Touch of Evil

Touch-of-EvilA policeman’s job is only easy in a police state!”

Touch of Evil (1958) is a truly great end-cap to the film noir genre, and the tawdry beginnings of what we’ve focused on for our first ON SCREEN series, Neo-Noir. It’s a crime thriller, a convoluted dark mystery, a pulp-fiction cult classic, and a technical masterpiece from writer-director-actor Orson Welles.

Touch of Evil was the last great classic noir film produced during the so-called ‘classic’ era of noirs, from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. While it was met with rave reviews in Europe, and won Best Picture at the Brussels Film Festival, it was unappreciated in its time in the US, a box-office failure, and criticized as trashy pulp-fiction. But what was a low-budget film has been, in retrospect, ranked as a masterpiece of film noir.

The film was shot on location in Venice, California  — rather than in the film’s Mexican border town setting. The film’s script, written in about two weeks, was loosely based upon Whit Masterson’s 1956 pulp novel, Badge of Evil.  It was regarded as an unorthodox, bizarre, and over-exaggerated film, and upsetting to respectable 1950’s sensibilities, with themes that include racism, betrayal, sexual uncertainty, drugs, police corruption, and corruption of power. Its central character is an obsessed, bloated police captain (Orson Welles), a tragic figure who relies on a “touch of evil” in his enforcement of the law. Other over-the-top characters include a nervous and sex-crazed motel manager, a blind shopkeeper, a sweaty drug dealer (with a poorly-fitting wig), a terrorizing gang of delinquents, and a Mexican narcotics officer (Charlton Heston) honeymooning in a sleazy border town. All the action takes place within a twenty-four hour period.

Welles was able to lure a lot of star power to this project: Janet Leigh (in various states of undress), who gets victimized in an out-of-the-way motel managed by creepy night man Dennis Weaver, Akim Tameroff, Charlton Heston, Joseph Cotten, Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes McCambridge (in male drag as a member of a Mexican motorcycle gang), and Keenan Wynn all appear in the film, with a small cameo by Zsa Zsa Gabor.

The film opens with one of film’s most famous tracking shots, an incredible three-and-a-half minute uninterrupted shot, starting in Mexico and crossing the border into the U.S. It sets the tone for the rest of the film’s intensely choreographed scenes, and integrated music (radios, jukeboxes, a player piano), as does the town itself: cheap hotels and strip joints (“The Paradise”), crumbling architecture, dark winding streets, long shadows, twisting alleys, peeling posters, heaps of trash, and vendor push-carts. The black-and-white visuals emphasize the bad atmosphere, the corruption, the decay, and the dirtiness. Even the signage lies:  “WELCOME STRANGER! To Picturesque Los Robles, The Paris of the Border.”

Touch of Evil also presents an interesting 1958 view on race and racism. The casting of Heston as a Mexican is slightly absurd, bordering on offensive. Yet the film may never have been made without a star of Heston’s bankability. There were no big stars of Latino heritage in 1958 (a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Hollywood, both then and often now). On the other hand, Vargas is the obvious hero of the picture, a deeply ethical man who loves his wife and seeks to uphold the law. So here Heston’s casting is right on, as few actors so embodied a kind of unshakable decency at the time – he’d already played Moses in the Ten Commandments in 1956.

The version of the film that was released in 1958 with 93 minutes of running time (later revised and restored with 15 minutes of additional scenes in 1976), was disowned by Welles, who was paid only his acting fee to direct, write, and star in the film. Before its release by Universal International Pictures, some scenes were reshot, and the film was edited, cut and bastardized without his approval. When Welles discovered that his film was recut, he wrote a 58-page memo to the production house with specifics on how he would have wanted the film to be released. This memo was the basis for the 1998 re-release, when Walter Murch re-edited a new version following Welles’ notes.

Maybe classic film noir couldn’t go any further than Touch of Evil. This film makes previous films in the genre look naïve; it’s an abysmally corrupt vision of society, so much that maybe classic noir ground to a halt, its gears rusted from betrayal, greed, corrosive behaviors, failed hopes, and an array of rotten human beings.  No one could call Welles’ tragic detective character Hank Quinlan “a hero”. Quinlan is a fanatical, sweat-stained racist, an unshaven, corrupt Texas cop. He’s an obscene, obese and monstrous character with no redeeming value. [Welles was padded and made-up to look bloated, and usually filmed from below to emphasize his enormous bulk] Thus, with Touch of Evil, a new and more intensively acidic phase of noir, neo-noir, was born.

Director: Orson Welles

Cinematographer: Russell Metty

Editor:  Virgil Vogel, Aaron Stell

Writer: Orson Welles (loosely based on Badge of Evil by Whit Materson)

Actors: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles

Music: Henry Mancini


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