From the opening three and a half minute continuous shot of Touch of Evil, following a bomb in the trunk of a car, the viewer is wowed by Orson Welles’s directorial ability. He has conversations move from hallways into elevators and then out onto another floor without ever breaking the shot. One of the last film noirs, these cinematography choices help frame the characters and set the moods in ways that compliment the narrative. While the film is no Citizen Kane, it is a masterful effort.
Charlton Heston plays Mike Vargas, a Mexican anti-narcotics officer who on his honeymoon bride Janet Leigh witnesses the explosion of the aforementioned car. The bomb originated in Mexico, but the explosion takes place in the US making jurisdictional issues bring Vargas into the world of Sheriff Hank Quinlan, a huge Orson Welles. I felt the plot was fairly straight forward, though of course some of the choices made for dramatic effect made no real world sense. But seeing Quinlan deviate from the investigation to pursue his own ends, ultimately framing Vargas and his wife for murder because he resents the intrusion to his case and he is a racist, enraptured me. Welles is brilliant in this role, and though I had a hard time accepting Heston as a Mexican, he was sufficient in his as well.
Quinlan has a legendary ‘intuition’: he has a hunch about what happens, and he always seems to be right. Though we quickly learn that these hunches are helped by the planting of evidence, we can’t judge the sheriff too quickly. There is reason to think that perhaps his hunches are right after all, and that he is helping justice along rather than playing by the rules. Mexican officer Vargas is a by-the-book man though, and once he realizes Quinlan’s MO, the two are pitted against each other.
How progressive was the storyline for 1959? Quinlan embodies the typical Mexican police stereotype: shady, alcoholic, and corrupt. Meanwhile, Mexican Vargas is the hero of the film who is upstanding and crusades for justice and fairness, as the typical American officer is usually portrayed. This inversion is powerful on its own, but even more so when one considers the environment in which the film was released. (One might also suspect that the box office failure it endured may have been tied to this in some way.)
The narrative is more complex that good v. evil, enriching a visually stunning film to greatness. It would be hard to say Welles is an underappreciated genius, but for someone to say he never did anything worthwhile after Kane at 26 years is way off the mark. One could watch this film merely to see the directorial prowess, ignoring the acting and the narrative, because Touch of Evil is about what the cinema can do as much as it is about Quinlan v. Vargas. An excellent movie worthy of your attention.