Touch of Evil (1958) Directed by Orson Welles

The genre of film-noir is something that I fail to grasp. I know I should appreciate it more, but there are problems between me and the 1940s and 1950s noir pieces. It's almost as if there is an explanation I am owed. A connecting thought is missing. But who would give me the missing links, when Nick for example, is so in love with good old film-noir he could probably just get by watching Touch of Evil every evening. It's like we're watching a different film sometimes.

Ok, so there is always the criminal side; the bad guys, the bad cops and the dubious women. Then there is the law-biding rookie or something to that effect, in Touch of Evil it is the Mexican cop played by Charlton Heston. Then there are the beautiful but treacherous women, the blonds and the brunettes and the red heads (although it is hard to tell which ones are red in black and white). The two important aspects of noir (my analysis) are wrongful deeds and sex. And then there is  suspense (and how it was maintained back in the early days), it is crucial and it can be excruciating if it manifests in slowness.

Yes, Touch of Evil is pretty good. It brings drugs and rock music into the equation. It looks breath-taking. Orson Welles is genuinely repulsive. Marlene Dietrich is genuinely deep and mysterious as a Mexican fortune teller. She still has a hint of the sexy German accent – sehr gut.

Do we have any idea of the tiresome nature of Orson Welles' art? I'm referring to his constant battles with studios about the control over his work (or lack of). Artistic license. It's occurred to me that hindsight proves to be the prevailing insight in these matters. But in reality you should trust the people you work with. The original spark that gets us all excited should be the yardstick by which we measure other people's visionary zeal. So, going back to poor old Orson, is it possible to watch any of his films (bar Citizen Kane) without reading a disclaimer at the beginning that this is as close to his original vision that remains? That obligatory disclaimer pertaining to Welles cut of Touch Of Evil starts the DVD.

I last watched Touch of Evil on the big screen at the start of this century. I confess now, even in its hacked state, it's a favorite of mine. There's the famous one-shot opening, that establishes the crime and introduces Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as the newlyweds crossing the Mexican border. They enter a world of drugs, wild flat-top Mexican youth, corruption, extortion, darkness and ultimately the evil of the title. Welles' bloated, hideous cop Quinlan, a man out of time, using old methods to crack cases, up against Heston's future-looking Mexican narcotics cop. Their conflicting methods sets the stage. Welles as director and writer cracks taboo after taboo, from drug referencing (mary jane, heroin, mainline) to a dark sexual suggestiveness not seen on the screen before. David Lynch, for example, tapped into this aspect of Touch Of Evil heavily for his own Wild At Heart.

But Welles use of the camera, the stark black and white photography still stuns with its invention. You can just marvel at scene after scene. Yes, this is the deepest, most intense, twisted noir you're likely to see. All the supporting group of actors (Welles regulars) bring much to the film, including an uncredited Joseph Cotton. But Welles use of Marlene Dietrich tips the film into magical. Dietrich has some 10 lines in Touch Of Evil but she owns this film. What presence, what a face, what a woman. You could argue no actor has had this much impact on a film with so little screen time. Dietrich's Tanya could be talking of Welles when she finally states "He was some kind of a man... What does it matter what you say about people?" Dietrich's scenes burn in the memory, the essence of cinema.


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