A Letter To Elia
Martin Scorsese narrates and co-directs a documentary on the late filmmaker Elia Kazan
On Film4: 20 Apr 2:50AM
Another Orson Welles masterpiece. The big man stars as a corpulent US cop, facing off against Charlton Heston's Mexican narcotics officer over the border and over murder, corruption and abduction
"He was some kind of a man... What does it matter what you say about people?" It could be Welles' epitaph as much as that of Hank Quinlan, the obese, vile and potentially corrupt US border cop. If Welles is to be remembered for something other than Citizen Kane, it would probably be the justly famous opening tracking shot here, the ideal introduction to a perfectly stylized noir.
Touch of Evil had a chequered history. The original script by Paul Monash was shelved by B-movie producer Albert Zugsmith. Welles was employed to act in it, then encouraged to direct too. He didn't bother to read the source novel ('Badge Of Evil' by Whit Masterson). After the best part of a decade working in TV or on international features (1955's Mr. Arkadin was a French/Spanish/Swiss production), Welles returned to Hollywood and created another masterpiece.
But it's amazing the film survived at all - Welles was sacked in post-production and it very nearly never saw the light of day. Instead, the studio hacked it into a supporting movie, a B-movie. Restored as per his original notes in the 1990s, Touch Of Evil has emerged near faultless in style and characterisation; a confirmed masterpiece and one of the great American classics.
The film concerns Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas (Heston, in a role that twisted his usual all-American heroic credentials) who is on honeymoon with young American wife Susan (Leigh) in a fictional border town (Los Robles, which was recreated in rundown Venice, California). Vargas gets caught up with political intrigue involving, among others, a sharp-tongued hooker (Dietrich, brilliant) and corrupt local cop Quinlan (Welles, brilliantly vile).
It is a testament to Welles' genius that he was able to turn a piece of pulp literature into such a disturbing, sophisticated and, above all, entertaining study of depravity. A very fine piece of Hollywood filmmaking.
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