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Touch of Evil

January 25, 2010

Gang rape, murders, crooked cops, racism and drugs: not bad for a movie made in 1958. Orson Welles has been hailed by many as the greatest director of cinema and his 1946 classic directorial debut, Citizen Kane, is considered the greatest film of all time. Welles’ importance has been stapled in my head since youth as it seems that in even in school I was taught that he was and is widely reveled as a master of his craft. Many of Welles’ follow-up films are terrific innovative works of art and Touch of Evil is no exception.

Beginning on the Mexican/U.S. boarder, a beautifully choreographed nearly four-minute long-take depicts a man planting a bomb on a car, the car is then driven away by a couple into the United States. Once on American soil the car explodes to the astonishment of Mexican DEA Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susie Vargas (Janet Leigh). Realizing the possible catastrophic results of the event, Vargas begins to investigate and is soon joined by Police Chief Gould, DA Adair and local police celebrity Captain Hank Quinlan (demi-god Orson Welles). As the group begin to interrogate a young Mexican man who is secretly married to the daughter of the victims, Vargas starts to question the racial bias of Quinlan. Soon after Vargas discovers that Quinlan framed the man in question causing Vargas to further question the validity of Quinlan’s career and reputation. Outraged by the brashness of Vargas, Quinlan sets out to ruin Vargas’ image and life.

Welles is simply fantastic as the rough and troubled Quinlan however he’s almost unrecognizable at first due to his massive weight. It took me about a good 20-minutes to realize that the witty charismatic blob of a man on screen was none other than Welles, whose performance stands out among his co-stars. Considering Welles wrote and directed the film it’s no surprise that most of the performances were forgettable including Heston’s, whose theatric over-dramatic acting falls flat for his character. Apart from Welles’ acting the genius of Touch of Evil comes through in its directorion as every shot is aesthetically pleasing. Everything I’ve ever retained from basic art classes about lighting, shading, capturing action and depth of field are used heavily in this film along with Welles’ personal trademark innovations. His use of deep-focus makes the images on the screen come off clear and sharp, similar to the look of today’s high definition.

For a film geek like myself a major highlight was realizing how Welles’ work later influenced contemporary directors. In many of his films, Tarantino commonly uses foot and “trunk shots” which involves close-up tracking shots of a walking woman’s feet and respectively interior shots from the inside of a trunk. This trademark reflects Welles’ use of “reflection shots” in which he films a scene through the reflection of a mirror or window. Welles was also a master of extreme low-angle shots perfectly framing his actors tightly on screen. Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic The Battle of Algiers engaged audiences by using hand held camera and tight close-ups to add tension and intimacy, the same way Touch of Evil utilized shaky cam and tracking shots to follow and chase after characters.

While Welles directing marched to the beat of its own drum he utilized every rule of Classical Hollywood to create a comprehensive and engaging film noir by using conscious narration to tie up loose ends and keep audiences in “the know.” Touch of Evil is a film lover’s wet dream. It’s filled with innovate and fresh shots but still has the intelligent script and writing that Classic Hollywood mastered so well. Welles continuously proved his genius with each film regardless of their acceptance at its time; his ability to create and make film into art is the reason he’s still considered top dog today.

SEE IT. Right Now.

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