Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil

USA, 1958. Rated PG-13. 105 minutes (restored version)

Cast: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Deitrich, Joanna Cook Moore, Ray Collins, Valentin de Vargas, Dennis Weaver, Mort Mills, Zsa Zsa Gabor
Writer: Orson Welles & Paul Monash (uncredited), based on the novel Badge of Evil, by Whit Masterson
Music: Henry Mancini
Cinematographer: Russell Metty
Producers: Albert Zugsmith, Rick Schmidlin (1998 restoration & director's cut)
Director: Orson Welles


Grade: B- Review by Carlo Cavagna

Touch of Evil embodies everything that is so exhilarating and maddening about Welles. Both inspired and confused, Touch of Evil is the work of a master who cannot quite give life on screen to what he imagines in his head. While there was certainly interference from the commercially minded studio, an audience can have a tough time accompanying a maverick more intent on exploring his inner vision than with communicating that vision.

Perhaps this is unfair. I'm no Welles expert, and I may be reading too much into the final result. After all, "Welles" and "commercially palatable" are mutually exclusive concepts, so any attempt to reconcile the two is doomed to fail. Forty years later, producer Rich Schmidlin has attempted to make the modifications recommended by Welles to the final cut made by the studio. This version of Touch of Evil is not a director's cut so much as an attempt to rescue some of the director's vision from the studio-approved version.

Yet Welles is known for his chaotic productions. Few of his works possess the clarity of Citizen Kane. They may have the same complex ambiguity and the same mastery behind the camera, but all too often they also feel muddled and incomplete. Like the half-finished statues Michelangelo sculpted in the last few decades of his life, they are partially finished bodies still trapped in rock. Touch of Evil poster

Touch of Evil opens with a camera sequence that Scorcese would be proud of today, half a century later. Beginning with the placement of a bomb in the trunk of a car, the camera tracks both the slow-moving car and a couple of pedestrians (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh) through several blocks of a Mexican border town and over the border into the United States, until the car finally explodes--all in a single take lasting several minutes. The film's climactic sequence, with its tricky lighting and camera angles, is similarly accomplished.

The trouble is, what comes between those opening and closing sequences isn't nearly as compelling. Because the bomb detonates north of the border, the murder investigation is in U.S. hands, specifically, those of unscrupulous American cop Hank Quinlan (a huge, disheveled Welles, mumbling crankily). Mexican federal agent "Mike" Vargas (Heston with a shameful fake tan and absolutely no accent) tags along as an observer who develops serious misgivings about Quinlan's conduct. At the same time, the local Mexican drug ring, led by "Uncle Joe" Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) and "Pancho" (Valentin de Vargas, overacting badly), hatches a plot to discredit Agent Vargas and his American wife, Susan (Leigh, doing a bit of overacting herself). Oh, and Marlene Dietrich makes a cameo appearance for no particularly important reason. She's meant to be a symbol of some sort, I think.

It's tricky to be both over the top and at least occasionally boring, but Touch of Evil achieves this feat. Characters come and go, mentioning too many names to remember easily, as the film lays down a lengthy exposition. Susan has confrontations with Uncle Joe and the man she dubs "Pancho" (which would be considered racist today, like calling any Italian "Guido") that provide unintentional amusement (Leigh's attempts to sound tough are really quite funny), but they don't become meaningful until later. Much, much later. It takes far too long for Uncle Joe's scheme to come into relief and the main tension of the film (between Vargas and Quinlan) to take hold. Once they do, though, the boredom dissipates and Touch of Evil holds your attention.

The suspense of the last act and Welles' virtuoso direction make Touch of Evil well worth seeking out, but don't expect cinematic ecstasy. The restored version is doubtless superior to the theatrical release, but it fails to rescue an artistically cohesive piece--assuming there even was an artistically cohesive piece in the first place.

Review © August 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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