Film Review: Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil is considered one of the best Film Noir of all time, for a lot of reasons – from the very gritty narrative with a driving thrust based around police corruption and racism, to a protagonist being a more upstanding police detective who as the film goes on becomes more morally compromised. However, it has its issues as a film.

First off – it bears mentioning that the film is pretty freaking whitewashed. Charlton Heston, who couldn’t be more of a WASP if you gave him a stinger and a King James bible, plays Mexican police detective Miguel Vargas. Vargas has just married American Susan (Janet Leigh), and are staying in a border town on their honeymoon before the two return to Mexico City for the trial of a drug kingpin.

However, when a car bomb planted on the Mexican side of the border kills a mine owner and his mistress on the American side of the border, Vargas gets caught up in the investigation. This gets more complicated when he learns that the American lead investigator, Hank Quinlan (played by Welles himself) is absolutely corrupt, and very bigoted against Mexicans like Vargas. Meanwhile, Joe Grandi, the brother of the kingpin that is due for trial and who has taken over operations, sees and opportunity to get Vargas out of the way and tries to cut a deal with Vargas.

That description should make clear that the plot of this film has aged incredibly well. Like, you could re-cast this film with Hispanic actors, and remake it now with some tweaks to the dialog and the plot would still work. That said, the film’s casting gets rough. Pretty much every Hispanic role in this film is played by a white person, and while I’ve definitely seen worse whitewashing (looking at you The Conqueror), it’s one of those things where it affects who I recommend the film to.

This movie is gorgeously shot, with one of the best one-shot sequences in cinema – one which is designed in a way to steadily build tension in a manner that I’d compare to the cafe scene from Battle of Algiers. However, while Heston certainly works to put in a good performance, he just doesn’t work as a Mexican character. This is something that films in the ’80s and ’90s called out. Even if you don’t find it offensive, it does bounce you out of the movie.

That said, it’s a very well put together movie, and is definitely worth your time – and I think that this is a film that can be remade, either in the same time period, or even in the present day and still work – provided the director actually casts some Hispanic actors this time.

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