Charlton Heston

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.

Worst Best Picture: Is Ben-Hur Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1959 winner Ben-Hur. Is it better than Crash?

Charlton Heston is complicated. He’s got a reputation for being stern and serious, and he became one of the most famous conservatives in Hollywood. He’s everyone’s dad, but the version of him that’s grounding everyone all the time. This combination makes him a little unsuited for roles that require depth. He’s not a bad actor, but he’s very, very specific.

In the unbelievable bomb The Greatest Show on Earth, he’s a one-track minded character who only wants to see the circus keep moving, even at the cost of his own health and personal relationships. He’s playing against the rest of the movie there, and he’s one of the only interesting characters because everyone else is broad and silly and he’s really, really intense. He brings that same intensity to every role (“You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you!”) and you end up getting the sensation that all Charlton Heston knows how to do is act like Charlton Heston. It’s bizarre, considering how massive his success was, and it really stands out in Ben-Hur.

Though he won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur, a contemporary of Christ (much more about that later), he was criticized by the press for being mostly physical rather than actually delivering his lines well. He mumbles and spits everything, and he sounds like an impression of his other roles when he gets angry. Even the director of the film went on the record to say he was unhappy with Heston’s performance. The film was the most expensive film ever made, so you have to wonder if at some point they didn’t just decide to make an epic around him and hope it worked.

I guess it does, mostly, though Heston is hard as hell to ignore. He’s Jewish in a part of the world that has abandoned Judaism, and even his childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) has issues with him now for standing by his faith. When a piece of Ben-Hur’s roof falls off and scares the horse of a Roman dignitary, Messala has him arrested and set adrift to die as a galley slave.

Ben-Hur saves the life of an important Roman leader and is granted his freedom, and he decides to exact revenge on Messala for his imprisonment (among other things). That gives way to the iconic chariot scene, and surely the majority of what makes Ben-Hur necessary now. It’s the original, and though it’s been done a thousand times in various formats, it’s still electric to see. It really does hold up like few action scenes can, and it’s though it’s a little brutal, it’s necessary viewing for anyone.

The pieces of the rest of the movie are a little weird. Even though it clocks in at just under four hours, even characters like Pontius Pilate don’t really get that much screentime. It’s just lots of Ben-Hur struggling with the idea of revenge and how to stay true to what matters (faith and family) and not what doesn’t (Rome, anything but faith and family). The heroes’ journey works, ultimately, and despite the shade I’ll throw at anyone who calls Heston a great actor I have to say he’s suited for the role. It’s a little much (a lot much when he’s saving his family in Part II, when he’s at about 400% Charlton Heston) sometimes, but it’s supposed to be that way. Ben-Hur has a terrible life filled with trials, and it’s all meant to build up to the moment when he’s confronted with a similar character.

Ben-Hur meets Jesus right after he is sold into slavery. Christ gives him water when no man will aid him, which is fairly direct messaging. The Roman in command of the slaves insists that Ben-Hur alone not be allowed to drink, and he stops everyone else from helping him, but he is literally staggered when faced with Jesus Christ. For the most part, the religious message of Ben-Hur is (a little) more subtle than you’d expect, but not with regard to Jesus. He doesn’t come back for about two hours, but when Ben-Hur is present at his death (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say how “The Greatest Story Ever Told” ends, at this point) it is brutal and intense on a level you will rarely see. Your enjoyment of the movie (and the extended, lengthy ending) will be determined by your feelings about Christianity in general, but no matter what you think of the quality of its message, its scale in telling it cannot be denied.

The Best Part: Hugh Griffith won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as the sheik that owns the horses Ben-Hur uses for the chariot scene. He’s a bright spot in a relentlessly dark movie. I don’t think the story of a slave who values his religion so highly that he will fight for it needs to be “funny” per se, but Griffith is charming and definitely carries the few scenes they use him in.

The Worst Part: It feels absurd to say that it’s Charlton Heston at this point, but I think I have to. He’s fine as Ben-Hur, but I can’t believe some of the line readings. He’s yelling through clenched teeth and thrashing broadly like he’s in a play. It’s crazy. Everyone’s bad Brando and Walken impressions sound like impressions, but your bad Heston sounds like Heston.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better, and it may be the iconic “epic” on the list, if not Lawrence of Arabia. I didn’t hate Ben-Hur, but it’s certainly not the movie I expected. It’s long but not bloated, but that’s only because it has exactly one thing it wants to say. The message of Ben-Hur is singular, like Crash (I did it!), and though your enjoyment of the movie will depend on your enjoyment of said message, I think it does a better job of getting one specific point across than Crash.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld | Out of AfricaSchindler’s ListGandhi | Ben-Hur

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Worst Best Picture: Is The Greatest Show on Earth Better or Worse Than Crash?

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Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1952 winner The Greatest Show on Earth. Is it better than Crash?

People hate this movie. It constantly makes lists of worst Best Picture winners. I read a lot of the worst lists to inform my own journey through these movies and man people hate the circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth. Is it really all that bad?

Let’s get this out of the way first: this is not a very good movie. It feels 20 or 30 years older than it actually is, mostly because no one edited it at all. You could cut more than half of the movie out and still be left with a full story. It’s a circus story, but it’s far too in love with the pageantry of the circus itself. “Murder your darlings” they say, but like the worst Tarantino movies (looking at you, 40-minute diner scene in Death Proof) this just goes on and on.

It’s supposed to be a love triangle. Brad (Charlton Heston, before he became a lunatic) doesn’t have time for love. He’s too busy running the business end of the circus to notice that his girl Holly (Betty Hutton) is in love with the new trapeze guy The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde, who gives a pretty awful performance). The German elephant trainer Klaus (Lyle Bettger) — what else could he have been named in 1952, I guess — is also in love with Angel (Gloria Grahame), but Angel has no time for him. Everyone falls in and out of love with each other for various reasons. That’s supposed to be what this is about.

It’s not, though, because director Cecil B. DeMille fucking loves the circus. You know you’re gonna get some circus when you watch a movie called The Greatest Show on Earth, but at one point there’s a ten minute scene of people taking down a circus tent, complete with narration about “the giant’s skin coming down.” It’s a quasi-documentary about circus life, and it’s straight up boring. The love stories aren’t enough to make a great movie, but the documentary elements aren’t really anything at all. They wouldn’t be out of place on a nature show from 40 years ago. They’re goddamned terrible, and they’re shoehorned in between every scene.

Jimmy Stewart is also in this weird damn movie as Buttons the clown. Buttons is a doctor who mercy killed his terminally ill wife, and now he’s hiding out in greasepaint at the circus. It’s really an interesting idea, especially in the non-digital world of 1952, and the movie deals with it far too rarely.

The biggest problem is that it’s just plain boring. It’s far too long and the good parts are few and far between. Most of the performances — outside of Charlton Heston’s cartoonishly “serious” Brad and Cornel Wilde’s “how much are you paying me again” The Great Sebastian — are fine. The problem here is that no one ever asked the question “is 90 minutes of circus footage too much?” It really, really is, but in a world that includes some truly awful movies with Best Picture on their DVD box, you shouldn’t hate The Greatest Show on Earth. You just shouldn’t watch it, either.

The Best Part: Jimmy Stewart gets a lot of love for his portrayal of Buttons. Most of the blurbs about this movie on other lists basically say “it sucks, but Buttons is interesting.” I think that’s a fine summary, but I really enjoyed Gloria Grahame’s character, Angel. She’s almost murdered by an elephant at one point. How do you play “almost murdered by an elephant?” I’d say she’s set the gold standard.

The Worst Part: The ending is outrageously stupid, but this is the spot where we need to talk about this train scene. Steven Spielberg is on the record saying that the climactic train wreck in The Greatest Show on Earth (stop it with the *spoilers*, you weren’t going to watch this, were you?) was a huge influence on him. It’s true that it was a technological marvel at the time, but it’s really funny to watch the toy train scene now. If you want a worst part that doesn’t have to do with how the movie has aged, go with that stupid damn ending. Motivations like “I love you because the movie is over” are a sign you’re watching something dumb.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? There’s no discussion of race at all in The Greatest Show on Earth. The only black people in the entire movie are in the crew that sets up the circus tent. But there is a comparison between the two that has nothing to do with race. Both movies are full-on hamfisted. They’re both trying to do something (talk about racism and show a love for the circus) and neither one does a great job of anything else. The problem with one movie is the problem with the other; both movies eschew interesting characters and pacing for “message.” Racism bad, circus good. Both movies are failures because their components don’t support the bigger message, they just fall down like a BAD CIRCUS TENT I HATE THAT I MADE THAT JOKE.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement |12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind| Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade |

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

Image: Telegraph