Mise en scene takes into consideration the entire composition of a shot; from costuming to lighting to location to characters, mise en scene is a vital component of the cinema. Orson Welles, as the director of Touch of Evil, shows a masterful grasp of mise en scene through his cast of characters. This 1958 film noir movie is a cult classic for young and old alike, due in part to the strength of the four leading roles: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, and Orson Welles himself. Alongside these roles are cameos by Marlene Deitrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Mercedes McCambridge, whose presence lends validity and weight to the movie.
Touch of Evil is a story that takes place on the border between Mexico and Texas. Charlton Heston plays the part of Mike Vargas, a narcotics cop and an influential man in the Mexican government. Cast to type, this role of a upright man fighting for justice seems to be exactly the sort of role Heston was good at playing. Most well known for his depictions of Moses and Ben-Hur, Heston is young, good-looking, has a deep voice, and audiences love him. Mike Vargas is a good cop, a cop who plays by the rulebook, granting suspects the benefit of the doubt, as he does with the young shoe clerk who has killed a man. He has a noble sense of duty on the job that interrupts his duties to his wife. He is patient, well thought out, articulate, but not without fatal flaws. He is completely blind to the struggles and circumstances of his wife—as when she is naked and drugged on the fire escape, violent when enraged—beating up the Grandi boys in the bar, and he uses Menzies to betray Quinlen. The audience is on his side from the beginning of the movie when the opening shot shows him walking confidently across the border with his beautiful bride, Susan. But, by the end of the movie, the audience is doubtful about his judgment as a cop and his ability to protect his wife.
Janet Leigh, also cast to type, plays the blonde and busty leading lady. She shows a feisty attitude that is hard to break. She trades sass in her opening interactions with the border patrol, she is tough and confident in her first encounter with the Grandi family, and she is defiant in the hotel room when the Grandi boys are shining a flashlight on her. But, like the classic leading lady, she unknowingly walks into danger and must be rescued. In this movie, her redemption almost doesn’t happen as her husband ignores her. Susan goes from an independent, unafraid woman to a terrorized woman who has been through a hellish ordeal. Leigh shows a wonderful range of emotion and the audience is on her side from start to finish, though they may question her judgment as she stays in the path of danger. Young, beautiful, and sexy, Leigh made her mark on Hollywood with thriller movies like Touch of Evil and Psycho.
Joseph Calleia seems to be the perfect sidekick—unassuming, loyal, and comical. Although playing the role of Sgt. Menzies, the bumbling sidekick of Hank Quenlin, Calleia brings a depth to the part that is sincere and believable. His is a pivotal part of the film. Indebted to Quenlin for saving his life, Menzies does not see the corruption that has seeped into his partner’s work. When, at the end of the film, he is required to betray and even kill his beloved partner, he shows he is equal to the task. The audience feels for him throughout his friendship with Quenlin and truly mourns his death.
Orson Welles is well known in Hollywood for his movies that are edgy and innovative. Not cast exactly to type, the part of corrupt cop, Hank Quenlin, is not a stretch for him as an actor. Padded to look grossly overweight, Welles lumbers around the film casting his shadow over everything. Unable to identify immediately with the unkempt and slovenly character of Quenlin, the audience is suspicious of him. He is an alcoholic, emotionally unstable, and plants evidence to convict suspects. However, with the aid of his game leg, he is proved right in his convictions. He has a philosophy of ‘justice by whatever means necessary’ to get the criminals off the street and at the end of the film, the audience is torn. This is a man with good intentions, but who uses the wrong methods to achieve his end.
Without being able to say definitively that these actors were consciously using Method techniques in their acting, it is clear that the emotion and sincerity that they bring to their roles comes from deep inside of them. Joseph Calleia may be the only one that could be said to be a character actor, supporting and bracing up countless movies in his career. Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh may be called movie stars in their own right and Orson Welles is famous not only for his work as an actor, but also as a director.
The character aspect of mise en scene in Touch of Evil shows the importance of having good actors. They carry the story, create empathy, and provide a platform of plausibility for the audience. Mr. Welles gathers an effective crew that keeps Touch of Evil on the top of must-see lists around the world.