God, I love Charlton Heston movies. He can always be relied on to give an, er, square-jawed performance. He’s appropriately square-jawed here, with a pencil-thin moustache and a swaggering demeanor. Yes, sir. You want to make a compulsively watchable movie, you throw old Chuck a bone and cast him in the lead role.
On top of that, Touch of Evil makes him a Mexican! I love it! Charlton Heston plays a Mexican detective!
Mexican, man. Mexican…
Now that I’ve got that out of my system, on with my review.
Everyone who has seen Touch of Evil justifiably remembers that one long opening shot, the one that feels like it runs for twenty minutes. It’s nothing short of exceptional. Pure pulp. A bomb is placed in the back seat of a car, and we follow this car through the dilapidated city streets of Los Robles, a rusty old town on the border of Mexico.
As the car cruises round, we see shifty locals in dirty t-shirts and scarlet women lounging in doorways, second-rate clubs and seedy hotels. E nter newlywed cop Mike Vargas (our man Heston) and his no-nonsense wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), just in town on their honeymoon. Why they’ve chosen the armpit of the earth is anyone’s guess.
We cut away to the car as it explodes. The dramatic effect is undeniable. Moving from that hypnotic long take which went up and down streets, allowing characters to move in and out of the camera’s range, to an abrupt cut to the explosion and flames is bold, exciting, and pure Orson Welles.
Welles wound up directing this film when Heston made a big fuss over it. The studio originally intended him to only be involved as an actor, playing the shady, overweight, degenerate junkie of a sheriff, Quinlan. He shows up on the scene shortly after the explosion, and he doesn’t hit it off with Vargas. See, it’s Quinlan’s beat, and that’s that. He gruffly considers it an open and shut case and when Vargas promises not to cause any trouble, Quinlan chomps on his cigar and sneers, ‘You bet your sweet life you won’t.’
It’s mano a mano, shot in slightly canted close-ups that seem to bring out their intense eyes and beads of sweat. Immediately, we know where this story is going. Vargas, being a good man with an inherent sense of decency, can’t let it go (even though he’s just married). We know these men will be involved in a battle, and that the local sheriff is clearly in on the scheme. The big question is, how far will they go?
Quinlan proceeds to work in cahoots with the local gangsters to frame Vargas in a drug scandal and lure his wife to a remote hotel where she will be drugged and held hostage. Things move at a breakneck pace, with Welles’ trademark eye for strong visuals, unusual low-angle cinematography, and impenetrable shadows.
Two versions of the film are available on video, but for the purposes of this review let’s discuss the director’s cut, newly available on video and DVD. The studio had final cut of the project back in 1958, and made changes based on what they felt was either too risqué or too ‘intelligent’ (to put it bluntly) for an audience to handle. As always, they assumed the worst from the masses.
The original cut is still a fine piece of work. The opening shot remains intact, you’ve got credible performances from the leads, and an eclectic rogue’s gallery in the supporting cast. However, Welles felt so passionate about some of the small (and cumulative) details within the film that he wrote a 58-page memo to the studio heads begging for crucial changes.
That famous opening shot no longer has the original music or credits overlaid, instead using the sounds of the street and the distant club music in the background. During those scenes where poor Janet Leigh is trapped in a hotel (she always seems to run into trouble in roadside hotels) there are stronger implications that she was raped by those blank-faced goons who terrorize her in the bedroom, merely by lingering on each menacing shot a little longer.
There’s also a moment between Quinlan and a gypsy woman who reads fortunes (played in a cameo by Marlene Dietrich). In the original cut, lighthearted music treats her like a joke –- your standard comic relief role. In this new cut, that hokey music is removed and the lingering close-ups show a quiet despair under the interactions over how Quinlan is getting fat on her chili and ‘the pianola sure brings back memories.’
It’s subtle character shading which adds depth and meaning to Quinlan, a small moment in his backstory which showed his aspiration for something close to love. In the studio cut, since the fortune teller is treated like a fool to be laughed at, Quinlan remains a comic brute when he’s not an outright murderous villain. In Welles’ cut, he arouses some small touch of pathos which pays off in the final confrontation with Vargas.
Sadly, after the debacle over Touch of Evil, Orson Welles found his directorial privileges revoked in Hollywood. As a filmmaker, he never worked in the town again. (The fortune teller even says, in a prophetic moment, ‘Your future is all used up.’)
To his credit, Orson Welles made a class act potboiler which still feels fresh and exciting over forty years later. It’s pure gritty entertainment, like a fine Jim Thompson novel or a shot of tequila. He conjures up a vivid atmosphere and plants himself right in the center opposite a formidable foe — our favorite Mexican, Charlton Heston. What could be more exciting than that?