As I’m currently working through the iCheckMovies film-noir list, I am going to set myself a goal to try and write a few words about each film I see, even if they are more cliff notes than a fully fledged review. Today was Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.

This B-movie film noir has many faults, but at the same time is a defining example of what makes a film-noir truly noir. The film captures the seedy, grimy aspects of human nature in a film with such brilliantly crafted “shades-of-grey” characters, blurring the line between good and evil.

Welles puts in a brilliant performance, his monumental stomach adding to the dominating presence of his internally tortured, corrupt detective Hank Quinlan. Heston is great (I’ll leave the arguments about a white American playing a Mexican out of this for now) as the idealistic law official determined to expose  Quinlan. Star turns also from Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff and Marlene Dietrich help drive the shadowy, intricate plot forward. The film’s opening scene is the stuff of legends, and rightly so, with a long, complex tracking shot which lasts 3 and half minutes minutes and introduces to us the some of the main players and kickstarts the film’s plot. It’s not just the opening shot that impresses – throughout the film, Welles’ influence is felt behind the camera, with trademark POV shots and twisted camera angles. Mancini’s score, while hitting a few “elevator muzak” moments, generally compliments the on-screen action adequately, and in a few key moments (the murder of Mexican gang boss Grandi) steps up to the level of perfection.

On the negative side, B-movie production values sometimes creep to the foreground. Wobbly set design and a very awkward, weirdly overacted performance from Dennis Weaver as a mentally-challenged motel Night Man (see picture below), for my money hold the film back from its potential as a masterpiece. While there are also a few strange cuts and pacing decisions in the first third of the film, these may have been introduced when the studios infamously butchered the final edit. I watched the version which has been reconstructed based on Welles’ furious memo to the studio execs, but it is likely there are still remnants of their interference in this cut.

Overall it is testament to Welles’ skill that a second-billing B-movie is as accomplished as this. A few weak moments and lapses in production values (no doubt budget-related) do not stop this being about as dark, grimy and intricate as film-noir gets and comes highly recommended.

4.5 / 5

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