Touch Of Evil

US (1958) Dir. Orson Welles

Citizen Kane is generally regarded to be a film head of its time in terms of popularising new filmmaking techniques but this sinuous slice of classic film noir also deserves attention on that front, if not for the opening three minutes alone.

Based loosely on the pulp novel Badge Of Evil by Whit Masterson, the story tells of two cops either side of the border of America and Mexico with differing approaches to law enforcement, working together when an American building contractor Rudy Linnekar (Jeffrey Green) is killed after his car explodes from a bomb moments after crossing the border.

Mexican narcotics officer Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) is on US soil when the explosion happens, deducing the bomb was from Mexico. US Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) thinks the same and already has a suspect in young Mexican Manolo Sanchez (Victor Millan). This forces Vargas to stay in the US to help Quinlan, leaving his wife Susan (Janet Leigh) at the mercy of Mexican drug lord Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) who Vargas is currently investigating.

I don’t know anything about the original novel but Welles’ script offers a rat-infested maze of deceit and corruption as Vargas not only has to outwit Grandi but also Quinlan. At first, the rotund grizzled detective seems like the sort of police officer you want tackling gnarly crimes, his no nonsense attitude and sharp intuitive brain making him a formidable presence.

But as Vargas witnesses, Quinlan is not above taking a few shortcuts in order to get his man. When Sanchez won’t confess, Quinlan ensures that incriminating evidence is found at his apartment, but Vargas is there too and knows for a fact it was planted. As they are on Quinlan’s turf, Vargas can’t do anything nor will anyone listen to him but his conscience won’t allow Quinlan to frame one of his own compatriots.

The “your kind” barbs that Quinlan throws at Vargas and Sanchez, and the constant references to them being foreigners sounds harsh to modern sensibilities, making one wonder if this had the same impact almost 60 years ago. True to Welles’ confrontational nature, this challenging angle showed no signs of sugar coating it, even if it is tame compared to what one gets way with today.

Stereotyping of the Mexicans is sort of avoided to a point but the message is clear that they are the de facto villains of the tale; lest we forget however that Heston has been “made-up” to look Hispanic yet talks with no accent (which is mentioned). Similar to the sweaty and bulbous Quinlan, Joe Grandi is also a portly man with limited physical appeal to reinforce his antagonist status.

Meanwhile his younger family and their gang members are all good looking kids in leather jackets and Elvis quiffs. Needing to prevent Vargas from testifying against one of the family, Joe uses Susan as a distraction will keep Vargas in the US. The newlywed Mrs. Vargas is sent to a remote motel to stay but her planned sleep over is ruined by noisy neighbours and uncooperative new management – guess who they happen to be?

The story descends further into a moral maelstrom, containing numerous surprise twists as desperate times cause for desperate measures on both sides of the law. Along with racial tension and the contention of police corruption, teen drug use and degradation are also highlighted in a terrifying and provocative manner to titillate the audiences and upset the censors.

In fact, it would be studio chiefs at Universal with whom Welles would have the most trouble. The first cut of this film was rejected and calls for a reshoot ignored by Welles, forcing the studio to edit it themselves. This version bombed at the box office, prompting Welles to submit a 58-page memo proffering necessary fixes which was also ignored. The version under review here is the restored 110 minute cut from 1998 edited to match Welles’ vision described in the memo as closely as possible with the available extant footage.

Already boasting a gripping yet debauched story and a typically busy Welles script, the presentation is another key ingredient that makes this such compelling viewing. As alluded to earlier, the opening consist mostly of a three minute, single take tracking shot, incorporating crane work that many filmmakers have since emulated. In 1958, such masterful manipulation of the senses was unheard of and it remains an astounding piece of camerawork.

Elsewhere, when the camera isn’t moving, Welles regularly shoots from a low angle, creating a different sense of perspective for the audience, taking us out of the scene as a close observer and instead at a helpless distance. Conversely, when Welles really wants to make us feel uncomfortable, he employs extreme closes up of the less attractive characters (like Quinlan), their fetid ugliness – internally and externally – burned into our retinas.

As Quinlan, Welles naturally dominates the film, unrecognisable under layers of ungainly prosthetic folds to resemble W.C Fields’ twin brother, but is given a good run by Heston as Vargas, maybe not convincing as a Mexican but serving as a strong moral opponent. Janet Leigh shows us the portent of things to come in Psycho just two years later, while other notable female presence comes via a fleeting Marlene Dietrich, receiving the same billing as the recently deceased Zsa Zsa Gabor who only appears for 30 seconds!

Orson Welles was a precious gift to filmmakers and the more discernible film fan, to studio bosses he must have been the equivalent of a hideous vase of painting locked away in a cupboard instead of being of full view. Touch Of Evil exemplifies this, as a stunning piece of daring and inventive noir cinema with a fascinating behind the scenes story to boot.