In 1941, a twenty-six year old Orson Welles wrote, directed and starred in his debut film. Today, Citizen Kane sits atop almost every best of list it’s eligible for. While that film trail blazed now common conventions like non-linear storytelling, non-conventional technical aspects and the use of a completely non-likeable protagonist, its greatest and most endearing qualities more than seventy years later still come down to story, character and performance. Almost two decades later, Welles would deliver another master class in film making. This time story, character and performance would make way for the more technical aspects of innovation with the 1958 film noir, Touch of Evil. Starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and the director himself, Touch of Evil had humble critical and box office beginnings, but has gone on to earn a deserved place amongst Welles’ best.
The incarnation of Touch of Evil being reviewed here is a revised version released in 1998 and opens with a title card stating,
“In 1957, Orson Welles completed principal photography on Touch of Evil and edited the first cut. Upon screening the film, the Studio felt it could be improved, shot additional scenes and re-edited it. Welles viewed this version and within hours wrote a passionate 58-page memo requesting editorial changes. This version represents an attempt to honor those requests and make Touch of Evil the film Orson Welles envisioned it to be”.
This initial treatment by the studio, combined with its original release as the second film on B-movie double feature, shows what little regard the film was given on release. By this time, Welles had spent almost twenty years bucking the system, clashing with studio heads and challenging the conventions of film and story. This relentless tenacity lead to still highly admired classics like Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Othello. But it also lead to several never completed projects, box office failures and strained relationships with the studios who funded these endeavours.
While the opening title card gives the film some context to the time it was made, today, Touch of Evil hits some glaring wrong notes, not the least of which is the casting of Heston as the hero, Mike (Miguel) Vargas. In brown face that seems to have been acceptable at the time, Heston plays a Mexican law enforcement officer in the border town in which the action of the film takes place. While initially jarring, Touch of Evil is smart enough to limit the “Mexican-ness” of Heston’s character. Name, makeup and a few expositional lines of dialogue alone mark the Vargas character as Mexican, Heston’s performance generally ignores this aspect, which works to the benefit of the film. Heston and Leigh’s Mike and Susan Vargas are introduced as a newly married couple in a now iconic opening scene in which a single, three minute tracking shot follows a car, its attached bomb and the newlyweds across the border to the explosion that will propel Touch of Evil for the next jam packed ninety-five minutes. Jam packed in good and bad ways.
Intentional or not, the story sprawls a little out of control to become bloated and inconsequential. But with performances like these, the story is almost irrelevant. The Vargases are virtually immediately separated as Mike begins his investigation into the bombing and places Susan in what he thinks to be a safe location, away from the dangers of the main plot, a motel on the American side of the border. This is also when we’re introduced to Welles’ Police Captain Hank Quinlan. Quinlan’s back story of a ruthless blood hound fuelled by his wife’s long ago, unconvicted murder is quickly dispatched with in a few lines of expositionary dialogue. Closing out the film noir period of American cinema, Touch of Evil hits all the right story notes in a way that never seems by-the-numbers. Instead, Welles uses the shorthand of the genre as a way to skip over familiar conventions. Even at its most convoluted, the story is able to rest on genre conventions while Welles challenges the viewer in other ways.
The filmmaking on display in Touch of Evil really is Welles at his best. The previously mentioned opening shot shows the technical ambition that fuels this film. At the time, the single, three minutes plus shot, was a revelation, not only for its length, but for its composition. Covering a large physical distance and many characters, including the introduction of the Vargases, this single shot effectively and efficiently establishes a time, place and story. Robert Altman would even include his on screen characters discussing this shot in on his own eight minute, single shot opening opus in 1992’s The Player. But the technical prowess of Welles goes beyond any accusations of gimmickry that may be aimed at this opening shot.
Camera angles play a major role in character and story development. From the imposing introduction of Welles’ Hank Quinlan, the story is told in a series of low camera angles, almost always looking up at Quinlan, Vargas and its many noir standard characters to always keep the viewer in a state of intimidation. As Mike Vargas conducts his dogged, by the book investigation, these low angles are used to highlight his integrity. For his wife Susan, the low angles put us in her place as a victim at the mercy of a ruthless gang. For Quinlan, the low angles are a constant reminder of his intimidating, overbearing approach to gain, and always maintain, control of any situation. Touch of Evil is a perfect example of the absolute confidence Welles had as a film maker.
As an actor, his confidence is just as evident. Heston’s Vargas is only as compelling as he is because Welles offers such a strong antagonist. While the idealistic Vargas is determined to follow the car bombing to its truthful end, regardless of the consequences, Quinlan is blinded by his desire for his particular definition of justice. The two approaches to the investigation give the viewer a more complete understanding of the story igniting car bomb than either Vargas or Quinlan could ever gain, but these details are one of the few downsides to the film. At times, the crimes, its motivations, perpetrators and solving become overly complicated, convoluted and inconsequential. But ultimately none of that works to the detriment of the film. The story is simply a reason to watch Heston face off against Welles for ninety minutes, and a reason to get lost in the technical artistry of Welles as director.
The film also makes an interesting choice in separating Leigh from both Heston and Welles for the majority of the film. While their stories are most definitely intertwined and reliant on each other, Leigh is physically removed from the coalface of the investigation very early in the film. Facing her own tormentors, Leigh’s story is almost entirely confined to a motel standoff with a band of thugs connected to the initial bombing in their own way. With their newlywed status established in the opening minutes, Touch of Evil uses their separation from each other to show the Vargases strength and dedication to their marriage and their integrity in this border town of crime, corruption and cover ups.
While the story is familiarly cliched, yet somehow unnecessarily convoluted at the same time, the film is so strong in other ways that it’s easy to look past these flaws. As with the bizarre casting of Heston as a Mexican, the stylistic, performance and technical choices more than make up for any story shortcomings. Ultimately, this is Welles’ film, both as director and actor. From the opening, extended tracking shot, to the choices of camera angles and shot composition, he shows an unfaltering confidence every step of the way. As an actor, his Hank Quinlan provides by far the most interesting character in the film. While Heston plays the infallible hero and Leigh takes the place of the damsel in distress, Welles saved the meatiest role for himself. Quinlan is flawed, tragic and downright despicable. Yet Welles still finds moments to make his character funny, sympathetic and even relatable at times. While his career would have many more ups and downs over the next thirty years both behind and in front of the camera, Citizen Cane and Touch of Evil represent very definite bookends to his most successful period as an artist and as a bankable star and director.