Orson Welles

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Gordon Gow

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Elaborate in style and provocative in essence, Touch of Evil affirms the Orson Welles flair, which many have imitated but hardly any have equalled. As auteur and actor he dominates this film, matching his own richly eccentric characterisation of Hank Quinlan to a bold display of enthusiasm for the conjuring tricks of cinema….

Because it was ten years since Welles had directed a film in his native America, Touch of Evil (1958) was a defiant comeback. Having been ahead of his time before, he seemed resolved to maintain the pace, even though Hollywood had progressed a tolerable way along the ambitious paths he indicated in his challenge of the 1940s: Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai. If these were deemed idiosyncratic, Touch of Evil would be more so. (p. 28)

There is decidedly a moral core to Touch of Evil, couched within a first-rate thriller. The opening take, a virtuoso exercise lasting three minutes and ten seconds, is a complex piece of choreography for actors and camera in unison. It starts with a close view of a time bomb placed in a car that is about to be driven across the border. Deep focus is maintained as the camera pulls back and begins its enchaînement. The flow of movement is so seemingly natural and yet so deftly planned and executed that one might stop the projection at any point in the course of those three minutes and ten seconds and find that the composition within the frame is admirable. Tension seethes, because we know the explosion of the car is imminent. Simultaneously the unkempt look of the town is established, and at the same time attention is drawn to a pair of honeymooners, Mike and Susan Vargas …, as they walk along the street in a mutual absorption strong enough to obliterate for them the murk of their surroundings. (pp. 28-9)

[The] film's dialogue, most of it written by Welles, is surprisingly unexciting in itself, seldom more than utilitarian. The major effects are visual: it is through the eye that Welles compels us especially to ponder the implications of Quinlan's behaviour. (p. 30)

Of course Touch of Evil is a flamboyant film. Yet one cannot term it a show-off affair, for it is much too good for that. Crammed it may be with physically taxing feats …, and it might be said that such nods to the filmically knowledgeable are inserted simply for their own sake—but even if they are, the Welles enthusiast must warm to them….

Perhaps, after many a look at this remarkable film, one can just about see how it would have boiled down to something quite commonplace in the hands of a hack. As it stands, though, Touch of Evil gives substance to the theory that even a meagre tale can be turned into magnificent cinema when it is directed by a master. (p. 32)

Gordon Gow, "Cult Movies: 'Touch of Evil'" (© copyright Gordon Gow 1976; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 22, No. 11, August, 1976, pp. 28-32.

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