We continue our survey of the twenty greatest movies of the 1950s.
For the Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1940s, click here.
For a listing of the greatest movies of the 20s and 30s click here.
17. Touch of Evil, 1958
In one of the most effective opening sequences ever filmed, the camera focuses in close-up on a bomb being primed and placed in the trunk of a car. The camera pulls back, cranes up, and follows the car down the seedy strip of a Mexican-American bordertown. Soon, the camera powers down to eye level and picks up a strolling couple, newlyweds Mike and Susan Vargas (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh). He’s a Mexican drug enforcement official.
At a border checkpoint, the doomed car glides past Mike and Susan, and then off-screen, a huge explosion as the car blows up.
This bravura sequence sets the tone for the entire film, a Shakespearean tale of Hank Quinlan, (Orson Welles) a dirty cop who rules this corrupt, drug-infested bordertown by planting evidence and “intuiting” the guilty party.
Heston is drawn into the investigation and the plot points pile up as Quinlan, a hulking, sweaty presence, finds himself in competition with the incorruptible and clean cut Vargas. Soon enough, Quinlan finds it necessary to frame Vargas and his bride on drug and murder charges. The film unspools a series of almost surrealistic scenes featuring Janet Leigh in an abandoned motel (two years before Psycho), leather-jacketed hoods hopped up on dope, Mercedes McCambridge as a butch gang leader, Dennis Weaver as a sex obsessed motel clerk, and Marlene Dietrich as a gypsy madame who counsels Hank to “lay off the candy bars.”
Why is Hank a dirty cop?
Thirty years earlier his wife was murdered and the killer got away with it.
“That was the last killer that ever got out of my hands,” Quinlan drily observes.
Orson Welles is most famous for Citizen Kane, the film he made as a 26 year old wunderkind. But Touch of Evil, the last film he made in Hollywood, is a more mature, coherent movie. His astonishing use of long takes, complicated blocking, and overlapping dialogue are not just there to inspire technical awe, but thematically tie his characters together in a tangled web of lies and betrayals.
Touch of Evil was reedited—butchered really—by Universal, and released at the bottom of a double bill. Thirty years later the film was restored to its intended form by producer Rick Schmidlin, edited by Oscar winner Walter Murch, and inspired by a superb 1992 article in Film Quarterly by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.
After the debacle of Touch of Evil, Orson Welles, like the doomed vehicle packed with explosives, spent the rest of his life in a series of bordertowns trying to hustle up enough money to make his next great movie. And one project after another just blew up in his face. Like Hank Quinlan, Welles failed grandly, a tragic figure forever trying to recapture the past.
Here’s the opening sequence: