Exquisite deep shadows and sharp light, beaming from the screen, make Touch of Evil a film noir classic. A staple of the genre, Touch of Evil begins with a flawless three-minute sequence as a bomb sits within a Cadillac as it crosses the border from Mexico to America.
Charlton Heston, a Mexican apparently, with his wife weaves between the car and the sidewalk for the entire sequence. Hitchcock knew a few things about a ticking time-bomb and Welles has clearly taken a page from the master of suspense. This immediate start is intelligent film direction, and proves how this is indeed the same director of Citizen Kane. In fact, Touch of Evil would play very well on a double-bill with The Third Man. Though not directed by Welles, The Third Man uses the magnificent actor as a deeply despicable man, not unlike Detective Quinlan, Welles role in Touch of Evil.
Both Vargas (Heston), a Mexican Detective, and Quinlan (Welles), the US detective, try and find out who the bomber is. This is no simple who-done-it as Quinlan has his own methods of finding the bomber. Vargas slowly realises that Quinlan’s form of ‘justice’ isn’t the same as his. It is unclear which district the murder falls within, requiring both cops to follow the case. Then, in a stand-out scene, Vargas witnesses the primary suspect is framed by Quinlan and his goons. The question is ‘How corrupt is Quinlan?’. He’s a racist cop, referring to Mexicans as ‘half-breeds’. Vargas, a moral cop, investigates Quinlan more than the case set up in the opening. Quinlan has allies in drug-dealers who want to take down Vargas for their own benefit. It seems that sometimes, you’re on your own when strong principles guide you.
Heston is unrecognizable as Vargas, looking more like Clark Gable rather than his blonde roles in Planet of the Apes and Ben-Hur. Through his story we realise that, not only is he often on his own, but it’s his wife who pays the price for his success. In the last act, we see Quinlan get his comeuppance. But by this point, we know the truth of the bomber too. In both cases, Vargas is hardly walking away a hero.
The finale especially is iconic as it shows how expressionistic Welles can be. We know from Citizen Kane that angled camera-shots and sharp lighting are all part of the cinematic experience – and it is no different in Touch of Evil. It also adds to the effective pairing-up with Carol Reeds The Third Man. We see the treacherous landscape Vargas has to stand upon to pick up signal. The world is broken and twisted and this reflects the corrupted nature of justice – and the power that can be abused by the police. Further to this, the seedy world is reflected in the double-cross of ‘Pete’. He’s a good cop and he is the only reason Quinlan is proved a fraud by Vargas – but he dies for his change of side. It’s a tragic end to a sordid film.
This is a vivid world where strip clubs, brothels, drug-dens, and rape are common place. The small line “you get her legs” provides an exceptionally sinister edge in one attack. A ‘night’ guy within the Mirador Motel, twitching and wide-eyed, could be related to Norman Bates. The fact that it’s Janet Leigh who stumbles across the strange motel man could mean that perhaps Hitchcock himself was inspired by Welles here when adapting Psycho. Because Touch of Evil is up there with the best of cinema, and to watch it on the big screen this month is a cultural necessity. Upon its original release, studios mangled up the editing and from notes by Orson Welles himself, they ensured that the print screened is the one the genius has signed off on. What are you waiting for?
This was originally written for Flickering Myth in July 2015