This week in the best of film noir we’re going to look at a movie that many consider to be the last film noir of the classic period (1942-1958). Touch of Evil stars Charlton Heston (there he is again :)), Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich. What a cast! Touch of Evil has been called a baroque masterpiece – dark, complex, perverse, and riveting. It’s also a hard movie to discuss as, in some ways, it doesn’t seem to fit neatly into the film noir genre.
The Best of Film Noir – Who Is The Noir Hero?
Charlton Heston plays Miguel Vargas, a narcotic agent, who on the brink of his honeymoon, must foil a crime on the US-Mexican border. The film takes us into the dark underworld of Tijuana, where Vargas confronts the local banditos who are under the control of one obese police captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). I have trouble seeing anyone other that Quinlan as our noir hero. Quinlan is crooked, corrupt and unscrupulous, which is exactly what we expect from our noir hero, but we kind of expect the noir hero to be sexy (at least I do :)). Quinlan is instead disheveled, fat; a mumbling wreck of a man. And that in essence is the noir hero, just not who I want…
The Best of Film Noir – The Femme Fatale
Just as we have a questionable noir hero, we don’t really have a femme fatale. Janet Leigh plays Susie, Vargas’ bride, but we don’t see Susie being at all morally corrupt, nor does she do anything that is typical of our femme fatales. So what do we have?
The Best of Film Noir – The Theme
What makes Touch of Evil stand out is its clear portrayal of a world that isn’t right anymore. Evil is winning out, and Vargas must try to restore some sense of order. When you look at the movie itself, and not the actors or cinematography, you have a very basic film about good and evil. That Touch of Evil fits into film noir is because of the level of corruption portrayed on the screen.
The Best of Film Noir – The Cinematography
Where Touch of Evil truly excels is in how it was filmed. The over three-minute opening tracking sequence is considered one of the greatest long shots ever taken (it has been imitated in many future films). Many critics have said that trying to watch Touch of Evil for its plot is beside the point. You really should be watching the film for the filming itself. That says something about the direction and cinematography.
The Best of Film Noir – The Other Touch of Evil
Touch of Evil is also noted for the number of versions that came out. The original film was the original release version, that cut out much of Welles directing and vision for the film. A later original version came out, but this was just a preview version of the 1958 film. It wasn’t until 1998 that a version came out that featured edits taken from Welles notes on the film. This last version is the one you should watch as it’s the closet to Welles vision for the film.
The Best of Film Noir – Final Thoughts
Another reason to watch Touch of Evil is for the appearance of bigger name actors who appear in a variety of roles that do not necessarily add to the plot, but they’re fun to watch (Dietrich, Dennis Weaver, Joseph Cotton). Much has been written about the psychological aspects of Touch of Evil, and how the movie relates to Orson Welles’ own life, and it is fascinating reading. It’s also interesting to see how many critics see ties in the filming of the motel scenes from Touch of Evil with those of Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho (also starring Janet Leigh). That Touch of Evil is referenced in so many movies (remember Chili Palma in Get Shorty) attests to its greatness.
So grab your popcorn and soda and enjoy one of the last great film noir movies around.
PS – I just watched This Gun For Hire again – and it was great again. You can read my post on it here: The Best of Film Noir – This Gun For Hire.
If you enjoy film noir, read my Reed Ferguson mystery series. Reed is a wannabe private eye who loves film noir and crime fiction, and these mystery novels are consistently well-reviewed: This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, Reel Estate Rip-off, and the short story Elvis And The Sports Card Cheat. And stay tuned for a new Reed Ferguson mystery, available next month!
5 Star Review
There is little doubt that Renée Pawlish is a promising new voice to the comic murder/mystery genre. Quite noticeable…is Pawlish’s adept development of the plot coupled with her ability to contrive clear, concise and playful prose with almost perfect pacing.
Norman Goldman, Bookpleasures Publisher and Editor (Amazon top reviewer)