Great Moments in Cinema: Touch of Evil
Even though he was largely marginalized throughout his career, Orson Welles is nevertheless widely considered one of the best and most important directors in the history of cinema. His first film, Citizen Kane (1941), is an influential masterpiece that spent the better part of 50 years occupying the top spot of the Sight and Sound poll of the greatest films ever made, until it was finally toppled by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) earlier this year. Still, Welles managed to firmly cement his place in cinema history (while simultaneously sabotaging the rest of his career) right out of the gate, and while he never quite reached those same heights again, he did direct a handful of other films that can easily be considered masterpieces. Such is the case with Touch of Evil (1958), a crime caper that transcends its genre trappings thanks to Welles’s signature style, and also features one of the most audacious opening sequences in the history of film, one that unfolds over the course of one stunning, nearly four-minute long unbroken tracking shot.
The film is set in an unnamed border town that sits between Mexico and the United States. Mexican Narcotics officer Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas (a wildly miscast Charlton Heston) is crossing the border to the U.S. so he can spend his honeymoon with his wife Susan (Janet Leigh), but is interrupted when an American business contractor and his young lover are both killed in an explosion. An investigation reveals that someone planted a bomb in the contractor’s car, and this draws the attention of Hank Quinlan (Welles), the corrupt police captain in charge of the U.S. side of the border. Quinlan and Vargas immediately butt heads, with both men determined to crack the case before the other. Meanwhile, Susan runs afoul of the notorious Grandi family, who control the narcotics trade on both sides of the border. They also have a beef with Vargas, since he is the man responsible for sending the head of the family to prison in Mexico. When Vargas finds out that they’ve been threatening Susan, he tucks her away in a hotel on the U.S. side of the border, and goes back to trying to solve the case while at the same time trying to bring the crooked Quinlan down. Unfortunately, the Grandi family has informants everywhere, and they soon learn where Susan is hiding. Now, Vargas has to race against time to save his wife from a notorious gang of criminals, all while solving the murder and toppling Quinlan’s dishonest empire.
Ultimately, Touch of Evil nothing more than a standard crime caper with a healthy dose of exploitative elements thrown in for good measure (Janet Leigh appears in various states of undress throughout the film, for example). However, it distinguishes itself from the pack thanks to an abundance of stylistic excess. The film is defined by the sort of over the top, overtly cinematic technique that Welles was known for. This becomes evident right from start, as the opening sequence is the very definition of an exercise in style, but one that nevertheless manages to set up the world of the film in an economical and altogether organic manner.
The film opens with a burst of bombastic and ominous music, which fades out along with the Universal logo. As the film fades back in, we hear jazzy bongo drums, and see a close up on an obviously homemade explosive device, complete with egg timer and batteries. A hand belonging to an unidentified individual comes into the frame and sets the timer. We hear a woman’s laughter, and the camera pans over to reveal a woman and a man in the distance. The man with the bomb notices the couple, and at that moment we notice that the music we are hearing is actually diegetic, that it exists in the world of the film. The man with bomb runs off camera, and we see his shadow thrown up on the wall. The camera tracks to the right and catches up with the man, who crouches behind a car and sets the bomb in the trunk. The couple we saw earlier gets in the car and drives off, as the camera, obviously set up on a crane, floats high above the scene and reveals the town where this is all taking place, and the music switches to a jaunty but generic rock and roll tune. The camera follows the car out of the parking lot and out onto the street, where it floats back down to street level. More of the town is revealed, and we learn that it is a bustling place that has elements of both the United States and Mexico. The doomed car slowly makes its way up the street, occasionally stopped by traffic cops who wave through cars coming from different directions, or ensuring the safety of the many pedestrians. That’s when we see two pedestrians, a handsome man and an attractive young woman, hurrying across the street, and the camera moves its focus to them. The music changes again, and we realize the rock song we heard earlier was coming from the radio in the car, which has been left behind at the intersection. We follow the pedestrians to the border crossing, where we learn that one of them is a police officer named Vargas, and the woman is his new bride, Susan. They are allowed to pass, just as the doomed car rolls up to the crossing. The woman in the car is complaining about a strange ticking noise, but everyone ignores her. The car drives away, and the camera lingers on Vargas and his wife, who move in to kiss one another. However, their tender moment is interrupted by the sound of an explosion, and for the first time since the film opened, a cut whisks us away from the young lovers and shows us the car as it is engulfed in flames.
Like the man behind the camera, the opening sequence of Touch of Evil is ostentatious, technically brilliant, and more than a little bit playful. On the surface, it may seem excessive, and it is to some extent, but it also serves a purpose. It sets up the entire world of the film, introducing us in one fell swoop to the town where the story takes place. When the camera moves from the parking lot to the street, we see that one side of the town features a heavy influence of Mexican style, mainly in the architecture. On the other side, we see buildings that are more familiar to those who live in the United States. Furthermore, it lets us know that the music we hear comes from the world itself, rather than a score that we hear but the characters do not. The first song on the soundtrack comes to us from some place in the distance, and is obviously spilling out from some nightclub, probably the same one the doomed couple just came from. From there, the music is constantly changing, depending on where its coming from. The rock song is blasting from the radio in the car, the next song is most likely coming from a jukebox in one of the many bars and taverns that line the street. Welles is letting us know that everything we hear is also being heard by the characters. Finally, it introduces us to our main characters. At first, Vargas and his wife appear to be just another couple among many, spending a night on the town and having a little too much fun. But as the focus of the camera shifts from the car to them, we realize that they are more important than we initially thought. This is solidified when they reach the border crossing, and the two cops there recognize Vargas, revealing his name in a somewhat confusing conversation made up of Welles’s trademark overlapping dialogue. Of course, there is also an element of showmanship with this opening, and Welles was no doubt using it as an opportunity to show off his mastery of cinematic technique. That doesn’t change the fact that the opening sequence perfectly sets up the world of the film, and lets the audience know exactly what they are in for.
While Welles may have spent the better part of his career making and appearing in movies that weren’t worthy of his enormous talents, he still managed to leave an indelible mark on the cinematic landscape. While he will always be remembered for Citizen Kane, we must not forget that he unleashed a few other masterpieces in his time. Touch of Evil is one of those masterpieces, and its opening sequence ranks as one of the all time great moments in cinema.