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.