Criterion Prediction #164: Touch of Evil, by Alexander Miller
Title: Touch of Evil
Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Ray Collins, Victor Millan, Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Cotten
Synopsis: Mexican narcotics agent Miguel Vargas is entangled in a case rife with corruption and scandal when he teams with the shifty American police captain Hank Quinlan after a car bomb is detonated on the American side of the US/Mexico border.
Critique: My relationship with Touch of Evil has always been tangled and confused. Back in the days where VHS was on the ebb, and DVD’s were getting their feet in place I wasn’t sure which cut of the film I was seeing, which version was superior; all the while peering in to ferret out the contrasting elements within (and of) the film, unaware if I was seeing the “right” cut. Needless to say, Touch of Evil grew from, “liked”, to “loved” and is now venerated as one of the directors many accomplishments.
Of course, this is analogous to nearly the entirety of Welles’ directorial filmography, a thread of compromised masterpieces that either suffered budgetary pitfalls or fell victim to studio intervention but still emerged victorious thanks to restorations, resurrected footage and the efforts of Welles and his creative constituents that survived him. And like so much of the late mavericks oeuvre Touch of Evil is the kind of film that grows and evolves over time, in a literal (given the multiple edits and restorations) and artistic sense.
The different characterizations reveal more depth, the virtuoso cinematography feels bold and punctuated, the manifold performances present both nuance and flair. These are all elements that could stealthily bypass even a studied viewer given the films dense layers.
Touch of Evil is a full-blooded film noir, not in the more commercially viable manner that was The Stranger (which is still compacted with the director’s stylistic flourishes) or the beautifully executed but convoluted The Lady from Shanghai. Touch of Evil is overflowing with Welles’ brazen flourishes, while the film is in perfect step with the characters, you might think Welles’ aesthetic indulgences might outflank the narrative beats, but Touch of Evil is a perfect marriage of art and entertainment with a roster of key performers at the top of their game.
If you can overlook Heston’s olive makeup job, Touch of Evil provides room for some progressive insights about the male gaze theory in regards to Leigh’s Susie Vargas. Independent of her husband for a large portion of the film’s narrative she endures marauding harassment and torture, she’s only rendered helpless under dire circumstances and resourceful throughout. While Leigh is sexualized her character is tenacious and provides the film with some significant dimension. Susie Vargas is also a narrative counterpoint that brilliant emphasizes and at moments slightly humanizes Welles’ bloated Quinlan in regards to his own demons that accelerate his corruption, alcoholism and drive to dismantle Vargas, as he is the inverse shadow of Quinlan, a clean-cut, straight cop, happily married and keen on Quinlan’s chicanery. While Quinlan’s most deplorable actions are directed at Susie, she also conjures up memories of his late wife, and for a brief moment Quinlan almost seems worthy of our compassion. It might seem like Leigh would be overshadowed by heavyweights such as Welles and Heston, but her portrayal of Susan feels so sharp, her plucky, no-nonsense treatment of her environment feels more intelligent and keenly observed than most female protagonists in modern thrillers.
Prior to being a knuckle-dragger Reaganoid, Heston was actually an exciting and liberally progressive activist who sought out challenging cinema and championed artistic directors (such as Welles). He was not only responsible for aiding Welles, pulling for his role as the director, but he also committed to a raw and dynamic performance.
As Quinlan, Welles is, of course, giving his acting chops a go with his padded shirt, false nose and labored breathing. The whale that is Hank Quinlan is a looming presence and Welles delivers some wonderful moments both savage and mournful. There’s also an understated turn from Marlene Dietrich as the witchy gypsy Tanya, who might have one of the films best lines at the jarring finale.
You can’t discuss Touch of Evil without mention of the film’s cinematography, of course. The opening long take is Movie Lore 101 but the camerawork is fearless throughout.
Russell Metty’s exteriors have expressionistic bravado. Much of the film takes place at night and the utilization of shadows and light is exemplary. When dialed in on tight interiors such as hotel rooms and elevators, there’s an eye for blocking and scope that subtly ratchets up the tension.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: The film world is all aflutter with the recent release of Welles’ enigmatic, thought-to-be-lost The Other Side of the Wind, (rightfully so; I’d say it’s a masterpiece). While Orson Welles is almost always on the mind of any self-respecting cineaste, it’s fair to assume that his work will be at the forefront of people’s minds in light of this recent revelation. In addition to the attention awarded to Welles, Touch of Evil has been screening in a restored version this past year. Given the amount of classic Welles films inaugurated into The Criterion Collection, especially with the recent inclusion of The Magnificent Ambersons, we might be lucky enough to see Touch of Evil alongside Othello, Chimes at Midnight, The Immortal Story, F for Fake, and Mr. Arkadin. Plus, it’s the films 50th anniversary, so there’s that.