When it comes to starting off a film with a bang, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil manages to do that both on a technical level and a quite literal level. In one of the most celebrated opening sequences in cinema history, a bomb is planted in a car on the Mexican side of the U.S./Mexico border and, in one flawlessly conceived shot, is followed as it makes its way into the U.S. only to erupt into a ball of flames, taking a rich American developer and his mistress with it.
What follows is an unremarkable story with a somewhat convoluted plot that rises above its run of the mill roots via its superb craftsmanship, a rare instance of style over substance. Although Welles is known for his exceptional use of sound as a result of his background in radio, this film and Citizen Kane make a pretty good case for his nearly unparalleled grasp of using the camera as a storytelling device as well. Not to take any credit away from his DPs, but these two films are some of the finest ever shot.
Touch of Evil stars Charlton Heston (buttered up in paint to look Mexican) as Roman Miguel ‘Mike’ Vargas and Orson Welles (who’s so unappealing that he literally appears to be buttered up) as the racist police captain, Hank Quinlan. Neither of the characters is very appealing. Vargas is uncomfortable to watch just because he’s painted up in the Hispanic version of blackface and due to bad dialogue (“Do you realize I haven’t kissed you in over an hour?”). Quinlan on the other hand is played beautifully by Welles and the unease and disgust felt towards him is exactly what was intended.
The drama ensues when Vargas tries to get to the bottom of what happened in a case that Quinlan says is out of his jurisdiction. In Quinlan’s eyes, Vargas is an idealistic cop on the wrong side of the border and worst of all — a Mexican.
Although racial tensions are a major theme throughout the conflict between the two, they are hard to take seriously when the filmmakers couldn’t even bother to make Heston’s makeup a little more subtle or, better yet, cast someone who looks more Mexican or actually is Mexican. I realize that many actors have portrayed characters of races other than their own and that’s perfectly fine with me. The face paint is the part of Vargas’ portrayal that just doesn’t sit well with me. Product of its time or not, it’s just awkward and wrong seeing Moses in face paint (the paint being what’s wrong, not the fact that it’s Moses).
As the somewhat complicated plot unfolds, we learn that Vargas is supposed to be on his honeymoon with his American wife (played by Janet Leigh). Obsessed with solving the crime, Vargas continually disregards her and, being a typically weak and unintelligent Hollywood female character, she unwittingly gets caught up in a plot to frame Vargas.
As you can see, the film is not without its problems. It’s clumsy in its handling of race and gender-related issues. But the film is essentially a B movie and for what it is, it’s unparalleled in execution. The cinematography is absolutely stunning. The dark corners and alleys of the border town seethe with danger and the lighting is perfect in its sparse yet effective use. You only see what needs to be seen and the stark contrasts between the lights and darks keep you peering into the dark in constant search of what’s lurking around the corner. The camerawork in this film is nothing short of revelatory.
In addition, the use of sound throughout the film is unsurprisingly excellent as well. The most striking example for me was in the famous opening sequence. Welles blurs the line between diegetic and non-diegetic music as we hear music fading in and out as the car travels past different buildings. The result is an aural tasting menu of the town in which the film is about to unfold.
Just like the beginning of the film, the finale once again combines Welles’ mastery of both sight and sound. After effectively ratcheting up the tension throughout the film, it unwinds in a somewhat predictable but satisfying ending. Yes, the story is kind of engaging but the real reason to see this film is to watch the way in which it’s told with a virtuosic grasp of cinematic technique and not to see what happens next. The desire to see what happens next is more the result of brilliant filmmaking rather than a brilliant screenplay.
At Lucid Screening, an issue that Andrew, one of our writers, has been grappling with is in regard to separating a film’s form from its content. This has mainly been in regard to Terrence Malick’s The New World a historical epic filmed in the characteristically lyrical style that Malick is known for. Although I’m a fan of the film, it’s not without some reservations. Malick’s decision to use the Pocahontas myth for any purpose other than to finally be rid of it once and for all is a disappointment even if his use of it wasn’t exactly a celebration of the legend.
Touch of Evil on the other hand isn’t based on any historical events and doesn’t aspire to be anything more than the hard boiled film noir that it is. A film such as Michael Mann’s Heat had aspirations both thematically and in terms of plot to transcend its genre, but Welles has no such pretensions and it makes the film’s weaknesses somewhat forgivable, if not charming. Instead, he lets the technical qualities of his film set it apart and in those respects Touch of Evil can stand shoulder to shoulder with just about every film ever produced, regardless of genre.
Written by Ben