Touch of Evil

10 Feb

Today, Orson Welles is regarded as the Shakespeare of cinema, topping both the critics and directors top ten directors lists in a Sight & Sound poll conducted in 2002. However, Welles’ career was far from rosy and the only one of the five films he directed in Hollywood where he had creative control over the final cut is, perhaps not coincidentally the “official greatest film of all time”, Citizen Kane. Of the others, by far the best is Touch of Evil, one of the last and greatest examples of film noir, starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Welles himself.

Welles was originally slated to only star in the film but due to a miscommunication with Heston, Universal scrambled to sign him up as the director as well. Welles was eager to work in Hollywood again after spending some time in Europe, despite the fact that the studio system had resulted in the bastardisation of much of his work, most famously The Magnificent Ambersons which was cut down from 148 minutes in length to the mere 88 minutes that survive today. Nevertheless, Welles had high regard for Hollywood, praising the American technical arsenal as “a grandiose thing” but once again on Touch of Evil, the studio altered Welles’ work without his permission. Thankfully, the cut footage wasn’t lost like it was on Ambersons and in 1998 his vision was restored with the help of a detailed 58-page memo.

The film opens with terrifically suspenseful scene where we see a mysterious individual place a bomb in a car. A couple enter the car and Welles almost suspends time by utilising a crane shot that tracks the car across the city – occasionally losing it before yet again picking it up. As the scene goes on the tension builds as we expect an explosion that seemingly will never happen, maybe the bomb was a dud? Until, finally, boom. So the scene is set for a typical detective story, where a good, honest cop tries to track down the shadowy killer? Almost. However, Touch of Evil turns out to be much more than that.

The film is primarily a bitter, captivating psychological war between Vargas (Heston), a Mexican drug enforcement officers who involves himself in the case and Hank Quinlan, a long-serving American police Captain with a very impressive record. Quinlan is more than xenophobic, his racism frequently bubbling to the surface of his monstrous physique which represents his personality just as much as his hateful words. Welles always was a master of lighting and in Touch of Evil the cinematography conveys Quinlan’s abhorrent views by utilising high contrast imagery and displaying the Mexican cast in typically much darker lighting than their American counterparts. Vargas suspects that Quinlan plants evidence in order to convict his suspects, in retaliation the power-abusing Quinlan attempts to frame Vargas and his wife for crimes they didn’t commit. Quinlan has become the embodiment of the ‘corrupt Mexican’ stereotype that he so despises, adding an element of irony to the film’s racial subtext.

Welles depicts Quinlan with a detestability that matches Harry Lime, a character Welles iconically played in Carol Reed’s The Third Man but Quinlan is an altogether more human character, despite his more obscene physical attributes. Unlike Lime, Quinlan is a sympathetic character – a monster created by circumstance rather than the pursuit of wealth – his wife was murdered years earlier by a “half-breed” whom Quinlan was unable to convict due to lack of evidence.

Touch of Evil is perhaps the greatest example of Welles’ unparalleled talent for cinema –  besides directing and starring in the picture he also wrote the screenplay just from the basic premise of the “very bad” script that was originally given to him. In actual fact, the film is based on the novel Badge of Evil written by Whit Masterson that Welles would later claim he never even read until after he directed the film. Whether or not the claim is true, the film is an outstanding work – a dark, atmospheric noir masterpiece that displays Welles’ artistic innovation just as much as the earlier Citizen Kane and reminded Hollywood of his brilliance. However, as is always the case, Hollywood didn’t quite like art as much as it liked money and Welles would never direct there again. In the film, a fortune teller tells Quinlan that his future “is all used up”. Now, the prophecy has more poignancy.

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