Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil ★★★★½

For all the striking images in the film, a carnival of horrors rendered in deep focus and harsh shadows, none are more representative than Welles himself. Under his mountain of prosthetics, Welles’ Detective Quinlan is a corpulent temple to avarice and wrath, staggering and bellowing through a rotting border town in order to hang a crime on a guilty head, or maybe just any head. Welles makes the interesting, and wise, choice to make Quinlan very good at his job which makes his corruption tragic rather than purely evil, and it’s a fittingly cruel choice to ultimately vindicate Quinlan’s superstitious and thuggish methods.

Touch of Evil is ostensibly about a lot of things, too — the increasingly porous border between the US and Mexico, racism, imperialism, but many of the broader themes are either muddled or subsumed by the film’s overwhelming ugliness. This is a mean, dirty, rotten film that revels in filthy roadside motels, grinding industrial machinery, and corpses floating away like flotsam. Like Quinlan, it’s about torment more than anything else. Just look at Janet Leigh’s character, who exists purely to be tortured. But the skin-crawling sleaze and pervasive sense of danger is exactly what makes Touch of Evil so effective, and so difficult to cleanly sum up. Popularly thought of as the “final” classic noir film, I couldn’t think of a more spectacular note for such a cynical genre to close its curtains on.

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