DameStruck: Touch of Evil (1958)

With the demise of FilmStruck (which I still hold out desperate hope will be resurrected), there has been an awful lot of talk about how cinephiles and your regular film fan now have no place to go for all their classic and art house needs. While it’s true that FilmStruck was an invaluable and brilliantly curated resource, not all hope is lost – there are still places to stream classics and art house, even if you have to do a little digging. So, with that in mind, we present DameStruck, a column wherein I suggest some well-known and not-so-well-known films from the realm of classics and art house that are currently available to stream.

First up, we kick off Noirvember with one of the greatest noirs ever made, right now on Netflix.

touch-of-evilOrson Welles never did anything the easy way, which you could argue is both the source of his brilliance and the biggest block to realizing his (very ambitious) cinematic visions. Sometimes he was quite successful, as with Citizen Kane, beloved by critics and audiences and frequently the top of the greatest of all time lists. Sometimes he was moderately successful, in that he produced imperfect films according to his personal vision (F for Fake, Chimes at Midnight) or imperfect films that time, the studios, or other financiers simply took away from him (The Magnificent Ambersons). And then there were the disasters, the films either utterly incoherent, so sliced up by Welles or other filmmakers as to be unrecognizable, or the ones left sadly incomplete. Welles’s unwillingness to play by anyone else’s rules meant that some films lingered in development hell until they died or appeared in pieces, spliced together after the fact, or without soundtracks or endings. But while we all simultaneously hug and berate Netflix for the final release of one such film, we need to remember that there are still those few, gorgeous films that Welles did complete and that, while not perfect, are always fascinating.

Touch of Evil is one of those films that Welles did finish, though it also went through its share of butchering by Universal until it finally got, mostly, restored to the version we now have today, and the one that is probably closest to what Welles originally made. In any form, it is quite a film – a noir full of drug running, murder, crooked cops, international criminal conspiracies, and Charlton Heston inexplicably playing a Mexican. The plot is simple but spectacular, opening with a bomb planted in the trunk of a car that is then driven across the Mexican-U.S. border to explode on American soil. The aftermath is predictably messy, with American cops and police captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) taking up the American side, and Mexican cops, including drug enforcement agent Mike Vargas (Heston), both working across the border to catch the bomber and avoid an international incident. Things get murkier as the film goes on to draw in police corruption, entrapment, and the victimization of Mike’s American wife Susie (Janet Leigh), among many, many other things. The whole story is tinged with Welles’s canted camerawork, deep focus lenses, and manipulation of light, developing the border world into a landscape of film noir nightmares populated by grotesque and terrifying figures.

The opening shot of Touch of Evil has often overshadowed the rest of the film, and the version now available on Netflix thankfully restores the original sequence, sans titles. It remains a breathtaking feat of filmmaking, a three minute and twenty-second take that marries image, soundtrack, and narrative in a way that develops fantastic tension. But no one should just stop there with Touch of Evil. The rest of the film is probably one of Welles’s most successful directorial efforts and acting performances. His Quinlan is at once pathetic and frightening, and the combination of pathos and horror transfers to the film as a whole. It’s hard not to be horrified by the events, even as the viewer finds the whole mess oddly sympathetic, the complexity of race, gender, and national identities communing and overlapping as bad people do bad things and good people only make things worse. There are certainly questionable racial and ethnic elements that stretch beyond the most obvious one of casting a white actor as a Mexican. The depiction of many of the Mexican characters as dangerous, if not outright criminals, would have been lessened by the actual casting of a Mexican or at least Latino actor to play Mike, as would the deeply problematic subplot of a blond woman menaced by evil Mexicans. At the same time, the white characters hardly fare any better, with Quinlan in particular given such pathetic monstrosity that he forms a more horrible counterpart to the evil as represented by non-white villains.

Touch of Evil might be one of the few true classics available on Netflix, but it is an important and necessary one, an excellent piece of entertainment that exhibits why Welles is so very influential, and so very beloved. Given Netflix’s recent release of the reconstructed The Other Side of the Wind, anyone who hasn’t seen Touch of Evil should give it a shot (not least because it’s a better film). And if you have seen it…watch it again, and not just for the opening shot.

Touch of Evil is available to stream on Netflix, and to rent on Amazon, Vudu, and YouTube.



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1 Comment

  1. Fantastic article!
    I’ve always hesitated to watch this film, becuase it sounds so very violent to me. Now, violence doesn’t usually bother me (too much) when it has a purpose in the story… but let’s just say I don’t actually go after it.
    Still, your article has really picked my interest. Thanks for sharing.


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