Passion. Murder. Police brutality. Xenophobia. The four elements of the Florida state flag also make up the intricate and morbid plot of Orson Welles’ opus, Touch of Evil. The film’s history is as complex and myriad as the film itself, with as loose an ownership as that of the Denver Broncos (I don’t know anything about football). The ways in which the film tackles complex social issues still in contention today, as well as its service as one of the last great original film noirs, makes Touch of Evil a classic that’s almost on par with Welle’s other masterstroke, Citizen Kane.
Touch of Evil is a noir, first and foremost. The way in which the camera acts as a voyeur, peeping in on conversations and following characters around, perfectly complements the sense of intimacy and claustrophobia that the genre is known for. The story, while convoluted at its worst, uses clever editing and pacing to keep all of the pieces in order. Charlton Heston plays Miguel Vargas, a Mexican drug enforcement officer, who finds himself entangled in the untimely murder of a wealthy man and his young girlfriend. Vargas and his wife, Susie, are already the subject of intense scrutiny on both sides of the border due to their interracial relationship. Despite the second glances, Vargas maintains his role as a peacekeeper and officer of the law; he refuses to betray his moral compass. Standing in direct opposition – while on the same side of the law as Vargas – is Captain Quinlan, an aging WC Fields stand-in with a peculiar grudge against Mexicans. Quinlan is the type of dick who’s suspicious of everyone and everything, except for his own foolhardy pride. The two men clash heavily while working on the case; rising tension from a local drug kingpin doesn’t help matters at all, and soon enough both men find themselves in a battle of wits to discover who truly is the Touch of Evil (is that how titles work?).
While never hard to follow, the plot at times can result in a frenzy of information and action – not at all helped by poor sound design. This is, of course, not the fault of the film: the movie has had a Blade Runner-esque experience going through the wrong hands of countless studio suits, who either found it too confusing or needlessly provocative. These archaic attitudes only hindered the film from doing what it does best, and ultimately caused Welles’ distancing himself from the Hollywood system. It’s a sentiment as old as time, and one that still seems to spring up from many frustrated directors who work their asses off only to find themselves the victims of the dreaded focus group test. After Welles’ version was tampered with by studio heads, he wrote an impassioned plea to the brass to make certain cuts and changes so as to make the film more palatable and closer to his ultimate vision. Executives being executives, they heeded nearly none of his advice, and Welles was forced to resign himself to doing commercials for frozen peas. The version of Touch of Evil I saw was a recut version from the late ‘90s that, utilizing a workprint found in the cavernous, spider-filled tombs of the Universal vault, closely adheres to Welles’ ideal version.
Welles himself will always be known for being a Renaissance man in the realm of entertainment. A playwright, screenwriter, director, actor, astronomer and biker babe, Welles sought to overrule the stuffy studio codes that had done in so many artists before him. What we got as his first real work – Citizen Kane – is a masterpiece that still holds up as if it were released yesterday. Welles’ sophomore work was another fantastic film, The Magnificent Ambersons; the film was heavily edited by RKO Pictures, beginning a long souring of the grapes that were Welles’ Hollywood career that eventually went into the delicious Paul Masson wines he spent his later years hawking.
The years between Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil are telling, as it seems Welles had eaten and drank himself into a state of complete disassociation with the world around him. His first appearance in the film is almost ghastly; the large frame and heaving breath were a far cry from the energetic, spry young Welles who had turned Hollywood on its ear some seventeen years earlier. It’s wholly appropriate that Welles presents himself the way he does here: his character, Quinlan, is essentially a metaphor for Welles himself and his career in Hollywood. Quinlan has let decades of disillusionment get the better of him and his work, and it’s ultimately propelled him to turn his back on the very system he once stood for. This is most certainly of Welles’ doing; he tends to place himself deeply in his work and characters, blurring the lines between his own life and those of his alter egos in an effort to garner the greatest possible performance. What we’re given in this movie is a mixed bag: Welles has moments of pure genius as a corrupt detective, but more often than not his delivery is overwhelmed by his need to gasp for air between every word. Listening to him perform a monologue can be exhausting; his delivery seems tired and muddled, as if he just didn’t care on certain days. It works well – with his exhausted stature combined with the same deft makeup work seen in Citizen Kane, he truly looks like a man who’s been beaten into submission by a crooked system.
The same can’t be said for the makeup job on Charlton “Actual Cold, Dead Fingers” Heston. In a move that is typical old-Hollywood yet still shocking to see, Heston is given an Omar Sharif mustache and a heavy coating of brown spray-tan, making him look less authentically Mexican and more like Heston simply went on vacation for a week before filming. It’s laughable at times, especially when Heston is sharing screen time with any other actor who is actually Mexican, of which there are plenty. Heston does his work well, speaking fluent Spanish to the locals as a means of gathering information, but there’s still a rotten taste left in the mouth when watching these interactions, as if Welles put on a wig and tried to out-woman Marlene Dietrich (he sadly doesn’t). What’s even more frustrating is that the film extolls the virtues of tolerance and inclusivity, all while featuring its lead actor in brownface. These themes of justice in the face of racial tension aren’t helped by the casting, though the performances themselves are fantastic all-around.
While his acting isn’t at its peak here, Welles is at his most adept behind the camera. The techniques used in Touch of Evil are done with a sense of effortlessness that it almost comes off as perfunctory; almost every shot is perfect, and almost every scene utilizes directorial work that didn’t really come into the fore of Hollywood until the Renaissance of the 1970s. Character blocking, lighting, use of music (and lack thereof), and exquisite camera work all come together to make this the best-looking film noir I’ve ever seen. I’m a sucker for long takes, and the first 4 minutes of the film is illuminated by a tracking shot that sets the tone technically and atmospherically for the rest of the film. Characters walk through a lobby, enter an elevator, have a discussion, and leave the elevator, all in one take; it’s the way in which everything is engaged so casually that makes the filmmaking remarkable here.
The finale of the film culminates with the tragic realization that good can become corrupted, and corruptness can be rooted in good. Quinlan finds himself against a figurative and literal wall by the end of the movie; it’s here that the overall theme of the message becomes less about who committed the crime, and more about those committed to protect society from those crimes. At what point does the punishment cease to fit the crime, and become merely punishment? At what point does cruelty begin to beget cruelty? At what point did Orson Welles decide to stop making perfect, avant-garde movies and exclusively appear on The Dick Cavett Show? The story of his career, like that of Touch of Evil, was one of tragedy, disenchantment and self-flagellation to atone for sins that weren’t necessarily those of the father. Auteurs typically only have one direction to go, and Welles still somehow moved sideways.