Capsule Review: Touch of Evil

Touch Of Evil is a bit of a contradiction. A 1950's b film, it has risen above its roots to be considered a great work of art, and deservedly so.

 

Orson Welles came to direct mostly by accident, or misunderstanding. When Charlton Heston was offered the starring role he was told that Welles had signed on to play the heavy. Heston, assuming that Welles would also direct agreed to appear in the film for the chance to be directed by the great auter. Universal was so enamored of Heston that they immediately went about signing Welles to helm the movie.*

 

Welles saw Touch Of Evil as a one-dimensional thriller, and set about transforming it into something different. The film opens with a now famous tracking sequence, at the time it was the longest uninterrupted tracking shot in movie history. It immediately informs the audience that they are in for something new.

 

Heston stars as an important Mexican Police Official, working along the border.** He is on the U.S. side for his honeymoon. His bride is played by Janet Leigh. Heston is present when a car bomb explodes, and clashes with a gruff local cop, played by Welles.

 

Welles gives his strongest performance ever, topping even his Citizen Kane. The character he plays is corrupt, unstable, alcoholic, corpulent, ugly, sweaty, and in need of a shave. He is obsessed with his job, to the point of framing those he believes to be guilty.

 

Welles character declines as the movie progresses, growing closer and closer to the edge of sanity.

 

Heston's performance is striking in its power, and believability. After initial misgivings, the viewer quickly accepts him in his role.

 

Miss Leigh unfortunately has only a few important scenes; most of her work in the film is understated, but when the script allows, she absolutely shines.

 

Marlene Dietrich has a small role as the proprietor of what may be a brothel. There is an unstated history between herself and Welles, perhaps they were once lovers? Dietrich's performance is evocative, and beautiful; she gives what may be the most memorable line of the film.

 

Overall Touch Of Evil is a remarkable film, and a fine example of Welles genius.

 

Footnotes:

 

* Some historians and scholars doubt this story, I however accept it as true. Heston himself claims that he didn't "misunderstand", but actually "tricked" the studio into hiring Welles to direct.

 

** Much fun has been made of Heston playing a Mexican, notably by Tim Burton in his film Ed Wood. Most viewers  at the time however easily accepted Heston in make-up and had no problem believing him as a Mexican. Today we are better in our thinking about these matters and wouldn't likely accept this sort of white washing. 

 

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