Chelsea's Top Ten - #6 - Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)
6. Touch of Evil - Orson Welles, 1958
Orson Welles was a man far ahead of his time. He wrote, directed, and starred in what is consistently noted as the “greatest film of all time”, Citizen Kane. Although I consider Citizen Kane to be a very fine film, it’s Touch of Evil that most impressed me. The film opens with a lengthy and tense tracking sequence, following a bomb in the trunk of a car as it drives the streets of a Mexican border town for over three minutes. The bomb explodes as the car crosses into the United States and sends the movie diving into a twisty tale of drugs, police corruption, prostitution, immigration issues, and racial strife. Charlton Heston plays a straight-laced Mexican cop, engaged to a beautiful woman. Orson Welles plays the crooked American border cop who plants evidence based on hunches. From there, the plot gets all twisty and turny and quite pulpy. No matter, because this movie isn’t about the plot, it’s absolutely about watching a master director at work. In each and every take, you can feel Welle’s strong hands guiding you through this labyrinthine story, and it’s wonderful to be in the hands of such an assured artist. It’s considered the key film to bring the film noir era to a close, and it is the last film Welles ever made in Hollywood. It is dark, thrilling, exciting, and altogether fantastic.
The man had balls.
Welles always had the balls to put his camera where other directors of his time would find absurd. He didn’t care – he had confidence in his artistic hunches and stuck with them, even if it meant being relegated to making B-movies for pompous Hollywood producers. Maybe this was a good thing in the end, for it was this relegation that most likely allowed him the freedom to make the daring choices we see in Touch of Evil, even if these producers ended up cutting the film to shreds anyway. For example, there is a murder scene in this film which includes a shot from a soon to be victim’s helpless point of view as she lays strapped to a hotel bed, staring into the bulging eyes of a fresh corpse draped over the bannister. Surely something this dark and disorienting would not have been allowed with a larger budget, but on a smaller budget, studios could take more risks. In the context of this film, which capitalized on the end of the Production Code era by providing a logical and suitably bleak conclusion of the film noir genre, shots like this shockingly unearth the dark fantasies of crime so many had been drawn to in the genre. By this time, it seems that Welles saw this cinematic obsession with crime was an American sickness (albeit one he contributed to with The Lady from Shanghai), and his work here pulled back the veil on the very real horrors of greed, corruption, and hate. Pulsing with a frenetic Henry Mancini score and offering consistently cramped, uncomfortable compositions, the film serves as a warning to both be aware of crime’s terrors and avoid glamourizing them. For any lovers of crime film, you simply cannot do better than this. See it, and make sure to see the 1998 version, which attempts to restore the film to Welles’s original, darker vision.