It had been probably seven years since I had seen Touch of Evil, so when the opportunity presented itself to see it on the big screen, I said, sure, why not? I probably should have been shouting from the rafters because in the interim I had completely forgotten just how much of a masterpiece the picture is.
The Orson Welles flick is most commonly celebrated for its 3 minute and 30 second opening sequence. This long take weaves the camera through the streets of the Mexico border area that is our setting after we witness a bomb placed in the trunk of a car. The camera eventually unites us with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, the newlyweds who are crossing into America. They pass over just as the ill-fated car does and are within view of the fiery blaze that occupies the screen after the movie’s first cut.
Heston’s Mike Vargas is a Mexico native and detective in that country, but the crime is sort of out of his jurisdiction because it happened on American soil. The American authorities, headed up by the grotesque Hank Quinlan (Welles), agree to work with Vargas because the bomb was planted south of the border. In the midst of this, however, Vargas has to find a place to keep the new wife, who is an American. Susan is too tough to spend the duration of the story in a hotel room, however, and the story follows her increasingly dangerous circumstances while Vargas is busy investigating.
The challenge Vargas faces is that Quinlan is far from an honorable cop in the typical sense of the word. He is well revered for bringing so many men to justice, but as the Mexican will eventually learn, he often goes outside the law to ensure convictions. Quinlan drills into a young Mexican man as his prime suspect for the explosion that murdered a construction magnate and his girlfriend. The man is dating the victim’s daughter, who would inherit her father’s fortune. Upon interrogation at the couple’s apartment, however, Vargas discovers Quinlan has planted the damning evidence but none of the American cops are willing to doubt their leader.
As Vargas digs into Quinlan’s corrupt past, Susan has already been twice threatened by a group of young Mexican greasers. The woman is being targeted to get to Vargas, although their motivation is not totally clear. Susan refuses to be frightened until she finds herself alone in a hotel complex. She is in desperate need of sleep, but when a group of party animals move in next door, she has more than exhaustion to worry about. What will transpire over the following day is more horrible than she could ever have predicted.
Touch of Evil was filmed almost entirely at night. The picture is incredibly dark and Welles uses the black and white film to his advantage in exuding a dark mood on all who watch it. Low-angle shots heighten the drama as we watch the shadowy faces of the unfriendly Vargas and Quinlan. Welles also uses sound to convey the solitude of night as our characters’ footsteps echo though streets and shadows run along walls. We have a sense that danger lurks around every corner, and are constantly on edge. Enemies attack from multiple angles as the American authorities offer no refuge from the Mexican criminals.
Welles might give his best career performance in Touch of Evil. Quinlan is such a despicable and powerful character and Welles is capable of intimidating the audience right out of their seats. I normally do not care much for Heston, but he is great as Vargas. His tan look, with dark hair and mustache, creates a convincing Mexican although he refrains from any accent. I think this helps to level the playing field between Vargas and the American detectives; although, we are still fully aware he is an outcast among this group. Leigh, meanwhile, has plenty of sex appeal and the sass necessary to make her arrogant enough to believe she is safe from harm. She reportedly broke her arm before filming and the cast was hidden during filming. During the hotel scenes, the cast was sawn off and her arm reset after filming.
Marlene Dietrich plays a small part as a gypsy to whom Quinlan goes for his traditional binge drinking. She delivers lines in her usual German drawl through a cloud of smoke she emits via the stogie on which she sucks. High-angle shots flatter her angular face while dark hair and lipstick transform her nationality. Welles alumnus Joseph Cotton appears in a tiny role, as apparently Keenan Wynn does, however, I did not spot him (so if anyone can tell me where he is, I’ll revisit the flick and find him!).
Touch of Evil is textbook filmmaking. It is artistic to the extreme while offering a riveting, convoluted story and powerful acting that has one biting his nails for half the feature. Seeing it on the big screen was a real treat, but it is a must-see movie no matter the venue.