Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Touch of Evil
Based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson, Touch of Evil is the story of a Mexican narcotics officer who is being targeted by a drug lord’s family in an attempt to get him to not testify in a big case. Yet, he later deals with an American cop who has his own idea of justice as he pulls some strings to ensure the elimination of this narcotics officer. Written for the screen and directed by Orson Welles, with additional script contributions from Paul Monash and Franklin Coen. The film is an exploration into the world of corruption and a man’s attempt to do the right thing. Starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich. Touch of Evil is a gripping yet mesmerizing film from Orson Welles.
The film is the story about Mexican narcotics officer in Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) who is at a Mexican-American border town set to testify against a famed drug lord as he later becomes a target. After witnessing a car explosion at the border with his wife Susie (Janet Leigh), Vargas takes part in the investigation as does a revered police captain named Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and his partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia). Things eventually get troubling when Vargas believes something isn’t right about Quinlan while Susie is targeted by the drug lord’s brother Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) who makes a deal with Quinlan to discredit Vargas and his idealism. It’s a plot scenario that is film noir at its finest yet it goes even deeper into the world of corruption as well as what people will do in order to fulfill their idea of justice.
The screenplay that Orson Welles created, with contributions from Paul Monash and Franklin Coen, doesn’t follow a traditional formula of sorts as it starts out with a bang where Vargas and his wife witness a car explosion happened where the victim turned out to be part of some other kind of plot. Vargas, who is this idealistic officer, takes part of the investigation as he wants to know what is going on though he is unaware that he’s being targeted. With Vargas distracted by his work as he is unable to do things with Susie on their honeymoon, Grandi decides to go after Susie as a way to target Vargas who will be testifying against his brother. Grandi would send his nephews to keep watch on Susie as she ends up staying in a motel in the middle of nowhere as she finds herself in big trouble. Adding to this chaos for Vargas is the presence of Hank Quinlan who is this larger than life man with a notoriety for getting his criminals.
Quinlan is a unique individual who is this very big man who walks with a cane as both cops and criminals tend to fear him. Vargas knows about Quinlan but is baffled into why this man has a great reputation yet during an investigation where they question a young man named Sanchez (Victor Millan). Vargas realizes what Quinlan does where he realizes that something isn’t right about him that only few people seem to know. Vargas confronts Quinlan’s longtime partner Menzies who is either denying about Quinlan or doesn’t really know what’s happening once Vargas finally piece out Quinlan’s methods. Still, Quinlan is a man knows that he is in trouble where he makes a deal with Grandi to do something about Vargas. The script definitely has this air of suspense that occurs that builds up as the story progresses while it contains this very stylized language that is definitely an attribute of film noir.
Welles’ direction is truly stylish in the way he presents the film that begins with this very elaborate tracking shot that is truly one of the great openings of a film. It does a lot to establish what goes on where it has a medium shot and then goes into a full-on crane shot to reveal the place and the camera then goes back to the ground to follow Vargas and Susie. Then it cuts to the aftermath of an explosion and then cut back to Vargas as it’s among the many stylistic shots that Welles does. Notably as he uses cranes to not just establish the location but also create an atmosphere that is quite unsettling in some of the film’s intimate moments. Welles also keeps the camera very low-key in the scenes at the motel where he uses music to play out the tension where Susie is trying to sleep unaware of who is at the motel.
The direction also goes for long takes in one notable scene where Vargas and Quinlan try to question Sanchez where it’s all about the little details that Vargas would later notice. There would be more tracking shots that occur in order to intensify the suspense as well as a very elaborate climax where Vargas tries to figure out how to expose Quinlan. The way Welles creates this climax is once again elaborate in its setting but also in the way the camera moves where is able to utilize the frame to create something that is spectacular. Overall, Welles creates a truly phenomenal and entrancing film about corruption and justice.
Cinematographer Russell Metty does brilliant work with the film‘s black-and-white photography from the gorgeous look of some of the film‘s daytime interior and exterior settings along with more stylish lighting schemes for the scenes at night including a meeting between Quinlan and Grandi as well as the film‘s climax. Editors Aaron Stell and Virgil Vogel, with additional work by Walter Murch for its 1998 restored cut, do excellent work with the editing by using stylish cuts to play out some of the suspense as well as slow, methodical ones to build up the suspense. Art directors Robert Clayworthy and Alexander Golitzen, along with set decorators John P. Austin and Russell A. Gausman, do terrific work with the set pieces such as the motel rooms as well as the bars and places the characters frequent to.
The costumes of Bill Thomas is wonderful for many of the female clothing created for the female characters including Susie. The sound work of Leslie I. Carey and Frank H. Williamson, with additional sound editing by Richard LeGrand Jr. for the 1998 restoration, do superb work with the sound to create the sense of atmosphere that occurs in some of the interrogations as well as the raucous scenes at the motel. The film’s music by Henry Mancini is a major highlight of the film for its array of different music pieces from percussive-driven cuts to play out the suspense to the blues-based piano pieces in the scenes where Quinlan goes to a mysterious house as it’s definitely one of Mancini’s best scores.
The film’s ensemble cast is incredible as it features some notable appearances from Zsa Zsa Gabor as a strip-club owner, Mercedes McCambridge as a hoodlum, Joseph Cotten as a detective, Joanna Cook Moore as the victim’s daughter, Victor Millan as Sanchez, Val de Vargas as Grandi’s nephew Pancho, and Mort Mills as Vargas’ friend Al Schwartz. Other noteworthy small roles include Ray Collins as a district attorney, Dennis Weaver as the mentally-challenged motel owner, Harry Shannon as the police chief, and Marlene Dietrich as a mysterious woman that Quinlan meets named Tanya. Akim Tarmiroff is excellent as the criminal Grandi who hopes to get rid of Vargas for revenge over his brother’s incarceration. Joseph Calliea is terrific as Quinlan’s partner Menzies who is an all-around nice guy that is either unaware of his partner’s actions or is in complete denial.
Orson Welles is brilliant as the devious Hank Quinlan where he displays this larger-than-life persona as a man with a great reputation but there’s a darkness to him that is just engaging as it’s definitely one of Welles’ best performances. Janet Leigh is superb as Vargas’ wife Susie who is aware that she is targeted where she is confronted by Grandi while dealing with her husband’s work. Finally, there’s Charlton Heston in a marvelous performances as Miguel Vargas as a man with an idealist idea about what it means to be a cop. Notably as he also tries to balance the role of being a husband as Heston makes Vargas a man that is very flawed though he is someone intent on doing what is right.
Touch of Evil is a magnificent film from Orson Welles that features top-notch leading performances from Welles, Charlton Heston, and Janet Leigh. The film isn’t just one of Welles’ best films but also one of the key films of the film noir genre. Notably as it plays to its schematics while taking on big themes of corruption and justice that adds a new layer of darkness to the story. In the end, Touch of Evil is an extraordinary film from Orson Welles.
Orson Welles Films: Citizen Kane - The Magnificent Ambersons - The Stranger (1946 film) - The Lady from Shanghai - Macbeth (1948 film) - Othello (1952 film) - Mr. Arkadin - The Trial (1962 film) - Chimes at Midnight - The Immortal Story - F for Fake - Filming Othello – The Other Side of the Wind
Related: Orson Welles: The One-Man Band - They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead - (The Auteurs #69: Orson Welles)
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