detective vargas

Touch of Evil

Opening with a three-minute long take, Touch of Evil’s gorgeous tracking shot set the groundwork for director Brian De Palma’s love affair with opening with an elongated tracking shot in many of his films. Though I love De Palma, he only wishes that his tracking shots could be as beautiful as Welles’ in this one. A chaotic clash of cars, traffic, police whistles, and pedestrians walking about, this poetic piece of visual artistry sets the scene for the film as only Orson Welles can. Emphasizing the chaos and heightened level of conflict that exists along the United States-Mexico border, this opening scene sets the events of the film into motion and introduces us to protagonist Ramon Vargas (Charlton Heston) in a neat, succinct fashion. Only light exposition is necessary after the sequence ends, but until then, Welles allows the audience to get a feel for the area and the hectic nature of the border that shows the consistent tension between the two countries.

Pitting Mexican detective Vargas - responsible for taking down some serious players in the crime world of Mexico City - against American detective legend Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) when an American official’s car explodes shortly after arriving in the United States from Mexico, the film shows two men who are very different. Both expert detectives who know how to work a case and are able to follow seemingly undetectable leads, turning them into an item that breaks a case, the two certainly go about business differently. Both legends in the world of police work, Vargas is a man who has the world laid out at his feet. He is a smart detective who does not need to use dirty tricks or rely upon planting evidence to make his case. He is as good as advertised without any help needed. Plus, he managed to land the beautiful Susan (Janet Leigh) as his wife, which makes him all the more enviable to a man such as Hank Quinlan. A detective with great instincts, Hank must rely upon a “touch of evil” by planting evidence in order to make his cases really stick. His hunches are most often right and he rarely missteps on a case, but his planting of evidence is the only way he can sometimes nab his guy. Looking at Vargas with great envy due to both his natural case working skill and his beautiful wife, Quinlan sets out to destroy him in order to both keep Vargas quiet about Quinlan’s planting of evidence and to remove the source of jealousy from his life.

A convoluted and dimly lit noir film, Touch of Evil’s visual aspect is undeniably brilliant. From the excellent opening sequence, Welles really sets out to create a visually lush film and succeeds. A gorgeous tilt upwards as a car pulls away from a motel in the middle of a desert, an oblique angle of a sadistic Quinlan looming over a drugged Susan, and a gorgeous shot of Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) walking away into the night with a long shadow hanging back behind her, all stand at the pinnacle of this innovative and gorgeous noir film. While the lighting is hardly unique for the genre, the film’s excellent camera placement and audaciously ambitious approach to shooting the film is really what cements Touch of Evil as a visual classic.

Unfortunately, its plot just does not live up to its visuals. A convoluted and dense film, Touch of Evil is quintessential noir when it comes to its thick plotting. While this is not necessarily a negative, the main negative here is how rushed it all feels. Perhaps because this film has been cut, spliced, and smashed together over the years, Welles’ vision always seems to be caught between rushing and dragging. Plot developments can go between taking too long to come together (the staging of the drug scene with 15 hints it is coming before it does) or just rush along (such as the ending when Tanya shows up for five seconds). While Welles’ storytelling is top-notch as always - especially with the recording sequence with Welles ramping up the tension due to Vargas relying upon a shoddy radio to pick up every detail that Hank divulges - but the film’s pacing is never quite right. It has all of the elements, but lacks the general feeling to make it all come together, no matter how well-written its plot is throughout.

Additionally, characters such as the night manager (Dennis Weaver) are horrendous and wholly detract from the film. Possible a man with down syndrome or something of the like, the night manager acts incredibly odd throughout and is both over-the-top insane and comically off-putting. His role is never really developed and is instead simultaneously made available for jokes and only adds to the confusion of the plot when he explains events to Ramon or Susan. His character, along with others, just seem to add to the confusion rather than revealing anything about the plot or the main characters of the film. By the end, it is clear that there are not just too many supporting characters popping up for no apparent reason, but that they also detract from the film as a whole. While the opening tracking shot hints at the conflict and chaos to be expected by the film, the sheer number of characters that do nothing but appear on occasion and do nothing for the film as a whole makes this one, at times, a convoluted mess.

When Touch of Evil focuses in on the organized chaos on display, however, it really allows Welles’ excellent camera work to take center stage. Repeat viewings of this one, as a result, could be incredibly beneficial as it would allow the audience to really focus in on the mastery on display with Welles. On an initial viewing, the attempts to follow the plot only wind up muddying the water and taking attention away from the audacious visual mastery put forth by the legendary filmmaker.