Touch of Evil

Orson Welles shot A Touch of Evil in a matter of weeks, but after he wrapped the studio hired a new director for extensive re-shoots, worried about the film’s content. Despite Welles’s pleas they released the edited version but now, years later, it has been re-cut with the original footage to bring it closer to the vision of the great auteur.

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A complex crime thriller, the film takes place on the US-Mexico border. A Mexican cop  and his wife (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh) are crossing the border for their honeymoon when they narrowly miss an exploding car. American cop Quinlan (Welles) thinks he knows who’s guilty, but after years on the force he’s accustomed to taking shortcuts, and is a bit too pally with some shady characters.

This remarkably good noir is a tour du force of Welles’s talents, from his lead role as the obese, cantankerous, alcoholic cop, to his groundbreaking skill behind the camera. Largely shot in the Venice Beach area of LA (some bits directly outside a hostel where Dan and I stayed), it benefits from Welles’s trademark chiaroscuro lighting and low-angle photography. The night shoots provide long shadows, and a number of sequences are remarkably complex given the film’s miniscule shooting schedule.

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Heston is fantastic in the lead role, displaying a subtlety nowhere to be found in the likes of Planet of the Apes or Ben-Hur. Leigh is also superb, once again finding herself in a remote motel with a jittery landlord. With a lurking sense of danger in every scene, the film has not a dull moment in spite of its occasional verbosity.

It’s easy to see why the ethics of the film were unpalatable at the time, given its progressive depiction of racial tensions and corrupt policing that eschew the gung-ho patriotism that flows easily from Hollywood. The idealism of an open border and racism of Americans towards Mexicans are all the more prescient subjects today.

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