Sunday 16 November 2014

Movie Review: Touch Of Evil (1958)

A stylish film noir, Touch Of Evil is an unpredictable mystery propelled by cultural tensions, compelling characters and a central murder that serves as a catalyst for all manner of sordid events.

A bomb is planted in the trunk of a car on the Mexican side of a border town. Soon after the car crosses into the US, the bomb explodes, killing an influential businessman and his floozy. Mexican detective Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his American wife Susie (Janet Leigh) are among the first on the scene. But police captain Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and his partner Menzies (Joseph Calleia) soon arrive and take over the investigation. Vargas wants to help solve the case since the bomb was planted in Mexico, but Quinlan isn't too welcoming.

Vargas is embroiled in a battle with the corrupt Grandi family. Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) starts a campaign of intimidation targeted at Susie, distracting Vargas from the bombing case. An increasingly morose, overweight and out of shape Quinlan visits his old flame Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), but she's shocked by how badly he's aged. Quinlan's investigation then leads to the arrest of a Mexican man called Sanchez (Victor Milan), the secret lover of the dead man's daughter. But Vargas questions the methods used by Quinlan and Menzies, and starts to delve into Quinlan's history, uncovering plenty of dubious behaviour. Quinlan and Grandi form an uneasy alliance as they now both have a reason to get rid of Vargas, as Susie finds herself isolated at a remote motel and threatened by drug-fuelled thugs.

Directed and written by Welles, Touch Of Evil is celebrated for its brilliant single-take opening sequence. In a remarkably fluid and uninterrupted three minutes and twenty seconds, Welles' camera tracks the bomb as it is placed in the target car and crosses the border, while Vargas and Susie, out for a walk, unknowingly and on several occasions stroll in and out of the ticking bomb's path. The scene ends with a powerful explosion, an artistic exclamation mark that sets in motion the events that will define the film.

The bomb and the double murder turn out to be a relative sideshow in an intensifying battle of wills featuring Captain Quinlan, detective Vargas and the extended Grandi clan. Quinlan instantly learns to dislike Vargas, maybe because he is a Mexican poking his nose in Quinlan's affairs, but more likely because Vargas appears to be incorruptible. Joe Grandi does not need any more reasons to dislike Vargas, the Grandi family's drug business having been the target of Vargas' enforcement efforts. It does not take long for Quinlan and Grandi to recognize their common interests, except that Quinlan is usually a few steps ahead of everyone else when it comes to games of deceit.

Captain Hank Quinlan is one of Welles' greatest creations. Fat, sweaty, grumpy and just plain tired, Quinlan crosses the ethics line as a matter of routine, his mind plotting the downfall of his enemies in multiple dimensions concurrently. Quinlan speaks with a deep rumble at the start and end of every sentence, reluctantly sharing his thoughts and acerbic opinions only in fragments. Less impressive but still interesting is Charlton Heston as a Mexican. The most American of epic heroes does his best, but his stature, accent and overall attitude remain entrenched in the Heston persona, the actor unable to impart sufficient cultural nuance to break away from his established base.

Welles fills the film with sharp shadows, asymmetrical lighting, plenty of nighttime activity, edgy, tilted camera angles, and no shortage of creepy characters even in the secondary roles. Dennis Weaver is unforgettable as the shifty, terrified night manager at the motel where Susie ends up, while Marlene Dietrich is the ghost from Quinlan's past; except that he is so long past his prime that she doesn't bother with trying to recognize him. Zsa Zsa Gabor gets a small role at the Mexican strip club.

Touch Of Evil benefits from a sense of genuine uncertainty, the cast encouraged during rehearsals to improvise and enhance their events and characters. With Quinlan, Vargas and Grandi all working at cross-purposes and with an international border limiting their reach and authority, anything can and does happen. Susie is unknowingly trapped by Grandi in a creepy motel (just a few years before Janet Leigh checked into even more dangerous accommodations), Vargas ends up investigating Quinlan in the Captain's own back yard, an illicit cross-cultural love affair may or may not be the reason for the bombing, Sanchez may be innocent or may be framed by Quinlan and Menzies, and Quinlan is busy plotting against all to save his reputation.

What is certain is that evil is at play, trust is in short supply, long-standing alliances will be tested, reputations are at stake, and more lives are likely to be lost before a measure of peace is restored to a small community on either side of a once-quiet border crossing.

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