Written and directed by Orson Welles, loosely based on the novel “The Badge of Evil” by Whit Masterson, “Touch of Evil” is the last studio backed film that Orson Welles made in Hollywood, and it’s quite the noir! For the record, I watched the ‘Reconstructed’ version of the film that was re-edited according to Orson Welles’ wishes per the fifty-eight page memo he sent to the studio following their edit of the film. This resulted in an additional half hour of footage merged back into the original studio edit. “Touch of Evil” begins with an incredibly well staged and executed shot that follows a bomb being planted in the trunk of a car as we meet two of our principal characters, Miguel ‘Mike’ (Charlton Heston) and Susan (Janet Leigh) Vargas, walking alongside the car as it weaves in and out of a busy small road as they cross the Mexican-U.S. border. It’s a gripping scene of about three and a half minutes until the car with the bomb gets just far enough out of frame and explodes as Mike (a Narcotics Official for the Mexican Government) investigates the scene of the burning car. It’s not long before Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) arrives at the scene of the crime, looming ominously over the wreckage as he boasts about ‘intuitions’ and hunches that a local Mexican gang is to blame for the murders.
Once Vargas is involved in the case, it becomes more about the detective work that Vargas engages in as he uncovers Captain Quinlan’s years of planting evidence and a corrupt system of criminal activities. There’s also some fun world building on the side with “Uncle” Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the brother of a criminal that Vargas indicted back in Mexico. He’s out to make Vargas’ life a living hell as revenge for his brother’s predicament, though Uncle Joe is very careful to keep his underlings’ crimes just vague and muddled enough not to attract any real retribution from the U.S. cops. Uncle Joe Grandi’s boys are mostly utilized to keep Susan paranoid while Mike’s out there trying to pin Quinlan to the dirt he’s tried to keep buried for years. The film has all the trappings of a good Noir, and Welles fully embraced the genre while imbuing it with stylish cinematography choices, near perfect shading, and just damn good direction and blocking. It’s considerably noteworthy that Orson Welles could take a B-movie thriller on a border town, and transform it into something larger that feels equal parts Machiavellian and Shakespearean at times.
Now, we have to address the elephant in the room, Charlton Heston as Mike Vargas. On one hand, to have a Mexican character not only be the lead in a major motion picture in 1958, but that he was also the hero of the story as well as the most moral character- that’s something to consider given the time the film was made and released. It’s also worth mentioning that Vargas’ character actions seem doubly righteous when juxtaposed against Welles’ Quinlan, the walking emodiment of bigotry and corruption. However, it can be cringe inducing seeing Charlton Heston caked in make-up to be depicted as a Mexican narcotics officer, especially when Heston provided no vocal work for any authenticity when concerned with accents. It’s not particularly well hidden, thus the film asks you to suspend your disbelief as Heston, clearly, is not Mexican. Whether or not that works for you in the grander scheme of the film as a whole, well, that will be a personal choice for each viewer to decide for themselves. I think it’s a bit of a toss up for me personally, it’s a bit uncomfortable- but it seems there were good intentions from Welles. For example, in the book, the character of Vargas was a white cop named Mitch. So, Welles intentionally made the choice to make his lead character of Mexican descent, it’s just disappointing that the character couldn’t have been played by a Latino. Alas, it was what seems like a thousand years ago. Your enjoyment of the film will be up to you given the circumstances.
If you’re a student of film, I highly recommend giving this one a watch. There’s a lot of work here that feels revolutionary for the time. I’ve always thought that about Orson Welles, he was a man ahead of his time when it came to filmmaking. Whether on the set of “Citizen Kane”, “The Third Man”, or in the recently crafted/discovered documentary on Netflix called “The Other Side of The Wind” (Which I highly recommend), Welles was always willing to take huge risks, break new ground, and change cinema. Even with the brownface Heston situation, there is enough good stuff in the film to consider giving it a watch if this piques your interest. Definitely recommended.
Final Score: 2 Sticks of Dynamite