Orson Welles, 1958
Starring: Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia
A car blows up at the U.S.-Mexico border, just as Mexican detective Mike Vargas and his new American wife, Susie, arrive to celebrate their honeymoon. Vargas is reluctantly invited to take part in the investigation, as he is well-known for his work prosecuting a Mexican drug gang, the Grandi family. Vargas has to work with Captain Quinlan, a corpulent detective with an immense reputation and a penchant for playing by his own rules. When Vargas catches Quinlan planting evidence, he is determined to uncover the full extent of the conspiracy. Meanwhile, the Grandi gang kidnaps and torments his wife, Susie.
Touch of Evil has the distinction of being Welles’ final American film and is generally regarded as the last official film noir of the classic period (1941 to 1958). This marked Welles’ return to Hollywood after a decade in Europe. He hoped that it would be a successful return, but Hollywood disappointed him yet again. Though he turned in a visionary, experimental work within budget and on schedule, the film was re-cut and re-edited, with a new soundtrack added. Heartbroken, Welles returned to Europe for the rest of his career. Touch of Evil was also dishonored by being released as a B-movie, rather than an A-list film, and it was largely ignored or disliked by American critics and audiences.
However, it was successful in Europe and has fortunately gained a reputation as an influential cult movie and, finally, as a bonafide classic. It’s also been restored several times to approximate the version Welles wanted on screen (thanks to Welles scholars and the notes the director and star left behind before his death). Based on Whit Masterson's novel Badge of Evil (from 1956), this study of sex, drugs, bad cops, and racism is another flawed masterpiece from Welles, wrote co-wrote, directed, and starred in the film. As always, he also helped craft the sets, soundscape, and cinematography. His opening sequence, a lengthy long shot through the border town of Los Robles, has become one of the most famous in history.
Welles’ Quinlan is the heart and soul of the film. He’s a flawed, contradictory figure. He isn’t wholly corrupt, but he has a “touch” of evil in his nature and possibly a hint of the supernatural, as his hunches — which he attributes to his injured leg — often seem to be inexplicably correct. He isn’t so much framing innocent victims as guilty suspects, providing evidence for a clean arrest and conviction when there is none. Quinlan is in keeping with many of Welles’ other characters: proud, tragic men whose fatal flaw is their incredible hubris. He’s also a possibly autobiographical examination of the dangers of living a life of excess. He’s huge and bloated, and has exchanged alcohol addiction for the incessant munching of candy bars. But he’s also brilliant and captivating.
Perhaps the film’s weakest element is that the other characters fade and pale in Welles’ shadow, or simply seem cartoonish and ridiculous. For instance, Charlton Heston gives one of the best performances of his career, but it’s also absurd to have Heston playing a Mexican character. It looks like there’s shoe polish on his face instead of tanning lotion and he doesn’t even pretend of have an accent. This could be Welles’ attempts to show little difference between American and Mexican life and people — which is pointed out several times throughout the film — but it’s still difficult to swallow Heston as a Mexican. Janet Leigh puts in a good turn as his lovely blonde wife, but her predicament becomes increasingly ridiculous. The film goes off the rails with its depiction of Susan’s ordeal — she is threatened by the Grandi film and pursued by its gang of leather-wearing, weirdly sexual teenage and twenty-something degenerates. Later, she’s drugged and presumably gang raped, but the whole thing feels cartoonish rather than terrifying. And the worst thing that happens to her is not at the hands of any Mexicans, but is Quinlan’s doing; he frames her for murder.
Both Leigh and Heston are also outdone by the numerous cameos Welles has planted throughout the film. In shades of Psycho (released only two years later), Gunsmoke’s Dennis Weaver appears as a repressed, disturbed hotel manager who leers at Janet Leigh and aids in her kidnapping. Welles’ regular player Joseph Cotten (The Third Man) appears as a detective, while Marlene Dietrich has a great cameo as a gypsy-like brothel owner who tells Quinlan that he has no future, that it’s all used up. Mercedes McCambridge (Johnny Guitar) surprisingly shows up in drag as a Mexican gang member, and Zsa Zsa Gabor has a memorable, if brief scene as the owner of a strip club.
Touch of Evil comes highly recommended. It’s a deeply subversive film that unequivocally roots for its villain and makes the hero look ridiculous. Though earlier Welles works introduced themes of racism, Touch of Evil seems to impart a message stunning for the time that Mexicans are no different than Americans and the carnivalesque border town presents the bleed through of the criminal and immoral from all walks of life. Pick up the DVD or better yet the special edition Blu-ray — this film is a true classic of American cinema from its Gothic-Western undertones to its revolutionary cinematography, and a last American look at one of the country’s greatest auteurs.