Is there a more unnerving film that "Touch of Evil", Orson Welles' final Hollywood film from 1958? If there is, I haven't seen it.
I re-watched the 1998 reconstruction by Walter Murch last night on DVD, and I have to say it's one of the most tense, unnerving and unsettling experiences I've ever had while watching a film. From the very first shot, when a ticking time-bomb is placed in the trunk of a car, to that final confrontation between Vargas and Quinlan by the bridge, every second of the film had my stomach in knots.
I won't write about the film's various technical achievements here, nor its "place" in the film noir canon (I'll leave that for another time). Instead, I want to focus on just why the film is so successful in creating a sense of very real panic and dread. The scenes with Janet Leigh in the motel room, owned by the family who her husband (Charlton Heston) is currently prosecuting, are even more unsettling for me than the similar scenes of Janet Leight in another motel room in Hitchcock's "Psycho". Even Dennis Weaver manages to deliver a somehow more maniacal, frightening performance for me that Anthony Perkins in the Hitchcock film. It is a tribute to Welles' talent that, even without aiming for pure "horror", he delivers a situation just as frightening as anything out of a horror film.
The most unsettling aspect might be the film's theme of betrayal, in which no one is safe from the corrupt hand of the law, personified by Welles' gross, bloated Quinlan. The one honest officer (Heston) sees his life, and that of his new wife, torn to shreds within a day of his involvement in the investigation that has led to the conflict.
"Touch of Evil" has gotten a mixed response, but it may be a case of a film that was ahead of its time in 1958, along with other masterworks by real film artists, including Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and Ford's "The Searchers", both films that somewhat confused audiences at the time by their self-reflexive nature and their somewhat unconventional approach to then-common generic conventions. Welles delivers a film noir that is so self-reflexive, and so conversant in all the conventions and expectations of that genre (while subverting them at the same time), that it effectively put an end to the "classic" noir period (although I would argue that it had been coming for some time, especially with the hyper-noirish films of the 50s such as Robert Aldrich's "Kiss Me Deadly"). Part of the film's unsettling nature may not come from the actual content at all, then, but from the assured mastery of Welles' technique in shattering our expectations of the genre.