Orson Welles’ film noir classic is still affecting over fifty years since its original release. Whilst the themes Touch of Evil focuses on are nothing new, it is the combination of said themes with the direction, cinematography and art design that generates a pervading atmosphere.
Charlton Heston plays Mexican cop Vargas, who along with his new American bride Susan (played by Janet Leigh), witnesses a murder at the American-Mexican border. What follows is a police investigation that proves more complex and iniquitous than the hero could have imagined.
Touch of Evil juxtaposes Vargas with Quinlan, an overweight, former alcoholic, veteran American detective, played by Welles. The film firmly sets up the two as distinct opposites. Vargas is the idealistic, clean officer, well-respected and rising in his career. Quinlan, on the other hand, who is tired, racist and corrupt, is clearly nearing the end of his career.
Through these two characters, themes of corruption, the abuse of power, and prejudice are played out. The lengths that Quinlan goes to protect himself – as far as endangering Susan, and then some, are pivotal in depicting such a malevolent character. The atmosphere is kept tainted and at times claustrophobic by the use of lighting, the stylised cinematography, and the art direction of Robert Clatworthy, who went on to do a magnificent job in Psycho two years later.
It is also the direction by Welles that creates a cantankerous mood. The close-up shots of the sweaty Quinlan, the cat and mouse finale, and the fortune teller’s abode work together to generate a film noir as beguiling as any of the earlier quintessential noir pictures. Furthermore, the opening shot following the car as it weaves throughout the streets is classic Welles – adding a touch of class to Touch of Evil.
Touch of Evil was shown at the British Film Institute, as part of the Psycho: A Classic in Context season.