TOUCH OF EVIL || 1958, USA || Noir || Directed by – Orson Welles / Written by – Orson Welles (based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson) / Produced by – Albert Zugsmith / Music by – Henry Mancini / Cinematography – Russell Metty / Editing by – Aaron Stell, Virgil W. Vogel, Edward Curtiss (1998 re-edit – Walter Murch) / Art direction – Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen / Starring – Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor / Running time: 111 mins.
Touch of Evil is not only considered to be one of the last American film noirs and a masterpiece of the genre. It is also the last film Orson Welles ever directed in Hollywood. Much like many of his previous directorial outings, it was tampered with by studios. However, versions that have been released in recent years have sought to bring Welles’ original vision to life through his own notes.
The intricate and sometimes admittedly overwhelming storyline of the film revolves around a battle of egos between Vargas, a Mexican government drug enforcer, and Quinlan, an American police Captain. The even that triggers it off is the explosion of a bomb in a Mexican village from the boot of a car as it is just about to cross the boarder to America. A subplot sees Janet Leigh kidnapped by a gang in a motel, and the Captain find solace in Tanya, the owner of a brothel.
The event of the explosion is revealed through the film’s legendary opening sequence, filmed through an ambitious and uncut tracking shot in which the camera follows the forsaken car. This sequence is representative of a film in which the cinematography, along with meticulous lighting and mise en scene, is used as an enhancement to the feelings of entrapments and confusion felt by the characters caught in the intensity of the rapidly developing event. Various characters are often crammed in the same frame, strengthening a sense of claustrophobia and urgency.
Touch of Evil is also intensified by the performances of its excellent cast. Heston plays a straight man in the story, somehow getting away wonderfully with playing the role of a Mexican. But it is Welles as Quinlan who steals the show, with his animalistic turn. The already large Welles stuffed his costume to achieve an even more visually physical imposing presence. But it is also his slimy, obnoxious motions that speak louder than his words – words that are often muttered to the point of being indecipherable, as a further expression of his character’s feelings of self-righteousness and entitlement.
Aside from the driving themes of power and manipulation, Touch of Evil also delves upon cultural contrast and the explored the tense relationship between Mexico and the US through the antagonism of its central characters, and their prejudices for one another. Its screenplay, however, expands on these themes and rather than making political statements, it conveys its principles in a human and organic way. Marlene Dietrich’s character stands out as the film’s embodiment of its philosophical representation, and delivers some of the most memorable lines in the film, often representing a disenchanted and cynical view on human nature.
Welles, who also wrote the screenplay adapting it from a novel by Whit Masterson, may have been inspired by autobiographical motives, particularly by the way in which the American film industry constantly treated him. This personal touch is perhaps also what contributes to making this film feel so visceral, and reveals how the filmmaker was able to expand upon its B-movie storyline in order for it to become something much deeper, troubling and potent. – 5/5