Tag Archives: Charlton Heston

Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil 4
Touch of Evil

Format: Cinema

Release date: 10 July 2015

Distributor: BFI

Director: Orson Welles

Writer: Orson Welles

Based on Badge of Evil by: Whit Masterson

Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles

USA 1958

110 mins

Notoriety has long swirled around Touch of Evil, Orson Welles’s 1958 film noir, a box-office failure in the US that famously ended his Hollywood career. But it has since become much admired for its often emulated long take, which masterfully introduces us to the dusty town on the Mexican border in which the story is set.

In the dramatic opening scene, we see a bomb placed underneath a convertible, before the camera pulls away to soar over the streets of the town, following not only the movements of the car, but also the newlyweds whose lives are about to be derailed when the bomb explodes on the American side, killing a local construction magnate and a strip club dancer. The scene is beautifully orchestrated, with stunning sound design. Music pours out of the bars that the couple stroll past, the sound of guitars and jazz flowing into rock and roll, evoking the sultry, sweaty streets of the south, adding a risqué, decadent feel that is echoed throughout the film.

The murder pits two very different law enforcement officers against each other. Vargas (Charlton Heston) is the newly married, upstanding man who’s successfully targeted one of the biggest drug gangs in Mexico; Quinlan, overweight, dishevelled, puffy-eyed, is the revered cop who never fails to get his man, even if it means breaking the law, his convictions based ‘on intuition, rather than fact’. The murder victim is barely relevant to the unfolding plot; rather, the killing is the catalyst that turns the crime thriller into a dark, brooding meditation on good versus evil.

Caught in the middle is Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh), who becomes a victim of both Quinlan and the Mexican gang, who are now on the same side in their war against Vargas. The crime family is led by the unassuming, overweight Joe Gardi (Akim Tamaroff), who has a gang of young thugs in black leather jackets to carry out his dirty work. Susan starts out as a tough broad in pearls and cashmere sweater, but when they hound her in a deserted motel she’s no match for them. In a twisted party scene, the threat of sexual violence, with its racial undertones, pulsates to the sound of the rockabilly music piped through the motel.

Touch of Evil deserves to be watched multiple times, not for the story, but to absorb its brilliance and audacity. The cinematography is a work of art, a virtuoso example of the noir aesthetic, using angles and lighting to heighten the tension. Quinlan looms above the camera, the sweat on his meaty face almost palpable. In one shot his menacing shadow, thrown up against a wall, stalks Vargas as he walks away down a dark road. When Gardi meets his fate, the camerawork and editing are dizzying, the tension and drama escalated by the screeching jazz horns.

There are some weaknesses in the performances by Heston (ignoring the fact that he is, of course, not Mexican) and Leigh, though Marlene Dietrich as the fortune teller who predicts Quinlan’s demise is seductive as always. Joseph Calleia also deserves mention as the tragic sergeant devoted to Quinlan, who will later pay a horrible price. While there is undoubtedly a hint of the B-movie at times, it’s a masterpiece of the noir genre, one of the last true great films of that era, and a fantastic turn by Welles.

Creative control of the film was taken away from the director by Universal, who released a botched version of the film; after seeing it, Welles penned a 58-page memo detailing his desired changes. In 1998, it was re-cut by editor and sound designer Walter Murch, who tried to incorporate as many of Welles’s instructions as possible. It’s a thing of beauty.

Sarah Cronin

Watch the trailer:

Soylent Green

Soylent Green poster

Format: DVD

Release date: 29 September 2003

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Director: Richard Fleischer

Writer: Stanley R. Greenberg

Based on the novel by: Harry Harrison

Cast: Charlton Heston, Edward G. Robinson, Leigh Taylor-Young

USA 1973

97 mins

Richard Fleischer’s Soylent Green, a loose adaptation of Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, is a prescient eco-science-fiction drama that earned itself cult status among science fiction fans due to its ‘shock’ climax. Released in 1973, a year after Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull) and the closely aligned but largely forgotten Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth) (Michael Campus), Soylent Green fuses a noir-ish police procedural plot with a dystopian vision of a future world ravaged by dwindling resources, over-population, corporate corruption and environmental damage. After starring in Franklin J. Schaffner’s seminal Planet of the Apes (1968) and Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man (1971) Charlton Heston, the era’s go-to action hero, returned to the science fiction genre to star as Robert Thorn, a tough, cynical and deeply disillusioned detective in the decaying New York of 2022. Heston’s co-star Edward G. Robinson made his final screen appearance as Sol Roth, Thorn’s elderly apartment-sharing ‘book’ - a person employed to read the remaining archives of written material stored in the city to glean information of possible use in criminal investigations. Roth is the film’s heart and soul, his nostalgic yearnings for the pre-eco-meltdown world still act as a mindful warning to this day. With New York acting as a microcosm for the ills affecting the planet, Fleischer’s movie is of interest to contemporary viewers more for its enduring themes than for its actual entertainment value, as in the cold light of day it fails, much like Michael Anderson’s eco-science-fiction-based thriller Logan’s Run (1976), to fully deliver on its intriguing premise.

Soylent Green is not short on narrative ambition, its plot taking in corporate-sanctioned assassination, references to ‘the greenhouse effect’, food riots, a global conspiracy, racketeering, assisted suicides and an irreparable divide between the isolated rich and the teeming, poverty-stricken masses. The scarcity of food dominates proceedings, with the common citizens (a futuristic version of the Soviet-era proletariat) reduced to surviving on the Soylent Corporation’s range of processed foodstuffs, including the titular product that Thorn’s murder investigation uncovers horrific facts about. The fetishisation of actual food is seen in the reverential manner in which black market acquisitions (lettuce, apples, beef, brandy) are treated by Thorn and Roth during a sequence in which they sit down to a ‘dinner party’ amid the squalor and cramped conditions of their apartment. That those foodstuffs have been stolen without conscience by Thorn from the luxurious apartment of the dead businessman William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten), whose assassination is the catalyst for Thorn’s discoveries, highlights the levels of corruption and desperation running through this future society. The juxtaposition of poverty and wealth runs throughout the movie, the exclusive apartment complex (complete with concierge) stands in stark contrast to the sparse living conditions and homelessness seen elsewhere and has uncomfortable connotations, given the rise of gated communities and continued influence on political decisions wielded by big business in the modern world. It is in these comparative angles that Soylent Green has its strengths; never more so than in Sol’s assisted suicide at a government-run facility, echoes of which are felt in our society with the ongoing debate on the issue and Martin Amis’s calls for a euthanasia booth on every corner where people can end their lives with ‘a Martini and a medal’. Robinson’s death two weeks after shooting wrapped adds an extra level of poignancy to the sequence, which remains the stylistic highlight of the movie.

The role of women in Soylent Green‘s vision is limited to one of two choices - either a faceless, desperate existence among the masses, or a paid role as ‘furniture’ to a rich owner, a sub-plot that the screenplay touches on via Thorn’s affair (as much about the luxury of the apartment and the food) with Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), Simonson’s former live-in lover, who comes with the apartment. The film was released during the era of second-wave feminism and this aspect of the narrative would have struck a powerful chord with audiences. But due to the bland, lifeless performance delivered by Taylor-Young and the perfunctory nature of the sub-plot, subsumed as it is by the conspiracy at the heart of the movie, it’s an under-explored theme.

Despite its thematic relevance in the modern world, Soylent Green is only intermittently engaging and is an ultimately unsatisfactory experience, with its revelatory climax attempting, but failing to match the Statue of Liberty sequence in Planet of the Apes for shock value. The screenplay and pacing are leaden at times where a more upbeat tempo, punchier dialogue and a fuller exploration of the many narrative sub-strands could have placed the movie in genuine classic territory. The two big action sequences - a mass food riot and Thorn’s exploration of the Soylent ‘waste disposal’ plant - are adequate at best and while the scenes of over-population and squalor are relatively well-drawn the luxury dwellings, gadgets and fashions that surround the elite now look kitsch in the extreme. The outdated feel isn’t helped by an unmemorable soundtrack that veers between Americana folk and funk where it cries out for a throbbing, discordant blast of electronica to mirror and add another layer of gloom to the onscreen pessimism. As much as I generally loathe remakes, reboots and re-imaginings, Soylent Green is a film that, on paper at least, would benefit from just such an undertaking, in a manner similar to Nicholas Winding Refn’s proposed updating of Logan’s Run.

Neil Mitchell