When examining Orson Welles’ career as a director you won’t find a huge volume of movies. What you will find is a filmmaker not only willing, but driven to experiment and explore every facet of making a movie. You see it in “Citizen Kane”, his most acclaimed film and what may be the greatest directorial debut. You see it in his superb period drama “The Magnificent Ambersons. But you may see it best in his 1958 crime noir classic “Touch of Evil”.
Originally hired for the supporting role of Police Captain Quinlan, Welles was convinced to also rewrite the screenplay and direct. The resulting “Touch of Evil” is considered by many to be one of the last great examples of film noir, featuring a fun cast, a twisting story, and a fantastic visual style.
The story is set in a Mexican/United States border town and begins with one of cinema’s greatest openings. A bomb is planted in the trunk of a car. A couple gets in the car and begins to drive through town towards the US border. Welles follows the car in one continuous three-minute shot stopping in traffic and slowly weaving through large numbers of pedestrians.
We the audience know something bad is bound to happen. We just don’t know when. Welles plays with our expectations and strings us along until the car does indeed blow. Among the nearby gathering crowd is Mexican drug enforcement officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his new wife Susie (Janet Leigh). Vargas begins an investigation but is pushed aside by Captain Quinlan, an American police investigator who instantly butts heads with Vargas.
The film follows the investigation but it soon takes a backseat to issues of corruption, prejudice, and abuse of power. Welles’ story makes several wild and unexpected turns and the tone gets darker the further it goes. The moody camerawork embraces the visual approaches that made noir such a fascinating cinematic movement and it helps stress the edginess of Welles’ screenplay.
Heston was an odd choice but added star power and heft to the lead role. Leigh is very good and is featured in one of the film’s darker angles. Welles’ performance is also strong as the heavy, unpleasant Quinlan. But you have to tip your hat to the wild array of wonderful side characters who fill in this seedy, shady tale. Joseph Calleia is great as Quinlan’s right-hand man. Marlene Dietrich has a small but captivating role as a local ‘procuress’. Dennis Weaver is uncomfortably weird as a Norman Bates-like hotel night manager. Akim Tamiroff is a hoot playing a scuzzy gang boss. These characters and more pop in and out of Welles’ story and offer up some of the film’s best moments.
The original cut and unquestionably Welles purest vision for the film ended up being chopped, re-edited, and released in a 93 minute form. Over time it has been put back together as well as could be. That’s good for cinema fans because “Touch of Evil” is a movie filled with craft and vision. Its winding labyrinthine plot and deep moody visual style work together magnificently and highlight the very best film noir had to offer.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS
A great choice to fix in your blind spots. Touch of Evil was the last complete masterpiece from Welles. The restoration that was done in the late 90s was from Welles script more than just plugging things back in that had been trimmed. It doesn’t make the movie less weird but some sequences are more coherent. Janet Leigh should never check into a motel, it just isn’t going to go well.
Such a great movie. Great point about Leigh. Talk about a very specific cinema connection with motels! I have to say I was completely engrossed in this. Phenomenal filmmaking and storytelling regardless of its occasional confusion.
The Venice California location added to the ambiance (and can be visited still).
Nice! I would love to.
Wholeheartedly agree with Richard on this! 🙂
I picked up The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release of Touch of Evil cheaply last year, and it’s fast become one of my favourites. It is a shame we’ll never get to see Welles original vision, but the new cut is as near as damn it.
Whatever people say about Orson Welles he was above all else a superb film maker. Some of the black and white imagery in Touch Of Evil is stunning , but I think I would have thrown Charles Bronson into the Vargas role!
Isn’t it great? I need to get a copy of it. DVR’d it from TCM for the review but I need my own. So many things to absorb in that film.
It is a great film and certainly one of my favorites by Orson Welles so far… I had a chance to do more of his work but I had to switch cable providers and lost those films…. 😦
Ouch! That stinks. At least you got to see this one. It’s a gem.
Nice review Keith. This is one of my favorites by Welles, and features great performances all around. And what else can I say about that first short? One of the best openings in cinema history for sure.
Isn’t it a great opening? Blew me away. And it instantly lets you know you are seeing something special. Big fan of it start to finish. Glad I finally got off my duff and watched it.
Nice review Keith! I remember liking it a fair bit, but not as much as you. That first shot though. Just leaves you in awe. Probably one of the greatest unbroken takes ever shot on film. And I think Welles also gives a great, menacing performance in this. It’s disappointing that his true vision has not been fully restored.
Thanks Khalid. It is disappointing for sure. You can’t help but wonder what his full vision would have resulted in.
I have only seen the uncut version, so I am curious to see the edited version to find out what is so different between the two. Seeing Heston as a Mexican may seem insensitive at first. But he never plays the role in any stereotypical way
100% correct. Heston doesn’t try to force any stereotype or character on the role. After the initial jolt I really got into his performance.
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