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Seldom have I seen so many comments with so little understanding. The movie
is not about Heston's "Mexican-ness" or lack of it. The movie is not about
the 5 or 8 or 10 minute opening shot. The movie is not even, god help us,
about Welles' descent from the heights into "slumming it" in a "Grade B"
The movie is about two things : film-making, and character. Every shot worth remembering (and there are few that aren't) is an exercise in the possibilities of film, particularly black and white film. Woody Allen makes movies in black and white that are all conversation. Welles made movies in black and white because that's where the colors of the characters, the location and ultimately the meaning of the movie are possible. Black and white film is about the infinite possibilities of shadow. Touch of Evil is about the infinite possibilities of human nature.
Heston, for those of you who just can't see past a "bad" accent is about rigidity and short-sightedness. What kind of idiot would leave his wife in all those threatening situations? The kind of idiot who can't imagine that anyone would harm HIS wife, simply because she IS his wife! Akim Tamiroff's Grandi is about flexibility to the point of breakage. Always playing ALL ends against the middle he is the essence of "harmless" corruption, that ultimately harms everyone.
And Welles' Hank Quinlan ... I just don't have the time or space to explain that Quinlan is about the true cost of police work when the humanity has gone out of it. Ultimately Quinlan would kill his best and only friend, the only one, as Dietrich has it, who really loves him. At one time, perhaps, Quinlan WAS the image that Pete Menzies saw. But the man behind that image was eaten up long ago with alcohol and frustrated grief. It's all about winning and losing now, and things he would never do. Until he does them.
There are so many other moments and characters that I'm afraid you'll just have to watch the film with your eyes and your mind open instead of shut to "get it". Pay attention to what's on the screen instead of the smart, cynical, hip comments you can make about an actual work of heart.
Well, what the hell. Joan Didion said it best. Film criticism is petit point on kleenex.
There are only two ways to write a review that would truly do this film
justice. Either one would have to write an exceedingly long review, or a
short, concise one. I choose to do the latter.
When I first saw "Touch of Evil," I was glued to the chair. When I found out it was not Welles' definitive vision, I wondered how on earth it could have been made better. And when I saw the re-released version, I wondered why the studio altered it. The stunning black-and-white images, the intricate plot, and the powerful, engaging performances took a hold of my imagination. At times, I imagined myself on the street with the characters, because the atmosphere was so thick I felt surrounded in it.
The actors all did an outstanding job, especially Leigh and Heston (who, although not thoroughly convincing as a Mexican, soared above his usual powerful, furious presence). This is Welles' picture, however, and whenever the camera catches his obese figure, you are fully aware of the man as a director and an actor. His powerful vision drives the film, from the single-cut opening sequence to the cat-and-mouse finale.
I suggest watching the 1998 restored version over the original theatrical release, but regardless of which version, "Touch of Evil" will have you stuck in your seat, questioning your views of morality until long after the last credit has rolled up the screen.
Rather than films like Citizen Kane (1941) and The Lady from Shanghai
(1947), neither of which am I a big fan of, Touch of Evil evidences
director/writer/star Orson Welles' capacity for cinematic genius. The
story is engaging, suspenseful, tight and well paced; the
cinematography is consistently beautiful, inventive and symbolic; the
setting and overall tone of the film, including the performances, are
captivating, yet slightly surreal and otherworldly; and there are many
interesting subtexts. This all combines to create a complex artwork
that will reward however far a viewer wishes to dig into the film.
Based on a novel by Whit Masterson, Badge of Evil, Touch of Evil is a battle between two policemen--Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston). Parallel to this is a kind of border battle between the United States, represented by Quinlan, and Mexico, represented by Vargas; the film is set in two border towns, frequently crossing over.
As Touch of Evil opens, we see a bomb being placed in the trunk of a car in Mexico. A construction company owner, Mr. Linnekar, gets in with his girlfriend. Vargas and his new wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), manage to walk along next to the car--they're all crossing the border into the United States. Shortly after crossing, the bomb goes off. This brings the gruff Quinlan into the picture. His investigation of the bombing brings him into Mexico for suspects. Meanwhile, Vargas and his wife are being threatened by Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), a Mexican mob boss, and his underlings. Both Quinlan and Vargas are well respected in their countries, and both are used to getting what they want. But the bombing investigation ends up putting them at loggerheads, and Quinlan gradually turns out to have more than a "touch of evil".
As with many of his films, Orson Welles ended up having to battle the studio to realize his artistic vision. Usually, as here, the battle was unsuccessful for him. Despite his 58-page memo detailing various problems with Universal's non-director supervised reshoots (by Harry Keller) and re-edits, because they felt that Welles' final cut "could use some improvement", the film was released in a form that was not satisfactory to Welles. The fiasco has resulted in various versions of Touch of Evil appearing throughout the years. The 58-page memo was thought to have been lost, but a copy was discovered relatively recently in Charlton Heston's possession. The film was recut in 1998 based on Welles' memo. So make sure that you watch the 111-minute version first released by Universal on DVD in 2000.
The opening scene of Touch of Evil is famous, and rightfully so. Beginning with the timer being set on the bomb, then the bomb being placed in Linnekar's trunk before he gets into the car, we follow both the car and the relative ebb and flow of Vargases as they roughly walk alongside the car, all in one very long tracking shot that covers a lot of ground and features a lot of unusual angles. Welles stages the scene so that there are all kinds of complex background and foreground elements interacting with the car and our protagonist pedestrians. The suspense built up in this scene is incredible--you just know that bomb is going to go off, but you don't know just when, or who it is going to hurt. Compositionally, the scene is simply beautiful. The film is worth watching for this opening alone, but the whole of Touch of Evil features similar, meticulously planned artistry, filled with suspense.
Welles as an actor tends to have a very peculiar way of speaking that is full of affectations. Sometimes this can be a detriment to the film, as it was in The Lady from Shanghai. Here, though, the oddity works, and this despite the fact that, like Woody Allen, he seems to direct his whole cast to deliver their dialogue as if they were him. As a result, Touch of Evil has very peculiar, contrapuntal scenes where people frequently talk on top of one another, with odd phrasing. It works because of the particular kinds of personality conflicts that Welles set up in the script. These are people who frequently _would_ talk on top of each other and occasionally not pay attention to each other.
But that's not the only odd thing about the film. Welles managed to find locations that, shot in this highly stylized and cinematographically complex film-noir manner, seem almost otherworldly. Except for a couple expansive desert shots, Touch of Evil feels eerily claustrophobic, even though most locations aren't exactly enclosed. The various modes and settings are all perfect for their dramatic material, which is mostly dark and moody. One change that Universal made was the excision of a lot of comic relief material featuring the Grandi family. Universal was right to cut it, and wisely, Welles agreed.
The music in the film is also extremely effective but unusual. Most of it is incidental. Latin and rock 'n' roll emanates from radios, for example, and the climax intermittently has a repeating, contextually haunting theme from a pianola.
But of course the story is just as important. Although Welles stated hyperbolically at various points that he was trying to "infuriate" the audience with a somewhat inscrutable plot, and it's true that the plot isn't exactly given in a straightforward manner, once you figure out the gist, it's relatively simple but extremely captivating. At the same time, it is full of symbolism and subtexts, including commentary on justice systems and perhaps some irony about the popular conceptions of the U.S. versus Mexico (made more complex by the fact that Quinlan spends just as much time south of the border and Vargas seems to spend a lot of time north). But as for being annoyed, you're more likely to become infuriated with Quinlan, who becomes more and more deliciously despicable as the film unfolds.
Considered by many to be the last "classic" noir film ever made, and perhaps the last masterwork from child prodigy Orson Welles, who looks about sixty in this film, despite his 42 years. In TOUCH OF EVIL the "noirish" dark streets and shadows are darker than ever, practically swallowing up the soft tones like a murky swamp. The action takes place in a nondescript U.S./Mexico border town where the worst that both sides has to offer is most in evidence. The famous opening scene (a 3 1/2-minute continuous shot) where we witness a time bomb being placed in the trunk of a Cadillac is masterful. The camera pulls in and out of the city scene as it follows the motion of the vehicle winding its way through streets littered with pedestrians, thus effectively creating a level of anxiety that could not be duplicated with multiple edits. After the inevitable explosion, the drama dives into a seedy world of corrupt police justice and malevolent decrepitude, which is filmed with such a stylish flair, it is almost weirdly humorous and playful! Mike Vargas, the good guy, is played by Charlton Heston and seems more than a wee bit miscast as a Mexican narcotics officer with his face darkened by makeup. When U.S. Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) first meets him he remarks, "He doesn't look Mexican." Quinlan is the ultimate repugnant cop gone bad and Welles has the camera looking up into his nostrils most of the time making his character look even more monstrous. But Quinlan is also pitifully sad. A man who once had the instincts of a cat and the intelligence of a fox has been reduced to an insignificant mass of tissue, who's "instinct" is having a knack for finding evidence that he himself has planted. And while he may be revered by the local officials in law enforcement, he's acutely aware that he is a fraud and petrified that Vargas, has seen him naked.
Here is a film that wouldn't be made today because nobody
'B' movies anymore; and this is the greatest 'B' movie in the history of
cinema. Here is the perfect example of why Orson Welles should be considered
a genius. He has made this film look so effortlessly easy that it could
almost be considered film making by numbers. From the famous opening
sequence to the closing titles, this is the film students' reference
Welles portrayal of the bloated cop Hank Quinlan is only bettered by his Harry Lime in 'The Third Man'. He gets right inside the seedy, corrupt Quinlan; but still leaves room for just the lightest touch sympathy because we know that, after all, he's a fallible human like all of us. We almost feel sad at his fate especially when Marlene Dietrich gives her sad soliliquay about him.
This is another film that can only exist in black and white, and begs the question, why can't directors work effectively in this medium today? Some have tried but none have have really suceeded. David Lynch's Eraserhead is probably the best modern example of a black and white only film. Woody Allen's Manhattan tries hard but ends up looking too much like a documentary. I don't think that directors today use this medium enough, too many rely on colour and the efffects that can only work in colour to get them out of trouble.
So put A Touch Of Evil on your 'must see' list and enjoy a work of film making artistry.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" is a complex, ironic examination of the
relationship between the law and justice... The film must stand beside
the very best in detectives genre...
Its enormous confused tracking shots, its low angles, its tormented lighting, its obscure intelligent photography, its great use of the wide-angle lens, its hard complexity and complete fictional night-city word, all represent a brilliant essay of pure cinema establishing Welles as an alarming genius, one of the greatest filmmakers with movies years ahead of their time...
"Touch of Evil" is an outstanding achievement of a great cinematic mind, displaying a powerful range of Gothic expressionism... Welles' first appearance as a corrupt used-up Texas police captain (Hank Quinlan) is no less surprising...
A police car comes to a stop to the scene of a murder and unexpectedly there is Welles, sitting in the back seat: gross, unshaven, sweaty, and with a cigar clenched between his teeth... He seems a repellent person, with "intuition," manifesting that sensation of evil, as no crime movie has managed to do since, a suggestion of corruption that is the key to the fascinating and doubtful character he plays... Welles character will cheat, lie and murder in order to prevent the truth from emerging... One hates his toughness, yet one still understands him and feels pity for him than for his victims...
Joseph Calleia, his slightly more presentable assistant, is like Dana Andrews in Otto Preminger's "Where the Sidewalks Ends," a villain with unchanged methods: he waits, watches, leaves the police work to others, remains loyal to his profession and to his bossbut could not exist without him, or in another environment...
From that moment, we are caught between admiration of his brilliant directorial effects and fascination with his characterization of Quilan, a chief able to make a quick arrest by the simple expedient of framing the most likely suspects... He appears to have been using the techniques for years, but before this he has usually fitted the frame round the guilty party... It is a performance which frequently gives great energy to the screen...
Stanley Kubrick once said that the first shot of a movie should be the most captivating... Definitely, Welles' legendary opening shot satisfies one of the key requirements of the movie mystery... Of course, Russ Metty deserves a lot of credit...
The long traveling shot starts with a close-up of a time-bomb being placed in the trunk of a car by a shadowy figure, then, the richest man in town (Rudy Lanniker) and his mistress appearing from the background, getting into the car and driving away across the border from Mexico to the United States and through the border town... By this time the roving camerathat seems never to come to a standstill, has offered to us long view of the surroundings (crumbling arches, peeling walls, poor hotels and night clubs and a lot of trash) which will enclose the plot...
While the convertible stops at a crossroad, the camera descends swiftly to introduce a Mexican gentleman, an idealistic justice department lawyer Ramon Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his bride, the blonde American Susan (Janet Leigh) walking toward the frontier...
The superlative camera tracks the couple for some time, catching again the car as both Vargas and the automobile meet at the U.S. Customs post... We see and hear a conversation between Vargas, his wife and the border guard as the vehicle moves out of the frame... We proceed with the couple about to cross the border until the bomb goes off and the car explodes... The killing is the start of the conflict between policemen from both sides of the border...
"Touch of Evil" is great and memorable for the distinguished description of its scenes, its images, its acting and its sound track... Its importance lies entirely in how the event is told 'not' in the message or material...
In addition to its wonderful opening, the film contains other outstanding sequences:
- The deplorable ambiance of a closed nightclub where Marlene Dietrich wisely advises Welles to "lay off the candy bars." "Honey, you're a mess", she says when she finally recognizes Quinlan, and (at the end of the picture) when he asks "Come on, read my future for me," she replies: "You haven't got any. Your future is all used up. Why you don't go home."
- The single shot (in the murder suspect's apartment) where Welles handles his cast with great skill... There is much overlapping conversation as everyone talks at once, and half a dozen characters are brilliantly delineated...
- When the camera meets a group of three characters crossing the street across a hotel lobby and into a restricted elevator, and rides with them slowly up to the second floor until Vargas, who has left them in the lobby, reappears at the very moment the elevator door reopens...
- The horrifying siege of Leigh at the isolated Mirador Motel by a gang of young punks...
Perhaps the finest things about "Touch of Evil" is the cold, strange and unsympathetic atmosphere of its night city (narcotics, gang-rape, racism, prostitution) an almost universal corruption...
It's unlikely that there will ever be a more unpleasant or offensive or disgusting detective than Welles or a more fascinating one...
Watch for Mercedes McCambridge in it... but look quickly, or it will be too late.
Touch of Evil has, perhaps, the BEST cinematography and lighting in ANY film ever made. Not just in the film noir genre, but in all categories. Orson Welles tended to use wide shots for all of his films, and Touch of Evil's use of wide shots took filmmaking to another level, especially with the amazing opening shot. The camera techniques and lighting are too spectacular to fathom, it is the grandmaster of all movies. Brilliant is an understatement. See this film, if not for the excellent acting and sheer brilliance in terms of the camera (this film had a GREAT D.P.!!), but for entertainment value. But if you are a film student or just want to see great camera work, Touch of Evil will astonish you.
Orson Welles made this film over 15 years after "Citizen Kane", but even though it doesn't reach the level of "Kane", he never lost his genius touch. With a basic story and regular budget he made the most famous B-film ever. His majesty in the camera control and the editing jump out of the screen. His director geniality is seen through the outstanding performances by great actors like himself, Janet Leigh and Marlene Dietricht, and actors not that great, like Charlton Heston. Several lines of this motion picture are amongst the greatest of all times, specially the Dietrich ones. The credits scene, that runs uncut for about 3 minutes, is one of the greatest moments in the film history, along with the pianola tune at Tanya's place. Some might say that "Touch of Evil" is banal and boring, but these are the people that don't like real motion pictures, and we all know that, so we don't care about them.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This should be a 5-6 but a sharper light shines on Orson Welles.
At this point in his Career, Welles had abandoned any attempt at storytelling in favor of atmosphere and meaning via oblique camera angles. If you love Welles you'll see the brilliance in the camera work and defend the genius, vision, breadth, greatness; you'll criticize others for not "getting" it; you'll discuss the real meanings with other cognoscenti.
Really though, it's an awful movie. I mean, just plain bad. The worst kind of Hollywood: a terrible jazz-like score; villains with all the cartoonish menace of Wild One, Rebel w/o Cause, or On the Waterfont (I kept waiting for Karl Malden to jump out in a priest outfit and punch someone); a meandering story that goes nowhere; and some of the worst acting imaginable. Acting so wincingly bad that it brings tears to your eyes.
Weaver's performance is clownishly painful - something out of bad theatre for children. Welles, as always, pontificates and overacts ponderously. Heston, as always, alternates between woodenness and overacting - he was a master at reacting to the wrong things; Leigh overacts and almost jumps out of the screen in places; the list goes on. There isn't an understated performance in it.
In case you haven't seen it: Heston plays a Mexican (no, I'm not kidding) DEA guy with no discernible ethnicity beyond some facepaint and a greased mustache.
There's also the wonderful technique of having 2-3 characters talk at once so that you can't possibly follow what's going on. Much like real life where the salesman in your group interrupts before you can begin to get to your point.
Dietrich is a fortune teller with heavy lines such as (to Welles) "Your future is all used up". This is often quoted as one of the important bits. Cotten is a coroner with his trademark simpering smile.
What happens in the end: Welles drowns in the physical, moral and spiritual garbage that he created for himself. Or did the world create it for all of? Why for that matter are we here? Of course he finds time before he goes for a self-pitying speech that questions the meaning of his own life and - yes - all of our lives. Yup, just like Kane and Third Man.
It's a shame about Welles really: he had some great ideas and some beautiful camera techniques. He just couldn't present anything without slamming it in your face over and over and over. He'd have been a good preacher or university professor where he could lecture without any questioning.
That's a great epitaph Marlene Dietrich and Mort Mills put together for
Orson Welles's character police captain Hank Quinlan. In a sense, since
Welles directed himself in Touch of Evil he both created the character
and the circumstances that bring him down.
Two stories intersect in Touch of Evil. The first involves a particularly grisly murder in a Texas/Mexican border town of a man named Rudy Linnaker. The weapon was a car bomb, that went off just as Linnkaer and some chippie he was seeing crossed the border. Driving in the car just behind the late Mr. Linnaker was Charlton Heston as Mexican police detective Mike Vargas and his wife Janet Leigh.
Heston is returning to Mexico City where in a few days he's taking the witness stand in the trial of a local drug kingpin. The kingpin's brother is Akim Tamiroff who's the local crime lord in that border town. Heston's case against Tamiroff's brother and Welles's investigation into the car bombing are completely unrelated, but do to some cleverly worked out plot machinations they get intertwined together.
Charlton Heston has been quoted many times in saying that Orson Welles was the greatest director he ever worked for. He also rather modestly has stated that he did not give Welles his best screen performance. My own thought on it is that he really is not a terribly convincing latino. Maybe someone with Robert Mitchum's gift for dialect or a latino actor like Gilbert Roland might have been better. Still it's an earnest effort and Heston has nothing to be ashamed of.
In fact Heston says and I agree that the story is really about Welles and his destruction. Welles has great instinct as a detective, but he's not really all that scrupulous about due process. That's what has Heston's back up and it forces Welles into an unthinkable alliance with Tamiroff.
Janet Leigh gives us a sneak preview of what was in store for moviegoers in Psycho when she's trapped in that motel room with those punks that Tamiroff has sicced on her. One of the punks in fact was Mercedes McCambridge doing a little gender bending generations before Boys Don't Cry. At the motel Dennis Weaver has a marvelous bit part as the useless and feckless 'night man.'
Welles put a lot of his favorites in small roles here. Ray Collins took time away from Perry Mason on television to play the District Attorney. Joseph Cotten has a small bit as a medical examiner, Harry Shannon was the state's attorney, it was a regular Citizen Kane reunion.
Marlene Dietrich who was Welles's foil and partner in his magic act plays the owner of a border town dive and his mistress who loves him though she recognizes all his faults. This was a banner year for Dietrich because she also did her highly acclaimed role in Witness for the Prosecution.
One part though that should have been up for an Academy Award was Joseph Calleia who was Welles's devoted subordinate who in the end ironically helps to bring him down. It's a great piece of acting and Charlton Heston said that Joseph Calleia never did anything better in his entire cinema career. I wouldn't argue the point.
Now that the 'director's cut' is available we can now see Touch of Evil and realize what Welles's vision was for this film. Indifferently received when first out, it's grown to become a classic and probably one of the three or four films Welles the director gets the most acclaim for.
And now it's probably better than when first seen by the public.
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