On its face, "Touch of Evil" is a second-rate detective story, with some absurd moments that give it the quality of a horror picture. But beneath the veneer it is a brilliant work of expressionist effects, and containing a tour de force of acting. (What besides tour de force can describe a situation in which the director of a film additionally plays a principal role?) This is film noir at its finest.
Stanley Kubrick once said that the first shot of a film should be the most interesting thing the audience sees after entering the theater. Certainly, the astonishing, lengthy one-take opening shot of "Touch of Evil" meets the test. It may be the most dazzling first shot to appear in any film, and Welles complained of having to explain to people how it was done. In addition to its fabulous opening, "Touch of Evil" contains many other brilliant sequences including an extraordinary shot in which the camera dollies back as a group of characters cross a street, tracks them across a hotel lobby, leads them into a cramped elevator, and rides them up five floors until Mexican detective Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), who has left them in the lobby, reappears at the very moment the elevator door reopens.
Welles shoots his story as if it were a nightmare. The isolated-motel sequence prefigures "Psycho": Janet Leigh's sexy Susie Vargas meets the skinny "night man" (Dennis Weaver) who is an infantile sex degenerate. There is also great irony in the fact that the duel between the straight incorruptible Vargas and the tainted, decadent crooked cop Hank Quinlan (Welles) only ends when Vargas is forced to use Quinlan's dirty tricks to defeat him. Like most of Welles's movies, from "Citizen Kane" to "Chimes at Midnight", "Touch of Evil" deals with loyalty and betrayal between friends. When his idolizing partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) rejects Quinlan for Vargas, Quinlan correctly feels betrayed by the one man he loves and trusts, and whose adoration he thrives on.
One of the best things about "Touch of Evil" is the strange, decaying atmosphere of its night city, a fictional space created by Welles out of bizarre locations in Venice, California. It is a weird world of flashing neon, tawdry hotels and night clubs, crumbling arches, peeling walls, twisting alleys, and everywhere, always, heaps of trash.
It was essential, therefore, that the accompanying music score by Henry Mancini to the movie not only complimented the action, but actually became part of the film itself. Indeed, Welles and Mancini inserted the music into the plot of the film by having the majority of the score emanate from a screen source, be it a jukebox, a loudspeaker, or a cheap radio. Welles knew the value of music in film, and decided that the music for this film would be different. "What we want is musical color," said Welles, "rather than movement--sustained washes of sound rather than tempestuous, melodramatic, or operatic style of scoring." Mancini delivered and then some. His music is uniformly strong and able to stand on its own merits away from the confines of 24 frames per second--an astounding feat considering the constraints given to Mancini by the director.
While "Touch of Evil" may not be as significant as "Citizen Kane", which taught other directors how to tell a story through film, and taught viewers how to watch and listen to a film and get the complete story, but it has imagery that is as startling as anything in "Kane", and identical themes, and is even more entertaining. In fact, it emerges as the most enjoyable of Welles's films. "Touch of Evil" is a masterpiece.