Why not ask Orson Welles to direct? That was the question that star Charlton Heston put to bosses at Universal once he had signed on to play the lead in ‘Touch of Evil’. After all, Welles, who had long since fallen out of favour in Hollywood as a filmmaker, was already signed on to play the baddie of the piece. The idea stuck, and 1958’s ‘Touch of Evil’ would prove to be Welles’ final studio film – as well as one of his best and most celebrated.
There’s much that has been written at length about Welles’ film noir masterpiece, but ‘Touch of Evil’ remains one of those films that it’s imperative for anyone calling themselves a movie buff to watch in their lifetime. Once seen, never forgotten. ‘Touch of Evil’ is ahead of its time and, even six and a half decades after its release, the themes that it examines such as racism and the tensions on America’s southern border remain divisive, pressing and topical.
The opening sequence is pure Welles. No other director at the time would have attempted to film a complex set-piece involving multiple vehicles, extras and actors with lines of dialogue in a single take lasting over four minutes. It remains an immensely impressive introduction to the characters. Mexican special prosecutor Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susan (Janet Leigh) are on honeymoon in Mexico, close to the American border. Unbeknownst to them, a bomb has been placed in the car of an American and his young girlfriend. She hears a ticking, but nobody heeds her warning. The car explodes, plunging the lives of witnesses into danger and chaos. Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) investigates the double murder, even though it is unclear whether the crime took place on American or Mexican soil. Despite being a police drama, the world presented in ‘Touch of Evil’ is a murky one. The Grandi crime family take out a grievance against Vargas just as he learns that Quinlan is a bent police officer.
‘Touch of Evil’ is a convincing film noir in which the only characters with any decency – the newlywed Vargases – are surrounded by those they cannot trust, including representatives of the law. Vargas must find a way out of the quagmire of immorality and death that he becomes trapped in, and save his wife who is threatened by association.
The skulduggery plays out through a number of memorable set pieces. It is especially intriguing to see Janet Leigh hide out at a remote motel in the hope that nobody will find her, only to be confronted by a deranged and disturbed motel manager (quite the eye-catching performance by Dennis Weaver). A couple of years later she would suffer a remarkably similar fate in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’. Coincidentally, there’s even a line about the motel being remote because they moved away the highway. Funny how actors get typecast in this way.
The great auteur director Orson Welles is magnificent as the bloated, grotesque Police Chief Quinlan. He’s a man so corrupted that even his former favoured prostitute Tana (played with sultry intensity by Marlene Dietrich) doesn’t recognise him. “He was some kind of a man,” is her final assessment of his life, delivered with chilling indifference in the way that only Dietrich could. Although eyebrows may now raise over the efforts made to give Charlton Heston a more convincing Mexican look, he rises above the limitations of 1950s make-up techniques and proves that he is a leading man of considerable depth and stature. When all of the other performances achieve a heightened realism (I refer again to Dennis Weaver’s bizarre yet hilarious turn as the motel night manager), Heston provides the story with a rock solid authentic core.
Amongst all of the international Hollywood legends vying for attention in the film, it’s easy to overlook some of the supporting players. Akim Tamiroff is every bit as grotesque as Welles playing the vain, posturing and deeply unpleasant Grandi crime boss. The most sympathetic turn is given by Joseph Calleia as Quinlan’s right-hand man Menzies, especially once the scales fall from his eyes.
The final sequence of the film – the inevitable confrontation – is every bit as clever and spellbinding as the long, continuous shot that opens the movie. The question as to who planted the car bomb that initially hooks the viewer, in the final analysis, becomes of secondary importance. Instead, we watch as innocent people try to find their way out of a nightmare world of criminality and corruption.
Welles’ effective and often unsettling film noir is complemented by Russell Mean’s crisp black and white cinematography and by composer Henry Mancini’s score that combines elements of Latin music with jazz and the then-burgeoning new genre of rock and roll. The film looks magnificent upscaled to crisp 4K UHD. ‘Touch of Evil’ is a welcome addition to Eureka Entertainment’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ series and truly deserves its inclusion. Very few lists of greatest films fail to include this title. ‘Touch of Evil’ may be great art, but it’s also compelling drama with a cast and crew stuffed with legends.
There are several versions of ‘Touch of Evil’ to enjoy on this release. The first disc contains the 110-minute cut from 1998 that made every effort to create the version that Orson Welles originally envisaged (he left detailed notes about how he wanted the film to look). This version has an informative commentary featuring leading actors Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh – both now sadly long gone – and their delightful and respectful rapport is highly enjoyable. You can also see the theatrical version that so appalled Welles, but which is probably the most familiar iteration, which runs to 95 minutes. Finally, there is a Preview version that runs to 109 minutes. The limited edition set includes a 100-page book featuring Welles’ writings as well as interview excerpts and a timeline of the film’s history, plus new essays by critic Richard Combs.
Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor Director: Orson Welles Writer: Orson Welles Certificate: 12 Duration: 110 mins Released by: Eureka Entertainment Release date: 25th September 2023 Buy ‘Touch of Evil’