Watching Touch of Evil is a difficult experience to describe. It is terribly dated and because we are so inundated with ‘murder mystery’, ‘bad cop/good cop’, ‘outsider/insider’, ‘alcoholic jaded cop’ ‘modern/old school’ TV shows and films I felt like I already knew most of what was going to happen. Then again TOE was released in 1958 so I’m cutting it a whole pile of slack.
First let me tell you what I didn’t like – the dreaded “black face” was in action with Charlton Heston playing a darkened up Mexican cop (literally from the wrong side of the border – note ‘outsider’ status); the women apart from Janet Leigh’s wife character were barely there and the ‘gypsy Mexican fortune teller’ in love with the alcoholic cop was a cringey stereotype and all the other women were strippers (wives or whores ladies? You choose – aah, the 50s…); the wife started out kind of tough and interesting for a 1958 flick but totally paid for her sins (of being kind of tough and interesting) by being threatened and drugged leading to a general need for being saved by Mexican Charlton H; Orson Welles’ acting was to say the least wooden (I’m not sure if this was because I was judging the acting with a 2014 viewpoint or because he was on some sort of downward spiral in terms of acting, not sure) but it wasn’t too big an issue because his character was alcoholic/insider/US cop; also there was too much exposition, there is such a thing as too much talking in a film, obviously a lesson screenwriters were yet to learn in 1958.
But, oh, the things I loved about this film!!! That opening sequence… even for 2014 this baby is a jaw dropper. We follow the progress of a car with a bomb in the boot (opening shot so no spoiler there) as it heads from south of the border down Mexico way back to the US side. The tension is amazing as we watch the car go past groups of people, children and two newlyweds we realise are probably the characters we will be getting to know, of course they separate for a while (eeep!! The TENSION!!!). Just waiting and waiting for the bomb to go off as the car slowly rolls past and the most amazing thing is that this is somehow all one shot! How the heck did Orson (also Director) do it! Seriously, so tense, so impressive.
I also loved: the Mexican bad guy hipsters, so cool, so creepy, so good at what they do; the lesbian 50s biker hipster druggies (I know right? What’s not to like? I’m going with lesbian50s biker hipster druggies but maybe I’m doing too large a queer reading on that one. Needs to be discussed with other over-thinkers.); the use of the dry and dusty environment as reflected in the characters; the use of the border to delineate so much about the characters and their lives; Mexican = dodgy but American = boring, just look at the difference between the partying Mexican side of the border and the air-conditioned rigidity of the other; racial profiling/racism in all its 50s grandeur (not in a good way at all); 50s technology! modern Mexican Charlton H loves that stuff; and, the depiction of loyalty and how it can play out over a lifetime, within a workplace, within relationships and within families, as well as where loyalty begins, was so beautifully done.
TOE is a really clever, beautiful, stunning film. Yeah, it’s dated. Yeah, the acting wouldn’t win any awards at the 2015 Oscars (the cinematography could though). But for a film that is almost 60 years old, it holds its own. We’ve seen it done again and again since 1958 through more movies than it’s worth mentioning but have we seen it done this well with this much style? Probably yes, but I still love the original!