An automobile is blown up as it crosses the Mexican border into the United States. Mike Vargas, a high ranking Mexican narcotics official on honeymoon with his bride Susie is drawn into the investigation because a Mexican national has been accused of the crime. The figurative and physical presence of Hank Quinlan as the 330 pound sheriff looms all over. Quinlan is a fanatic where "justice" is concerned, even if obtaining it involves planting evidence. Quinlan's reputation for law and order enables him to bend the law without question until Vargas confronts him. From that point on, it's a battle of wits between the two that, with an accelerating pace, rushes to a thrilling climax.
Charlton Heston ... Ramon Miguel 'Mike' Vargas
Janet Leigh ... Susan 'Susie' Vargas
Orson Welles ... Police Captain Hank Quinlan
Joseph Calleia ... Police Sergeant Pete Menzies
Akim Tamiroff ... 'Uncle' Joe Grandi
Joanna Cook Moore ... Marcia Linnekar (as Joanna Moore)
Ray Collins ... District Attorney Adair
Dennis Weaver ... Mirador Motel night manager
Valentin de Vargas ... Pancho, Grandi hood (as Valentin De Vargas)
Mort Mills ... Al Schwartz, district attorney's assistant
Victor Millan ... Manelo Sanchez
Rather than films like Citizen Kane (1941) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947), neither of which am I a big fan of, Touch of Evil evidences director/writer/star Orson Welles' capacity for cinematic genius. The story is engaging, suspenseful, tight and well paced; the cinematography is consistently beautiful, inventive and symbolic; the setting and overall tone of the film, including the performances, are captivating, yet slightly surreal and otherworldly; and there are many interesting subtexts. This all combines to create a complex artwork that will reward however far a viewer wishes to dig into the film.
Based on a novel by Whit Masterson, Badge of Evil, Touch of Evil is a battle between two policemen--Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston). Parallel to this is a kind of border battle between the United States, represented by Quinlan, and Mexico, represented by Vargas; the film is set in two border towns, frequently crossing over.
As Touch of Evil opens, we see a bomb being placed in the trunk of a car in Mexico. A construction company owner, Mr. Linnekar, gets in with his girlfriend. Vargas and his new wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), manage to walk along next to the car--they're all crossing the border into the United States. Shortly after crossing, the bomb goes off. This brings the gruff Quinlan into the picture. His investigation of the bombing brings him into Mexico for suspects. Meanwhile, Vargas and his wife are being threatened by Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), a Mexican mob boss, and his underlings. Both Quinlan and Vargas are well respected in their countries, and both are used to getting what they want. But the bombing investigation ends up putting them at loggerheads, and Quinlan gradually turns out to have more than a "touch of evil".
As with many of his films, Orson Welles ended up having to battle the studio to realize his artistic vision. Usually, as here, the battle was unsuccessful for him. Despite his 58-page memo detailing various problems with Universal's non-director supervised reshoots (by Harry Keller) and re-edits, because they felt that Welles' final cut "could use some improvement", the film was released in a form that was not satisfactory to Welles. The fiasco has resulted in various versions of Touch of Evil appearing throughout the years. The 58-page memo was thought to have been lost, but a copy was discovered relatively recently in Charlton Heston's possession. The film was recut in 1998 based on Welles' memo. So make sure that you watch the 111-minute version first released by Universal on DVD in 2000.
The opening scene of Touch of Evil is famous, and rightfully so. Beginning with the timer being set on the bomb, then the bomb being placed in Linnekar's trunk before he gets into the car, we follow both the car and the relative ebb and flow of Vargases as they roughly walk alongside the car, all in one very long tracking shot that covers a lot of ground and features a lot of unusual angles. Welles stages the scene so that there are all kinds of complex background and foreground elements interacting with the car and our protagonist pedestrians. The suspense built up in this scene is incredible--you just know that bomb is going to go off, but you don't know just when, or who it is going to hurt. Compositionally, the scene is simply beautiful. The film is worth watching for this opening alone, but the whole of Touch of Evil features similar, meticulously planned artistry, filled with suspense.
Welles as an actor tends to have a very peculiar way of speaking that is full of affectations. Sometimes this can be a detriment to the film, as it was in The Lady from Shanghai. Here, though, the oddity works, and this despite the fact that, like Woody Allen, he seems to direct his whole cast to deliver their dialogue as if they were him. As a result, Touch of Evil has very peculiar, contrapuntal scenes where people frequently talk on top of one another, with odd phrasing. It works because of the particular kinds of personality conflicts that Welles set up in the script. These are people who frequently _would_ talk on top of each other and occasionally not pay attention to each other.
But that's not the only odd thing about the film. Welles managed to find locations that, shot in this highly stylized and cinematographically complex film-noir manner, seem almost otherworldly. Except for a couple expansive desert shots, Touch of Evil feels eerily claustrophobic, even though most locations aren't exactly enclosed. The various modes and settings are all perfect for their dramatic material, which is mostly dark and moody. One change that Universal made was the excision of a lot of comic relief material featuring the Grandi family. Universal was right to cut it, and wisely, Welles agreed.
The music in the film is also extremely effective but unusual. Most of it is incidental. Latin and rock 'n' roll emanates from radios, for example, and the climax intermittently has a repeating, contextually haunting theme from a pianola.
But of course the story is just as important. Although Welles stated hyperbolically at various points that he was trying to "infuriate" the audience with a somewhat inscrutable plot, and it's true that the plot isn't exactly given in a straightforward manner, once you figure out the gist, it's relatively simple but extremely captivating. At the same time, it is full of symbolism and subtexts, including commentary on justice systems and perhaps some irony about the popular conceptions of the U.S. versus Mexico (made more complex by the fact that Quinlan spends just as much time south of the border and Vargas seems to spend a lot of time north). But as for being annoyed, you're more likely to become infuriated with Quinlan, who becomes more and more deliciously despicable as the film unfolds.
There are only two ways to write a review that would truly do this film justice. Either one would have to write an exceedingly long review, or a short, concise one. I choose to do the latter.
When I first saw "Touch of Evil," I was glued to the chair. When I found out it was not Welles' definitive vision, I wondered how on earth it could have been made better. And when I saw the re-released version, I wondered why the studio altered it. The stunning black-and-white images, the intricate plot, and the powerful, engaging performances took a hold of my imagination. At times, I imagined myself on the street with the characters, because the atmosphere was so thick I felt surrounded in it.
The actors all did an outstanding job, especially Leigh and Heston (who, although not thoroughly convincing as a Mexican, soared above his usual powerful, furious presence). This is Welles' picture, however, and whenever the camera catches his obese figure, you are fully aware of the man as a director and an actor. His powerful vision drives the film, from the single-cut opening sequence to the cat-and-mouse finale.
I suggest watching the 1998 restored version over the original theatrical release, but regardless of which version, "Touch of Evil" will have you stuck in your seat, questioning your views of morality until long after the last credit has rolled up the screen.
Here is a film that wouldn't be made today because nobody makes 'B' movies anymore; and this is the greatest 'B' movie in the history of cinema. Here is the perfect example of why Orson Welles should be considered a genius. He has made this film look so effortlessly easy that it could almost be considered film making by numbers. From the famous opening sequence to the closing titles, this is the film students' reference book.
Welles portrayal of the bloated cop Hank Quinlan is only bettered by his Harry Lime in 'The Third Man'. He gets right inside the seedy, corrupt Quinlan; but still leaves room for just the lightest touch sympathy because we know that, after all, he's a fallible human like all of us. We almost feel sad at his fate especially when Marlene Dietrich gives her sad soliliquay about him.
This is another film that can only exist in black and white, and begs the question, why can't directors work effectively in this medium today? Some have tried but none have have really suceeded. David Lynch's Eraserhead is probably the best modern example of a black and white only film. Woody Allen's Manhattan tries hard but ends up looking too much like a documentary. I don't think that directors today use this medium enough, too many rely on colour and the efffects that can only work in colour to get them out of trouble.
So put A Touch Of Evil on your 'must see' list and enjoy a work of film making artistry.
There are several candidates for Welles greatest masterpiece - on odd days, this is mine; on even days I might choose The Magnificent Ambersons, Chimes at Midnight, Othello...
Welles took on this shlock noir potboiler adapted from Badge of Evil as a challenge, to prove that he could make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. His genius (so often frittered away in later years) is evident in every frame from the famous, dizzying virtuosity of the opening shot - the long tracking over crowds and streets to the no-man's-land of the Mexican border which seems to encompass all human life before exploding into the plot itself.
Welles own adaptation ditches Whit Masterson's simplistic good cop/bad cop dichotomy in favour of a swampland of moral relativism. His cop, Hank Quinlan (surely the template for M Emmet Walsh's character in Blood Simple) is gargantuan in his monstrosity, but Charlton Heston's Mike Vargas, for all his simpering goodness, is shallow, cold and deeply unlikeable and Janet Leigh is a cipher. Only Marlene Dietrich's whore-with-a-heart provides a tiny ember of compassion ("He was some kind of man, What does it matter what you say about people?").
Using the moral grey area of a border town, Welles' delves into the seamiest parts of life where everyone's future is "all used up". The pitch and tenor of the movie is really that of Shakespearean tragedy - Quinlan's tragedy - and the bleak humanity of the film is mesmerising. Even so - and even in the newly restored version which is as close to Welles intentions as we will ever get - one can't help feeling that Welles is trying to cram greatness into a plot that is too slight, too laboured.
For all its flaws (and it is a movie about human frailty) this is two hours of exquisite filmmaking, a masterpiece in a world that has cheapened the word
* Was screened at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, where judges (and then critics) Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut awarded it the top-prize. It was said the film was a great influence on starting Godard's and Truffaut's illustrious careers, both of whom within a year went on to make their first films À bout de souffle (1960) and Quatre cents coups, Les (1959), respectively.
* Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor share a title card ("Guest Starring Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor"). Gabor has a bit part; she is onscreen for twenty seconds at most. Dietrich has a pivotal role and appears in four crucial scenes including the finale.
* Orson Welles shot predominantly at night in order to fend off meddlesome studio suits.
* The nighttime filming of the long, single tracking shot opening sequence had many retakes. It took so long that the sequence used was the last chance that night; the first light of the breaking dawn is visible in the background.
* When Orson Welles discovered that his film was recut, he wrote a letter to the production house with specifics on how he would have wanted the film to be released. This memo, thought to be lost, was found to be in the possession of star Charlton Heston and was the basis for the re-edited 1998 re-release.
* Janet Leigh broke her left arm before filming commenced, but appeared nonetheless. The arm was in a cast, hidden from the camera, for many scenes. In the more revealing motel scenes, the cast was removed for filming, and re-applied afterwards.
* The film takes place in a fictional Mexican border town, Los Robles, but was filmed in Venice, California because the place looked convincingly run-down and decayed.
* Orson Welles was originally hired only to act in the film, but due to a misunderstanding, Charlton Heston understood that Welles was to be the director. To keep Heston happy, producer Albert Zugsmith allowed Welles to direct. Welles made major changes to the already-completed script, including changing Heston's character from a white district attorney to a Mexican narcotics agent, changing Janet Leigh's character from Mexican to American, and changing the setting of the movie from a small California town to a Mexican-American border town..
* At first, Orson Welles wanted nothing to do with the picture. He reluctantly agreed after a contract deal forced him to.
* Orson Welles was fired as director during post-production, and the film was recut contrary to his wishes. Before his death, he left instructions on how he wanted the film to be edited, and in 1998 a version was made the way he intended.
* Cameo: [Joseph Cotten]
* Cameo: [Mercedes McCambridge]
* ! The customs officer in the long opening shot, who converses briefly with Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, flubbed his lines several times. Eventually, director Orson Welles told him to simply mouth the words.
* The music used throughout the movie was from sound sources that pertained to the film: radio transmissions, jukeboxes, player piano.
* Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge, only appears in the film because she was having lunch with Orson Welles during filming and Welles convinced her to film a scene. Welles had her wear a leather jacket, he cut her hair himself and had her character say the sinister line, "I wanna watch."
* Scenes that the studio ordered to be retaken were not filmed by Orson Welles, but by Harry Keller. Charlton Heston at first refused to be filmed by anyone other than Welles and caused a delay of one day. He later reimbursed the studio $8,000 for the delay.
* While at Universal working on this film, Orson Welles picked up some extra work by doing the narration for the trailer for the science fiction classic The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957).
* Premiered as the second half of a double bill (hence its 'B' movie status) after main feature The Female Animal (1958) directed by Harry Keller, the same director hired to re-shoot parts of the film after Orson Welles was fired.
* Orson Welles wanted to shoot the film in Tijuana, Mexico, but the studio refused his request.
* The first scene filmed was the interrogation of Sanchez, under the watchful eye of Universal executives. Orson Welles did it quickly as proof he could make the film within the budget ($825,000) provided and with a 38-days shooting schedule. Joseph Cotten said in an interview, the final cost was $900,000 and it was completed in 39 days.
* Orson Welles wanted the credits to appear at the end of the film so as not to distract the audience from the long (and famous) initial tracking shot. He finally got his wish with the 1998 alternate version, dubbed 'the directors's cut'.
* The film was a box office failure in the U.S. in 1958, but was well received in Europe.
* The 1975 alternate version added more than 15 minutes of footage and removed most (if not all) of the footage reshot by Harry Keller in 1957, after Orson Welles was fired.
* After filming was completed, Orson Welles left to go to Mexico to continue filming his version of "Don Quixote". It was during this time that Universal asked for cuts, and since he wasn't around, they began cutting it themselves.
* There has been much debate over the aspect ratio of the 1998 re-release. Apparently Orson Welles wanted to shoot the movie in widescreen, but Universal ordered him to film it in full screen. When the film was restored, the production team offered to do the restorations in full screen, but Universal had them release it in widescreen, which the DVD is. However, TV viewings in full screen help viewers see the full framing that Welles clearly intended for the picture.
* The 1998 restoration was supposed to premiere at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. However, the day before the premiere, the showing was canceled by Beatrice Welles, Orson Welles's daughter who has a long history of interfering with showings of her father's work through threats of litigation.
* The restored DVD was to have included a commentary as well as a documentary on the film and restoration titled Restoring Evil. Both of their inclusions on the DVD were stopped by Orson Welles's daughter, Beatrice Welles.
* Despite popular speculation, Orson Welles is wearing make-up throughout the film. For hours every night, they'd add pounds and pounds onto him, and use prosthetics for his face. He once said that he was late going to a dinner party at his house during the filming, and arrived with his make-up still on. A famous actress approached him when he entered and in all seriousness said: "Orson! You look wonderful!"
* Interviews with Orson Welles in his later years noted that the majority of footage that was cut out of his original version were around 20 minutes of humorous scenes involving the Grandi family, adding a light-hearted approach to the picture. However, despite the numerous changes, he was somewhat pleased with the way it was re-cut as a darker picture. His 58-page memo aimed to keep the film bleak, and didn't try to include these scenes, happy enough with the transitions that Harry Keller filmed.
* Orson Welles initially despised the title "Touch of Evil", having had nothing to do with its conception. Over the years, however, he grew to like it, and eventually considered it the best title out of all his films.
* Orson Welles claimed to have only seen this film once, at the one screening that the studio provided prior to his writing of the memo.
* The role of the motel night manager was written specifically for Dennis Weaver, because Welles admired his work on "Gunsmoke" (1955) and wanted to work with him.
* Orson Welles was initially offered to only act in the film, but when Charlton Heston demanded that Welles direct, the studios offered him the director's chair as long as he wouldn't get paid for the writing or directing, only for his original salary as an actor.
* Orson Welles claimed to have only read "Badge of Evil" by Whit Masterson, the novel on which the film was based, after he completed the film. He based his rewrite of the screenplay upon Paul Monash's initial treatment.
* The entire film was shot on real locations, apart from the infamous ten-minute take in the Mexican shoe store clerk's apartment, which is actually a set. The studio wanted the entire film to be shot on sets, even going so far as to build numerous locations on its lots, but Orson Welles insisted on filming in a real city, settling for Venice, California, when he couldn't get his initial choice of Tijuana.
* Orson Welles was said to have based the drug scenes on his own experiences, with the Grandi kids' use of marijuana symbolizing his own indifference towards the legality of the drug, and the violent use of heroin representing his feeling that anything harder than that was just "suicide", as he once put it.
* Orson Welles said that this was the most fun he'd ever had filming a picture, unlike most of his Hollywood films, because he wasn't troubled by studio interference (until after he completed the picture, anyway), he was given a healthy budget and he was working with a crew of some of his favorite actors on a script that didn't involve as much symbolism and all-out cinematic tricks as something like Citizen Kane (1941).
* Orson Welles dubbed Joseph Cotten's line, "Now you can strain him through a sieve."
* The opening scene took an entire night to get right, mainly because the actor playing the customs officer kept blowing his lines. It was beginning to get light on the horizon when Orson Welles made the final take of the night, saying to the cast, "All right, let's try it one more time." Then he looked at the actor and said, "If you forget your line this time, just move your lips and we'll dub it in later, but please God do NOT say, 'I'm sorry, Mr. Welles!'" This is the take seen in the film.
* Executives from Universal Pictures only found out that Marlene Dietrich was playing Tanya when they saw the rushes for that day's shooting; she had filmed her part in one day as a personal favor to Orson Welles and he had not told anyone about it. She agreed to appear at minimum union wage, but when the studio execs decided to give her on-screen credit, they had to pay her more.
* Orson Welles stated that his goal with the film was to infuriate the audience with the plot, in much the same way that Howard Hawks did with The Big Sleep (1946). The story became even more confusing once the studio re-cut the picture.
* Orson Welles originally wanted Lloyd Bridges in the role of "Menzies". The studio refused, and instead cast veteran actor Joseph Calleia. Welles was pleased with this new choice, because he had seen Calleia on stage as a child and thought he was very talented.
* In the movie Ed Wood (1994), the Orson Welles character complains to the Ed Wood character about administrative meddling in a director's artistic vision: "I'm supposed to do a thriller with Universal, but they want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican," referring to this film (in reality, Heston's character was originally supposed to be white; it was Welles himself who changed it to a Mexican). Wood also tells Welles, "I've even had producers re-cut my films," a significant issue, as it turned out, for Welles with this film.
* According to Orson Welles, Universal didn't want the film to be screened at the Brussels World's Fair, but the head of distribution had such faith in the film that he submitted it without the studio's knowledge. He was subsequently fired once it was awarded the top prize.
* Janet Leigh's agent initially rejected her participation in this film due to the low salary offered without even consulting the actress. Orson Welles, anticipating this, sent a personal letter to the actress, telling her how much he looked forward to their working together. Leigh, furious, confronted her agent telling him that getting directed by Orson Welles was more important than any paycheck.