Thursday, 6 April 2017

Touch of Evil (1958)

Fig 1 - Touch of Evil Poster
Based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil is a film-noir crime drama set on the American-Mexican border. Following the detonation of a bomb planted in the car of a couple crossing the border, a group of high-ranking officers bring it upon themselves to track down the culprit. However, police captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) has a history with fellow detective and Mexican drug enforcement officer Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston), who both share an open disdain for one another from the outset. Vargas' wife Susan (Janet Leigh) soon finds herself a target of the infamous Grandi crime family, whom Vargas has been investigating on narcotics distribution charges. As the investigation unfolds, Susan is left to helplessly ponder the fate of her new husband at a secluded motel (a setting in which Janet Leigh rarely thrives). All the while, tensions begin to boil over when Vargas accuses Quinlan of planting evidence at the home of their prime suspect, leaving open the possibility that an unlikely culprit may be guilty of this heinous crime...

Touch of Evil happens to be my first introduction to Orson Welles, which feels somewhat statistically unlikely considering his vigorous activity, which saw him performing in at least one film every year for over fifty, with few hiatuses to speak of. Of course, his name is of cinematic legend today, with the words Citizen Kane (1941) often prefacing the notion of something 'perfect' in it's highly regarded status as one of the greatest films in history. In the case of Touch of Evil, I was pretty mesmerised by Welles' performance, not least because his face was obscured by prosthetics and makeup to the point where I wasn't sure it was even him. Incidentally, it seems to have been quite a staple of his to physically embody his roles using outlandish fake noses and beards. However in this case, Welles was forced to 'age himself up' in order to clinch the role as the corrupt alcoholic Hank Quinlan, whose disheveled appearance, world-weary attitude and uneasy footing make him perfectly believable as a character.

Fig 2 - Touch of Evil - Hank Quinlan
The film-noir cinematography makes for an interesting blend of typically brooding suits, mostly under cover of darkness, and dutch-angles abound to establish the questionable morals of it's leads. The initial tracking shot of the 'bomb car', from parked position to crossing the border, felt particularly impressive in it's longevity and keeps the viewer heavily fixated on the inevitable fate of it's passengers. In addition, the film was the first of it's kind to shoot a driving sequence on location, as opposed to the traditional formula of filming a static car in front of a projection. This shot felt particularly memorable in that it gave the scene a much more cinematic appeal in contrast to it's earlier driving shots, which did indeed use the traditional method.

Overall I found Touch of Evil to be a very watchable crime drama, primarily elevated by it's central performances. There isn't a whole lot to chew on in terms of thematic depth, but it delivers on the solid mystery vengeance story that it's poster boasts and achieves some really great visuals in the process. I certainly look forward to exploring more of Welles' work in the future.


Fig. 1 Touch of Evil Poster (1958) From: Touch of Evil - Directed by: Orson Welles

Fig. 2 Touch of Evil Screenshot (1958) From: Touch of Evil - Directed by: Orson Welles

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