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Film Review: Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil (1958; Directed by Orson Welles)

What does it matter what you say about movies?

One of the rare post-Citizen Kane films that Orson Welles directed that he actually managed to finished, Touch of Evil faced edits and compromises from its completion to well beyond its initial release (as a B-movie, whose sordid traditions the film embraces while simultaneously elevating). Despite the obstacles, the film remains a landmark noir in its restored DVD version at least, which was based on Welles’ detailed notes to Universal concerning his editing preferences.

If Touch of Evil is not quite on the level of 1940s genre high-water-marks like The Maltese Falcon or The Third Man, the latter which Welles starred in (though did not write or direct), then the major factors in its falling short have to be the plot’s reliance on sensationalist exploitation material and the thoughtless racial offensiveness inherent to studio-period Hollywood. Set along the Mexican border in brothels, remote motels, and looming oil fields, the narrative involves a car-bomb murder, drug hysteria, and rampant police corruption. Starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican drug enforcement official (his skin is darkened by makeup, but his Spanish is at least impeccable) on a honeymoon with his blond American wife (Janet Leigh) who becomes embroiled in a crooked murder investigation conducted by a crusty immensity of a police captain (Welles himself, in a role of minimal vanity), the film has far more visual interest on offer than it does compelling content.

Shadows dance on backlit brick walls, ceiling fans rattle, and even in black-and-white you can feel the sickly glow of the neon signs of moral indulgence. The famed single-shot opening sequence is a marvel, the camera swooping over roofs and across dusty boulevards, following Heston and Leigh and the soon-to-be-bombed convertible to their dramatic convergence. It is bookended by the closing pursuit beneath oil derricks and junk piles to a stone bridge, where Welles’ Captain Quinlan clings to his robe of lies to the last breath. The villainous Quinlan’s introduction is classic Welles: chomping a cigar while exiting a car, he’s shot from below, his size and menace masterfully emphasized.

Even if Welles displays his usual artist’s eye, as well as the maverick’s button-pushing disdain for the studio Code’s censorship (check Grandi’s phallic cigar thrust in Leigh’s face in their initial meeting), he forces the edgy material too hard. The “reefer madness” sequence in the motel seems fairly ludicrous to modern eyes, and holds little of the threat it is meant to. Beyond the queasiness of the Latin-washed Heston (intoning his lines with the varnish of wooden authority and even losing his shirt once or twice to expose his stone-slab abs), the other major Mexican character, the execrable Grandi, is played by a Russian-born Armenian (Akim Tamiroff). Leigh vamps in her undergarments and shows some moxie in the aforementioned face-off with Grandi, but is given little to do beyond the first act but be a damsel in distress. Marlene Dietrich is in the mix, too, though one can barely fathom why.

Despite its considerable stylistic quality and technical proficiency, maybe Touch of Evil loses points for its dirty, leering soul, a too-literal embodiment of its themes of official corruption and moral compromise. Or maybe it’s just too much of its time, neutered by the Code, overwrought by its creator, and saddled by its poor studio-mandated choice of male lead. But the film’s touch is hardly nimble enough to overcome such burdens, even if its director overcame many to get it made and (belatedly) released in a form he mostly could have approved of. A genre classic? Surely. A masterpiece? Let’s not get carried away here.

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