A touch of brilliance

“A Touch of Evil” (1958) is what can be expected of any Orson Welles film: thoughtful, cinematically enlightening and classic.

“A Touch of Evil” (1958) is what can be expected of any Orson Welles film: thoughtful, cinematically enlightening and classic.

Drug enforcement officer Miguel (Charlton Heston) and his new bride Susie Vargas (Janet Leigh) are honeymooning on the United States and Mexican border when a bomb explodes in a nearby car. Realizing that the bomb came from the Mexican side of the border, Miguel worries about the implications it may bring regarding his home country. Immediately, Miguel is at the scene of the crime aiding with the investigation. The evidence to convict prime suspect Sanchez is there, but its origins are questionable. As Heston’s character challenges Captain Hank Quinlan’s investigation tactics, Quinlan, played by Welles himself, sees that Miguel gets more than he bargained for. What appears to have only ruined one evening of their romantic getaway soon begins to engulf the couple’s entire lives, interweaving the two in a web of drugs, conspiracy and deception.

The cinematic elegance of the movie is unequaled. This is apparent within the first moments of the film when the camera takes a then-unprecedented three-minute pan, juxtaposing a crime scene with a happy celebrity honeymoon. This continues throughout the film, touching on secret injustices only noticed by those caught in the middle. The film’s lack of color emphasizes the central dynamic aspect of scene-particular lighting. Welles’ use of light captivates or horrifies in the intended scenes. The rigor involved in speaking with angles, lighting and film elements surpasses the average in “A Touch of Evil.” Welles leaves viewers on edge at all times through an implied unnerving presence of danger accomplished through the music, lighting, and positioning of the cameras.

Although aged in date, “A Touch of Evil” is contemporary in ideology. The film speaks to the confusing, chilling and sometimes perverse nature of the investigation process and the judicial system in general. Despite admitting to having framed several suspects in various crimes, Quinlan replies that they were all “guilty, guilty,” stirring a moral debate in the viewer’s conscience. The hardship of conviction meets the enthusiasm of the vigilante and skews the edges of racism and corruption. Modern masterpieces such as Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia” (2002) reflect the same questions, tribulations and moral weigh-offs of investigation. The concept remains an issue both in modern cinema and current events.

Janet Leigh’s character does raise a sighing feminist response as she becomes the classic damsel in distress. Her bravery is only fueled by mention of her heroic saves-the-day husband, who she asserts will rescue her if anything bad is to happen. The melodramatic acting and Susie’s insensitivity to racial slurs makes her a weak character at best, and an annoying gold-digger at worst. Yet, perhaps it was Welles’ intention not to reinforce the stereotypical dependence of women, but to project the cultural climate of feminism of the time. Either way, the film not only provokes questions of racial discrimination, but also speaks to the differences between male and female archetypes.

“A Touch of Evil” is a must-see for every major movie fan. It is classic, provocative and revolutionary in its cinematography. It can be read from all cultural perspectives and vantage points. Its major theme will never run cold, and its plot twists cannot cease to entertain the most suspecting of viewers. ?