Touch of Evil (1958)
“The Overwhelming Drama of a Strange Vengeance”
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh
Synopsis: A stark, perverse story of murder, kidnapping, and police corruption in a Mexican border town.
Touch of Evil, like its mercurial director Orson Welles, has a troubled history. It’s the last movie Welles ever directed for a Hollywood studio, largely because, as with The Magnificent Ambersons, the studio — in this case Universal — substantially altered Welles’ work in post-production while he was overseas trying to drum up finance for his next project. Journeyman director Harry Keller was drafted in to direct additional scenes; other scenes directed by Welles were cut from the movie, and title credits and a musical score were inserted over the legendary opening 3 minute, 20 second tracking shot. Welles sent the studio a 58-page memo pleading for them not to make their planned changes, and giving details of exactly how he envisaged the finished product, but to no avail. Universal had no faith in his vision, and released the re-edited version, without publicity, as the support feature of a double bill. The studios never really knew what to make of Welles, so they shunted him aside and forgot about him. It’s a shame. We can only imagine what other classics he might have produced had they shown some courage and given him free rein…
That famous opening shot shows a bomb being planted in the boot of a car on the Mexican side of the US-Mexican border. The car is driven across the border by construction tycoon Rudy Linnekar and his female companion, but explodes within seconds of arriving in the States. The explosion is witnessed by Mexican police detective Mike Vargas and his American wife Susan (Janet Leigh). The role of Vargas is played by Charlton Heston, who unfortunately proves to be the movie’s weakest link. Heston was never a great actor, but acting opposite someone like Welles’ cruelly highlights his weaknesses, while his attempt to get into character as a Mexican involves nothing more than applying polish to his face and growing a moustache. He doesn’t even bother attempting a Mexican accent.
The detective tasked with investigating the double murder is Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a shabby, corpulent man revered by his colleagues as a hero for his skill at solving cases. I’m not sure how much of the man we see on screen is Welles as he then was and how much is padding and make-up, but Quinlan looks like a man with no regard for his health. His face floats in a sea of fat, deep lines and bags surround his hooded eyes. He shambles around with a cane, the result of once taking a bullet for his sidekick, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia). Quinlan is a racist, and it quickly becomes apparent that he resents Vargas hanging around his investigation, even though he’s too smart to come right out and say it to the Mexican’s face.
The investigation is carried out in the Mexican town of Los Robles, where the bomb was planted. Vargas sends Susan to a local hotel, but on the way she is hoodwinked into visiting crime boss ‘Uncle’ Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), against whose brother Vargas is due to testify. Grandi warns Susan of the dire consequences her husband faces if he gives his testimony, but Susan is unimpressed by the threats of the little man wearing an ill-fitting toupee. Later, Vargas has Menzies drive Susan to an out-of-the-way motel on the American side of the border, but on the way Menzies picks up Grandi, who is following them, which means that the crime boss knows where Susan is supposedly safely holed up. This information proves crucial when Vargas realises that Quinlan has planted evidence to support his hunch that a Mexican shoe clerk who is having an affair with Linnekar’s daughter, Marcia (Joanne Moore) is the guilty party, and threatens to expose him as corrupt. The prospect of his previous frame-ups being exposed by Vargas drives the once-alcoholic Quinlan back to the booze. He falls in with Grandi’s plan to use Susan as a lever to blackmail Vargas into dropping his exposure of Quinlan’s corruption and to prevent him from testifying against Grandi’s brother.
Although Touch of Evil has a lot of plot, it’s really more of a character story; but it’s not about Mike Vargas, the upstanding hero who, even if it hadn’t fallen upon Mr. Heston to breathe life into him, would have been a rather bland and insipid character — it’s about the grunting, wheezing shambles Hank Quinlan, a man who is truly in hell. There’s a whore in Los Robles (Marlene Dietriche) with whom he once had a relationship of sorts, but he has declined so badly that she no longer recognises him when he pays a nostalgic visit. When he tries cajoling her into reading his future she tells him he hasn’t got any: “you’re future’s all used up.” For a moment, you can see the fear in Quinlan’s eyes, and you sense it’s an ever-present fear that is usually better disguised. The evil in Quinlan is the rotted core of a once good man whose soul was irrevocably tarnished when his wife was murdered and the killer walked. “I’m always thinking of her, drunk or sober,” he drunkenly confesses to Menzies, the innocent unwittingly tainted by his partner’s evil. “What else is there to think about, except my job, my dirty job?”
Welles growls his lines like an old dog. And he somehow grows more pathetic the more dangerous he becomes, a fact supported by the way in which the camera, which had previously filmed him from a low angle, looks down upon him once his deceit is uncovered by Vargas. It’s a towering performance from Welles, possibly the best of his career, and he dominates the scenes he shares with Heston, both literally and figuratively. Heston flounders badly in the role of Vargas, and is eventually relegated to the role of bystander as Quinlan’s story comes to its shabby and inevitable conclusion.
Welles took the Noir genre to extremes with Touch of Evil, and essentially killed it off for the next decade until it had time to resurrect and reinvent itself (arguably with John Boorman’s Point Blank). Mainstream cinema had never, up to this point, had the nerve to address — even obliquely — the existence of bull dykes or gang rapes, as Welles does here, and although bad cops were nothing new, never before had they been portrayed in such an unremittingly dark and irredeemable light. No wonder Universal was thrown into a tizzy by his finished piece.
(Reviewed 16th April 2013)