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Analysis of "Touch of Evil" by Orson Welles

Updated on June 11, 2015

Introduction

Touch of Evil is one of those films that can be discussed over and over with one and only conclusion: the movie is far ahead of its time and, despite numerous deviations from the genre, it is one of the best film noir works. Despite Welles' experiments with the form, the film nevertheless retained the classical dark atmosphere of film noir.

The opening crane shot of the film is one of the most famous in the history of cinema: the 3 minutes 19 seconds long take grabs viewer's attention from the very first frames when that bomb is loaded and thrown into the car trunk, until the moment the car explodes. However, Welles manages to keep us entertained throughout the take - with intense background action depicting the noisy life in Mexican border town and with the blond in the car asking customs workers "Hey! What’s that ticking?"...

Then the story, accompanied by intense jazz rhythms, unfolds so fast that it becomes like a whirlwind sucking us deeper and deeper into the criminal life of the small border town where almost everyone is guilty of some crime. The whole story happens withing the span of approximately 24 hours, which also keeps the suspense, while genius directing of every shot takes viewers into the very core of the events.

Accompanied by heavy music (which fits the film very well) the action takes us to the darkest streets of a small Mexican town where conspiracy and murder live side by side, where the main hero's attempts to fight injustice are shattered against cold walls of corruption.

"Touch of Evil" opening shot

Marlene Dietrich as Tana in Touch of Evil
Marlene Dietrich as Tana in Touch of Evil | Source

Characters

The main protagonist figure of Touch of Evil is Mike Vargas, an important figure of Mexican government. This is the main case in the movie when authors make a step away from conventions of film noir genre: he is not a lonely hard working detective or investigator who gets implicated in a hard case (like in classics The Third Man or The Maltese Falcon): Mike Vargas is, on the contrary, a respected and well known person who witnesses the crime and joins the American police to work on the case.

Susan Vargas, Mike's wife is also far from being a typical femme fatale who is supposed to get the hero mixed up in a crime. Susan is a strong woman who can take care of herself, but she is no more than a loving wife missing her husband's company; there is nothing fatal in her character. Furthermore, she gets trapped in a motel room and stuffed with drugs by a gang of young Mexicans while Mike Vargas is busy solving the case.

It is probably only Tana and Police Captain Hank Quinlan who remind us of classical film noir characters. In the episode when Quinlan meets Tana for the first time, we understand from their dialogue that there most likely was a relationship between then, definitely not a happy one.

It seems at times that there are no positive characters, almost everyone is guilty of something. The nighttime streets are full of bandits, while everything is controlled by the corrupt police officers. Welles goes so deep into the dirty criminal life of the small town that at some point Vargas' attempts to fight crime and injustice look ridiculous. Furthermore, he himself crosses the border between good and evil in his search for clues and attempts to safe his wife.

"Touch of Evil" trailer

Trivia: despite Universal insisting on the film to be filmed in the studio, Welles nevertheless shot many of the scenes on location.

Primary filming location of "Touch of Evil"

A
Venice, CA:
Venice, Los Angeles, CA, USA

get directions

Cinematography

Apart from long takes, one of the most noticeable features of cinematography are low angles and shadows that seem to be dominating the characters. Typical of film noir, they create the grotesque world of their own and then they become characters themselves. It is also the evil characters that dominate the story; filmed from low angles, captain Quinlan looks like a giant rising over the audience. Low angles are such a strong means of expression here that even the little unfortunate Grandi is depicted as a powerful criminal in the beginning of the film. It is even his wig that does not make the comedy - we get scared of him without knowing what his intentions are when he captures Mike Vargas' wife.

Sound and music

Sound and music play an important role in the movie. In the very first shot of the film, the mix of aggressive music and background atmospheres instantly get us involved in the happenings. The intense jazzy tunes that seem to be a little disturbing at times, are incorporated into visuals so well that it is hard to distinguish at times which of the music is diegetic and which is not.

In addition, sounds of speeding cars constantly sustain the suspense and the feeling of a rush created by the explosion.

Conclusion

Despite carrying its own distinctive features of a unique crime drama, Touch of Evil nevertheless left its trace in the history of world cinema. Even now, decades after its release, it remains an unbeatable masterpiece. Who knows, how many years will pass before someone beats Orson Welles in one of the greatest works of his lifetime.

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