Film Noir Series: Touch of Evil (1958)
Amidst all of the dreary unpleasantness, bursts of violence, and maniacally repressed desire that they contain, not one of the films noirs we have seen so far have twisted my guts like this one. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil is an Expressionist visual masterpiece, replete with canted angles, agile crane shots (including the first spellbinding scene that was shot in a single three minute take), and shadows so rich with ambiguity they convey a festering terror. Terror is the operative word, since what I believe distinguishes this film from the other films noirs I have covered, other than its formal ostentatiousness, is its ability to evoke fear.
The scene that is most effective in conveying this terror takes place at a motel where Janet Leigh’s character Susan Vargas–the wife of Charlton Heston’s Mexican narcotics officer–has taken refuge while her husband attempts to deal with pervasive police corruption in the city. The scene is a microcosm of the film’s overall mood: jangling music plays nonstop, windows open up only to a barren, dark desert, and Susan lies there in bed on her supposed honeymoon with only a group of drug-dealing juvenile delinquents for company. It should go without saying that this company is unwanted. The style of the piece is extraordinary; though it hearkens back to the introspective Expressionist style of the 1940s noir, it is equally apt to say that it follows the route of social commentary and realism taken by the genre in the 1950s. Extreme wide-angle closeups, Dutch angles, and looming faces frame the scene in the tiny motel cabin, and when the formal elements fail to disorient us enough, Welles plays on deeply embedded fears about the interaction between helpless white women and Hispanic (or any non-white) men. Though the narrative claims there is no rape, it gets all of the effect of it while denying the occurrence of the actual act. Commentators about modern “rape culture” could have a field day with this material.
That is only one of many scenes in Touch of Evil that plumb the depths of human vulnerabilities and corruption. The entire department is blind to Welles’ Captain Hank Quinlan’s method of achieving conviction through forged evidence. From the start, it’s clear that he relies on his instincts, which loom as large as his own figure does in the film, rather than logic for his work. As he relapses into drunkenness and finally dies, he becomes a pitiful spectacle, the strongman laid low. I suspect that on subsequent viewings my opinions of the characters in this delightfully complicated picture will evolve significantly. Suffice to say that Touch of Evil is a difficult but rewarding film, and I am sure if I were to search in the right places there would be much scholarly literature written about it.