Films I Love #53: Touch Of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

Orson Welles' 1958 masterwork Touch of Evil came late in the generally accepted timeframe for the first wave of film noir, a form that especially thrived in the 40s and early 50s, but it is undeniably one of the pinnacles of the genre. It's a movie that's fraught with contradictions and compromises, like many of Welles' films, so often subject to meddlesome studio interference, multiple versions and budgetary constraints. It is on the one hand tightly, even meticulously, constructed, with each shot staged and composed as though for a photograph or a painting. Few directors controlled foreground and background as effortlessly as Welles, and nearly every shot features elaborate relationships between figures and objects, creating unforgettable visual resonances. And yet despite this formal rigidity, the film feels loose and spontaneous, as though all its complex compositions were simply fortuitous accidents. Its soundtrack is obviously overdubbed, which only enhances the artificality of Welles' aesthetic; voices seem to be at some remove from the people supposedly speaking, their voices drifting in through the dense fog that enshrouds the tiny desert town where the film is set. The plotting is also rough and ragged, dealing with various intersections and intrigues along the Mexican border following a car bomb explosion. The corrupt and corpulent American detective Quinlan (Welles) investigates, but his attempts to wrap the case up quickly, possibly even pinning it on the wrong guy, are hampered by the suspicious Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, thoroughly if entertainingly unconvincing as a Mexican).

The loose, rambling plot allows plenty of room for entertaining diversions, as well as for subplots focusing on characters floating at the periphery. Among the many fantastic performances, Janet Leigh is languidly sexy as Vargas' wife Susie, who he continually places in harm's way with oblivious ease while he dedicates himself wholeheartedly to his work. Welles also lingers with the character of Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), a former flame of the washed-up Quinlan, who has declined so far by now that she doesn't even recognize him anymore. There's also a memorable cameo by Dennis Weaver as a twitchy, goggle-eyed motel manager, the kind of surreal touch that often makes the film seem like a bizarre nightmare. With this film, Welles took a rough B-movie plot and elevated into a grand and mesmerizing epic, a morality tale about corruption and self-righteousness.