Touch of Evil (1958) – A Movie Review

Here’s a movie directed by and starring Orson Welles.  Makes you think of Citizen Kane?  Well, not exactly.

Charlton Heston is Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas, a Mexican prosecutor on vacation with his American wife Susie played by Janet Leigh.  As Mike and Susie are getting ready to cross the border from Mexico into Texas we watch as a bomb is planted in a car with a man and woman as passengers and in the extended opening shot the Vargases and the car wend their interweaving ways toward the border crossing from Mexico to Texas.  When the car explodes on the American side of the border and the passengers are killed Ray gets involved to represent the Mexican authorities in this cross-border incident.

Local police captain Hank Quinlan, played by Orson Welles arrives with his associate Pete Menzies to investigate the crime and almost immediately start to clash with Vargas.  Quinlan is trying to frame a Mexican local who is married to the daughter of the man killed in the car explosion.  Vargas works with the local District Attorney’s Assistant, Al Schwartz to uncover a pattern of planted evidence in several of Quinlan’s old cases.  At the same time some local Mexican criminals, the associates of Joe Grandi, are after Vargas because of a conviction he got against one of their family.  The Grandis reach out to Quinlan and he agrees to allow the Grandis to kidnap Susie.  Susie is staying at an isolated rural motel on the US side of the border which is owned by Grandi.  Grandi’s henchman terrorize her then apparently rape her and inject her with a narcotic and drag her back to town.

Meanwhile Quinlan, for no apparent reason, strangles Grandi and tries to pin the murder on Susie.  Mike Vargas goes berserk and beats up the entire Grandi gang single-handedly for attacking his wife.  Then he convinces Quinlan’s assistant Pete Menzies to wear a wire to prove that Quinlan is guilty of corruption.  But because of the hokey nature of 1950’s surveillance equipment Quinlan hears the feedback between the microphone on Menzies and the speaker Vargas is pathetically carrying around with him to remain in range of the perambulating fat police captain.  Quinlan shoots Menzies and is just about to shoot Vargas when a dying Menzies shoots Quinlan and he slowly sinks into a wastewater pond like a dying whale.

This movie seems to be Welles daring us to find something good to say about it.  I will admit that the long opening scene with the car and the Vargases is very well done and interesting both dramatically and visually but after that this whole movie is a hot mess in every way possible.

Let’s start with Charlton Heston as a Mexican.  Oh, come on!  Sure, they put some bronze-o on him and gave him a thin moustache but then it’s still Charlton Heston.  He looks like Charlton Heston; he sounds like Charlton Heston.  He even walks like Charlton Heston.  All he left out was saying, “Let my people go.”  Heston runs around the movie with great energy and reasonableness.  All the viewers are rooting for him.  All the other characters including Janet Leigh’s Susie are making his life extremely difficult.  He’s finding decades old evidence against Quinlan and beating up hundreds of Mexican gangsters and setting up and monitoring very ticklish radio-frequency surveillance equipment.  And all the time hard at work trying to look and sound Mexican while being Charlton Heston.  I’m giving Heston a solid B for effort.

Next there’s Welles.  He looks like he weighs 400 pounds.  They must have used a special lens to make him look even fatter.  It’s awful.  I can’t figure out if they’re trying to make him seem somewhat sympathetic.  If so, they failed.  He’s loathsome and repulsive.

Then there are the supporting characters.  During the rape scene at the motel, the “night manager” is played by a young Dennis Weaver who seems to be playing the role as a hick who also is some kind of psychiatric patient.  I found him more off-putting than the “Mexican biker gang” that is there to torment Susie.  But they’re weird too.  There is some kind of implication that we are seeing some subculture involving drugs and possibly lesbianism but it’s so confused and furtive that I’m not sure the actors even know what they supposed to be portraying.

And then you have a very worn looking Marlene Dietrich playing a brothel madame named Tanya who Quinlan still remembers fondly and visits for some reason.  The scene is so bizarre that it reminds me of Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles doing an homage song to Dietrich called , “I’m Tired.”  It’s like Dietrich is doing a bad impression of herself.

And finally, they made Zsa Sze Gabor a strip-club owner.  But her part was so minor that mercifully she didn’t have to pretend to act.

So, who should watch this movie?  I guess people studying film in college.  Fans of Orson Welles who want to talk about his evolution as a director.  And people who like really bad film noir.  That should do it.  You have been warned.

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War Pig
War Pig
1 year ago

Yeah, I always laughed when White actors with blue eyes played American Indians. Chuck Connors looked, sounded and acted like the Rifleman, Not Geronomo. He was also far too tall. Geronimo was about 5’8”. Tall for an Apache but Connors is almost 6’6”. And his blue eyes. Blue-eyed Jeff Chandler as Cochise. I bet Wells was about 400 at that time. Probably had to use a wide-angle lens to get all of him in frame. Every actor, director, producer has a stinkeroo or two in their career. Look at John Wayne in “The Conqueror”. “Chief” Iron Eyes Cody was in… Read more »