Touch of Evil-1958

Touch of Evil-1958

Director-Orson Welles

Starring-Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh

Scott’s Review #914

Reviewed July 2, 2019

Grade: A

Touch of Evil (1958) is a film noir directed by the legendary influential Hollywood director, Orson Welles. The film contains suspense, drama and mystery, but is to be praised largely for its use of visual treats to enhance the cinematic experience. The dark and foreboding thriller was revolutionary for the time of release and influenced many films of similar ilk in the years to come. Robust and fraught with tension, the experience is marvelous and worthy of study for its many nuances.

Welles not only directs the work but also stars in and writes the screenplay, so his entire being is invested in the production and execution. Known mostly for the legendary Citizen Kane (1940), a film that arguably changed the course of cinema with its direction and cinematography, Touch of Evil explores a different genre entirely but keeps the superlative aspects of Welles’s loftier film, including black and white, intact, resulting in a grand and dangerous crime infused classic. The screenplay was loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson.

The tension is ample from the onset as the humidity-drenched Mexico-United States border is the focal point. A car driven by a young couple is laced with a bomb and detonates as soon as they cross the into U.S. territory. In a hint of irony, Newlyweds Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston), a drug enforcement official in the Mexican government, and his wife Susie (Janet Leigh) pass the car several times on foot prior to the explosion. An investigation ensues with the introduction of other characters, including Police Chief Pete Gould (Harry Shannon), District Attorney Adair (Ray Collins) and police captain Hank Quinlan (Welles), with a prime suspect being Sanchez, a young Mexican secretly married to the victim’s daughter.

Typical in the film noir genre, events are not what they seem as layers of plot slowly unravel. The heavyset and disheveled Captain nostalgically visits a brothel run by Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), who barely recognizes him because he’s gained so much weight since their last meeting.  Vargas forsakes his bride to spearhead the investigation, but soon locks horns with corpulent Quinlan and the duo begin to feud. Could Quinlan or Vargas have something to do with the car bombing, or could other supporting characters be either behind or involved in the shenanigans. This is a great part of Touch of Evil as the film leaves the viewer guessing.

Heston and Leigh smolder as the lead couple and their chemistry is apparent from the first scene in which they appear together. Sexy and mysterious, she hunkers down in a dump fraught with peril, while he attempts to solve the crime and keep his girl safe. Outside factors play heavy roles in keeping the lovers apart and although Heston playing a Mexican man is quite the stretch, the audience will nestle comfortably into the events as they reveal deeper layers.

Wells, once a handsome man, is not afraid to let it all hang out as the fat and racist Quinlan becoming one of the great and most complicated screen villains as his true colors emerge. As the film’s title boldly suggests does his character contain complexities that make him evil and keep some sympathies or does he wreak havoc on all he touches with his devious nature only the tip of the iceberg? Viewers will need to await the final act to have several questions answered as motivations are finally revealed.

Touch of Evil (1958) gave delicious and pulsating material to film makers clever enough to study its intricacies, most notably Roman Polanski for Chinatown (1974). Nuggets were also thrown the way of Alfred Hitchcock who got the idea for Leigh to appear in Psycho (1960) two years later, catapulting her character’s alone in a hotel peril, mixing in a weird hotel clerk. The power the film had to hatch other great films from its ingenuity are the most fun parts of watching it again and again.

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