“Touch Of Evil” by Orson Welles (1958) has been strongly regarded as the very last “classic” noir film that has been made throughout man’s history in the world of cinema & film. Furthermore, it has also been considered as the very last masterpiece given to us by the great Orson Welles, a renaissance man of the arts. Touch of Evil was originally released as a B-movie due to Universal’s refusal to let Welles edit his own film. Welles submitted a 58 page memo to the studio, but they ignored this. The film was picked up and edited after 40 years by Walter Murch.
Welles teaches us something about the human relations coming from separate borders. In our daily life probably people still have the stigma from where you come from, your race, your ethnicity and so on. Therefore, its more of, “if you come from ‘this certain place’ this is the respect we can give.”
In this film of “ethnicity” there are two main character of different ethnic groups. The first is, Hank Quinlan, a ‘white’ American cop who needs a cane to support himself, which has been played by the director himself. Who is seen as like nothing can stop him and the ‘all-time right’ person to whatever he says which is totally ironic to the fact he does some disgusting things in the movies. Secondly its Mike Vargas played by Charleton Heston who is the Mexican & deliberately the production team made him a bit darker toned person due to his background & origins. Mike Vargas has a ‘white’ American wife, Susan played by Janet Leigh.
Orson Welles gives the audience alot of details within the film itself. We can say that it was Welles’s style of shooting films. Therefore, in this movie, it can be seen that Welles put in some key details both in the atmospheric level of the movie & in the whole wide range level in the movie. He made use of many signs and placards prefigures. For example, in of the scenes Vargas would be standing behind a huge billboard sign that reads, “Stranger”. Therefore we can understand that MIke Vargas is an’ alien’ in that place. Also many times in the film, Welles uses the “self-reflexivity’ kinds of shots to pull up close to the characters face in situations like when they face embarrassment, shamed of their actions and so on.
The style of the movie gives the audience the taste of gloominess as the streets look dark and the film has an overall contrasted shadowed look. The contrast in lighting is often used to show good and evil. Low Key lighting is greatly present in the film, representing the dark secrets and crime that goes on between the borders.
“Touch Of Evil” was also very famous for its opening scene which is a full 3 1/2 minute one take long shot where the audience is shown a time bomb being placed in the trunk of a Cadillac. The reason for that long take would be simply because Orson Welles wanted to capture all the necessary detail and to show to the audience with relative to the time taken for the bomb to explode. Welles has a style he called “realist” which is the maintenance of spatial integrity in the image through long takes in or moving cameras, in order to eliminate the need for cuts.
The music in the film was mostly loud and upbeat. It portrayed an atmosphere full of chaos and confusion, mostly in the Mexican border. There is also a tick-tock like beat when the main characters are beside the car.
Furthermore, within a particular shot, the movement of the people and their shadows were relatively shown on purpose as it is shot by the camera. A possible reason could be to give the audience a feel of the unexpected.
A. O. Scott, chief film critic for the New York Times says that “In exterior sequences, he [Welles] captures chaotic motion with elegance and control.” (Critics Picks – Touch of Evil, Youtube)
After the bomb is in place, the camera pulls in & out, pans to the left & right showcasing the streets, the bustling city, pedestrians etc, which I feel gives the audience a sense of interest to cling onto their seats to know what’s going to happen next. One of the major reasons is because of the continuous shot without the need of multiple shots & editing.
A dramatic explosion occurs & for the rest of the movie, it is just like being in a world of corrupted & malevolent policemen. The explosion is done by “Skip-framing”, says Welles, which is done by taking “out every frame in the shot”. The rest of the movie is filmed in a pretty classic humorous styled action way. (This is Orson Welles, Bogdanovich)
Welles also uses deep focus, which is present throughout the movie. Deep focus is Welles style, making everything visible. Welles believes that people should be able to see what their eyes can normally see in a film.
The protagonist Mike Vargas, in the movie is played by none other than Charlton Heston. Also it is said that to make him look more of a Mexican Narcotics Officer, his face was given additional makeup to slightly darken it.
Welles uses low-angle shots to give Quinlan a monstrous, dominating look. Quinlan is also the police captain which gives him authority and power. Low angle shots emphasizes that. Welles also plays many shadows of people in Touch of Evil, mostly the shadows of corrupted people. He uses these shadows to tie the characters together, always putting them into the same shot. Roger Ebert supports this by saying that “The destinies of all of the main characters are tangled from beginning to end, and the photography makes that point by trapping them in the same shots, or tying them together through cuts that match and resonate.” He also states that “The story moves not in a straight line, but as a series of loops and coils.” (Touch of Evil, Roger Ebert)
Also it can be seen that the camera’s body language for the film was more of a slight tilt here and there probably to give a realistic look and feel. The sound of the movie was rather difficult to get note to as it had dialogues that were overlapped, too intense sound effects for certain scenes.
Touch of Evil has a great legacy in cinema, TV and music. Welles famous opening shot hast been replicated mid-way in Brian De Palma‘s 1974 camp musical film Phantom of the Paradise. The film has also been jokingly referred in other movies, mostly because of Charlton Heston playing a Mexican. Some films wanted to surpass Welles’ opening shot such as Robert Altman‘s 1992 film, The Player. (Touch of Evil, Wikipedia) Roger Ebert also states that the “sexually obsessed motel night clerk… peculiar skittishness may have given ideas to Anthony Perkins for “Psycho” two years later.” (Touch of Evil, Roger Ebert) Others made references to Touch of Evil through the characters or watching the film.
Critics praised the direction of Touch of Evil more than anything else. Film director, Peter Bogdanovich, loved the film immensely that he stated that “Another thing you [Welles] often do is break up one sentence with a lot of cuts” in Touch of Evil. Bogdanovich added that the rythmn of Welles’ “scenes is so exciting I don’t really care what they’re saying – it becomes like listening to music. And you could say the same thing for the film visually”. (This is Orson Welles, Bogdanovich) When Welles told him “That speaks well for the story,” Bogdanovich replied, “No, no–I mean I was looking at the direction.” (Touch of Evil, Roger Ebert)
The British critic Damian Cannon writes of its “spatial choreography,” in which “every position and movement latches together into a cogent whole.” Roger Ebert also gave praise for Welles ” Welles brought great style to his movies, embracing excess in his life and work as the price (and reward) of his freedom.” (Touch of Evil, Roger Ebert)
Overall, Touch of Evil is a work known for it’s great directing and unique film techniques. The other factors are not as important. The only ones that held up the film was it’s style and directing that made the story more interesting than it originally was.
‘If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.’
– Orson Welles
En.wikipedia.org. 1958. Touch of Evil – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. [online] Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Touch_of_Evil [Accessed: 6 Jul 2013].IMDb. 1958. Touch of Evil (1958). [online] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052311/ [Accessed: 6 Jul 2013].
Ebert, R. 1998. Touch of Evil Movie Review & Film Summary (1958) | Roger Ebert. [online] Available at: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-touch-of-evil-1958 [Accessed: 6 Jul 2013].
Welles, O., Bogdanovich, P. and Rosenbaum, J. 1992. This is Orson Welles. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
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About the author: Ashwin Jerome is a petrol head and eats ‘Unicorns’ for breakfast.