Touch of Evil

[Author's Note: I originally wrote this review a few years ago, back in August of 2010. As such, I've made a few edits, updates, and alterations, but the majority of the piece remains in its original form.]

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I was a bit late in my appreciation of film noir, even later with any real knowledge of its seminal works. My teenage interest in cinema first grew into something resembling a passion with pictures like Bruce Robinson’s Withnail & I, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and David Fincher’s adaptation of Fight Club. While Tarantino’s work should have inspired me to work my way back through crime cinema’s dark history, I remained primarily interested in relatively recent films, typically offbeat works like Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or heroin narratives like Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, Darren Aronofsky’s soul-crushing Requiem for a Dreamand Alison Maclean's adaptation of Denis Johnson's wonderful Jesus's Son. When I did watch crime narratives as a younger man they were often of the La Cosa Nostra variety, the oldest probably from the early ’70s.

It wasn't until my early-twenties when I developed an appreciation for crime writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonaldwhose Black Money I first read in a class primarily focused on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s workthat I went back to films like The Big Sleep  and The Asphalt Jungle and truly recognized them for the accomplishments they are. It didn't take much more to send me down the dark alleys and into the smoke-filled bars of just about any film noir I could get my hands on, usually from a friend’s collection on their recommendation. After a few years, I had a much firmer grasp on and interest in noir, both its literary and cinematic avenues.

That said, it wasn't for some time that I finally sat down to watch Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. It didn't surprise me to learn after my first viewing that Welles had requested the worst of a pile of scripts from producer Albert Zugsmith’s desk in order to prove that he could create something worthwhile from even the most paltry of offerings. Welles’ strong performances both in front of and behind the camera aside, there remains a cartoonish feel to a number of the characters and scenes, an issue that the film itself references early on when Janet Leigh tells a central antagonists that he acts like someone who has watched too many gangster films. But even the acknowledgement of scenery chewing doesn't remedy the fact that a number of the menacing figures that should be lurking in the shadows are too often in the light, often as markedly two-dimensional henchmen spewing stilted dialogue. There is even a scene where Charlton Heston’s character is being tailed by a young man who runs, jumps, and ducks behind pillars and walls like some pantomime villain.

Even the film’s hero, Miguel Vargas (yes, this is the film playfully mentioned in Ed Wood where Charlton Heston is playing a Mexican), is lacking in any real depth. Despite the film’s running time—the 1998 cut runs almost two hours—we learn little about Vargas other than he is a honest cop who has recently arrested a notorious criminal in Mexico City. Once he gets wrapped up in Touch of Evil‘s central narrative—wonderfully done in a three-and-a-half-minute long take of ‘Mike’ and Susie Vargas walking through a border town, dramatically and jarringly ending with a car exploding as it crosses through a checkpoint onto American soil—Vargas is little more than a foil to Welles’ shadowy, far more intriguing Hank Quinlan.

Touch of Evil is Quinlan’s film and Welles’ performance alone is enough to make the film worth sitting through. While it’s not of the same caliber as his depiction of Harry Lime in The Third Man (and really here I am talking about the famous cuckoo clock speech), Welles’ turn as Quinlan is something to behold—his decline is far more compelling than Vargas' rise. Add to this performance a story that periodically meanders, but is compelling enough, and a visually striking rendering of the Mexican-American border, and you have an engaging take on film noir towards the end of the genre’s era.

If you want to see what far more qualified people have said about Touch of Evil:

  • Charles Taylor’s 1998 review for claims that Touch of Evil "may just be the sleaziest good movie ever made."
  • Reel Classics hosts a New York Times article by Walter Murch who oversaw the 1998 cut of Touch of Evil which drew heavily from Welles' 58-page memo written after he saw a version of the film that Universal had significantly altered with new footage and reshot scenes.
  • David Edelstein’s review for Slate (tucked under his review of Rounders) notes that when the author was younger he "thought [Touch of Evil] was one of the worst pictures ever—garish, oppressive, and appallingly overacted. Grown up, I'd go with those same adjectives, except now I think it’s one of the best."
  • And the master reviewer himself, Roger Ebert, claims "The film has always been a favorite of those who enjoy visual and dramatic flamboyance," and draws parallels between Welles and the character he depicts, Hank Quinlan: "Much of Welles' work was autobiographical, and the characters he chose to play (Kane, Macbeth, Othello) were giants destroyed by hubris. Now consider Quinlan, who nurses old hurts and tries to orchestrate this scenario like a director, assigning dialogue and roles. There is a sense in which Quinlan wants final cut in the plot of this movie, and doesn't get it. He's running down after years of indulgence and self-abuse, and his ego leads him into trouble."