In this classic film noir (or as my friend likes to call it – “film nwa”), a bomb explodes inside a car crossing the US border from Mexico and claims two American lives. Among the witnesses are the narcotics detective Mike Vargas (a well tanned Charlton Heston) and his new bride Susie (Janet Leigh). Vargas looks into the case while he’s on the scene and temporarily forsakes his wife who meanwhile becomes the target of a vengeful crime lord. Joining Vargas on the investigation is the reputedly intuitive sheriff Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a corpulent man whom Vargas finds to have highly questionable methods. In “Touch of Evil,” Vargas and Quinlan might be on the same side of the law, but the movie separates them on opposite sides of morality.
Isn’t quite apt that black and white movies tend to show things in black and white? A movie’s age is obvious when the characters are either exclusively good or bad. Old movies that we now call classics have transcended their monotone limitations by painting nuances in its storytelling and characters. In that sense, you realize “Touch of Evil” is ultimately a “grey” picture. Its shades of film noir leave the viewer in the dark as to who’s really good or bad. Its theme of blurring lines is in line with the setting. The US-Mexico border is a clear boundary, but since it is crossed too many times its purpose and existence become invisibly clear. Quinlan extends his jurisdiction in the Mexican soil while Mexican thugs are free to create havoc on the American side. Other examples of this theme are Quinlan’s employment of evil tactics with good intentions and an ethnically challenged Heston playing a Mexican man.
Just like Bogart in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” Orson Welles is outstanding in an immoral role. Due to his immense size, he looks intimidating but by the end, the immense weight he carries is felt. He’s one of the most complex and interesting characters I’ve seen on film noirs. Charlton Heston hits the straight-arrow protagonist well, but sticks out a bit of a bore (since I’m accustomed to flawed heroes perhaps). And Janet Leigh ends up in a familiar setting, which I thought was a great nod to the Hitchcock classic. But I find later that “Touch of Evil” was years earlier than “Psycho.”
“Touch of Evil” is graced a well-handled direction from Orson Welles. I am reminded of his masterpiece “Citizen Kane” where the cameras are framed just right. He fills the screen with such interesting details that sometimes you’re distracted from the story. His opening shot has a certain audacity where he starts with a ticking bomb and doesn’t stop filming until it explodes. This long continuous shot would be later used by daring directors such as Brian De Palma and Robert Altman. “Touch of Evil” is sadly Welles’ last studio film. He was disappointed by the film’s theatrical version in 1958 because it was tainted by meddling studio executives. He wrote a 58 page memo to the studio, urging them to make changes to a project he had worked hard on. He was disregarded, but the memo would become the basis of a directorial cut, which was released in 1998 with much better results. What do you know. “Touch of Evil” was finally touched by an angel.