Touch of Evil (1958) dir. Orson Welles
Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich
To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of “Touch of Evil” Universal Studios has released a new 2-Disc box set featuring three versions of the film as well as the famous 58 page memo Orson Welles wrote after viewing the studio’s cut. The film is an astonishing work of art and labelling it a mere noir film doesn’t do justice to the innovative and thoroughly unique cinematic style Welles applied to the pulpy story of police corruption on the Mexican-American border.
Charlton Heston (in perhaps his finest role) plays Mike Vargas, a Mexican cop drawn into a cross border investigation of the bombing death of an upstanding American businessman. Butting heads with Vargas is Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) the drunken corrupt Sheriff who plants evidence and frames criminals into getting his convictions. Welles intercuts this investigation with the movement of Vargas’s American wife Susie (Janet Leigh). While Vargas is off doing his job the neglected Susie becomes brutally terrorized by local gangsters who may or may not be working with Quinlan.
Typical to his style, Orson Welles uses exclusively wide angle lenses for every shot. The lens accentuates the motion of everything from the movement of the camera to the actors and objects in the frame. Take the scene when Vargas is followed by the assassin who tries to throw acid on him. Watch the movement of the discarded pages of newspaper blown across the ground in the background before the assassin strikes - a minor piece of set dec which adds so much texture and tension to the scene. And watch the effect of his uncompromising wide angle close-ups. During the violent rape and strangulation scenes the camera is shoved right into Janet Leigh and Akim Tamiroff’s faces, the effect of which make the violence extra brutal. Brutal even by today’s dulled senses.
Important to these scenes is the pulsating rhythms of Henry Mancini’s percussion-heavy score. Welles even makes specific note of the importance of the source music in his memo. And who could forget the ironically romantic theme song played on the pianola which ends the film?
One of other innovations Welles used throughout is overlapping dialogue. With the extreme wideangle lens, traditional coverage was not necessary (everything is viewable in the frame). So Welles allowed and encouraged the actors to talk over the end of other people’s lines. The result is a heightened pace, but also much confusion. Important lines containing vital information to the story are often missed and talked over, or said under one’s breath. And so the film demands constant attention.
Perhaps the only stain on the film is Dennis Weaver's character and performance. He plays the hapless nave who works the front desk at Susie's motel. Weaver chews his already engrossed screentime with an annoyingly twitchy stammer and dim-witted gawky droll. The idea of a slow-witted nightwatchman is fine, but as Robert Downey Jr.’s character in “Tropic Thunder” would say, Weaver goes ‘full retard’. It's a small but annoying crutch on the film.
Having watched it a number of times, and once with the subtitles on, the complex plotting still confuses me. I still haven’t figured out why the Grandis were after Susie so early in the film, nor how the opening bombing fits into the plot. Did Quinlan plan it? I'm still not sure. But "Touch of Evil" is more about flow and movement - a visual and auditory experience pulling the audience through some of the darkest moments in studio filmmaking up until then.
Part of the Welles' genius is the tone he sets at the end. During the impeccably staged climax which has Vargas following and listening to Pete Menzie’s wiretapped conversation, Quinlan seals his fate with a confession. While it solves the case for Vargas we also get to know more about Quinlan than we knew before. Despite being a liar and a murderer Welles is sympathetic to him. We’re reminded that Quinlan was a great leader of the community before the death of his wife corrupted his ethics, a remarkable depth of character we rarely see in traditional Hollywood genre films. This is why "Touch of Evil" is so special. Enjoy.
"Touch of Evil - 50th Anniversary" is available on DVD from Universal Studios Home Entertainment
PS I haven't even mentioned the opening shot, which is still one of the greatest shots in the history of cinema. Here it is: