Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.
The US/Mexico border, a bomb is planted in a car as Miguel Vargas and his new wife Susie are crossing over into America. Vargas, a Mexican official, realizes the negative diplomatic implications of a Mexican bomb exploding on American soil and begins to investigate. Police Captain Hank Quinlan and his partner Pete Menzies, arrive on the scene of the explosion. When it becomes clear that Quinlan has planted evidence to frame a young Mexican named Sanchez, Vargas begins to gather evidence of his own in an attempt to expose the captain.
While Vargas is investigating Quinlan’s corruption, Susie is cooped up in a remote motel that gets taken over by gang members of the Grandi family, who Vargas is fighting as a law enforcement official, and who is secretly also a criminal associate of Quinlan. Susie is kidnapped by the gang, injected with drugs, and taken to Grandi’s hotel in town. There, Quinlan seizes an opportunity, strangles Grandi and frames Susie Vargas for the murder in order to ruin her husband. Meanwhile, Vargas confronts Menzies claiming that the evidence in all the cases they ever solved was fabricated. Eventually Vargas persuades Menzies to record a conversation with Quinlan. After the police captain admits to planting evidence, he realises Menzies is wearing a wire and shoots him only to be shot in return, leaving Vargas able to exonerate his wife.
“Don’t you see you don’t help yourself by treating this as a joke?” exclaims Charlton Heston as Miguel Vargas, and it would have probably been a complaint oft-repeated at Orson Welles throughout his career in the movie business. For it is at Welles’ character – the villainous, obese and sinister police Captain Quinlan – that this line of dialogue is directed. And with his usual acting aplomb, Welles dismisses the comment with “Are you finished? Anything more you wanna say, Vargas?” almost definitely the way Welles would have repeatedly reacted in the face of many of his real life detractors. For there is an air of greatness surrounding this film and, indeed, it smacks of brilliance but ultimately flounders in it. It has all the hallmarks of Orson Welles’ cinematography, style and wit in the direction, yet, aside from two major scenes, there is a distinct lack of the all encompassing innovative quality that thrusts Citizen Kane into the debates about greatest films of all-time.
It is in the undercurrent of humour, whether intentional or not, juxtaposed against the gravely dark thriller elements ofTouch of Evil that it is perhaps where the film falls down. The black comedy is prevalent throughout the film, although thankfully not in any of the key scenes. It could have worked well, as Hitchcock proved with his mastery of the darkly humorous thrillers of the same period. In every scene, apart from the his brutal final shot the Mexican mob boss, Grandi, played by Akim Tarimoff, is comically overacted, more attuned to a bit-part in the mafia spoofing Analyze This and Analyze That films. Similarly, the mentally handicapped night manager at the motel seems to have jumped straight from a Mel Brooks film.
Mentioning Alfred Hitchcock and motels it would be rude not to reference Psycho made just two years later, and with the same leading lady. Janet Leigh’s visit to the Bates’ Motel in 1960 delivers some of the most incredibly eerie scenes and one of the most memorable murders in cinema history, and the film manages to carry a perverse sense of humour continuously without it undermining any of its integrity. The scene in which Leigh’s character Susie Vargas is drugged and potentially raped is sinister enough, yet its tension could have been heightened by not having the cutaways to the unnecessarily stupefied night manager in the motel reception, and the crass rock ’n’ roll music that plays out diagetically through the speaker in the room. The rock ‘n’ roll music and boogie-woogie piano is a recurring theme through the film, detracting somewhat from the orchestral stabbings at moments of heightened anxiety, it also induces some of the strangest dancing/gyrating from one of the gangster extras that it instantly kills off any apprehension or fear. Among the black comedy there is also a half-hearted attempt to add a sort of sexual tension, but the scene of Leigh in her négligé on the phone to her new husband seems awkwardly tacked in; again, the effect is achieved more successfully two years later with the peep-hole scene in Psycho.
Where the film does work is in its two most memorable set-pieces. The three minute twenty tracking shot opening the film is unflinchingly ambitious in its scale and scope and sets up what should be a sensational movie experience. And the murder scene is so fabulously presented that any audience would produce audible gasps -Welles’ acting is so convincing that we genuinely fear the corrupt law enforcer in his remaining scenes. Although it is perhaps a great shame that if Welles didn’t treat his career in the Hollywood film studios with such contempt, and as such “a joke”, it could have been as successfully remembered in the same breath as his own Citizen Kane and Hitchcock’s Psycho.