Friday, 22 July 2016

Touch of Evil (1958)

Politiets blinde øje
Question: What happens when you combine the style and darkness of a film noir with the brutality and intensity of a modern thriller?

Answer: You get something like “Touch of Evil”.

 “Touch of Evil” is one of those movies I race through because it is engaging on a very elementary level. Danger is looming everywhere and the ambience tells us that it is not a given thing that the good guys will survive in the end. Come to think of it, who exactly is the good guys?

In fact this was such an exciting watch that it was easy to miss the many elements and layers that makes this an even more interesting watch. I am sure it is one of those movies that will benefit greatly from a re-watch.

Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and is wife Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) are on their honeymoon at the border of Mexico and the US when a car is blown up and two people die. This means that the honeymoon is put pause since Vargas is a something like a police detective and a prosecutor for the Mexican government and this border town has lately been his hunting ground. At least on the Mexican side. Now he finds himself involved in this bombing incident that took place on the US side of the border, but originated on the Mexican side and that means that he gets to meet his opposite number on the US side.

The American law enforcement is headed by the impressive Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). He is big. Physically, in the eyes of his subordinates and not least in his own mind. He is the law. If he says people are guilty then goddammit they are guilty and he will get them. When Vargas challenges this authority Quinlan turns real nasty and soon Vargas and his wife are in a pincher between Quinlan and the local gangster with his henchmen.

I always (at least since I started this project) thought that Orson Welles was a better director than actor, a sort of opposite von Stroheim, but here his acting is magnificent. Not that there is anything wrong with his direction here, but Welles has this pig face that always look as if there is something unsavory about him. As Hank Quinlan that unsavoriness is enhanced into something truly monstrous. A hateful, all-powerful bigot, sweating and fat and menacing. In other words, your perfect villain. And then, just as you would think it could not get worse, Welles adds a humanity to him as well, something that gives us a glimpse of understanding for this man and certainly adds complexity.

Charlton Heston’s Vargas on the other hand is a much more straight forward type. Yes, he is Mexican with an American wife, but we know his type very well. He is the honorable, heroic type who stands up for those who are being wronged, a crusader for justice. We as viewers can relate to him and it is very obvious that we are supposed to. It is only when his wife is being threatened that the knight’s façade cracks up. That unlocks a beast inside him who is not out for justice, but vengeance.

In this way it becomes a real contest of personalities. Not only good versus bad, but one badass guy against the next.

The cinematography is huge asset for this movie. It has all the Welles trademarks of viewing angles and clipping, but it also has an apocalyptic darkness to it. Dirty, sweaty, industrial and indulgent. This is the 1958 version of the “Bladerunner” environment and it completely works. We know Susan Vargas is not safe from the moment the movie starts and when she is dumped off at the motel it is not a question of if but how she will be assaulted. It pretty much freaked me up, so much that I was actually a bit relieved when they only doped her and used her to set up her husband.

Another small but noteworthy detail is how many famous actors had small cameos. There are Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Cotton and Mercedes McCambridge just to mention a few. I think it great when people show up like that, especially when they do not steal the picture, but blend in almost unnoticed. 

I will watch “Touch of Evil” soon again so I can dwell on all the small details, enjoy the music and just soak in the ambience of this movie. It may be Welles best picture since “Citizen Kane”.


  1. I'd have to agree that this is Welles best film after Kane. The writing is perfect as well as the direction, cinematography and most of the acting. For me, Charleton Heston strikes the only false note. There is not a Mexican bone in his body. We can all be grateful he didn't try to put on an accent or anything.

    1. I actually do not think he was as bad as that. Not that I know that many Mexicans, but I have seen worse attempts. Would have been hilarious though to hear Heston try on a hispanic accent...

  2. I love this movie, despite the whitewashing of putting Charlton Heston in as a Mexican. Everything here works. There's menace and malice and danger. And that opening sequence!

    He was some kind of a man.

    1. Yes, menace, malice and danger. There is so much to love in this movie, but the cinematography takes the price for me. Anybody wanting to make a noir thriller HAVE to watch Touch of Evil to see how it is done. This is perfection.