Is Touch of Evil the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

If there is a through line for this project, it is that I was surprised how many movies on the Sight & Sound list of the greatest movies ever made I had not seen. There are a few that I’d never heard of, but mostly I thought it was as good as any other list to serve as a checklist for movies to watch. I’ve come to find that most people seem to agree, though it is interesting the deeper you go into people’s opinions on opinions. The snakes eats the tail quickly, with discussions of merit for some of the more out there stuff and the rankings within it.

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Third Man, which comes in at #73 on the most recent version of that list. Persona, our current best movie of all time holder for the list we’re building, is tied with Seven Samurai at #17. It’s the nature of lists like this that you have to question some of it. Are there really 80+ movies better than Casablanca? I love Stanley Kubrick as much as the next person, but is 2001: A Space Odyssey one of the ten best movies ever? If you get lost in the minutia and the specifics you lose the beauty of these exercises. The point is, similar to the Oscars but with much more care, to offer an attempt at a list of things worth your time.

When I saw Touch of Evil on this list (#57) I was surprised. I like Touch of Evil, but it’s a little messy, even for an Orson Welles movie and even for the genre, and to see it ahead of Sunset Blvd. is hard to defend. I’m a pretty fervent defender of Welles the actor even beyond Welles the director, but I knew I had to revisit it to see if I still felt like that ranking was wrong.

Touch of Evil is the first movie I’ve seen in a movie theater in just under a year and a half. I’m fortunate to live near the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, where I was able to revisit this 1958 noir with a bunch of other folks who wanted to experience a very strange story about morality in policing. There’s a lot to unpack in how Touch of Evil reads in 2021. Primarily, Welles’ police captain Hank Quinlan was an undeniable villain at the time but now really challenges the viewer with the idea of “one bad apple” as a criminal in the police force. The structure around him backs him at every turn and his subordinates who are clearly less evil still support him, even when they can tell they shouldn’t. This was probably something contemporary viewers would pick up on, but it screams much louder in today’s world.

Welles played the villain as often as he did the hero. That distinction can get complicated at times, but Welles wasn’t necessarily interested in complex characters in that way. Hank Quinlan is huge, physically and metaphorically, and the only complexity we get for him is that he used to drink and that his wife passed away. There is a world where these elements, plus the decades on the job in a border town trying to keep a tentative peace, make us feel for Quinlan and at least understand how he got in this state, if not outright agree with his methods. Another director might lead the audience down that path, but it’s enough for Welles to just tilt at it. Quinlan “runs this town” as so many crooked cops do, but he doesn’t do it to further his own success or to grab power. He does it out of a compulsion and a misguided idea that putting away “bad guys” is the right move, even if they didn’t do this specific thing or you can’t pin it on them successfully.

You can’t feel bad for Quinlan, which gives Welles the space to mumble menacingly and to really command the screen even from a position of supposed weakness. Quinlan uses a cane and is drastically overweight, which serves to contrast him with Charlton Heston’s Miguel Vargas. This detail is hard to get past and I don’t want to handwave it away by saying this was 1958, but casting Charlton Heston as a Mexican cop is truly strange. Welles was originally just supposed to play Quinlan, but Heston suggested he direct as well. This led to him rewriting the script to change the hero into a Mexican character, but this all happened after Heston had signed on. I can’t find much about the choice to not recast the role, but this is just the reality of Hollywood at the time. There’s a true critique to lay on Touch of Evil that the only unquestionable hero of the film is a white guy playing a Mexican character. I think the reason this doesn’t get discussed more in the legacy of the film is that the only reason it exists at all is that Welles wanted to make a statement about the difficulty of relations between America and Mexico. It’s reaching to call this progressive, but it’s interesting. Heston’s legacy is also so muddled with how he spent the last decades of his life elevating monstrous beliefs and positions that unpacking this choice and how he must have felt about it would take us more time than we have here.

I love Welles’ performance here, but I ultimately don’t think some elements of Touch of Evil hold up as well under multiple viewings. Janet Leigh plays Susan Vargas, the new bride to Heston’s Vargas, and doesn’t really get anything to do except scream and fret. She plays the role well, especially shining in a conversation where she gets cornered by the remaining members of the crime family that her husband is prosecuting. Marlene Dietrich has the more interesting female role as Tanya, the fortune teller who knew Quinlan before much of what would lead to the sad state he’s in by the events of Touch of Evil. There’s a lot said by what’s not said in the scenes Dietrich and Welles share.

I still like Touch of Evil, but it is undeniably messy. The climactic scene where Vargas tries to get Quinlan to admit to planting evidence is thrilling but the twists and turns are a little harder to endure than other contemporary noir. Welles is the standout performer here, but much of what you’ll read about Touch of Evil focuses on his filmmaking. The film opens with a famous “tracking shot” that’s an extended zoom out of the opening car bomb that sets the plot in motion. The pacing suffers for modern viewings, but you will still find a lot to marvel at in how it’s all shot. It’s a marvel in many ways but also a product of when it was made. Where it goes beyond the time is why it is on so many lists of tremendous achievements, but you need to set your expectations correctly and your ability to love it completely with depend on your feelings about Welles and Heston, to some degree.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I do think it’s better than The Seventh Seal, which is probably blasphemy. Heston as a Mexican character is pretty ridiculous, especially knowing what you know about Heston as a political figure, but I really am amazed with Welles’ choices and his personal performance. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone hated this one and I think there’s enough in here to turn off a lot of people, but I think it’s one of the better Welles productions. And that’s saying something.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I will keep Persona in this spot this week. If you like Orson Welles or noir at all, you should check this out. I feel like I’m waffling a little bit on this one even though I really enjoyed it and I think it’s worth your time. There are people out there who can’t stand Orson Welles as a performer, especially when he goes for it to this degree, but I’m on the record as a huge fan. The choice to have him talk over anyone he deems unnecessary and to bluster around but also act performatively confused when it suits him all constructs such a fully realized character. To do that for the villain that you’ll hate and grow to hate even more is what sets Welles apart.

You can watch Touch of Evil on Amazon Prime ($3.99) or YouTube ($3.99). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

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