Orson Welles will likely always be most remembered for his first film, “Citizen Kane” (1941). It is excellent but, for my money, his most profound work is “Touch of Evil” (1958). It is one of the greatest of film noir, a style which seems to have been the most natural for Welles. Welles himself plays the leading character, Hank Quinlan, a sheriff of a U.S.-Mexico border town. He is a capable effective, corpulent lawman whose wife was murdered many years before. Upright, civilized Mexican policeman Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) is vacationing in the town with his new American wife Susan (Janet Leigh). Vargas and his wife become targetted by criminals and this results in series of events that leads to the discovery that Quinlan himself is corrupt. From the bravura long opening shot we are eventually led to a complexity of situation and character that is not absent from “Citizen Kane” but is here deepened. An added pleasure is Marlene Dietrich in, to my mind, her finest performance, with the possible exception of “The Blue Angel” (1930). She plays Tana, an old acquaintance of Quinlan, a brothel owner, a fortune teller, a wise woman in her way. Her final remark that ends the film is, in its disillusion and resignation, a summing up that expresses the futility of trying to sum up. This film is close to a Greek tragedy in its darkness and intensity.
“Touch of Evil” is brilliant, even though Charlton Heston does not make the most convincing Mexican (its one flaw, although probably inevitable given available Hollywood talent at the time). Better than “Citizen Kane”? Debatable, the latter has obvious pretentions to greatness, with almost every frame screaming “Epic!” “Touch of Evil” is more subtle, and certainly more entertaining.
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