I’m reviewing Touch of Evil after viewing the 1998 re-edit version incorporating the notes from writer/director Orson Welles’ original 58-page memo, consisting of a list of changes to the original release, which apparently the studio butchered. I haven’t seen the original theatrical release, but I hear it’s inferior. This isn’t a Director’s Cut, since one doesn’t exist (Welles died long before it was put together), but this version is as close to Welles’ vision as you will get.
The movie opens in a Mexican town along the US-Mexico border, where a time bomb is seen planted in the trunk of a car. Moments later, once the car crosses the border back into the US, the bomb goes off, killing the driver and his girlfriend. Mexican drug enforcement officer, Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his American wife Susie (Janet Leigh) are on their honeymoon and happen to witness the explosion. Even though the event takes place on American soil, Miguel takes interest in the investigation, which is led by curmudgeonly, yet well-respected American police captain Hank Quinlan (Welles).
Vargas and Quinlan are constantly butting heads. Quinlan isn’t too fond of Mexicans and Vargas has reason to believe that Quinlan planted evidence to frame an innocent man. Quinlan then accuses Vargas of covering for the suspect. The audience knows Vargas’ intentions are sincere, and we begin to root for him as he tries to prove Quinlan’s guilt. At times we get the unwelcome feeling that we’re meant to sympathize with Quinlan, but in reality, he’s a terrible person. We somewhat forget about the initial conflict involving the car bomb, and become more invested in the opposing philosophies of Vargas and Quinlan.
There are other subplots at play here. A Mexican crime boss is constantly threatening Vargas and his wife for getting his brother arrested. Susie fears that her life is in danger there in Mexico, and the audience wonders why she doesn’t just cross the border to safety. Nonetheless, things get really dark for a 1950s movie.
Welles utilizes his long takes brilliantly. They’re never too intrusive or too obvious or distract us from the scenes, even when there’s not a lot else happening on screen in the way of action. But Welles doesn’t just rely on his own presence behind the camera. No, he utilizes his engaging script filled with dialogue that builds both conflict and tension and has you seething with anger against its antagonist. And now the filmmaker has achieved something great. He has us fully on board, anticipating some sort of redemption. And he fully delivers.
Welles knows how to take full advantage of black and white filmmaking. Contrasting light with dark to create something spellbinding and intentionally suffocating. The crafty camerawork uses some unique angles, creating some truly psychedelic sequences and innovative visuals.
Considered by many as the last ’50s noir, Touch of Evil delivers in more ways than one. Other than one or two questionable character decisions early on to incite friction, Welles has crafted, and strong armed into existence, a classic and flawless-for-the-time piece of cinema.