Touch of Evil – Review

Orson Welles’s career can be split into three distinct periods. The early period charts his rise from the Mercury theatre players in 1938, onwards to his movies beginning with the all-time classic Citizen Kane up until his self-imposed exile to Europe in 1948. His middle period saw his appearance in many films but not always as the main star and not always as the main creative force. The final period of his career saw Welles move into different forms; television, voice-over work, and chat show regular. The 1958 film Touch of Evil is regarded by many as the best of the films from his middle period.

The story begins with the planting of a bomb in an unsuspecting couple’s car. The car is then driven a short distance through the town and over the Mexican / USA border. It explodes soon after. On hand is a Mexican police inspector Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) who has crossed the border checkpoint at the same time with his new bride, Susan (Janet Leigh). Vargas begins to investigate even though it is US soil. When the local Police captain, Hank Quinlan arrives on the scene conflict begins. The contrast between Vargas and Quinlan is immediately noticeable. One is old school with all that entails in terms of solving the case at any cost. Vargas on the other hand is the future of Policing with his standards and morals. Somehow the two must work together to solve the crime that crossed borders.

Stanley Kubrick was of the opinion that you had to draw the audience in with the very first shot in the film. Orson Welles achieves this with one of the most audacious sequences in cinema. In a five-minute continuous shot, we see the planting of the bomb, a taste of the atmosphere of the town, and being introduced to the Vargas ending up with the explosion. It is a stunning piece of cinema. It doesn’t end there. Every scene in the film has been carefully designed and executed. A number of different techniques are used, both visual and audio, to great effect. As the film was shot in black and white, Welles uses shadow and lighting to create and change the mood. For those interested, it is a masterclass in cinema. For those who do not care it adds to the film and is as much a part of the film as the action.

Much was made of the contrast between the two leads. Charlton Heston was criticized for his portrayal of a Mexican. He appears to be stiff and stilted. For me, this was the performance. Vargas is an outsider in the US and even in Mexico as he goes up against the local criminals. His sense of isolation means that he cannot identify with either group and is stuck somewhere between. Orson Welles is almost unrecognisable as Hank Quinlan. He is a massive presence in both body mass and influence. Even his voice is nothing like the Welles we had seen in previous films.

This is very much an Orson Welles production. Directing, starring, and re-writing the screenplay after he was initially hired to star alongside Charlton Heston. It features a lot of Welles’s influence with the aforementioned cinematography and the way all of the actors are on their game providing engaging performances.

Definitely, one to see. If possible get a hold of the special edition blu ray with alternate versions of the film and a wealth of extra features. Highly recommended.

John McArthur
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  1. Pingback: Touch of Evil (1958) « valdez2032

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