EMPIRE ESSAY: Touch of Evil Review

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A Mexican government investigator and his young American wife put their honeymoon on hold in an American border town when they become embroiled in a frame-up planned by the town's chief investigator. Featuring one of the longest continuous shots in Hollywood.


For over 40 years critics and filmmakers from Francois Truffaut to Paul Schrader to Curtis Hanson (citing its influence on LA Confidential) have paid homage to the technical mastery and I inspiration of Orson Welles' potent 50s noir. It's a lurid tale of corruption and conscience played out in the gaudy strip joints and cheap motel rooms of a sleazy border town, with honourable Mexican narcotics official Charlton Heston and bloated, degenerate American cop Welles at odds over a murder whose jurisdiction is in dispute. All the while Heston's bride, Janet Leigh, becomes a terrorised pawn in their battle of wills.

Heston arguably did the best day's work of his glamorous career when he used his A-list clout to strongarm Universal into hiring the Hollywood pariah Welles to direct the good versus evil melodrama. Initially producer Albert Zugsmith offered Welles the role of Hank Quinlan. Heston, a fan, misunderstood, assuming Welles would also direct. The reluctant Zugsmith was forced to agree when Heston rightly pointed out "He's a pretty good director, you know".

He was no mean screenwriter, either. Welles immediately threw out the script and wrote his own free adaptation of the source novel, Badge Of Evil by Whit Masterson. Thus began the transformation of a pulp fiction, a cheap little thriller, into great art. The film, shot at Universal Studios and in the nearby beach community of Venice, is steeped in the sinister atmosphere of desperate turista towns like those tamiliar noir dens of iniquity Tijuana, on the California border, and Juarez, a spit away from El Paso, Texas.

If for nothing else the film is remembered (and still imitated) for its remarkable single tracking shot opening, a dazzling, three minute set-up that sucks you into this neon-lit cesspool. The camera crane swoops through the busy night scene as Miguel "Mike" Vargas (Heston) and his pert blonde all-American bride Susie (Leigh), slumming on honeymoon, stroll across into America in search of a chocolate ice cream soda. An unidentifiable man plants a bomb in a convertible, pedestrians scurry around, the driver's floozy . companion complains at the checkpoint that she's "Got this ticking noise in my head," Vargas, Susie and the border patrol guard exchange enough small talk to establish their thumbnail back story, and ka-boom, the honeymoon is over. Welles' evil Hank Quinlan is the police chief from the American side of the border, who arrives to take control of the car bombing investigation and get in Vargas' face while Susie is waylaid and menaced by the drug-dealing gang Vargas has been working to shut down. Within minutes the cards have been dealt in a malevolent, deeply perverse game. To prevent Vargas from exposing him for the criminal he is, Quinlan will have the abducted and drugged Susie dumped (by a lesbian in leather and her reefer maddened thugs!) in a squalid dive with a dead man.

Quinlan is one of the giant noir psychopaths of the screen, a bloated figure whose abuse of power has turned him into a spiritual and physical monstrosity (the already hefty Welles expanded with padding and false nose). "You're a mess, honey!" exclaims Marlene Dietrich's enigmatic, fortune-telling, chilli-cooking whore, failing to recognise one-time regular Hank. This dark vision of dissolution is kin to Citizen Kane. The idea of Heston as a Mexican may be preposterous, but his performance is actually interesting, his confidence in a sophisticated role sufficient to prevent the satirical Welles from crushing him. Leigh is fine as the headstrong WASP saucepot, honing her "trapped with a nutcase motel clerk" reactions with a twitching Dennis Weaver for her impending date with Norman Bates. The most affecting character is not abused Susie, however, but the tragic, belatedly ennobled figure of Quinlan's adoring lackey, Pete (Joseph Calleia). Adding flavour are cameos from Mercedes McCambridge ("Thee fun ees chust begeening!") and Kane vets Joseph Gotten and Ray Collins.

Rivalling the opening are a series of bold, complex, set-pieces which have given the film its reputation as noir's epitaph. Welles' theatrically exaggerated style elements achieve a hyper-realism with Russell Metty's sharp black-and-white cinematography and Henry Mancini's Latino/jazz/rock and roll score. Consider the interrogation of bombing suspect Sanchez. Cast and crew moving in a carefully rehearsed choreography, the claustrophobic apartment is crowded with characters, all presented from striking angles, in one single continuous take. The nightmarish end chase is a delirium of flamboyant visuals, experimental sound effects and pervasive doom.

Welles disliked the editing done by Universal and wrote a 58-page memo specifying his intentions. In 1998 a restoration meticulously done from these notes was released. Just a few minutes longer, its most apparent, satisfying alterations are the removal of credits over the famous opening sequence and more intricate cutting between Susie's motel ordeal and Vargas' disturbing journey with Quinlan. Whether the "before" or "after" version, it endures as a superbly kinky masterpiece of technique, imagination and audacity.

Astonishing cinematography and brilliantly played, this certainly one of the most influential crime movies in history.