Touch of Evil (rewatch)
Posted by martinteller on June 3, 2014
I can pinpoint the day I caught the “noir bug”. It was January 27th, 2010, when I watched Murder By Contract. I had seen a handful of noirs before and mostly liked them, but something about the energy of that film — and perhaps the cumulative experience of seeing other noirs — made the genre suddenly “click” for me, and my appetite became insatiable. I had seen Touch of Evil twice before that, most recently in October of 2008. And although I did claim it wasn’t “one of my favorites by Welles”, I had liked it, even owned it. But I held off on a third viewing until the Blu-Ray release. The release was actually a couple of months ago, but I’ve been so busy with other stuff I hadn’t made the commitment until now to sit down and watch it. Perhaps there was also a bit of hesitation, a fear that I’d bought — for the second time — a movie that I wasn’t all that crazy about, perhaps blinded by its reputation.
I should have known I had nothing to worry about (though in my defense, similar fears were borne out in other cases). The movie lives up to its reputation, and I enjoyed it far more than I had on prior occasions. Welles takes the grime and dust of sketchy border towns and turns it into a thick stew of sinister atmosphere. One thing you can always expect from Welles is an artistic visual sensibility, and he does not disappoint here. Almost every shot is a mini-masterpiece of composition and light, simmering with a nervous, edgy energy. To give just one example, when Vargas storms the Rancho Grande, the bar is framed in a way that gives it monumental depth, like an indoor alleyway. The use of music is superb as well… rarely is music so effectively oppressive as it is in that dusty hotel room where the wall speaker torments Janet Leigh.
And though the story is intricate, it’s surprisingly easy to follow, at least in the “reconstructed version” that tries to recreate the film Welles outlined in his famous 57-page memo. It’s a strong story that doesn’t deserve to get lost in the confusing plotting that often plagues noir. There is a satisfying build of events as the tale carefully holds together the strands of Vargas’s investigation, Quinlan’s maneuverings, and Susan’s plight. Perhaps the dialogue is a little too expository to the point of clunkiness at times, but it helps keep all the characters and their actions straight. And though we unquestionably root for Vargas and his integrity, Welles sets aside a little bit of sympathy for the corrupt Quinlan as well, giving him humanity through his inability to avenge his long-dead wife and his attraction to the fortune teller Tana (who I realized for the first time is played by Marlene Dietrich!). Welles’s portrayal is huge (literally) and iconic and commanding without being overcome by the eccentricities that he often puts into his performances. There are also terrific supporting performances by Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia and Mort Mills. I still can’t quite accept Dennis Weaver, who goes absurdly broad.
A lot of complaints are made over the casting of Charlton Heston. If your objection is that his performance isn’t very compelling, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree but I would note that he’s the straightest character in a sea of bent ones. If you protest an American actor being cast in a role that could have gone to an equally qualified Mexican actor, fair enough… though unfortunately, that’s often the way it was in Hollywood. But if you think he’s not “Mexican enough”, I would think twice about what that means. Are Mexicans supposed to look, talk and act a certain way? It wasn’t Welles’s decision to cast Heston (who had been chosen before Welles came on as director) and I can’t say whether he would have gone with someone else. But I think Heston does a fine job with the role and, not being a cultural anthropologist, am not qualified to say whether or not he is convincingly of Mexican descent. At the very least, I’m pleased it’s not an embarrassing ethnic stereotype like Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
But that’s enough about that. I’m very glad I finally took the time to watch this again. The film is gripping and seedy and just strange enough without overdoing it (as Lady from Shanghai sometimes does). A compelling tale of corruption and cynicism and the evil that lurks not just in dusty border towns, but in our damaged, delusional souls. Rating: Great (90)