THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 37: A TOUCH OF EVIL

by Laurent Kelly

A Touch of Evil (1958) –    Director and adapated screenplay: Orson Welles   Starring: Charlston Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Dennis Weaver  OSCAR COUNT (0)

The film opens with a pulsating Henry Mancini score accompanying the shot of a man’s arms placing a bomb into a car. A couple get in and drive through the hustle and bustle of the energetic town motoring past our muscular protagonist Vargas (Heston) who walks alongside the pavement with his wife girlfriend Susie (Leigh). Moments later the bomb explodes and all hell breaks loose.

This masterful opening introduces us to both the danger and glamour of this film’s fast moving world. Vargas is representative of its youthful vitality and excitement whilst the film’s antagonist Hank Quinlan (Welles) is the embodiment of its central corruption. In the first exchange between the two cops, Vargas insists that he won’t cause the chief any trouble to which Quinlan cooly responds “You bet your sweet life you won’t”. Vargas does put his sweet life on the line however when he rightfully suspects that Hank has framed an innocent Mexican for the bombing. By challenging the old order Vargas puts both himself and his wife in danger in what quickly emerges as a scary, thrilling and dramatically urgent picture.  Helping to add great tension to the various set-pieces is the awesome use of camera work which places shots in tight, dark spaces thus adding layers of claustrophobic intrigue to the development of the plot.

What really makes A Touch of Evil stand out however is its layered focus on Hank Quinlan. Although he still cuts a terrifying physical presence, this worn out chief has a lost look in his eye that shows both great vulnerability and sadness. We discover that this is the cause of his wife’s murder who was strangled to death by a Mexican tyrant. Hank now emotionally sees all Mexicans in the same light and uses rope as the physical form of revenge, planting and killing people in a bid to make amends for his tragic loss.

This developed empathy towards Hank helps to paint a fully dimensional world and grounds the picture in a bleak realism even during its more high octane moments. Welles was lucky enough to be blessed in the three fields of direction, writing and acting and what really stands out the most about his cinematic skills here is his superb economical style. Not a moment is there for the sake for it, with the dialogue short, direct and to the point and every scene carried forward with a real sense of vitality which helps to form a flawless interwining between people, place and plot.

A Touch of Evil really hasn’t  lost an inch of its powerful, larger than life aura and still feels a  breath of fresh air to sit down and watch.

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