With 1958's Touch of Evil, Orson Welles made what many consider to be the last great film noir of the genre's classic period (which began in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon). With a dark, seedy atmosphere, virtuoso cinematography, and a twisted story about crime and corruption, Touch of Evil ranks highly among Welles' body of work.
In a seedy border town between the U.S. and Mexico, a local businessman and his mistress are killed in a car bombing the same night Mexican narcotics official Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) is enjoying his honeymoon with his American wife Susan (Janet Leigh). Vargas is set to testify against the brother of "Uncle" Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), a local drug and gang leader. Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) arrives to investigate the bombing while Vargas remains as a representative for the Mexican government. When Vargas suspects Quinlan of railroading a Mexican youth, he delves in Quinlan's history and uncovers a history of suspicious convictions. Enraged, Quinlan uses Grandi's gang to terrorize Susan and frame Vargas.
Conventional wisdom says Orson Welles, after making arguably the greatest movie in history with Citizen Kane, never got a chance to match the effort, but he certainly came close a number of times despite a lack of money and studio support. Touch of Evil fell victim to off-screen troubles. Re-edited against Welles' wishes, certain scenes were altered or cut out entirely, and the movie barely received any sort of release, making it yet another flop for a director who had made a string of them. Years later, using a 58-page memo Welles wrote after seeing the released version, Touch of Evil was re-edited to fall closer in line with his vision. This edition, which is said to have more coherent plot line among other changes, is the only version of the film I've seen.
Film noir was losing its innocence by 1958. Many of the actors and filmmakers of the genre during its heyday in the 40s weren't consciously aware they launching a new genre and style. To them, their films were B-pictures, low-budget crime and suspense movies. By 1958, critics and scholars, particularly in France, were catching on and attached the label "film noir" to this collection of movies. Now, anyone who made a film noir had to be aware that's the type of movie they were making.
Welles takes the genre about as far it could go at the time. There's Expressionist, chiaroscuro lighting, characterized by deep, dark shadows. The distorted, slanted angles reflect the twisted nature of the characters. There's also a cynical undercurrent toward faith in authority and justice. One element Welles pulls off magnificently is the camerawork. The film opens with arguably the greatest opening ever, an unbroken tracking shot that follows the ticking bomb as its placed in a car, but then our attention switches to Vargas and Susan they come in and out of contact with the doomed vehicle.
That's not the only great example. An interrogation scene is similarly unbroken, trapping Vargas and Quinlan back and forth in the same frame as their animosity builds to a breaking point while they argue over the questioning of the Mexican youth suspected of the crime. In the climax, Vargas hides out of sight while trying to stay within recording distance of Quinlan and his partner Menzies (Joseph Calleia), climbing over wreckage, rubble, and ditches. The effort visually reflects the web of conspiracy and scheming in the plot.
Welles also throws in some self-aware humor. The night clerk at the motel is probably a more awkard and skittish Norman Bates (think about that). The gypsy madame Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) whom Quinlan shares a past with is at once mysterious and blunt; after seeing Quinlan for the first time in years, she says she couldn't recognize him and he should lay off the candy bars. The Grandi gang feel like a spoof of the 50s urban youth hoods in movies: slicked back hair and leather jackets, but they aren't as tough as they act. Grandi himself comes off as a buffoon, toupee falling off and shuffling around, a self-important, little fat man. Although parts seem unintended. Some of the dialogue, particularly with Susan, feels dated, and Charlton Heston has to be the least convincing Mexican ever.
Quinlan is not a comic figure. Massive, sweaty, and grumbling, he dominates any scene he's in and looms over the camera. He's not a one-dimensional psychopath. His background is appropriately tragic (his wife was murdered, and the killer got away), which gives him an appropriate motivation for having slid into corruption. A recovery alcoholic, he begins falling off the wagon. He's also a bigot and a cop who will plant evidence to get a conviction based on his intuition. His final fate is both justice being served and sad.
Touch of Evil is a stellar thriller. While certain aspects are a bit dated, it's proof Welles contributed more to cinema than Citizen Kane. It's one of the finest film noirs ever.