Noir-vember Day 16: Touch of Evil (1958) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Noir-vember Day 16: Touch of Evil (1958)

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Orson Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil is often regarded as a B-movie masterpiece or noir-schlock cliché, but the film is most remembered by film fans for two insanely incongruent elements: an uninterrupted, three minute crane shot that opens the film (and could make the whole cast of Goodfellas blush) and Charlton Heston playing a Mexican. Oddly enough, these two indelible elements seem to typify a film that is beautifully (and meticulously) shot, framed and edited while also overblown, visually hyperbolic and unabashedly flamboyant; Touch of Evil is certainly not for all film fans, but those willing to go for an unhinged cinematic adventure are rewarded with twisting, Celtic knot of a plot and some of Welles’ greatest technical achievements.

In classic noir fashion, Touch of Evil has a reckless, tragically corrupt police captain, a seedy, sex-crazed motel manager, an eldritch drug dealer in a bad toupee, and a brazen narcotics officer whose honeymoon is interrupted by a pesky car explosion on the U.S.-Mexico border. Like many noir films, the plot itself, and the actions of individual characters, are somewhat inconsequential and merely help create an ominous tone and feel, and Touch of Evil is no exception.

This won't end well.

Heston plays Miguel (Mike) Vargas , a driven, highly decorated narcotics agent who witnesses a car-bombing while honeymooning in Mexico. Although the car explodes on the U.S. side of the border, the culprit clearly planted the bomb on the soil of America’s southern neighbor, and the debacle has international incident written all over it. American police captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) quickly ensnares a Mexican suspect (Victor Millan), but it’s immediately apparent that Quinlan and his cronies have been planting evidence while building their own sinister machinations. Along the way there’s more hidden explosives, a kidnapping, drugs, and a frame job; like many noir films, over-thinking the nature of the plot is completely beside the point, and the story’s twists, turns, and seemingly inconceivable elements are often incidental at best.

When viewed on the merits of its script and acting, there’s little to like about the film. There are clichés aplenty, and much of the drama borders on outright incoherent and unbelievable. Heston is over the top, and Welles’ villainous turn is captivating but completely overwrought. As a technical and cinematic achievement, however, “Touch of Evil” may be Welles’ unsung directorial masterpiece. The camera work, cinematography, lighting, editing, and transitions coalesce into a visual spectacle that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Although the film flopped in America upon its release, Touch of Evil won wide acclaim and has been cited as influential by everyone from Peter Bogdanovich to Paul Thomas Anderson.

Russell Metty’s cinematography is captivating in all the right places, and often epitomizes the ethos of showing rather than telling; when Metty’s long tracking shots and pans connect each character, he is helping the crooked cops and the film’s hero both physically and metaphorically. Likewise, camera movements up and down various landscapes and sets helps reinforce the cyclical, intertwined nature of the film’s plot. Welles and Hestone often overwhelm the frame, and their positions in various shots shift as the two characters jockey for the upperhand as the film progresses. All of this camerawork is subtle and generally unassuming, but the cinematographic detail helps craft the brooding, foreboding tone that permeates the film.

The opening shot is impressive to say the least.

Thematically, Touch of Evil is also far richer than the plot itself would lead viewers to believe; instead of simply replaying crooked cops, nihilistic heroes and femme fatales, Welles uses the film’s plot and location to playfully invert conventions and further defy the expectations of the time. Quinlan seems to embody the evidence-planting, above-the law ethos of Mexican police stereotypes while Vargas typifies the driven but flawed lawman so common in American cinema. As his final American-made film, Touch of Evil further seems to typify Welles’ career as a whole; the film is dark, unsettling and hard to follow, but ultimately groundbreaking.

Touch of Evil was largely ignored upon its initial release, but has become a template for elegant camera moves and moody lighting. Although the film is a bit of a jumbled mess cinematically, it is technically gorgeous in all senses of the word. Noir fans may love the twists and (sometimes superfluous) character minutiae, but students of film have much to learn from Welles themes, visual style, and direction. There are significantly better examples of noir cinema, but Touch of Evil distills the look and tone of the genre while pushing the time period’s technical boundaries in ways that are truly captivating.

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Posted by Andrew

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