Director: Orson Welles
Producer: Albert Zugsmith
Screenwriters: Orson Welles, Paul Monash, and Franklin Coen
Cinematographer: Russell Metty
Music: Henry Mancini
Studio: Universal 1958
Main Acting: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Orson Welles
Long after the unmitigated tragedy of having The Magnificent Ambersons taken away and butchered by his studio, Orson Welles was back in the system making another film. He had previously been given a few other rare chances at directing in Hollywood proper (one of which made this countdown), but he basically was a nomad walking the earth like Caine from Kung Fu trying to scrounge up some money to pay for projects. With the generosity of Charlton Heston, Welles was hired to direct Touch Of Evil during the last days of classic film noir. Like the true artist that he is, Welles relished the chance to work with any kind of budget and set out to create a baroque visual masterpiece with an intriguing—if inscrutable plot—filled with all sorts of quirks and mishaps. The innovative aspects start right at the beginning with a wallop of an introduction featuring a three-minute-plus tracking shot that encompasses a glorious exposition of the whole border town. Slowly, the roving camera fixes upon newlywed couple Miguel and Susie (Heston and Leigh) as they unknowingly encounter a mysterious vehicle with an odd-looking couple trying to cross the border. From these early moments, we can speculate accurately that we will be watching something special. The camera does not stop moving and neither does the excitement from witnessing such a spectacle.
It would be nice to say that Touch Of Evil was some blockbuster success that put Orson back in the good graces with all the studio heads, but this was far from the case. The movie bombed and his career was now totally finished in Hollywoodland. To make matters worse, his film was also reedited by Universal and tampered with like almost all of Welles’ pictures since Kane. After giving the studio his rough cut they further tried to “enhance” his work and even hired a different director for reshoots. The movie has floated around in many versions since its 1958 release. Suffice to say that Welles was unhappy with the theatrical release and bemoaned his unlucky fate like a stock noir protagonist just missing the big time and now dropped inside the big house instead. The length of the rough cut became lost and only a shorter version was available for the longest time. In 1998, a restored example of the feature started making the rounds and this became labeled as the director’s cut which lasted 111 minutes total. The reformed Touch Of Evil was supposedly made from memos Orson Welles left about the shooting, production, etc. that minutely described his intended desires and methodology on how the picture should stand. This is the film noir I now hold in my possession and can only describe as a top five for the movement.
Like Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at 46 years of age at the twilight of his professional career in 1986, Touch Of Evil was a fitting last hurrah for the genre. The ending of film noir is very similar to the beginning, in that concrete bookends are surely not absolute or set in stone. Odds Against Tomorrow made in 1959 doesn’t seem like it is all that different from the Welles picture in look or feel. Still designating Touch Of Evil as the last true noir does have a romantic tinge to it. In many ways, the explosion of technical acumen and bizarre convoluted story lines inhabited within the confines of the picture suggest a final blast of colorful fireworks on the fourth of July before the blackened sky finally envelops the night for good. A last virtuosic display of pyrotechnics to get the crowd in a frenzy and giving to one last rousing clap of the hands before a slow dispersal occurs. Everyone heading for home with huge smiles on their faces knowing that the last cake or repeater was sufficient enough in its grandness to satisfy as finale. Touch Of Evil rewards in this regard, as it is a bold enough film to accept that the decades-old genre must now die and be reborn into something similar but different.
Charlton Heston plays a Mexican. For some this is idiotic and gut-busting absurd. I remember going to a comedy club in Greenwich Village a few years ago where Louis C.K. was one of the acts. A redheaded comic with fair skin, he mentioned to the audience that he was Mexican and stood back as everyone laughed waiting for the punchline. None was forthcoming as he was telling the truth and continued to describe the preconceived notions many have of what constitutes someone south of Texas. If Louis C.K. could be Mexican than I have no problem accepting Heston as one (though the heavy makeup hurts). His overall acting along with Leigh and Welles is exemplary. The malignant, decadent Quinlan is a perfect visual specimen of corruption and depravity. The director really fit the part and his wide girth and faded looks is like the portrait of Dorian Grey coming to life and running amok. Somewhere in Quinlan’s fly-infested office lies a piece of artwork with an image of Charles Foster Kane circa 1941 that was meant to age in the way the book intended. The planting of evidence by the corrupt detective and his crazed attempts at framing those he considers guilty perfectly complements the shady settings of a quasi-legit border town where everything is engulfed in a shadowy ambiguous light.
For me Touch Of Evil is Orson Welles’ best picture. The music by Henry Mancini is so distinctive and cool that you expect someone to trot out with a martini in hand. The cinematography is richer than a blackout chocolate cake, and really amped up the noir expressionism to a level which was impossible to match from here on out. Visually Welles pulls no punches, and with Russell Matty lensing puts the final stamp on what film noir can do as a visual medium. What could be scarier than walking through those dark streets and seeing Quinlan waddle by you not knowing if he’s going to drop the hammer on your freedom. Citizen Kane is a masterpiece, but Touch Of Evil holds the keys to my heart. A great extended Lady From Shanghai like funhouse ride that also peeks into a Hearts Of Darkness like look at institutional corruption. Welles throwing everything and the kitchen sink at us without messing up the shiny laminated floors.