It might seem a trifle eccentric to nominate Orson Welles’s A Touch Of Evil above Citizen Kane or The Magnificent Ambersons as one of the best 100 of all time. The film, now substantially restored the way Welles wanted it, is by no means his most ambitious. But it remains a mature, complex and endlessly fascinating example of film noir, a genre that has produced more satisfying movies than most others, precisely because of its seeming lack of pretension.
The film was made in 1958, between the infinitely less satisfactory Confidential Report and Welles’s adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. It was long after Kane and Ambersons, either of which should have ensured Welles a lifetime of Hollywood finance but didn’t. Like them, it was generally underrated by the American critics of the time, who saw in it merely an eccentric thriller rather than a calculatedly dramatic study of the corruption of power and the difference between morality and justice.
Few seemed aware that the opening crane and tracking shot, which lasts over three minutes, would come to be regarded as one of the most extraordinary examples of Welles’s technical mastery. No one, that is, except the French, who immediately proclaimed the film a masterpiece.
Welles was aided with the dark, claustrophobic look of the film by Russell Metty’s mastery of noir lighting and, of course, by his own remarkable performance as the oversize Hank Quinlan, the driven police captain who is “a great detective but a lousy cop”.
The man is sleazy, cynical and full of hatred, but still oddly likeable. He knows that the criminals he wants to bring to justice by whatever means are that in equal measure. There is a Shakespearean ring about his final tragedy, as if Falstaff had been transmogrified in time.
He is merely part and parcel of a corrupt world, and somehow pathetic in that he thinks he is basically on the side of right. The Mexican he frames for murder is, we finally learn, guilty.
The story is set in a rundown border town that was actually Venice, California, where Roger Corman was later to shoot The Wild Angels, and populated by as unlikely a cast as Albert Zugsmith, the producer, and Universal can ever have assembled for what was intended to be a B-grade police thriller. With Welles were Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Cotten, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver and Mercedes McCambridge.
It says a lot for Welles that he also got such good performances from Charlton Heston, as the upright, rather prim narcotics investigator for the Mexican government, from Janet Leigh, as his timorous new wife, who is almost raped, and from Marlene Dietrich, as the prostitute Tanya, who has those famous last words on Hank: “He was some kind of man.”
Dietrich’s scenes in the brothel are made to seem as if Sternberg, the circus master of her career, was directing her again.
But if the film is noir at its best, it was made at a time when American directors, especially Welles, still looked towards Europe as much as to their own cinema, and to the German Expressionism of Fritz Lang, the maker of M. The film is shot through a lens that gives great depth of focus and also deforms the perspective. It is the visual key to Quinlan’s character throughout. The moral key is quite simple, though worked out in a unique way. It is that Quinlan, betrayed by his obsession and eventually killed by his only friend, should not be able to claim, like Raskolnikov in Crime And Punishment, that he can “march over corpses or wade through blood” to do what’s right. Or as Heston says: “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state. That’s the whole point, captain ? Who’s the boss – the cop or the law?”
Plenty of films may have made this point. But Touch Of Evil (which Welles thought was a silly title) expresses it both more strongly and more delicately than most, because he lets us see both sides of the equation. There is a mixture of compassion and irony in all his films, and there’s the feeling that the camera is also a character, watching with quizzical curiosity. Cocteau once said of Welles that he was a giant with the face of a child. Like a child, he didn’t know the meaning of fear as far as film-making was concerned, and that was substantially why his career was stunted by those who did.
Touch Of Evil could have been hopelessly melodramatic and simple-minded. It remains, however, even after repeated viewings, one of the most sophisticated, multi-faceted and watchable thrillers ever made.