Touch of Evil


Yes, Touch of Evil has the famous 3-minute-18-second tracking shot that opens the film (borrowed beautifully by Quentin Tarantino for the execution shot in "Jackie Brown"). Yes, it has those gorgeous low camera angles and hard-edge lighting that turn any scene into an ominous confrontation. And yes, it has that magical moment when whorehouse madam Marlene Dietrich, black schoolgirl wig and all, tells the porcine Orson Welles, "You better lay off those candy bars, honey."

But Touch of Evil is also stuck with a plot that's underthought and confusingly presented, although re-editor Walter Murch has managed with some success to clarify it for us, making sense at last of the first hour of the film. And much as we want to thank Charlton Heston for insisting that Universal hire Welles to direct as well as write it, we are confronted with one of the most embarrassing pieces of miscasting in motion picture history, because Heston plays Vargas, the Mexican police detective in a smarmy border town, like Moses delivering the word of God, carefully overenunciating every syllable of every line. Obviously he thinks he didn't get the message across the first time when he did "The Ten Commandments." And just as a sidelight for you celebrity buffs: with his big teeth and a hairline mustache, Heston here looks quite a bit like John Waters' older brother.

But don't go way -- there's more: Janet Leigh, who appears to have two howitzer shells under her sweater pointing at anyone who dares to face her, spends most of the film walking into traps that anyone with a brain, much less someone newly married to Mexico's hottest detective, would know to avoid. And speaking of miscasting, or maybe misdirecting, poor Dennis Weaver plays a frightened motel clerk like an acting-school dropout who failed lesson two in restraint. Maybe that should be lesson one. He is so over the top he seems to have wandered in from an Ed Wood horror movie, only without the makeup. It's just embarrassing to watch.

So is there nothing here to make Touch of Evil worth watching? Yes, of course there is, and it's Orson Welles the actor. As the corrupt Sheriff's Captain Quinlan, who plants evidence and railroads suspects to get his convictions, he gives us one of the great film performances of all time. Padded to look massively bulky, with his enormous belly slipping down to overwhelm his crotch, and a cane to stabilize him as he limps across the town plaza, he looks like the bole of a huge old tree that's been cut off above eye level. He's even added a false nose to be a kind of counterweight to his body. And it works. He's roughened his magnificent voice so that even the dullest, most hackneyed lines come out with conviction. He's a master at the top of his form.

But what he's made is just not a very good film, and ultimately the responsibility must rest with Welles himself. A colleague of mine, the critic for Spokane's Spokesman Review, dared to bring up the forbidden question: Were "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" the only two true arrows in his quiver? Had Welles run out of steam and used up his talent by 1958, when this film was made? I don't think so. He had made "Journey into Fear," "The Lady from Shanghai," "Macbeth," and "Othello," among others, after "Ambersons," all of them with at least great moments if not whole sections that stand up today, and all of them made under difficult circumstances, to put it mildly. I think "Touch of Evil" combines overreaching with underachieving that in a lesser filmmaker we would simply forgive. Had Welles ever been given another chance -- he wasn't -- he might well have redeemed himself. As it is, we can at least thank him for trying.