Touch of Evil (1958)
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles (based on Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson)
Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Marlene Dietrich
Orson Welles is without a doubt one of the most stories directors in Hollywood history. His feature length debut film, Citizen Kane, is known as one of the greatest films ever made, and even managed to completely re-define the way films were made. His influence is felt to this very day, not only through Citizen Kane, but his other ambitious projects like Shakespeare adaptations Macbeth and Othello, the Academy Award nominated The Magnificent Ambersons, his documentary essay film F For Fake, and his film noirs like The Lady from Shanghai, The Stranger, and the final Noirvember feature, Touch of Evil. Welles’ film noir is often regarded as one of his best films, and one of the last “true” film noirs of the era, and because of this it’s only fitting that I’ve picked it to close out this month’s festival. The film was released in 1958, and would prove to be the final project that Orson would direct on American soil. After the release of Touch of Evil, Welles would focus on strictly European productions, and would move onto more challenging projects than ever before, even tackling ambitious projects he had no hope to finish. By the time Welles passed away in 1985, his list of incomplete films would rival his own finished filmography, many of these projects developed after the release of his last film noir. Touch of Evil has been met with both wide amounts of praise and controversy over the years, mostly because of its whitewashing of non-white characters. The biggest offense comes in the form of Charlton Heston, who in the film plays a Mexican man, but in real life is as American as they come. His character wears dark-colored makeup to give him the appearance of a Mexican-born man, and critics and historians alike have questioned the choice of not just casting a real Hispanic actor. Despite this questionable casting blunder (Heston is still incredible in the role), Touch of Evil has endured the test of time on most other fronts, and is now widely considered to be not only one of the best film noirs of all-time, but one of the great films of the 1950’s.
The film begins on a quite literally explosive note, seeing main characters Ramon Miguel (or Mike) Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) brush with death multiple times by strolling past a car containing a ticking time bomb. When the car passes the over American border, it finally explodes. The sudden explosion kills those within the car, and quickly launches the drug enforcement officer Miguel Vargas into an investigation. The leader of said investigation is Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a no-nonsense, disheveled, and clearly past his prime officer of the law. Vargas unofficially joins the efforts by Captain Quinlan, and the team soon comes to suspect that the incident has been perpetrated by Sanchez (Victor Millan), the secret husband of the victim’s daughter. After Vargas accidentally uncovers some very dirty police work by Quinlan and gang, he launches into a full independent investigation of the man’s previous detective work. The investigation proves Vargas’ hunch correct, and he finds that Quinlan has been planting evidence and sentencing innocent men for years. When Vargas and his wife suddenly become the targets of unwanted attention by the brother of a suspected bomber, they are moved into a small roadside motel in the middle of nowhere. While Vargas is out trying to fight the corruption found in Captain Quinlan’s police force, his wife Susan is unknowingly being stalked and her motel room cased. Will justice prevail over corruption, or will the efforts of Miguel Vargas prove to be fruitless? Find out in Orson Welles’ incredible Touch of Evil.
Wow. Even if Noirvember had somehow been a complete disappointment in my books, Touch of Evil is a film so good that its presence alone would have made the marathon a success! Orson Welles is a filmmaker I’ve always admired greatly, and Touch of Evil only furthers my esteem for the great Hollywood mind. Not only is his direction incredible throughout (especially the opening long-take, finally interrupted by a massive explosion), but his performance is one of the film’s many standouts. His drunk, sleazy border sheriff character Captain Quinlan feels larger than life while never becoming hamfisted, and the whole thing is so perfectly believable in its execution. Charlton Heston and the future Psycho star Janet Leigh have terrific chemistry throughout, and both performances capture ideal characters who believe in justice above all, and are blind enough to fail to see the danger lurking immediately before them. Despite the role being unfortunately whitewashed, Heston’s on-screen presence makes you immediately forget about the injustice, and instead focus on and appreciate the subtlety in the actors performance. Heston, who before this had largely starred in epics like Julius Caesar, The Greatest Show on Earth, and The Ten Commandments, showed restraint and talent that I had no idea the actor even had. Touch of Evil is a film so well-realized and so atmospheric that it instantly makes you forgive its overly-complex and convoluted story, and instead focus almost entirely on the artistry at hand. The film was originally released in a double bill as something of a B-movie, and would go on to crush the hopes Orson Welles held for a Hollywood relaunch. The handling of the film by Universal was so unbelievably botched that it almost sounds like fiction. Instead of releasing and embracing this great film noir directed by one of the all-time great directors, and starring a cast of A-list stars, the studio would feel ashamed of the effort and instead bury it in trash. It makes me so incredible happy to see the public opinion of the film change to such a positive one, and it’s so incredibly deserved for a masterpiece like Touch of Evil.
Orson Welles’ final Hollywood production would prove to be a financial flop, but would fortunately be looked at historically as one of the best films ever made. Touch of Evil is a beautiful, dark, and atmospheric noir that features incredible direction by Welles, terrific performances by the entire cast, and some incredibly tense moments that you’ll have to see to fully appreciate. It is a film I’m disappointed took me so long to finally see, but I know it’s one I’ll never forget. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil gets my highest recommendation.