Movie Project #20: Touch of Evil [1958]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Touch of Evil [1958]

Touch of Evil [1958]
Director: Orson Welles
Genre: Crime/Film Noir/Thriller
Starring: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles and Janet Leigh
Runtime: 95 minutes

Touch of Evil had me hooked from the opening shot. The three-and-a-half minute tracking shot begins with a man sneakily placing a bomb in the trunk of a car. A couple enters the car and begins driving slowly through town, not knowing that their lives are in danger. They are forced to stop on multiple occasions to let pedestrians cross the road. As they sit waiting, the suspense reaches new heights. When will this bomb go off?

The car continues moving forward. Now we see happy newlyweds walking down the street — later, we learn that this is drug enforcement official Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susie (Janet Leigh). As they walk down the street, they continue to cross paths with the slow moving vehicle. We can practically hear the bomb ticking… we know it’s going to go off, but when??

The car reaches the US/Mexico border. After some banter with the border patrol, the riders are sent through to American soil, where the bomb promptly explodes. Talk about a hell of an introduction… welcome to Touch of Evil.

Touch of Evil [1958]

Orson Welles’ gritty Film Noir never lets up after the opening scene. This is a technical masterpiece, with some truly stunning cinematography. It’s easy to just sit back and stare in awe at the visual prowess on screen, but yes, there is a terrific crime story to back it up.

The fact that a Mexican bomb blew up on American soil is very bad news for Vargas’ home country, so he decides to keep tabs on the ongoing investigation. All sorts of police officers arrive on scene, but two of them take charge: Captain Harry Quinlan (Orson Welles) and his faithful partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia). Quinlan, a sweaty, unshaven man of immense girth, immediately butts heads with Vargas, who insists that he will not get in the way. However, when Vargas (rightfully) suspects Quinlan of planting evidence at the crime scene, the testosterone battle reaches new, murky depths.

Touch of Evil has many twists and turns, and it digs heavily into police corruption thanks to Orson Welles’ role as one of the greatest villains in cinematic history. His Quinlan is not a good man, though he may have once been, and he is the type of guy who will do anything to maintain his position as top dog. Welles plays him with a snarl, delivering a dark and unforgettable performance. Charlton Heston is also terrific as the drug enforcement agent Vargas, even though it is laughable that he is supposed to be Mexican. Special mention must be made of Janet Leigh, who is brilliant even as her poor character gets innocently caught up in the middle of this web of crime.

Touch of Evil [1958]

Touch of Evil has been released as three different versions. The original 1958 theatrical cut was a 93 minute hack job that was revised without Welles’ knowledge (or so he claimed). In 1976, a new version was discovered and released, though it still included several re-shot scenes (even moreso than the original cut). Finally, in 1998, the most complete version was released, as most of Welles’ original complaints were addressed, and the film was pieced together per his former requests. This is the version I ended up seeing, and by all accounts, this is the best one.

As much as I love Citizen Kane, a strong case could be made for Touch of Evil being my new favorite Orson Welles film. I fell in love with the film right from the beginning, and its dark subject matter kept me intrigued throughout. As far as Film Noirs go, it doesn’t get much better than this (even with Heston as a Mexican).


16 thoughts on “Movie Project #20: Touch of Evil [1958]

  1. The Blog of Big Ideas says:

    Wow, this one just entered my ever-increasing list of films to watch after reading your review.
    You certainly have big words of praise for this one and if what you say is true regarding the level of craftsmanship when compared to Citizen Kane, then this must be one great film. So, when I watch it, I better enjoy it or I’ll blame you for it haha

    In any case, good read and I can’t wait to expand my horizon on some more Orson Welles.

    • Eric says:

      Haha well I hope you do end up checking this one out, Niels. If you have any interest in Film Noir, this is about as good as it gets, especially if you are a Welles fan. Definitely one of the highlights from this project so far. You’ll have to let me know when you see this one.

  2. John says:

    Heston as a Mexican slayed me. I agree with everything you say here. It’s a great movie (although I’m sticking with Kane). Have you seen The Magnificent Ambersons? For me, it’s another contender for best Welles.

  3. jackdeth72 says:

    Excellent review, Eric!

    Welles really went into his strictly budgeted, bang for the buck mode on this film. Superb, near record setting tracking shot to kick things off. Completed with one of Welles’ more memorable

    I also admire how Welles filmed mostly at night to avoid overseers from Hollywood. Used parts of old, decrepit Venice for the next to nothing town of Los Robles and had time to explore and play with off camera angles. Which give many scenes a cramped, claustrophobic feel.

    • Eric says:

      Thanks Jack! I didn’t know this was actually filmed in Venice — it certainly makes for a convincing rundown town. I also loved the use of low camera angles to make Welles seem even bigger than he was. It seemed like he was really having fun experimenting with different techniques, as you stated. Just fantastic work all-around.

    • Eric says:

      I was able to get the 1998 restored version from Netflix — just the regular DVD — and it looked remarkable. I’m sure a Blu-ray would be amazing, but this one still looked phenomenal. Hope you’re able to see it soon.

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