Review by Trylon chief of police David Berglund
So much is made of the famed tracking shot that opens Touch of Evil that it is tempting to think it is remembered because of this incredible opening salvo. Yet, taken on its own the shot is largely a gimmick – three and a half minutes of highly choreographed unbroken movement that ends with a bang. It mustn’t be forgotten that there is still a whole movie that follows this sequence and this brief prologue works primarily to set an ominous tone for the rest of the film. No, this film is remembered not because of a single take, but because of how this take is married to the story that follows; a taut and thrilling suspense that unflinchingly weaves its way through the worst of humanity.
Many critics mark Touch of Evil as the closing film of the noir era. Despite it certainly not being the last great noir, this designation is in many ways fitting. The accolade resulted partly due to its 1958 release coinciding with the sunset of the Hayes code, and the film’s bleak sensibility indeed helped kick off a new era of anti-heroes and criminal ambiguity. Indeed, under the Hayes code, by rule good guys won and bad guys faced justice, but Welles here was less concerned with who won and lost than how people act out in desperate situations. In focusing on his characters first despite their places in a convoluted tale of corruption and double-crossing, he produced an affecting masterwork in an oeuvre filled with them.
Evil tells the story of Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Heston), a principled Mexican official running a murder investigation parallel to his American counterparts, hardened old-timer Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) and his longtime partner Pete Menzies (Josh Calleia). With the support of his devoted wife Susie (Janet Leigh), the fresh-faced Vargas is determined to play by the rules while Quinlan is prone to follow hunches and cut corners to bring a conviction. As such, these two figures clash and the resulting collateral damage is shocking and horrific.
Welles never allowed himself to be more ugly than in his turn as Quinlan. This figure is an unkempt, clumsy, gluttonous, and vindictive drunk with nary a redeeming quality. Yet, there is a sense that he was once a good intentioned cop that through some fated path disintegrated into his present state. This descent in many ways mirrors Welles own life, a life marked by an initial idealistic ambition later turned sour.
But like Quinlan, Welles nevertheless sought to do his job and produce results, utilizing tactics that were rarely orthodox and many times questionable. In always refusing to surrender artistic control until it was wrested from him, he was relegated to find new avenues for his personal projects, many times finding dubious funding sources. By the time Universal gifted him this film, the weariness of operating on his own terms was evident.
Now, Welles was not nearly as corrupt as Quinlan, but he was as jaded. His life, like Quinlan’s, taught him that playing by the rules meant falling short of his own lofty standards. One can’t help but wonder if Welles drew upon his professional frustrations and slights in realizing this iconic villain. The fact that studio heads chopped even this film makes you think any cynicism he breathed into this role was likely justified. — David Berglund
David Berglund is an ardent film buff and loyal Trylon volunteer. When inspiration strikes, he collaborates with his wife Chelsea to write film reviews at moviematrimony.com and local theater reviews at howwastheshow.com.
TOUCH OF EVIL screens Friday and Saturday, May 22 and 23 at 7:00 and 9:00, and Sunday, May 24 at 5:00 and 7:00 at the Trylon. Advance tickets are $8.00, and you can purchase them here.