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Touch of Evil (1958)

by on 2011/03/31

I never liked Touch of Evil.

Oh, I wanted to, but I didn’t.

I first saw it years — okay, decades — ago, when I was studying film. Though I am aware of its high regard in cinematic history, that understanding doesn’t necessarily fuel conviction. Overall, I found it forgettable.

Recently, we saw it again. I’d purchased a set including multiple versions, and decided to see the theatrical release, followed by the 1998 restoration, for comparison’s sake.

We never got to the latter because, frankly, we hated the former.

Still, how could I ignore this noir touchstone? How could we spend a month sifting through its inspirations and inheritors, and not recognize so widely lauded a classic, regardless of our personal feelings?

Some say Touch of Evil was Orson Welles’ attempt to kill an artistic movement. I suspect it’s more likely his highly meddled-with effort happened to be at the proverbial right place at the right time. All the same, hearing that argument gave me reason to try, try again . . . and a good reason for leaving it until the month’s end.

This time I tried the “restored” version and, if you’ll excuse the obvious pun, it restored a faith somewhat shaken by The Third Man and The Stranger.

The story is simpler than I recalled from my original viewings. Mexican cop Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston of 1968’s Planet of the Apes) visits the States with his new bride, Susie (Janet Leigh of 1960‘s Psycho). There he witnesses a deadly explosion, and becomes involved in its investigation.

Local law enforcement legend Hank Quinlan (Welles) heads up the case, however his methods displease the upstanding Vargas. As the two become distracted, locking horns professionally, Susie is menaced by a criminal family seeking revenge against her husband.

Okay, let me address the elephant in the room right off . . . the greasy-haired, dark-painted, mustachioed elephant. Heston is almost as poor a choice to play Vargas as anyone who qualifies as human. His swaggering manner and stentorian delivery are extremely distracting. Furthermore, his positioning as a “noble savage” does much to subvert the spirit of Evil’s noir.

Leigh as Susie is nearly as frustrating. I had a hard time determining whether I was more annoyed by the acting or the activity. Her hyper brightness, faux bravado and, frankly, idiocy really put me off. To be polite, she demonstrates terrible judgment. We might sympathize with some of her experiences, yet she tempts fate by taunting hoodlums, placing herself in harm’s way, and doing little to help her own cause.

Fortunately, a vast store of value can be taken from Welles’ performance as Quinlan. Beneath the layers of makeup, he does a great job of sublimating his usual erudition. His voice changes from one of insight and authority to one of self-loathing aggression. The scene where he drunkenly recalls the death of his wife by a “half breed” is probably my favourite of the entire film.

His sometime-foil, Marlene Dietrich as Tana, is similarly outstanding. If her gypsy goth is no angel, then at least her shadowy past allows her to understand the present and future more clearly. She is possessed of an unblinking intensity, a sinister mystery shrouded in smoke and superstition.

Another small part is less effective: Dennis Weaver (Duel) as the Mirador motel’s night manager. His overblown approach casts the part in a garish mask of bug-eyed mania. Eccentricity can be an occasional part of life but, in a world powered or informed by narrative economy he is, in a way, more unbalancing than Heston.

And there I leave my final significant complaint.

From beginning to end, Welles’ stylish execution caught me, held me, and remains with me days later. High contrast black and white, a healthy balance of grain and detail, oscillating lights, long shadows, interesting angles, and the requisite chiaroscuro . . . even a reference to Little Caesar.

Much has been written about its first scene, with a legendary long take unsurpassed in the decades since. My great expectations were, surprisingly, exceeded. If I hadn’t been bracing for the foreshadowed explosion, I’d have been distracted by puzzling out the shot’s execution.

I could go on . . . and on . . . and on: the visceral rush afforded by a hood-mounted camera; the abundance of diegetic sources for Henry Mancini’s awesome score; the single most striking corpse discovery I’ve ever had gouged into my mind.

They say converts make the best evangelists and, now, I suppose I’m proof of it. I’m not overstating the matter to say I dreaded revisiting this film. You see, the thing is, I never liked Touch of Evil.

Until now.

* * * *

Rated PG-13 for adult situations, disturbing scenes, and violence

111 minutes (1998 restored version)

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