#296 Touch Of Evil
(1958, Orson Welles)
“In any free country a policeman is supposed to enforce the law”
Hey look, it’s another film noir! I’m getting pretty happy with how often these seem to be turning up these days, so today I’m particularly happy. This one is an Orson Welles film too, so hopefully it’ll come with a Citizen Kane level of sheen. Let’s take a look shall we?
Touch Of Evil is set around the US-Mexico border, with the star of the show being Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican drug enforcement officer newly married to Susie (Janet Leigh), an American. When a car explodes after passing onto US soil, an investigation is launched, headed up by Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a disgusting, overweight slob of a man. As Vargas assists with the investigation, he begins to question Quinlan’s judgement and suspects him of falsifying evidence for his own gains, causing him to launch his own investigation. However, this potentially puts his wife in danger.
Touch Of Evil opens on a genuinely impressive shot that pans through the bustling streets of Mexico in a single take, weaving through lines of cars and pedestrians before settling on our main characters. It’s an impressive technical feat that lets us know we’re in for something special.
And for the most part, it is something special. The storyline is incredibly well-constructed, building up from a slow start into an exciting thriller with the viewer barely noticing. One minute I was asking why there seemed to be about three separate plot threads running at once, the next I was cheering on Vargas as he pushes himself further into danger as he seeks the truth.
Part of the movie’s ability to grab the viewer like this lies in the acting. Heston isn’t the best example since he largely feels very bland for most of the movie, basically being a typical square-jawed hero who can do no wrong, but Janet Leigh is fantastic. She manages to bring her character to life despite her character being utterly useless. She manages to make a woman sitting around waiting in a hotel room seem interesting.
But Orson Welles is the star here, which was probably a surprise to no one, since he likes to make himself the star. However, he’s barely recognisable because he’s playing such a mess of a human being. He’s slimy, unlikeable and in need of some exercise and restraint, and it’s kind of brave of Welles to cast himself in this role. He also makes an excellent character, being villainous but also somewhat sympathetic.
However, Touch Of Evil is not perfect. The movie occasionally struggles to hold all of its plot threads together. Mike and Susie’s newlywed status, Quinlan’s corruption, the initial explosion, the Mexican gangsters, all of these are separate plot threads that don’t always gel together very well. It’s only towards the end of the film that the movie realises they all need to connect a little better, and there’s a final thing chucked in right at the end which feels rushed and raises more questions than it answers.
The movie’s also full of unfortunate Mexican stereotypes. All of the gangsters seem to be painting Mexicans in a very bad light, and it can get a little uncomfortable. It also doesn’t help that we have Charlton Heston playing a Mexican despite, you know, not being Mexican in the slightest. It’s a film from the 50s though, so I’ll accept that times change.
Overall, Touch of Evil is a good movie which feels too flawed to be a great one. It’s a great technical achievement and there are plenty of exciting moments, but it could do with being tidied up a little.
Starring Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh & Joseph Calleia
Written by Whit Masterston (novel) and Orson Welles
Produced by Albert Zugsmith
Music by Henry Mancini
Cinematography by Russell Metty
Edited by Aaron Stell, Virgil Vogel & Walter Murch
Favourite Scene: The final confrontation is incredibly tense.
Scene That Bugged Me: …right up until they actually explain the initial explosion offhandedly right at the end of the movie.
Watch it if: You like Orson Welles or film noir
Avoid it if: You don’t like overweight antagonists