Director: Orson Welles
Production: Universal-International; black and white, 35mm; running time: 95 minutes, also variously noted at 105 and 115 minutes. Released 21 May 1958. Filmed spring 1957 in Venice, California.
Producer: Albert Zugsmith; screenplay: Orson Welles, from the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson; additional director: Harry Keller; photography: Russell Metty; editors: Virgil M. Vogel and Aaron Stell; sound: Leslie I. Carey and Frank Wilkinson; art directors: Alexander Golitzen and Robert Clatworthy; music: Henry Mancini; music director: Joseph Gershenson; costume designer: Bill Thomas.
Cast: Charlton Heston ( Ramon Miguel "Mike" Vargas ); Janet Leigh ( Susan Vargas ); Orson Welles ( Hank Quinlan ); Joseph Calleia ( Pete Menzies ); Akim Tamiroff ( Uncle Joe Grandi ); Joanna Moore ( Marcia Linnekar ); Marlene Dietrich ( Tanya ); Ray Collins ( Adair ); Dennis Weaver ( Motel manager ); Victor Millan ( Manolo Sanchez ); Lalo Rios ( Rio ); Valentin de Vargas ( Pancho ); Mort Mills ( Schwartz );
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Touch of Evil shows how Orson Welles refashions the Baroque style, inaugurated in Citizen Kane , in terms of the post-war film anticipating the experiment of New Wave cinema. If Welles's oeuvre can be mapped according to Henri Focillon's concept of the "life of forms in art," it can be said that Citizen Kane marks a classic, if not "experimental" phase in a cycle that Touch of Evil completes in its self-reflective and expressly decadent mode. Inspired by Whit Masterson's pulpy Badge of Evil , the film tells of an erstwhile narcotic agent's attempt to foil a crime committed on the Mexican border just as he prepares to celebrate his honeymoon with his shining new wife (Janet Leigh). Multiple frame-ups abound. The agent, Vargas (Charlton Heston), finds himself amidst a band of tawdry outlaws under the control of the local chief of police—the obese Hank Quinlan (Welles). The plot leads through the sleaze of Tijuana (set in Venice, California) over dusty vistas of dirt roads, into a decrepit motel filled with sexed-up punks reeking of booze and dope, and through a labyrinth of oil derricks by a river flowing with trash.
The film revives film noir at a time when the genre is spent. It brings into view questions of framing, editing, and desire at the basis of spectatorship in general. Because it alludes to former moments in Welles's oeuvre, it is both a filmic autobiography, like The Lady from Shanghai , and a collage of transfilmic obsessions. The plot hinges on a rebus. After strangling his wig-wearing henchman (Akim Tamiroff), Quinlan forgets his cane —or former name in Citizen Kane —such that the play on the word and object returns, like the repressed, to convict him of his many former crimes. Shakespeare seems to inspire the scenario. The film essays decadence in ways that make Welles something of the Jack Falstaff of the second part of Henry the Fourth . Dennis Weaver plays the role of a fool clearly drawn from the comic character in Macbeth .
Welles's grotesque body occupies the center of the film. A wide-angle lens records from numerous angles its immensity in baroque caricature. The camera usually pans quickly or crabs to draw the spectator's eyes to spherical aberrations distorting the edges of the shots. A highly mannered perspective results, with curvilinear views extending the rotundity of Welles's body all over the frame. Elsewhere the wide angle lens accelerates the narrative by accentuating movement, compressing characters in the foreground and background alike, and turning with velocity such that no stable visual order results. The opening crane shot of over two minutes' duration registers the credits, engages the narrative, and breaks with the crack of an explosion behind the newlyweds' first kiss. The camera exploits the optical range of the shorter focal length of the lens by simulating high speed driving in matte shots projected behind a car to create the effect of Welles and Heston whizzing down the streets of Tijuana. They speak calmly on as the car goes at a breakneck clip through a landscape of poverty.
Welles amplifies the soundtrack. Voice and clatter are reported percussively and cacaphonously. "Reported" events resound in a remarkable final sequence: Vargas follows Quinlan through a maze of iron girders and under a bridge that echoes the speech on the sound track. Because Vargas has planted a microphone in Quinlan's pocket, the viewer hears the heave and slur of the antagonist's breathing and mutterings against a recording that plays back the immediate past of the film, inscribing the memory of episodes in the film on a register coextensive with the present. In the finale, blood drips from Quinlan's last victim, the body sprawled on the bridge above the murderer who is at the edge of the river below. Droplets fall onto Quinlan's chubby hand, thus bringing the play of sounds and visuals back into a context resembling Elizabethan tragedy. Quinlan is marked by the bloodstains, soon cornered and shot, his great body falling into a pool of flotsam. "Too bad. He was a great detective but a lousy cop," eulogizes Menzies (Joseph Calleia); to which Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) responds in a thick German accent, topping the entire film, "He was some kind of a man."
Despite having no narrative role in the story, Dietrich's presence is manifold. One of Quinlan's former lovers, now a wizened fortune teller overlaid with heavy makeup, she smokes cigarettes in poses reminiscent of the aging beauty Fritz Lang created for Rancho Notorious six years before. By facing the camera frontally, she pulls into the present a filmic legacy that reaches back both to Lang and to von Sternberg of the 1930s. Her remark that Quinlan's time is "all played out" is doubly ironic in view of the portable television set, seen in the background of her cluttered quarters, presaging the end of the studio tradition. Their banter is laced with allusion to Quinlan's passion for candy bars: his obesity becomes a sign, on another allegorical level, of the director's career being one of excess, genius, and waste. Her Tarot reading seals the anti-hero's fate and forces him to return to the narrative.
Touch of Evil stages sexual violence in a sequence set at the "Mirador" motel. Having consigned his wife in a room while he chases his suspects, Vargas retrieves her after making repeated telephone calls. Supine, heaving, in the bondage of her corset, Suzy (Leigh, whose name is again a reminder of the Suzy of Citizen Kane ) is framed in a pose epitomizing Hollywood's model of desire, but only before the camera tears it to shreds, in a style that combines the rhetoric of torture that Rossellini had inaugurated in Open City with oblique allusion to Reefer Madness . Time and again the effects suggest that violence is a matter of optics, and that it owes its force to conventions that Hollywood had produced in its representation of women in the tradition of film noir .
In Touch of Evil the studio style is distorted to comic excess. Here are located the virtual politics of Welles's work, in the mix of lenticular experiment and the essay of a Shakespearean type of narrative. In the last decade the film has been subject of a dazzling reading by Stephen Heath in Questions of Cinema . The renascence of Welles's feature owes much to the complexities Heath unravels through an alert and detailed reading inspired by a blend of psychoanalysis and politics. The film is of a force and heritage going far beyond its period.