• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:November 21, 2017

Touch of Evil: Terror on the Border


touchofevilIn the late 1950s, Orson Welles was back in Hollywood after making a few films in Europe. At that time, nobody paid much attention to him as a filmmaker anymore. He decided to direct Touch of Evil, a loose adaptation of a thriller novel, either because Charlton Heston refused to do the movie unless Welles was at the helm, or as part of a deal where Welles wanted to prove to producer Albert Zugsmith that he could make a great movie out of a terrible script. Maybe there’s a grain of truth in both stories.

When he released a rough cut to Universal, the studio decided to reshoot and reedit some of the material, making a complete mess out of the whole project. Such as it was, it did enjoy some appreciation in Europe. But it wasn’t until 1998 that it was reedited once again, this time according to Welles’s original wishes as stated in a memo he wrote before his death.

In a small town on the border to Mexico, a car bomb goes off killing a man and a woman. Mexican narcotics detective Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Heston) and his wife Susan (Janet Leigh) saw the whole thing, and Mike becomes involved in the investigation. He clashes immediately with Hank Quinlan (Welles), a rotund, unshaved American police captain who takes charge, along with his coterie, of the crime scene. A suspect called Sanchez soon makes an appearance. While interrogating him and searching through his apartment, Mike realizes that Quinlan is planting evidence. At the same time, Susan moves into a motel on the American side without knowing that it is run by Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), a shady figure who (together with his family) has plans to incapacitate her…

Influencing generations
The version I saw was the 1998 cut, looking splendid on Blu-ray. In the extra material, Peter Bogdanovich recalls that time when he complimented Welles on making such a great film, telling him that the story made little sense, but neither did The Big Sleep (1946) after all, and no one has really cared because so much else in that movie is good… This upset Welles, who valued a story well told and didn’t like The Big Sleep for that reason!

So much is excellent in Touch of Evil, but the story is not and there are times when you are torn from the hypnotic action and begin to find the lack of logic a little irritating. A lesser filmmaker wouldn’t have gotten away with it at all. But just like Howard Hawks in the case of The Big Sleep, Welles has us by the throat for every other reason. Russell Metty’s cinematography has influenced generations. Intense close-ups of sweaty faces are thrown at us. The characters are often filmed as towering figures that must have given a gigantic, almost intimidating impression on a large canvas. Windy locations (created in Venice, California and at the Universal studio lot) and a hand-held camera make for an almost nauseating vision of the wild border town. The style is reminiscent of Welles’s own ground-breaking Citizen Kane (1941) and the film noir masterpieces of that decade.

The idea of casting Heston as a Mexican (without even an accent, but maybe that is something we should be grateful for) is ludicrous, but Welles himself as the loathsome Quinlan is magnificent. Welles the writer has given himself juicy lines and a terrific opportunity to chew the scenery; his makeup is so effective that many believed that this is what he looked like in the late ‘50s.

The story makes no sense perhaps, but it is still easy enough to follow, with compelling characters, and Welles builds suspense masterfully. The whole film has heat oozing – and Henry Mancini’s jazz rock score is a key component.

Touch of Evil 1958-U.S. 108 min. B/W. Produced by Albert Zugsmith. Written and directed by Orson Welles. Novel: Whit Masterson (“Badge of Evil”). Cinematography: Russell Metty. Music: Henry Mancini. Cast: Charlton Heston (Miguel “Mike” Vargas), Orson Welles (Hank Quinlan), Janet Leigh (Susan Vargas), Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich… Dennis Weaver, Zsa Zsa Gabor. Cameos: Joseph Cotten, Mercedes McCambridge.

Trivia: The original version, the one Universal ruined and that should be avoided, is 95 minutes.

Quote: “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.” (Heston)

Last word: “In this hotel we were shooting late one night into the night and it was, oh I don’t know, 2:00 in the morning, and we still had a little bit of stuff to do and Orson and I were down in the basement, there was no men’s room in the lobby, and we went down in the basement and were peeing in a drain in the corner, and he said ‘You know this is a great area down here.’ He says ‘We ought to use this. Wouldn’t this be great for the scene between you and Joe Calleia when he gives you my cane?’ And I said ‘Yeah, that would be great, but I think the studio’s got it scheduled for Monday and they must have built a set on the lot.’ He said, ‘Yeah, this is much better though. We’ll just get Joe down here.’ I said ‘Orson, for God’s sakes, he’s going to be in bed. It’s 2:00 in the morning.’ He said ‘No, it’ll be good because he’ll be all upset and stumbly when he gets down here.’ And so he did and we shot the scene down there, but before I had said ‘But Orson, you’ve got three more shots to make right now as it is.’ He says ‘I don’t need those shots. We can skip those shots. I can cut the scene together without those.’ But it was a great place to shoot the scene and it helps the picture. So that’s an example of taking example of a location after you’ve chosen it.” (Heston, Parallax View)

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