Touch of Evil – 1958
Released with a limited run in March 30, 1958, then general release April 23, 1958
"Ultimate B film?"
Orson Welles' final studio film is often called the ultimate "B Movie" but it has a hard time looking like a "B" with this cast: Heston, Leigh, Welles and Marlene Dietrich – you can't get that with B-movie dollars.* Besides these major stars there's Akim Tamiroff, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joseph Calleia, Dennis Weaver and Ray Collins, and there's not a weak link in the bunch, on down through the rest of the cast with plenty of other names given momentary moments in front of the camera. This showcasing of talent isn't typical B-movie, mostly because with a B-film, by either dint of budget or the limitations of the director, you don't have a screen this busy with faces but still somehow organized enough so the audience stays on top of the story and keeps up with who-is-who. Welles does this efficiently which keeps the story feeling broad and well populated.
But before we fall into this sea of characters that Welles the director keeps juggling in front of us during the 95 minute run time,** there's an intro sequence with a 12-minute uncut sequence shot in one take that gets the story of a bombing at the Mexico-USA border started, Welles the director showing off his chops before Welles the actor (as the rotund Police Captain Hank Quinlin) begins competing for control of the visuals.
Like a noir B-Movie, Touch of Evil has a schlocky, pulp-noir feel around the edges that can make you think of other B-movie thrillers, and that's not to the detriment of Touch of Evil, either, since it seems like Welles is Mozart showing Salieri how to better play Salieri's own tune. But the center of Touch of Evil is never a "regular" crime drama because it is written like an opera about a cop who in the pursuit of justice falls deeper into corruption and finally, like losing his cane in a late scene of the story which leaves him without a "crutch," he has become the thing he (supposedly) has vehemently hated his whole career.
Charlton Heston gives a solid performance as a Mexican detective. This casting is made into a joke in Tim Burton's Ed Wood film in a scene where that irascible z-level director meets director Welles planning out his next movie and is complaining Universal Pictures is making him use Heston, which isn't factual (Heston is the reason Welles got the directing gig). In TOE you see Welles' getting work out of Heston that makes you wish Orson had helmed a few of those gigantic Heston epics of the 1960s (The Agony and the Ecstasy comes to mind, a film about an artist - Michelangelo - trying desperately to get paid while also trying to stop people from interfering while painting a masterpiece - something Orson Welles knew plenty about and a film in which Heston gives a fine performance).
For Touch of Evil, Heston is an honest, get-to-the-truth cop who is constantly bumping into the limitations of the American cop's "game leg" which is telling everyone who the guilty person is in the movie, and by the end, though Hank's leg is honest, Hank himself isn't.
Janet Leigh is on screen in Touch of Evil for both her character as an American wife to a Mexican policeman that is being pressured by a border gang trying to effect the outcome of a trial in Mexico City, but she is also there for us to look at, and you realize that in an era in which Hollywood was awash with Marilyn Monroe variations, Leigh is blond and full-figured but never close to being a Monroe imitation. She's sharp and clear about what she is doing, and she is the other part of Welles' story, which is essentially about a guy trying to (literally) save his marriage and his wife (she needs saving, too, because a rather funny - but dangerous - Akim Tamiroff is trying to frame her for murder after getting her drugged).
As much as Leigh and Heston are a love story, though, the story ends up being about Welles' characters leg, cop ethics, and the long-friendship between the cop and a sycophant Police Sergeant Pete Menzies (played by Joseph Calleia) who begins to realize his hero isn't what he thought he was.
Cinematography by Russell Metty is fantastic and since a lot of the story takes place at night, lighting of scenes is a lot of what we're really seeing, the camera snooping on a dirty, worn town full of shadows with newspapers and paper scraps flitting about in the wind, with the black and white photography giving us a sculpted view of the actors faces that isn't possible with color. In this grey scale world, both the character's faces and the terrain itself is the architecture of where justice and injustice elbow for space.
Even with the Leigh-Heston-Tamiroff side-stories in Touch of Evil, the line down the middle of the tale is Orson Welles' cop, a grotesque overweight man munching on candy bars, ruffled and looking like he'd be dirty even after climbing out of a bath. Late in the tale, when director Welles and cinematographer Metty centers the camera on him while he's slumped into the garbage along a river bank, it's a masterful touch and also crazily sad and funny.
As a basic overview of a career, twin studio film bookends Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil gives Welles a depth that I can't think of any other duel-duty director/actor having. At the very least, one can say Welles started with a "super-A" studio film like Kane, and ended with the "super-B" studio film Touch of Evil. Depending upon how you view these two titles, he either slid up or slid down in a trajectory that nonetheless stayed in the top rank of Hollywood movie-making quality. And after pondering that, there's still the reality that Welles has a whole slew of films made outside of the studio system.
* Well, maybe they did get some talent at a discount. Both Leigh and Dietrich made special deals to be in the film for their own reasons.
** There's at least three or four versions of the film with various runtimes. The original release is 95 minutes, and the "restored" version (talked about at length on this page) is 111 minutes. There's also a "preview" version that runs 108 minutes in length.
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