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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)


9 Responses to “Touch of Evil (rewatch)”

  1. nancy said

    This is one of my fav movies! Heston is not one of my favorite actors, however, but he is the straight man. And if there’s one thing he’s good at, it’s outraged morality. I love the continuous shot at the beginning, culminating with the explosion. Quinlan is the hero / antihero (in my mind).

    • (Hmm, I thought I replied earlier but now I don’t see my comment) Heston isn’t one of my favorites, either. He stars in one of the worst noirs I’ve ever seen, BORN TO BE BAD. This is pretty much the only role I like him in. And yes, that opening shot is a stunner.

  2. mountanto said

    I love this movie dearly. It’s probably my favorite Welles (though I still haven’t seen Chimes at Midnight), and for my part, I really get a kick out of Dennis Weaver’s wacky antics. Usually a character like that would annoy the hell out of me, but here, I was thoroughly amused.

    I think Heston’s performance is just fine (his makeup is maybe a little heavy-handed, but…eh), and remember: he wanted Welles to direct. If it weren’t for him, this would have probably ended up a forgotten programmer. Instead…

    • True enough, Heston made the suggestion. And yes, his performance is fine. My favorite Welles is still THE TRIAL, and after that I’d probably go F FOR FAKE, but this is a comfortable third place.

      • mountanto said

        THE TRIAL is great. I’d put it third after CITIZEN KANE, but to be honest, I need to see it (THE TRIAL, that is) again. F FOR FAKE looks awesome from what I’ve seen.

    • mountanto said

      Also, one heartbreaking little moment that never seems to get cited…Calleia’s line, “Everything I am, I am because of him”…his whole sense of self is crashing down because his idol is being revealed for what he really is. It’s a bit that always stuck with me.

      That and Joseph Cotten’s great little “That’s what you think.”

  3. Alan said

    Let’s hear it for the Legendry Marlene, she has some of the best lines in the movie “I didn’t recognize you.. you should lay off those candy bars”; “You haven’t got any”(future).” Your future is all used up” And then she walks off into the darkness with the best line of all “he was some kind of man.. wat does it matter what you say about people..” Adios Tanya.

    • That last one is an absolute killer. Great way to end a film.

      • Alan said

        ..and you know it’s not just the lines but the performance…can you imagine anyone else with the ability to sound as knowing and world weary, she sounds as though she knows all the answers and most of the questions. And she looks amazing for 57, I seem to remember she came up with her own wardrobe and the black wig was from an Elizabeth Taylor film.

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