Entertainment Magazine

Touch of Evil

Posted on the 08 November 2014 by Christopher Saunders
Touch of EvilTouch of Evil (1958) is the sort of oddball movie that delights cineastes while alienating everyone else. Orson Welles' film noir is a patchwork of brilliant direction, slapdash storytelling and uneven acting. Despite its rough spots it's weirdly compelling.
A bomb kills a land developer and his girlfriend in a Texas border town. Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) pins the murder on Manolo Sanchez (Victor Millan), who's been eloping with the victim's daughter (Joanna Cook Moore). But Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican narcotics detective, suspects Quinlan's planting evidence to ensure a conviction. Desperate to protect his reputation, Quinlan joins drug lord Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) to silence Vargas - putting Mike's wife Susan (Janet Leigh) in harm's way.
On a pure style level, Touch of Evil is one of the greatest movies ever. From its celebrated opening tracking shot through an array of eye-popping tricks, Welles provides a master class in direction. Russell Metty's photography exudes atmosphere: long takes, smoky bars, sweaty close-ups and deep focus interrogations. Quinlan's fight with Grandi and Susan's horrific hotel stay are psychologically violent in an uncanny, unique way. Welles makes brilliant use of sound-scape: the relentless jazz-and-rock driving Susan batty, cantina music obscuring Quinlan's conversation with Sergeant Menzies (Joseph Calleia), Quinlan confronted by his own guilt.
In its dramatic strokes Touch of Evil evokes the sleaziest pulp fiction. Hence the steamy atmosphere, racial tension, Henry Mancini's violent jazz music and the jagged, sloppy plotting. Welles forgets about the investigation halfway through and never makes Vargas's involvement credible. Bartender-paramour Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) drifts aimlessly around Touch's fringes, a reminder of Hank's past. And Quinlan's revenge scheme is convoluted silliness worthy of a lesser Bond villain.
Touch of Evil
But Welles elevates Touch of Evil beyond such quibbles. His Hank Quinlan is one of cinema's greatest villains. He's so protective of his brilliant reputation that he crudely frames a guilty suspect! He deflates Vargas's suspicions by threatening to quit, turning his superiors against the "foreigner." It takes Menzies, Quinlan's devoted sidekick, to bring him down. Like Vargas, Menzies is ruthlessly honest; Quinlan's long since abandoned principle for personal gain.
Accordingly, Welles gives one of his best performances. Bloated and slurred of speech, Hank retains Orson's swaggering charisma and mischievous eye glint. Physically and morally crippled (his cane proves key evidence against him), Quinlan's shocked just to be challenged: he takes to drink and moves quickly to destroy an innocent. In extreme close-ups Welles is a grotesque figure, his bloated face embodying smug evil. Yet Welles remains incredibly restrained, calmly explaining his actions away rather than raging in fury. Few movie characters better mix charm and menace.
Sadly, Welles' costars don't measure up. Charlton Heston is stuck playing straight man, with laughably unconvincing Mexican makeup and garbled Spanish. Janet Leigh degenerates from tough lady to pathetic plot pawn; Marlene Dietrich's gypsy bartender amounts to a running gag. Joseph Calleia's earnest overacting undercuts Menzies' arc while Dennis Weaver's crack-brained hotelier grows tiresome. Only Akim Tamiroff goes down well, giving a pitch-perfect portrait of amiable villainy.
Touch of Evil resembles Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and not just for creeps menacing Janet Leigh at a hotel. Both films feature a great director using genre trappings to craft meaningful cinema. Both are redeemed by excellent direction and a compelling villain. Yet where Hitchcock's craftsmanship is accessible, Touch's wild aesthetics remain a decidedly acquired taste.

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