Few films have such a profoundly allegorical sense of place. We can smell garbage and waste oil blowing in on the hot Mexican wind.
Truffaut again: in Hank Quinlan, Welles "designed the simplest of moralities: that of the absolute and the purity of absolutists." From the first moments of the film, TOUCH OF EVIL exults in a richly-detailed mise-en-scene.
Then, the bomber withdraws, a couple arrives, the car drives off, and the camera begins pulling back, up and around seedy buildings, down fly-blown streets, past odd revelers flowing through a customs gate. The mechanics of filmmaking in TOUCH OF EVIL, the play of shot and countershot, of dialogue and ambient sound, seem glutted by some strange weariness, the film’s motives and events and meanings clouded by ambiguity.
On an oil-black night in an unkempt border town, a hand is seen winding a clock mechanism, and then stuffing a bomb into a car trunk. Along with John Huston’s equally remarkable THE MALTESE FALCON of 1941, TOUCH OF EVIL neatly bookends film noir. Huston’s film is crisp and clear and witty, while Welles’ is murky and full of hate.
THE MALTESE FALCON’s portly "Caspar Gutman" (Sidney Greenstreet) was a faintly jesting presence in a film that finally enjoyed its own machinations; Hank Quinlan, TOUCH OF EVIL’s fat man, on the other hand, begins as a bloody-handed tyrant and ends as a lapsed romantic.
"Remind me," said an interviewer, "not to visit Venice, California." Perhaps Welles, essentially by 1958 a man without a country, had a special feeling for places like Los Robles and their local warlords.
Playing larger-than-life figures out of history (Clarence Darrow in 1959’s COMPULSION) or fiction (1958’s THE LONG HOT SUMMER, from William Faulkner), Welles tacked between the US and Europe, sinking his increasing earnings as an actor into decreasingly profitable films like OTHELLO, MR. Initially, TOUCH OF EVIL was to be no more than the latest source of cash for Welles’ latest directing project.
Beginning with BLACK MAGIC, in which he played Cagliostro, THE PRINCE OF FOXES, in which he played Cesare Borgia, and THE THIRD MAN, in which he played the unforgettably sinister Harry Lime, all made in 1949, Welles financed his increasingly quixotic directing ventures with brilliant, overblown character turns in other peoples’ movies, often a Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
Welles decided to put obnoxious Universal executives off with a remarkable display.
On TOUCH OF EVIL, the long takes he had come to favor as a storytelling technique now became a way of saving shooting time and money.