Monday, September 12, 2011

#402. Touch of Evil (1958)

Directed By: Orson Welles

Starring: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh

Tag line: "The Strangest Vengeance Ever Planned!"

Trivia:  Welles shot most of the movie at night, to avoid intrusion by studio reps

A raw depiction of a town on the U.S./Mexican border, where crime and punishment both serve as tools for the corrupt, Touch of Evil proved to be the last film Orson Welles would ever direct for a major Hollywood studio. After deeming the finished movie ‘non-commercial’, Universal fired Welles, then ordered a number of edits and re-shoots, abandoning many elements the director felt were essential to the story. In response to these changes, Welles composed a passionate, 58-page memo addressed to the studio's executives, all in the hopes of convincing them to revert back to his initial vision. Yet despite the controversy surrounding it, Touch of Evil remains a marvelous motion picture, perhaps one of the greatest ever made. 

Touch of Evil begins with a bang…literally. A bomb is planted in the trunk of an American diplomat's car, exploding just as he crosses the border from Mexico into the U.S.. The blast is witnessed by Mexican detective Ramon Vargas (Charlton Heston), a newlywed who's recently gained some notoriety in his country for putting the leader of the ruthless Grandi gang behind bars. Since the bomb originated on the Mexican side of the border, Vargas feels he must remain involved in the investigation, if for no other reason than to avoid an international incident. On the American side, the case is turned over to Capt. Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a gruff, ill-tempered cop with a bum leg who doesn’t much care for Mexicans. Quinlan believes the bomb was the work of one Manelo Sanchez (Victor Millan), a young man romantically linked to the murdered diplomat’s daughter. When a 2nd search of Sanchez’s house turns up two sticks of dynamite that weren't there a few minutes earlier, Vargas suspects foul play, and accuses Quinlan of tampering with a potential crime scene in order to gain an easy conviction. As Vargas starts delving deeper into Quinlan’s past arrests, searching for clues of further corruption, a nervous Quinlan makes preparations of his own to discredit his Mexican counterpart, including a plot that may put the new Mrs. Vargas (Janet Liegh) in the gravest of danger. 

Touch of Evil is a dirty film, not in content, but in the mood it sets, it's very look and feel. Welles uses this border setting to awesome effect, exposing both the sleazy sex joints one normally associates with such areas, and the lowlifes that inhabit them, men who occasionally hide behind a lawman’s badge. To adequately convey the dirt and dishonesty, Welles allows his camera full access; no room is too dark, no corner too obscure. With a bevy of low angles, long tracks and fairly revealing close-ups, the camera is as much a free observer of these events as we are, bound by neither tradition nor the laws of gravity. Far from undermining the film by way of cinematic trickery, these techniques instead are employed to lay its characters bare. Many of the close-ups in Touch of Evil are reserved for Welles’ Hank Quinlan, and are less than flattering.  By taking such a long, hard look at the character, Welles divulges a lot about Quinlan, from his obese, mangy appearance right down to his bigoted personality. The camera goes to great lengths to uncover this man’s true nature, inviting us to follow along as Quinlan lurks in the shadows, associating with people no honest cop would ever be seen with, like ‘Little Joe’ Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the younger brother of the imprisoned crime boss and new leader of the Grandi drug gang. Unfortunately for Quinlan, no matter how many dark rooms or back alleys he slips into, we still see him.  We hear his every conversation, witness his every action. In Touch of Evil, the camera sees all, and knows all. 

A brilliant film noir and a tense, down-and-dirty thriller, Touch of Evil doesn’t shy away from the darkness; it revels in it, transforming shadows from mere reflections to active participants, and its to Orson Welles' credit that we see each and every one of them.


Sammy V said...

Sounds like a must-see! Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Dave B. said...

Sammy: My pleasure, and please stop back to let me know what you thought of it.

Thanks for stopping by, and for the comment!

MovieNut14 said...

It's a really damn good movie, but the decision of casting Heston as a Mexican still baffles me. (They couldn't get somebody like Anthony Quinn for the role? Really?)

Dave B. said...

@Movienut: Thanks for stopping by! Yeah, it's definitely a classic.

Interesting you brought this up! As I was looking up facts about the movie, I discovered a few interesting things.

1. Orson Welles was never supposed to direct, but when Charlton Heston signed on and heard Welles was in it, he assumed Welles was directing as well, and said he was most excited about working with him as a director. To appease Heston, Welles was also hired to direct (even though he stated numerous times he had no desire to do so).

2. Heston's character was originally an American with a Mexican wife. It was Welles' idea, as he started re-writing the script, to flip this and change Heston's character to a Mexican. Of course, Heston was already on board at that point, and was the main reason the studio got behind the film in the 1st place, so Heston was suddenly a Mexican!

Interesting, especially when you consider that line from Burton's ED WOOD, where, in the bar, Welles complains to Depp's Ed Wood that he had to make a movie with Charlton Heston as a Mexican. Strange, seeing as it was WELLES' IDEA IN THE 1ST PLACE!

I'm a Heston fan, though I can't argue that another actor might have been more convincing in the role. Still, Heston signed on to work with Welles, and it was Welles' change, so what are you gonna do?

Thanks again for the comment.

anthonyleecollins said...

Good review. I liked the way you drew the connections between Welles' use of the camera and his intentions with the story. Contrary to a studio rep at the time (who said Welles was just showing off), he always had a reason for how he shot a scene.

By a weird coincidence, I posted my Touch of Evil review at pretty much the same moment as you did.

Dave B. said...

Anthony: Thanks for the kind words, and for sharing a link to your review (which, by the way, is excellent).

It's a damn shame that Welles was never "let loose" on a film like he was with CITIZEN KANE. He had a real eye for movies (which, even with the tampering, comes through in films like this one, THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, THE TRIAL, and many others).

Klaus said...

I really have to get around to watching this film. Very interesting review!

Dave B. said...

@Klaus: It's certainly worth a watch...a classic film! And thanks: glad you enjoyed the write-up.