Touch of Evil

Released Apr 23, 1958: TOUCH OF EVIL, starring Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, and Janet Leigh. Directed by Orson Welles (Citizen Kane, The Stranger, Confidential Report).  It’s impossible to do justice to such a significant film in a short review like this, so suffice it to say that not only is Touch of Evil a superb noir film, but it is an excellent example of artistic film making at its best.  There’s no denying Citizen Kane was Welles’ definitive masterpiece, but we think it can be reasonably argued that Touch of Evil represents the pinnacle of his career as a film maker.  The story revolves around two primary characters, Welles, who plays a well-respected but deeply flawed and ruthlessly corrupt police detective, and Charlton Heston, who plays a young Mexican police investigator with a strong sense of moral integrity.  TouchOfEvilThey are brought together while investigating a car bombing that occurs near the US-Mexican border.  During the investigation, Heston witnesses Welles’ complete disregard for proper police procedure.  When Welles blatantly plants evidence to frame a young Mexican man for the crime, Heston is appalled and takes it upon himself to expose Welles’ unscrupulous methods.  Welles in turn, tries to fend off the accusations by plotting to discredit Heston.  Caught in the middle of this moral battle is Heston’s newlywed wife (Janet Leigh) who becomes the target of a Mexican drug gang currently under investigation by Heston.  As you watch this film, it doesn’t take long to realize you are in for something special, different, and daring.  Beginning with the now-legendary single-shot opening sequence, Welles never stops using the camera to accentuate every moment and emotion in the story.  From sweeping crane and fast-moving tracking shots to extreme angles and deep focus, the use of the camera intensifies the mood of every scene.  The camera work is complimented by superb compositions and shadowy lighting to create unforgettably riveting images that stay in your mind long after the film is over.  Visually, Touch of Evil is a masterpiece of black and white cinematic art.  The film is permeated by a constant sense of disorientation and unease, which is not only reinforced by the cinematography but also by the fast-paced dialog that often has characters’ lines overlapping one another.  This is especially true when Heston tags along with Welles on the American side of the border, trying to keep up with the dizzying pace of the rushed investigation.  By contrast, Leigh’s kidnapping ordeal develops slowly and is filled with gut-wrenching tension.  The cast is excellent, but it is Welles who stands out with a riveting performance as the grizzled, broken-down detective.  Making full use of his imposing frame, bloated face, and puffy eyes, he creates an ugly image of a man, both internally and externally, who has lost touch with the real world and is guided only by his flawed sense of ego.  Although she only appears in a few scenes, Marlene Dietrich is mysteriously beautiful as the brothel owner who Welles retreats to for emotional solace.  There are a couple of notable weak points in the film. Heston, who plays a Mexican detective, is unconvincing as a person of Mexican decent.  He doesn’t even really try to convey the appropriate ethnicity.  But this was the 1950s, after all, and it was still common practice to cast white actors to play ethnic parts.  Heston delivers a strong performance and is able to carry his role, but it’s easy to forget he’s supposed to be from Mexico.  Dennis Weaver has a minor part as the bumbling night manager of an isolated motel where Leigh is being held.  His portrayal borders on slapstick at times and seems out of place in this film.  There’s nothing wrong with a little comic relief, but Weaver’s performance is practically cartoon-like.  However, these minor shortcomings are ultimately overshadowed by the gripping story, expert pacing, and visual splendor of the film.  Touch of Evil is an artful, gritty, and sometimes disturbing film that delivers a rich and rewarding viewing experience.  Each frame is so full of detail and bold cinematic ideas, that it is well worth multiple viewings.  We give Touch of Evil 5 out of 5 fedoras.

5 Fedoras

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