Touch of Evil is only the second film I’ve seen to be directed by Orson Welles but both are amongst the most beautifully constructed I’ve ever seen. Based on the novel Badge of Evil, legend has it that Welles challenged producer Albert Zugsmith to provide him with the worst script available, which Welles promised to turn into a great film. Whether true or not, the second part of that sentence is utterly correct. Welles turned out a terrific picture which is handsomely directed, tightly written and wonderfully acted.
The movie opens on a famous three minute and twenty second tracking shot, a shot which has been copied by and influenced scores of film makers since. A car is loaded with a bomb and is then driven across the Mexican border, into Texas. After exploding on the American side of the crossing, a newlywed Mexican drug enforcement official named Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) is one of the first on the scene. After ushering his wife (Janet Leigh) to safety, he quickly assesses the crime but is soon pushed to one side by the old, dependable local Police Captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Quinlan and Vargas chase the leads but soon Vargas begins to believe that his American counterpart isn’t playing fair.
It would be amiss not to begin by talking about the magnificent tracking shot upon which the film opens. I’d actually seen the shot before but it was nice to then see it in the context of the film. It’s a masterstroke of film production and must have taken ages to prepare and get spot on. The framing is smooth and just so and everything from the speed of the vehicles to the motions of the various passers by is perfectly timed. It’s clear to see how rigorously the shot was planned and as a result it looks a bit staged but the technical effort far outweighs any sense of staging. From the first scene onwards, the movie continues to deliver outstanding shots with ingenious camera, character and prop placement.
The movie makes excellent use of windows and mirrors as reflective surfaces. This allows characters to look away from each other and be in entirely different rooms while still remaining in the same tight shot. Alongside these are plenty of scenes filmed from below which gives some of the less honest characters a sense of menace. The camera moves as though one of the cast, seemingly always in the exact position to get the very most from a scene. Every shot is framed with intent and lit with the utmost attention to detail. The lighting in particular brings out some of the film noir elements of the movie. Under harsh, unnatural lighting, the characters and their shadows take on unusual shapes and forms and can provide hints as to the angelic or distrustful nature of a character. I enjoyed every moment of the film’s visuals. It’s an absolute joy to see such craft on screen. Welles and his cinematographer Russell Metty deserve the highest praise.
The movie’s plot is gripping and I enjoyed the story. It doesn’t take too long for characters to show their true colours so the majority of the film is taken with one character trying to prove another’s guilt. I found the verbal sparring was well written and the good vs. evil nature of the plot while not original was given a twist thanks to who was good and bad. The film felt brave for a picture of its era with a corrupt American official being hunted by a foreigner. This could easily be perceived as Anti-American, something which the Hays Office would normally be quick to shut down. Not only was the plot on dangerous ground but the movie features drug use which I also thought was slightly ahead of its time. Drugs have been hinted at in other Code-era movies I’ve seen but have rarely been so readily on display and part of the central plot. My only issue with the story is in its tone. It was a little too light at times and I’d have preferred something a bit more hard boiled and gritty. The jokes and humour detracted slightly from the movie as a whole. A further problem can be found with the casting.
The choice to cast All-American, light featured Charlton Heston as a Mexican has drawn criticism for decades and even been mentioned in films such as Ed Wood and Get Shorty. Heston is excellent in the movie but looks and sounds nothing like a Mexican. His character floats around like an Upper West Side attorney but his performance is so good that the lack of ‘Mexican’ is admissible. As well as writing and directing the movie, Orson Welles also provides an outstanding turn as Hank Quinlan. He uses his considerable physical presence to his advantage, tottering around, breathing so heavily that you believe he could collapse at any moment. He looks like a man on the verge of death, likely to keel over at any moment but still has enough spark in his candy and liquor addled brain to outwit and outmanoeuvre those around him. Janet Leigh is good as the American wife of Heston’s Mexican. She plays her role perfectly, showing both her feminine frailty and intuition, often both at once. Also worthy of note is Dennis Weaver who has a small role as a Motel Night Manager. He’s magnificently weird. Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marlene Dietrich also appear in very small parts.
Despite a couple of small flaws, Touch of Evil is a magnificent film noir. It’s impeccably made and looks about as good as it’s possible for a movie to look. The soundtrack, which I almost forgot to mention, is equal to the visuals and I can’t wait to revisit the movie soon.
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