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Touch of Evil

February 18, 2016

Touch of Evil (1958)
Director: Orson Welles
Actors: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh

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Synopsis: A car is blown up on the Mexican-American border, and a myriad of associated ‘players’, from Mexican government official, Vargas (Charlton Heston), and his wife, Susie (Janet Leigh), to corrupt American cop, Quinlan (Orson Welles), become embroiled in the murky refuse of the case.

Review: Crime, with its pulpy, thriller-based hooks, is an inherently plot and character driven genre. Some of the best crime works on the big screen develop that base mandate by conjuring pungent atmospheres to compliment the action (think immemorial Forties’ film noirs like The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep.) When Orson Welles dipped his toe into the genre with Touch of Evil, he was magically able to transcend almost all those stellar examples of the genre by going even further, and making it one of the richest, most dazzling expositions of cinema ever seen.

What’s unique about Touch of Evil is how Welles (and DP Russell Metty) almost anthropomorphise their camera: having it dance giddily around the action, and the way Welles appears to find new possibilities for the communication of space in the film almost seems to have its closest echoes in vibrant, visceral musicals of a similar period such as West Side Story or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Following on from Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles also manufactures another of his masterly treatises on the power of light and shade – Touch of Evil is as gothic and expressive as any Murnau picture – and the dramatic chiaroscuro compliments the epically moral tenor of the story so well.

Welles is no grandstander though. His technique and love of ‘show’ has real thematic purpose, and the crucial climactic set piece to Touch of Evil is the fitting symbol for all the film’s venality as corrupt cop, Quinlan, comes unstuck in an disused oilfield. This ingenious moral-visual denouement is perfect companion piece to Welles’ masterly Citizen Kane climax in the tower of possessions amid Xanadu, and the fatalistic, hall of mirrors shootout in The Lady from Shanghai. (February 2016)

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