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Touch of Evil (1958)
At times at great as Citizen Kane
I was about fourteen when I taped this movie from the BBC. I've waited a while to see it, because the description of it didn't quite interest me. So when I decided to to finally watch it....I was absolutely blown away! I've never seen anything quite like it. I had never heard of Orson Welles, let alone seen a picture by him. Since then there are a few films that has captivated me like this one, like The Trial. Even Citizen Kane hadn't that impact on me, but that was because I didn't understand it at first. Touch of evil ranked as my number one movie of all time for years to come.
So, what is it than that makes this movie the way it is? First of all, the absolutely stunning photography: how everything shines (note the glimmering cars), the lightning of faces, walls with indicative advertising). It's simply the most beautifully shot film ever, period! Secondly, the use of sound. In the famous opening shot you can hear the bomb ticking and while the car with the bomb is driving away, you can hear all the different noises and music coming from different corners of the street. Also the overlapping dialogue add to the realism of the film. When I first saw the movie, it was the version with the Mancini score. It is quite catchy and very appropriate for the movie, but I think I'd prefer the restored version (the opening anyway) because of Welles' use of sound. It's magnificent. Third, the camera-work (dollyshots and the extreme and creative angles). Technically, it's a very complex film. Next to the opening scene you have the interrogation scene in Sanchez' apartment, which is one long take! Some say Welles is just showing of, but they can't be more wrong. Both long takes serve distinctive purposes: the long take of the opening scene greatly enhances the tension of the ticking bomb (when there were cuts in this scene, the audience would loose track of time and couldn't follow the three minutes to which the bomb is set to explode)and the long take in the apartment also greatly enhances the tension between Vargas and Quinlan (it is a crucial scene in the movie: we get to know the faul tactics and the style of intimidation of Quinlan and the righteousness of Vargas, which, by the way, gets under heavy pressure towards the end of the movie).
What is it about? The basic story line is fairly simple: good cop meets bad cop and brings him down. The story is based upon the pulp novel "Badge of evil" by Whit Masterson. According to Welles himself, he didn't even read the novel but got immediately to work on rewriting the original screenplay he got from the studio. To be honest, this movie isn't about a revolving plot, but about rounding out characters, especially Captain Quinlan, played by Welles himself. He's got a "touch of evil' ever since he let the murderer (a Mexican) of his wife go free, because of lack of evidence. We can understand the motives of Quinlan, but ultimately we don't approve of his methods, although he is usually (in this case anyway) right about the suspect. The fact that Vargas gets the evidence of Quinlan's corruption so easily (although he still has to get the evidence of the framing of Sanchez)is't very believable, but it still is possible. Orson Welles wrote a story about character, about good and evil and the ambiguity of it and above all...about prejudices and racism (Leigh's character's hidden racism: "Lead on, Poncho!").
There is much criticism of the acting of Charlton Heston. I'm not a big fan of his acting, but I do think he certainly does a fine job here. He embodies the righteousness and stubbornness of the character beautifully. Yes, it isn't a great actor, but this is his best work by far. Janet leigh does a good job. She doesn't have much to work with, but she does it well. Orson as Quinlan steels the show. But I'd like to mention two other actors which are rarely mentioned in reviews of this film. Akim Tamiroff does a great job as the gangster boss Uncle Grandi. He is frightening and funny at the same time. But the most praise must go to Joseph Calleia, who, in my opinion does steel the show as a mislead friend of Quinlan. He is the most dramatic figure in the movie and plays it brilliantly.
Finally, I'd like to point out, that this is not a film noir, despite of many, many references to it. I admit it has noir elements to it, but it lacks the most important ones: a hasn't got a weak protagonist, who is pudding in the, also missing here, femme fatale's hands. So, for the lack of these defining film noir ingredients, we'd better call it a German expressionistic film! But that doesn't do it also, because everything about the mise-en-scene in German expressionistic films relate to the inner beings of the characters, and in Touch of evil we don't see a mise-en-scene strictly build up of straight lines. I guess the best term to define Touch of evil is 'policefilm,' 'copfilm,' or perhaps a detective drama.
"Touch of evil is all about atmosphere and mood" I've read a commentator write on this site. That's absolutely true. THis movie has to be seen to be believed: at points it is surreal, sometimes it's a bit comical, sometimes it is horrific and most of the time it's just plain beautiful. You have to see this film if you love the movies. It ranks among Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as one of the most beautiful pictures ever made. That is...only if you really love the movies!