Touch of Evil (1958)

Genres - Crime, Drama, Mystery  |   Sub-Genres - Film Noir, Psychological Thriller, Police Detective Film  |   Release Date - Sep 11, 1998 (USA - Rerelease)  |   Run Time - 108 min.  |   Countries - USA  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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After the commercial disappointment and political controversy of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles was never given another opportunity to make a film with an entirely free hand in the United States. Touch of Evil was as close as he came (producer Albert Zugsmith has said he gave Welles no interference, but that the upper management at Universal insisted on re-editing the film against his wishes), but while Welles was often regarded as a director too much in love with "art" to make a strictly commercial film, Touch of Evil proved he could have it both ways -- it's a strikingly constructed, visually audacious film that's also a great piece of popcorn entertainment. The justifiably famous opening shot -- a long tracking sequence that opens with a man planting a bomb in a car and ends with a newlywed Mexican DEA agent (Charlton Heston) and his bride (Janet Leigh) crossing the border -- is only the most spectacular bit of visual stunt work in this film; Welles seems to have having a grand time with his camera, and in its way this picture is just as visually exciting and inventive as Citizen Kane. If the story is only one or two steps up from a standard detective potboiler, it's told with enough enthusiasm and tongue-in-cheek wit that one can read it as a parody or a straight neo-noir drama, and it works either way. Also, Welles always had a gift with actors, which certainly didn't fail him here. If Charlton Heston never seems convincing as a Mexican, his straight-arrow strength and thirst for justice certainly suit the role, while Janet Leigh is a virtuously sexy new bride, and Welles himself is superb as the bloated Hank Quinlan, who seems to be collapsing under the weight of his own corruption. (Welles also brought in a distinguished supporting cast, and Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, and Mercedes McCambridge all deliver performances as memorable as the leads.) If Touch of Evil doesn't have the same ambitious sweep of Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons, that's probably because it was never meant to have it; this film is the work of a great artist having a lot of fun telling a good yarn, and it's wildly entertaining while still delivering the kind of excitement that only a real artist can deliver.