Orson Welles Penelope Houston - Essay

Penelope Houston

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Touch of Evil] might suggest that an instinct for grandiose melodrama is proving the most durable element in Orson Welles' still formidable talent. After the perversely extravagant crooks' tour of Confidential Report, this film represents a kind of marking time, evidence that Welles remains fascinated by power and its corruption, by the fatal flaw in the strong man …; and evidence that he can still deal the technical cards out of the pack with a cardsharper's eye to subterfuge…. In essence, [the story] is not very complicated; as told by Welles, it becomes a jungle of confused motivations, nightmarish betrayals and discoveries. All the stylistic equipment—heavy shadows, suggestions of menace lurking just beyond camera range, tilted angles and half-heard dialogue—is called into play to convey the landscape of corruption. The opening, with a bomb planted in a car and the camera tracking its slow progress through a border town, immediately grips. The last scenes, shot among murky canals and crumbling oil derricks, with the hero scrambling after his victim to take down a confession on a tape-recorder, is a fine bravura exercise. But much of the rest is Welles at his most perversely obscure. (pp. 251-52)

Melodrama can survive without explanations; and in watching this shadowy, twisted thriller one may reflect not that the talent responsible for Citizen Kane is being wasted, but that Welles, after all, never managed really to explain Kane….

[Whatever] the vicissitudes through which the film has passed since leaving his hands, it still carries one of the cinema's unmistakable signatures. No-one else, surely, could have made this thriller—though there may be moments when one feels that no-one else would have wanted to. (p. 252)

Penelope Houston, "'Touch of Evil'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1958 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 27, No. 5, Summer, 1958, pp. 251-52.