Take 51: Touch of Evil

In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week, Take 51: Touch of Evil, there will be spoilers.

Finally, we return to Orson Welles for a third and final installment from this pillar of classic cinema. Touch of Evil marked the end of Welles’s career after he parted ways with the studio when they hacked his masterpiece down to 95 minutes from 111 minutes. Unknowingly, this is the version I watched, and I might be a philistine, but it worked for me. I was fully engaged in every movement.

Regardless of the version, Welles’s fingerprints remain all over Touch of Evil and it’s easy to believe that no other director could have made this film. Not only is there the signature Wellesian angular cinematography, sharp lighting, and shadows, but there are also audaciously long unbroken shots and crane movements that still feel daring and fresh to modern audiences. We can’t talk about Touch of Evil without talking about the opening shot which runs uncut for over three minutes, and is rightfully considered one of the most masterful moments in cinema. It begins with a tight frame on hands placing a bomb in the trunk of a car, and continues, gracefully, until the inevitable explosion.

This is how Welles chooses to start this film, with profound, cocky, decadence and a literal bang. The music is bouncy, and as the film first comes into focus it could be mistaken at first for a run-of-the-mill backdrop that could accompany any opening credits scene. However, it slowly escalates, like a roller coaster climbing a track. Welles continues to methodically tug at the pacing so that at moments we’re jumpy and paranoid, and at others we’re terrified, and at others we are considered and deliberate. Welles allows us to embody the perspective of many characters in the film, and his play with opposition is delicately and masterfully revealed.

For instance, there is the obvious contrast between the hulking giant of a man, Quinlin (who was sometimes eerily reminiscent of Tony Soprano) and the dual threat of sex symbols, Janet Leigh and Charleton Heston. Welles’s Captain Quinlin is an old timer cop - a good ol’ boy with a rock hard reputation for the hunches he gets in his game leg. Heston’s Detective Vargas is a new school police workhorse, who believes he can make his country better by routing out heads of the drug cartel. On top of this, there is the literal border that separates the two men, and colors the way they see their world.

Welles is an American who presumes a Mexican boy must be responsible for the bombing because he is old and racist (I’m shooting straight today). He is so confident in this conviction that he plants dynamite on the kid in order to justify arresting him. When Vargas hears that the dynamite was found in a box he knew to be empty a short while earlier, he proceeds to focus his energy on proving that the evidence was fake.

Quinlin continues to reveal his true character by creating an alliance with the cartel head who was stalking, torturing, and abducting Vargas’s wife in one of the scariest moments in classic cinema. Eventually, Quinlin squirms, reveals himself, and is eventually betrayed by his most faithful friend before he dies. As Quinlin floats away, we learn that his hunch was right and that the kid had confessed to planting the TNT.

Now, for me, a viewer in 2021 America, I am immediately skeptical that the confession was not coerced or illegitimate in some way. But let’s assume that’s not the message Welles is sending - in which case just as Quinlin is blind to the fact that he has likely put innocent people in jail due to his racist assumptions which he aided with fake evidence, Vargas is blind to the fact that maybe the suspect was guilty in spite of the actions Quinlin took. In both cases, while the men appeared to be so different, their hubris prevents them both from accomplishing their goals.

Either way, justice prevails because Quinlin was definitely misusing the justice system to bolster his reputation and ego. At times it seemed the engine of this film, which is typically plot, was substituted for atmosphere and mood. But while it’s certainly true that Welles captures our emotions on more than just a cerebral level, I think it’s more accurate to describe this film as one that balances story and setting with near perfect precision.

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Jessie McAskill

Jessie McAskill

Watching movies and writing essays.

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