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, unflinching depiction of a town on the U.S. / Mexican border, where both crime and punishment are tools for the corrupt, Touch of Evil was the last film that Orson Welles ever directed 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 of the elements that the director felt were essential to the story. As a response to these changes, Welles composed a passionate 58-page memo addressed to the studio's executives, in the hopes of convincing them that his initial vision was best. 

Still, despite the controversy surrounding it, Touch of Evil is, in any form, a marvelous motion picture, perhaps one of the greatest ever made.

Touch of Evil opens with a bang…literally! A bomb is planted in the trunk of an American diplomat's car. It explodes just as he and his date for the evening are crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. 

The blast is witnessed by Mexican detective Ramon Vargas (Charlton Heston), a newlywed who, a while back, gained notoriety for putting the leader of the ruthless Grandi drug cartel behind bars. Because the bomb originated in Mexico, Vargas feels he should remain involved in the investigation, if for no other reason than to avoid an international incident. 

On the American side of the border, the case is turned over to Capt. Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a gruff, ill-tempered cop with a bum leg who doesn’t like Mexicans. Quinlan believes the bomb was the work of Manelo Sanchez (Victor Millan), a young man romantically linked to the murdered diplomat’s daughter. 

When a second search of Sanchez’s house turns up two sticks of dynamite - that were not there during the initial search - Vargas suspects foul play, and accuses Quinlan of planting evidence. Fearing further injustices, Vargas starts looking into Quinlan’s past arrests, searching for proof of corruption. 

Fearing the outcome of Vargas' research, a nervous Quinlan sets to work trying to discredit his Mexican counterpart, and hatches a scheme that may just put the new Mrs. Vargas (Janet Leigh) in the greatest of danger.

Touch of Evil is a grimy film, not just in its content, but the tone it sets, in its very look and feel. Welles utilizes his border setting to perfection, exposing both the sleazy dives and the lowlifes who inhabit them, some of whom occasionally hide behind a lawman’s badge. To adequately convey the story's corruption and depravity, Welles allows his camera full access; no room is too dark, no corner too obscure. With a bevy of low angles, long tracking shots, and revealing close-ups, the camera is as much a free observer of these events - as much a witness to the immorality and deceit - as we the audience. 

Far from undermining the story with cinematic trickery, Welles' approach to the material successfully exposes the treachery of the character that he himself plays. Many of the close-ups in Touch of Evil are reserved for his Hank Quinlan, and are less than flattering.  By taking such a long, hard look at this unscrupulous individual, Welles lays the character bare, from his obese, mangy appearance down to the bigoted views and opinions that have steered his actions throughout his career. 

The camera goes to great lengths to expose Quinlan's true nature, inviting us to watch as he lurks in the shadows, associating with people that no honest cop would be caught dead around, including ‘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 always see him.  We hear his every conversation, watch his every move. 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. Indeed, it revels in it, pushing the shadows time and again into the foreground. And thanks to Welles, we can clearly see each and every one of them.


Sammy V said...

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

DVD Infatuation 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?)

DVD Infatuation 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.

Anonymous 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.

DVD Infatuation 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!

DVD Infatuation said...

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