Touch of Evil

There’s a lot that can be said about Touch of Evil. For example, a lot of commentators like to focus on Orson Welles’ surehanded direction. This film begins with one of the most famous tracking shots in history, which starts with a bomb getting planted in the trunk of a car, then continues with two unwitting victims driving the doomed vehicle towards the Mexican border, chatting with the border guards, crossing over successfully, and then immediately dying in a fireball. It’s a very suspenseful sequence that manages to tell a complete story in less than ten minutes and it is also a hell of a technical achievement given the limited technology Welles had to work with in 1958.  

There’s also a lot to be said about the acting in Touch of Evil, because Charlton Heston plays the lead character, a Mexican cop name Mike Vargas. I always want to like his performance – the square jawed Heston has the sort of unyielding dignity that makes him a natural pick to play a character who knows better than to throw rocks at a hornets nest but who is compelled to rustle up trouble anyway because he knows that he could never forgive himself if he let some powerful scumbags get away with murder. Unfortunately, he's much more believable as a cop than he is as a Mexican, and the racial politics of his casting are a bit too much of a bummer for me to be able to fully endorse his presence in this particular role.

There are other “Jesus, get your act together 1958!” details that are also well worth discussing. For example, at one point a Mexican gang is holding Vargas’ wife hostage in an effort to encourage him to drop his investigation and they end up sedating her using the world’s deadliest drug: reefer. Every scene where marijuana gets mentioned in Touch of Evil is laughable, not just because the film continually overhypes the drug’s capabilities but because it implies that people consume pot by injecting it into their veins - an implication which is beyond ridiculous given that mainlining is probably be the only way that stoners don’t consume weed.

Of course, that stumble is pretty understandable when you look at it in a broader context: it is clear that the gang members were actually giving her heroin but the censorship codes of the time wouldn’t permit the word “heroin” to be uttered on screen so the screenwriters were forced to substitute the slightly more acceptable word "reefer" instead. However, the script’s regrettable switcheroo still ruins a lot of scenes that should have been scary by turning them into hysterical comedy. And by hysterical I don’t necessarily that they are mean laugh out loud funny - although to the right person they probably would be. No, I mean that they give the film a "we're trying to provoke hysteria" feel that is reminiscent of  old-timey anti-drug propaganda crapfests like  Reefer Madness and that really undercuts the sinister vibe the rest of the film is going for.

But while all of those are great topics, I don’t really feel motivated to explore any of them at great length. The problem is that there are a lot of credible Welles scholars who have written great essays about this movie and I just can’t hang with them. I like Touch of Evil quite a bit, but I don’t have any deep thoughts about the way it melds classic cold-blooded noir tropes with silly affectations about hot blooded Latinos. To me it is nothing more than an entertaining thriller, one that is well worth watching for its style but which doesn’t necessarily hold up to being dissected under a microscope. So instead of wasting a bunch of words on a film that I am ill-prepared to discuss, I thought I might go in the opposite direction and deliver you a few short and sweet words about something I do know a lot about.

That’s right: it’s comedy haiku time motherfuckers.

1.

Evil’s touching me!

Tell him to knock if off, Mom!

Worst car trip ever

2.

Evil’s chilly fist

Tries to grasp my beating heart

My hand grabs popcorn

3.

Stop fronting Chucky

We know where you’re really from:

Planet of the Apes

4.

You still smoke reefer?

You didn’t get the memo?

We shoot that shit now

5.

I had to declare

All my fruits and vegetables

Car bombs not so much

6.

Mexico: land of

Murder, mystery, deceit

Also: Taco Bell?

Winner: Me

Touch of Evil on IMDB