Director: Orson Welles
Cinematographer: Russell Metty
Writers: Orson Welles (screenplay), Whit Matherson (novel), Franklin Coen, Paul Moneth
Stars: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff
Starting the Orson Welles’ classic “Touch of Evil” with an unbelievably dramatic opening long-shot is a perfect start to this dark journey into law accompanied by the haunting Henry Mancini score. The scene begins by following Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) through the shady border town of Los Robles after a night out. The shot eventually ends with them as witnesses to a car bombing that invites in unruly characters to town. It’s a classic story with the abstract visual touch of Welles’s direction.
For starters, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), the obese and obtuse police captain, is sent in to help Vargas track Uncle “Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) and stop his Mexican narcotics ring. However, Quinlan is corrupt as they come and will do everything in his power to get a conviction including the planting of evidence. Vargas realizes this when Quinlan accuses a seemingly innocent man when a shoebox reveals dynamite. The story then veers down a spiral of corruption and the slipping of all ethical practices. It’s two characters pinned against each other with two dueling performances between Heston and Welles that ends in pure chaos and destruction.
Through Welles flare for lighting and allowing characters and different perceptions into the frame, “Touch of Evil” is elevated to something completely unseen. Welles working with a superbly talented cinematographer, Russell Metty, captured the gloom of Hank Quinlan, the hidden evil right underneath the surface. This incredibly dynamic effort from Metty is legendary work and a perfect match for Welles visual style.
The strength of this film is it works on every aspect of production. No part of the process was underutilized. The greatness or Welles is he can turn the world the story occupies into a grand illusion of life. Even in Touch of Evil, a less extravagant story then say “The Trial,” “Mr. Arkadin,” and that other one, “Citizen Kane.” Even in a more self-contained screenplay, Welles makes his performance larger than life and makes the stakes astronomical for each character. The overall importance of the story adds intensity and depth.
Seeing Welles play the faux-justice antagonist and seeing his relationship with partner, Sergeant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), develop over the course of the film is heartbreaking. The range of the performances is great, as Calleia’s blind admiration for Quinlan evaporates and Welles slips farther into darkness. The character writing and performance make them quite memorable. The dueling nature of the dialogue makes for very active interactions.
And this film has survived, despite many attempts to sabotage Welles creative potential. Welles often noted his discontent for the making of this film, but regardless of his feelings towards the experience, Welles undoubtedly created a masterpiece. I use that term only when all creative entities come together at once. When nothing is overlooked throughout the process is when, I believe, the title of a masterpiece is deserved. It’s one of Welles best in the filmography in terms of character and narrative.
It’s a perfect blend of subtlety crossed with heavy performances. It’s got an unforgettable look from the cinematography and editing. A film to study to learn the craftsmanship of filmmaking. No director understands his characters like Orson Welles and this is another excellent example of his talents.