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'Touch of Evil' (1958) — An Analysis

Property of Universal Pictures
Property of Universal Pictures
Orson Welles' Hank Quinlan versus Charlton Heston's Mike Vargas: two cops of two different times

This is Orson Welles’ masterpiece film noir. Welles was hired on this American production funded by Universal originally as an actor to co-star with rising stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. It was Heston however who was ’’fortunately’’ mistaken when signing to do the picture thinking that it was a Welles directed picture. Welles of course is legendary for directing what is considered the ’’textbook film of cinema:’’ Citizen Kane in 1941.

Threatening to leave, Universal relented to Heston’s wishes and reluctantly signed Welles to direct. Orson himself was busy getting funding from his still flourishing acting career for his historical epic drama, Don Quixote, which he planned to film in Europe. Welles saw this as an opportunity to make a comeback as a director in American cinema after being ’’kicked out’’ directing-wise after his 1948 version of MacBeth, though he at first wasn’t happy to get the job.

Welles did a complete rewrite of the already existing script and decided to cast some of his own trusted names. Welles’ favorite recurring supporting actor, Akim Tamiroff (who starred in three Welles works including the 1955 film of Mr. Arkadin, his 1963 psychological/sci-fi The Trial, and his circa 1958 version of Don Quixote), played a major and likely his most famous role as the conniving ’’Uncle Joe’’ Grandi. Mercury Theatre actor, Joseph Cotten, from the Kane/Ambersons days makes a cameo as a deputy examiner in the picture as well. The most surprising cameo of all is that from Academy award winner Mercedes McCambridge (who won for Best Supporting Actress for All The King’s Men) as a tomboyish ’’greaser’’ who ’’wants to watch’’ her fellow Grandi boys put the harsh moves on Janet Leigh who plays the Heston character’s wife. McCambridge would later voice the demon in director William Friedkin’s masterpiece horror, The Exorcist, 15 years later in 1973.

The film pivots all the characters in a murder mystery clouded by each individual’s personal beliefs in the case. What is important to this film is not who is guilty of the murder, but who is guilty of damaging others to have their way on the case. And in order to expose such guilty parties, the innocent then fall to this ’’touch of evil’’ themselves in damaging those guilty.

Orson Welles is infamous for his placement of symbolism, which comes abundantly in this film. When one of the Grandi boys attempts to throw acid at Heston’s character, it misses and hits a painted representation of a recently murdered prostitute (killed by a bomb and then body burned by fire) now tarnished and burned away. An extreme detail of this is when one of the characters is shot towards the end. His blood lands on his killer defining its moral statement: ’’his blood is on your hands.’’ Another classic example of symbolism is Heston appearing in a small mirror placed next to many bullfighters. A few seconds later, Welles’ character stands up to be seen beside the stuffed head of a bull. The arena has been set.

One of the strangest coincidences in film history is the placement of Janet Leigh’s character in a motel with a ’’mentally-challenged’’ caretaker played by Dennis Weaver, which exact situational circumstances would repeat itself in Hitchcock’s Psycho two years later. Perhaps this wasn’t a coincidence with the only difference being Weaver’s character wasn’t a killer. Weaver himself would later star in Steven Spielberg’s suspenseful, ’’monster truck’’ thriller, Duel in 1971.

Touch Of Evil follows the story of a Mexican investigator played by Heston who this time makes use out of his famous tan to look the part. However, Welles makes the most dramatic physical change to fit into his character of Captain Hank Quinlan by giving into his terrible weight problems and applying a very realistic wrinkled face ala makeup.

As the film progresses, the audience starts to fall deeper and deeper into the deception and foul play nature of the story. For cinematography, Welles grabs an old friend, Russell Metty who worked with him 12 years before on his only American financial success, The Stranger in 1946. It has been noted that this lighting style Metty uses has been concluded as ’’some of the most courageous, baroque, and daring black and white photography of the noir period.’’ Lights fade in and fade out from outside ’’parties’’ with extreme forms of contrast during the famous upstairs motel sequence-- a lighting scheme that would inspire to be repeated in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Bradford May’s Darkman II: The Return Of Durant. Yet another absolutely important innovation in Touch Of Evil is its frequent usage of handheld photography.

A style used frequently today in documentaries gives Touch a very exciting, kinetic feel that serves the film’s suspenseful, ’’man on the run’’ style. This handheld work becomes so intriguing in the film following oil drills up and down and swooping through rooms before Steadicam was ever conceived that it heavily influenced the French New Wave’s style of handheld energetic freedom. Of course, Welles still repeats his favorite low angles, long takes, and dramatic allegories.

The music was composed by another cinematic icon, Henry Mancini who would later become famous for his Academy award winning Pink Panther theme and his hummable "Moon River" theme from Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Welles who was meticulous in the placement of music decided on a unique, innovative method. Instead of an underlying score as heard in most films, Welles has Mancini write music within a visual diegetic medium. This means the music is coming from either human activity on screen, radios, and instruments as in the featured pianola.

There are some great moments where music covers up music when in the opening scene a car playing Rock and Roll music overpowers the Mexican party music near by. Mancini’s music isn’t all synchronous diegetic though. Within the intense moments of the film, the ’’party’’ music slowly highlights the subtext and context of the scene-- giving the impression that even the radios are dooming the characters. This approach to music would be repeated again by George Lucas in American Graffiti.

Probably the most famous moment of the film is the opening shot which in one continuous take follows an unknown assailant planting a bomb in a car, then the unbeknownst driver with prostitute take off, the ’’rocking and rolling’’ car bomb slowly moves through a busy Mexican border town, gets stuck in traffic where children pass near it on a crosswalk, passes Heston and Leigh, stops next to border patrol and cops where a normal, unsuspecting conversation takes place, and then to its fate. The shot lasts uninterrupted without a cut or another shot for approximately four minutes.

A shot and hook that literally blasts the film into the history books. Unfortunately for Touch Of Evil, Universal did not like the final results and recut the film despite Welles’ giving out a 57 page memo against it. The film tanked in American theaters when released in 1958. Yet like many of Welles’ European produced films, it became a major success there, especially true in France. It proves that even Welles’ own country, and Hollywood did not understand him and the magic of his films till the late 70’s.

Incredible work. This film is considered second to Citizen Kane in Welles’ directing career. The new Universal DVD is the restored, original cut-- abiding to Welles’ 57 page memo-- that’s a long memo!