas is much more prominent in the film than in the book—the series of scenes at the Mirador Motel were created out of whole cloth by Welles; they’re not even in Monash’s draft. I’m not sure how much they add to the story; Wade and Miller have Consuelo (the wife’s name in the novel) talk about the attack she’s endured, but they’d never have detoured the plot for the sake of pure salaciousness. Welles, however, wallowed in it. He created the night watchman (Dennis Weaver) as comic relief, and gave Mercedes McCambridge that bit as a dyke biker chick—none of that was in the book.
More significantly, Welles created the character of Uncle Joe Grandi, mainly so his old pal Akim Tamiroff could have some scenery to chew. He’s a vivid character, but you can tell he’s an add-on; Uncle Joe has very little bearing on the plot, other than to have somebody for Quinlan to kill on-camera to display to the audience how venal this dirty cop really is.
Tana, the fortune teller (Marlene Dietrich) is also a character conjured up by Welles. She’s brilliant, carrying the weight of Quinlan’s backstory in her few scenes. All that guilt and regret. Her scenes are pure Welles, in the very best sense.
What element from the book makes the strongest presence in the film?
The plot is pretty much intact, as is the relationship between the two cops (McCoy and Quinlan in the novel, Quinlan and Menzies in the film), which to me is the best thing in both. I think Joseph Calleia, who plays Manzies in the movie, gives the strongest performance in the film. That character is really the emotional heart of the piece; he loves his colleague, loves the great man he once was—but now he has to see him for the monster he’s become, and betray him in the end. That’s the real drama in an otherwise carny-like crime movie.
Was Badge of Evil an influence on Welles, or had it already been turned into a screenplay by then? Was Welles directly influenced by the book, or the treatment?
Welles claimed to have never read the book. It was typical of him to be disdainful of source material. I guess it wasn’t great until seasoned with his genius. But comparisons of Paul Monash’s first draft with Welles’ own rewrite show that Welles went back and reclaimed ideas, and a lot of dialogue, right from the novel.
How does film noir differ from lit noir?
One of the things that characterized a lot of classic film noir was how it subjectively explored aberrant psychology. In other words, it made the losers the leads, and tried to make the audience empathize with them. But it never really did it as well as novels could. That’s why no one has really been able to capture writers like David Goodis and Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford on film. They have a voice on the page that has proven elusive on film. There have been terrific adaptations, of course, like Dark Passage, The Grifters, and The Woman Chaser—but none of them quite capture the authors’ unique tone and style.
How does Whit Masterson/Wade Miller fit in with the lit noir of the 50’s?
Wade and Miller wrote pretty straight-forward crime novels, and they’ve been adapted with varying degrees of success: Touch of Evil is the best, by far. Guilty Bystander is a better book than movie. Where Welles’ direction elevated the book, Joseph Lerner’s direction, which is at times startlingly inept, sinks an otherwise fairly interesting film version of Guilty Bystander. Cry In the Night is a better book than movie; the film is pretty clumsy in crucial spots. Kitten with a Whip—well, I haven’t read the book so I can’t compare, but the movie is pretty awful in a vastly entertaining way. Ann-Margret as a delinquent nymphomaniac—it’s hard to screw that up.
Film noir was directly influenced by the German Expressionist movement. What equivalent literary movement influenced the noir writers? Did they crossover?
I’d say that the German Expressionist film movement influenced the European directors who eventually made crime films in Hollywood. But I don’t think it had any more influence over film noir as a whole than Dashiell Hammett had. And he was clearly influenced, at least in prose style, by Hemingway. The whole Black Mask bullpen was influential, really. Writers like Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Paul Cain—they really influenced the language of noir. Writers like James M. Cain, W. R. Burnett, Cornell Woolrich—they influenced the development of plot in crime stories. Noir is an ethos, really—a way of looking at the world in which crime and self-destruction in endemic—and it’s that world-view, popularized by writers and filmmakers, that really created “noir.”
I think you can argue that the films made in the 1940s from the work of writers such as Hammett and Cain and their brethren had an influence on noir novelists of the 1950s. Willeford was clearly influenced by film, Goodis had direct experience in the movie business, and Thompson—for whatever reason—was the most cinematic writer of them all. And genre writers typically are writing with some notion of a movie sale, so that also influences their approach. There’s definitely a symbiosis between noir on the page and noir on the screen, and frankly, I don’t think writers are given nearly the credit they deserve, especially by proponents of the auteur theory.
What are some of the best noir films of the 40’s and 50’s?
Too many to name, really. But while we’re talking about writers, I suggest that people check out any film with a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, who wrote a great noir novel called Solomon’s Vineyard. Terrific screenwriter, unjustly neglected. He wrote the first screen version of Hammett’s Red Harvest in 1942, which I’d love to read. Never produced, unfortunately.
All the usual suspects. I’m looking forward to reading more of Wade Miller and Whit Masterson. I’ll probably never get through them all. Those guys were too prolific!