Amidst the final years of Hollywood’s classical era, Orson Welles provided another one of the last examples of film-noir to define the era with Touch of Evil. Much has been made of the film’s already troubled production on the count that on its theatrical release, Welles’s original vision never got its time to shine on the big screen but in subsequent years, traces of his vision that have been eliminated from the theatrical cut whether it be in the 1976 release that runs 108 minutes and unfortunately with the complete loss of Welles’s original rough cut, there is no true “director’s cut,” although the closest we have is a 111 minute long restoration as supervised by Welles himself released in 1998. Yet none of this ever hides a master at work, especially for as close to his vision as we can find ourselves, and what shines out is one of the most self-reflexive examples of the craft to have come out from the system.
The film’s opening sequence consists of a tracking shot setting up the seedy nature of the mystery kept intact. We keep our eyes on two newlyweds, the Mexican Mike and American Susan Vargas. The two of them pass by a car as it is about to pass by the American-Mexican border and upon a declaration of love between the two, it explodes. In a singular tracking shot, atmosphere for the film’s own mystery has never felt any more perfectly established. Mike Vargas is a good man, so he takes an interest in investigating the bomb for the implications it was Mexican property run amok. What follows along is a web of deceit, corruption, and murder, in the typical film-noir fashion but on the inside something far greater arises. Yet from that opening sequence the timing of the bomb’s explosion comes perfectly after Mike and Susan declare their love for one another, suggesting a danger in tampering with the American-Mexican relationships upon a unity.
In a sense, Touch of Evil feels like a very anti-Hollywood film coming out from a Hollywood studio. On one hand there’s an especially absurd choice coming by with the casting of Charlton Heston as a Mexican. What reason is there for him to be playing this sort of character? There’s absolutely none but in a sense it seems as if Orson Welles is using this choice as a means of commenting against the system, both at the time and right now. Among a few things to consider, however, are the fact that the hero being a non-white character is incredibly progressive for the time, but among many saddening things to consider are the fact that this was typical of Hollywood from back in the day, especially during an era where only a few years later, one of the worst cases of racially offensive casting had come about with Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Welles had an idea set in mind that it would be discomforting for certain moviegoers but as a good-natured character, Heston’s performance is impeccable. Even though it was Welles’s choice to have Heston as a Mexican, reversing the racial roles presented in the novel (the husband was American whereas the wife was a Meixcan), it was how he directed this performance that ultimately allowed a calling for reflection about the state of affairs in Hollywood, it was made acceptable during the time and with the significance of his role, it reflects upon the damage being done as a result of the system even now.
On the count of what it manages to set up as a film-noir, everything comes perfectly into place but noting the reflexive nature of the film’s concept with the supposed racial commentary being a prominent role, a greater success has found itself rising. The film, being a commentary about corruption running amok especially between the relationships of American and Mexican government officials, finds a greater effectiveness in the racial roles that are being put into play. At the time, it was not usual to see something from the studio have a racially-influenced role playing a hero but rather instead a supporting or a background character, and then there comes writer-director Orson Welles who plays the scummy official Hank Quinlan, a role that does not hide his character’s racism in any way, shape, or form. But Welles playing this role already represents how studios envision what they deem acceptable at the time.
To imagine the crafting behind what Touch of Evil accomplishes on all grounds is something that only Orson Welles could have done so perfectly at the time. Whether it be the lighting or the framing of certain sequences, many of these techniques which Orson Welles has established in Touch of Evil only exhibit nothing else other than the craft at its highest form. Welles crafts a film-noir in the way that the most demanding moviegoer would have wanted to receive only the best of from the time and he shows so much more, for his directorial choices only have aged so magnificently over the years. It was the only way that a magnificently written screenplay by Welles himself could find itself properly told to the very highest possible manner, if Orson Welles himself were the man responsible for every choice both behind and in front of the camera.
The fact that Touch of Evil was indeed a film that was released by the studio system is something that sets up something far greater on Orson Welles’s end because not only has he crafted a perfection of style by making one of the last defining examples of film-noir from the classical era of Hollywood, but by modern standards many of these choices feel reflexive. There was no reason for Charlton Heston to be playing a Mexican, and the star later admitted not even trying an accent was the biggest mistake he has made in his career, but the way the character was played, for as discomforting as it may feel for modern standards, calls for a reflection about what was made acceptable at the time and still done too much now. On one hand we can recognize that its story is a commentary about racial relationships especially from how perfectly the arcs of Mike Vargas and Hank Quinlan are set in stone, but on the other it feels like a film being made about, and against the system that distributed it. All this adds up to making one of the finest films of its era.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Universal.
Directed by Orson Welles
Screenplay by Orson Welles, from the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson
Produced by Albert Zugsmith
Starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Marlene Dietrich
Release Year: 1958
Running Time: 111 minutes