Touch of Evil - 1958
Director(s): Orson Welles
Writer(s): Orson Welles (screenplay) / Whit Masterson (novel “Badge of Evil”)
Cinematography by: Russell Metty
Editor(s): Walter Murch (1998 re-edit)
Cast: Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akin Tamiroff and Mort Mills
Synopsis: A stark, perverse story of murder, kidnapping, and police corruption in a Mexican border town (IMDB).
Touch of Evil is considered one of the best and last film noir of the classic period (1940s-1950s). This movie also famously has gone through multiple edited versions, since Universal Studios thought the original cut was too convoluted and wanted a more digestible version for the mass audiences. Welles wrote specific directions as to how it needed to be edited for it to work and in 1998, Academy Award winning editor Walter Murch took on the task of bringing his vision to life. This version is available on Netflix and I wanted to talk about it. So. Yeah. Lets.
The story takes place in Los Robles, a Mexican border town where shady characters roam the streets in between bars, strip clubs and dark alleyways. When a car bomb explodes on the American side of the border, the investigation falls under Sheriff Quinlan (Orson Wells) as he is certain the explosion was caused by dynamite. After witnessing the explosion, Vargas (Charlton Heston), a drug enforcement agent for the Mexican government, takes interest in the investigation, leading him to butt heads with Quinlan in a constant power struggle. As the investigation progresses, things are not what they seem.
We can’t talk about Touch of Evil without talking about Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty’s camera work. They experimented with long tracking shots, long takes and camera placements that make this movie feel as if it came out in the early 2000s instead of 60-years ago. There is a beautiful choreography between the actors and the camera that leads to a cinematic dance that is perfectly executed thanks to Welles’ blocking. Of course, the crème de la crème comes from what is considered by many the best tracking shot of all time that comes right at the beginning of the movie. Clocking in at around 3-minutes and 20-seconds, we follow the car down the streets of Los Robles, knowing that a bomb had been placed seconds ago. We sit in anticipation as it passes next to Vargas and his wife (Janet Leigh), waiting for it to finally explode. It fills the audience with tension but it also brings in the audience to the main plot and it showcases the town we are going to live in for the entire runtime.
Quick note: the score by Henry Mancini drives home the tension and the desperation from Heston during this entire investigation.
The movie is full of interesting, complex and relevant characters, and for the most part the actors fit the roles perfectly. The star of the show is Orson Welles as the bloated, sweaty sheriff that fills up the screen with both his girth and his commanding personality. Wells used padding, camera angles and close-ups to exaggerate his weight. His line delivery is low and methodical, drawing you in to every word he manages to let loose from his tired lips. Heston plays a great foil to the corrupted Welles. From the very start he questions the motives and intensions of his American counterparts and doesn’t stop until he uncovers the truth. The ending of the movie has a great confrontation between them, leading to them just jousting for the final impression with the audience.
With this movie being from the classic period of cinema, we will have some issues having the benefit of 60 years’ worth of hindsight. It’s a bit off-putting to have one of the greatest AMERICAN actors (Heston) play a character of Mexican decent. They just put on a bit more make-up, gave him a mustache and a unibrow and hoped for the best. Also, this could be a “me problem”, since my native tongue is Spanish, but hearing him try to speak Spanish was like nails on a chalk board. This also applies somewhat to the Mexican gang members that look like extras ripped from the set of Grease. There is a “crazy” or “kooky” motel clerk, and the actor just goes full ham, creating a weird juxtaposition with the noir grounded world Welles created around him. There is also a weird scene with Janet Leigh where for no reason is wearing a silk corset to bed – alone in a strange motel. It felt like the studio said – “we need a sexy scene with Leigh”.
Touch of Evil is sometimes lost in the pantheon of Welles, but it’s one of the best movies he ever made. With cinematography that would put to shame half the movies coming out today, Welles showcases an incredible eye for detail and scope. The opening tracking shot alone is worth your time, but you will stay for the noir mystery that slowly unfolds before your eyes. Along with being an incredible director, Welles delivers as the quasi-villain of the movie, going toe to toe with Heston throughout the runtime. Luckily Netflix grabbed the cut Welles always envisioned audiences watching and we are better for it. Welles is why I love movies.
Touch of Evil is currently streaming on Netflix. Go watch it.
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