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Touch of Evil

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The end of Noir, or so they say. This film was a bit of a disappointment after all the talk-up it has received (or at least that I have heard.) The opening eight minutes (one brilliant, mind-blowing shot) is rather breathtaking – Welles has technical bravura and bravado both. What he lacks is a good editor and a judicial hand with said technical prowess.

Citizen Kane was monumental, earning Welles high marks for his technical, emotional, and thematic excellence alike. Touch of Evil contains the same technical brilliance as Kane, but without the substance that gives the technique meaning. High and low angle shots are used throughout Citizen Kane to denote power – who holds it, who does not. In Touch of Evil, the same technique is used, and to the same effect, but at times unncessary. Welles wields his eye for composition and serpentine camera movement like a sledgehammer rather than a paintbrush. In addition to this slight misstep (and, despite my harping, it is slight – Touch of Evil is still a very good film, I just feel that something, anything, negative should be said about it.), Welles’ editor seems absent on several occasions. Scenes run on – without humor, point, or necessity – to the edge of boredom. I’m thinking specifically of Heston confronting the night man at his wife’s hotel. Which brings up another gripe – Heston. The man, in addition to being a blind tyrant of a testosterone (someone please render his hands cold & dead), is hardly worthy of the denotation, “thespian.” Even if I’m exaggerating, his presence as Mike Vargas (that’s right – M. Heston plays a Mexican man) is flaccid, causing him to seem absolutely lifeless in comparison to Welles’ ironically vivacious Hank Quinlan.

If this was truly Noir’s coffin-nail (and Noir, somehow, no longer exists. WTF, mate?), then it was an apropos way to go. Welles’ films cause me to think that the man was trying to say something about himself. Casting himself as the larger-than-life Charlie Kane, only to knock himself down the ladder upon which he climbed. Or Mike Quinlan, the quasi-despicable vigilante policeman who sits above the law, lamenting the days of yore. Welles, the multimedia wunderkind, seems to comment on his own frailty; his own grandiose pomp and pathetic manner in which that pomp is deflated. He is, in essence, the Noir Hero. He possesses the fatality, the finite power, and the dreams and aspirations grown too large. So, with Touch of Evil, Welles gathers all these confluences – the genre elements, the technique, and, most of all, himself – and molds them into one final, flawed farewell to the defeated spirit of post-war modern man.

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About Michael Kanbergs

  • I almost agree with all you wrote. “Touch of Evil” is not “Citizen Kane”. But, then, hardly anything is “Citizen Kane”, a classic of classics. Is Heston a great Mexican…well maybe his mother came from Spain or California. On the other hand, Orson Welles is worth the price of admission in his unrelenting, sweaty evil portrayal of the corrupt cop. The film noir shooting is usually excellent for film noir. Not “Citizen Kane” but definitely noir. It isn’t the top of Orson Welles but it sure is fun. If only Hollywood could still have fun with that level of quality.

  • Welles took a thin story and shot it with enormous style. It’s a textbook of technique, and in the terrfic documentary Visions of Light, cinematographers constantly refer back to it and Citizen Kane. But as an artistic experience it’s lacking; you walk away feeling empty — and everything that’s good about it seems like it belongs in a more interesting film, from Welles’ performance as Hank Quinlan to the scene of Janet Leigh’s violation — all the little grace notes scattered through it that are supposed to make us feel something don’t, ever. I used to love the film rather automatically as a longtime Welles fan, but seeing the restored version at a theatre forced the realization that the story simply lacks narrative intensity. You can go through several viewings so dazzled by Welles’ audacity that you may not notice the material is not up to snuff with his best work.

  • Very true, Rodney. And that’s where my (vague) sense of dissatisfaction came from. Whereas [i]Citizen Kane[/i] is brimming with both technical brilliance and depth, [i]Touch of Evil[/i] has only the former. I’d like to give Welles the benefit of the doubt, and assume that the thiness of the film is intended to fall in line with the thinness of the noir universe. That’s probably stretching it a bit, though.