1958 / 111 min / b/w
Dir. Orson Welles / Scr. Orson Welles / Cine. Russell Metty
Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles
Streaming access courtesy of Swank
Attendees can stream Touch of Evil for free over two days as part of the Dr. Saul and Dorothy Kit Film Noir Festival. The viewing window for this film begins Saturday, March 20 at 12am ET and ends Monday, March 22 at 12am ET. Click “Tickets” to register and receive a confirmation email, which will include the link and password to the film. You will receive a reminder email when the film's streaming window begins.
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“All border towns bring out the worst in a country,” mutters Miguel “Mike” Vargas, a Mexican narcotics agent bizarrely played in brownface by Charlton Heston, in Orson Welles’ ferocious eighth feature, Touch of Evil. The border is a site where cultures commingle, either in harmony or in dissonance; Touch of Evil offers no shortage of the latter. Often cited as the “last” classic film noir, it ends the canon on an experimental, nasty note. The film’s visual and sonic bravura continues to astonish and influence filmmakers, as does its profuse cynicism. If The Maltese Falcon set the noir train into motion in 1941, Welles here sends it careening off the tracks with this tale of border violence and police corruption.
Touch of Evil has provoked debate within a wide range of academic circles since its release. One can trace a rudimentary history of film theory through its scholarly discussion, from André Bazin’s Orson Welles: A Critical View (1958) to Stephen Heath’s “Film and System” essays (1975) to Kaja Silverman’s The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (1988). Of particular relevance here, however, is Homi K. Bhabha’s landmark essay in postcolonial theory, “The Other Question” (1988), which used Welles’ representation of the border as a springboard for rethinking the function of racial stereotypes in colonial discourse. Touch of Evil’s “chiaroscuro world of racial and sexual difference,” Bhabha argued there, reveals the racial stereotype not as something “fixed,” but as an “ambivalent text” that resists what recent U.S. immigration policy has sought: closure.
“You know what’s wrong with you?” one character asks early in the film. “You’ve been seeing too many gangster movies!” The same could be said of most mid-century filmgoers. Welles, nearly unrecognizable as the repellent Captain Quinlan, here delivers a noir like no one had seen in 1958, signaling a paradigm shift for this most American of film movements.