Touch of Evil (1958)

It’s been a busy month, what with out of town trips and dissertation progress, but while I have seen a number of films throughout October, I haven’t really felt compelled to write on anything. That is, until tonight, as I have recently returned to an old favorite, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). While I realize that Citizen Kane is his film that is canonized, I think I might like this one a bit better.

The same directorial flair is present in both films, though one could argue that it is even extended in Touch of Evil. This time through the film, I was constantly marveling at this shot or that angle. There’s a boldness to the camerawork that is genuinely exhilarating, yet it only adds to and doesn’t distract from the rest of the film (this boldness reminds me of certain moments in P.T. Anderson’s work, especially Magnolia and Boogie Nights). I think of a scene near the end of the film, when Menzies (Joseph Calleia) tries to bring his partner Quinlan (Welles) outside, away from the music in the brothel. The camera sits outside, under the edge of the porch, and Quinlan walks out, almost on top of the camera – he towers above us. But then there’s an abrupt shift, and the camera strikes upward quickly, as it follows Quinlan and Menzies out into the street, looking down on them. This simple switch communicates one of the many contradictions in Quinlan’s character – he is a strong, towering, menacing figure, yet as he walks off with Menzies, approaching his end, he becomes just another figure in the street, on an even keel with his weaker partner.

An aside: This kind of thing is working all through the film, I think, and we therefore have a film in which the form contributes to the meaning. These are the most exciting films for me these days, as I begin to see more and more that truth and beauty are often (best?) communicated without the use of words.

Also I love the interplay between the two leads: Quinlan, the dirty cop north of the border, and Vargas (Charlton Heston), the man most concerned with upholding the law south of the border. The film travels effortlessly between north and south, until they become nearly indistinguishable. In the same way, we go back and forth between Quinlan and Vargas, and while they look so distinct from one another at first, they end up being more similar than anyone could have guessed. I find the change in Vargas later in the film particularly interesting. All through the investigation, he harps on following the law, upholding it at all costs. When he sees Quinlan bending and breaking rules, he’s off to investigate and nail him to the wall. Yet, when it comes to Vargas’ wife being kidnapped, suddenly, law flies out the window, and he roughs up whoever is in front of him until he gets some answers. But the key here is that it’s his wife that triggers this. How unlike Quinlan is he then, since it seems most of his issues hearken back to the incident with his wife? All this leads to one of things I love so dearly about this film – it’s picture of humanity demands empathy for the other, because as good as we are, we are still human, and capable of terrible things, just like the worst offenders. This is such an interesting and morally complex film. I look forward to revisiting it soon.

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