Touch of Evil


Rating *5*

Directed by Orson Welles

Written by Orson Welles, Paul Monash (additional scenes – uncredited), Franklin Coen (contributing writer, reshoots – uncredited), based on the novel ‘Badge of Evil’ by Whit Masterson (pseudonym of Robert Allison Wade and H Bill Miller)

Starring 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), Ray Collins (District Attorney Adair), Harry Gould (Police Chief Pete Gould), Mort Mills (Al Schartz), Joanna Cook Moore (Marcia Linnekar), Victor Millan (Manolo Sanchez), Val de Vargas (Pancho), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Strip-club owner), Dennis Weaver (Night Manager) and Marlene Dietrich (Tana)

In the hellish town of Los Robles that straddles the Mexican/US border a local construction tycoon and his companion are killed by a bomb just moments after their car has crossed the border onto American soil. Mike Vargas, who is heading up a Pan-American Narcotics Commission that has recently led to the arrest of the head of the notorious Grandi family, is on the scene and witnesses the explosion. He offers his services to the local police, but the lead detective Hank Quinlan is openly antagonistic towards him from the start. When the case is quickly solved, Vargas is convinced that Quinlan has planted evidence and sets out to prove his suspicions. In the meantime, Uncle Joe, the acting head of the Grandi family, seeks revenge against Vargas by targeting his new wife Susie.


The popular story surrounding the making of ‘Touch of Evil’ has it that Orson Welles was hired in a supporting acting role when the film was in pre-production. Charlton Heston, who Universal Pictures wanted for the lead role, only agreed to take it if Welles was signed on to direct, at which point Welles insisted on re-writing the script, based on a pulp novel called ‘Badge of Evil’, first published in 1956. Welles greatly increased his own role in the film. An alternative story suggests that given the opportunity to direct his first American film in ten years by the producer Albert Zugsmith, Welles choose the worst script from those he was given, rewriting it to prove that he could produce a great film from bad source material.

Whatever the true story may be, the studio did not like the rough cut Welles gave to them and demanded reshoots and extra scenes. Welles always claimed this was done without his consent and involvement, although the studio counter-claimed that he simply ignored their communiqués to him. When the eventual 1958 93-minute theatrical cut was eventually cobbled together Welles sent a lengthy memo to the studio asking to be allowed to re-edit the film, setting out in detail what he planned to do. His request was either refused or ignored and the story became another sorry chapter in his fraught relationship with Hollywood. ‘Touch of Evil’ was to be the last American film he directed.

In the mid-1970s Universal Pictures discovered a 108-minute cut of the film in their vaults and released it, claiming it to be the original Orson Welles version, although it was actually no such thing. That cut no longer exists. In 1988 a new cut was assembled from all the existing stock still available, using the 56-page memo Welles had written in 1958 for guidance. This version is as close as it is possible to get to how Welles originally intended the film and is the one now available.

‘Touch of Evil’ is a masterpiece, from the legendary opening three-and-a-half minute single tracking shot onwards. It contains all of the visual imagery and interweaving storylines that had made Welles so famous in the first place at the time of his debut film ‘Citizen Kane’ in 1941. Shot in black and white, the film is visually stunning in places, making outstanding use of the setting and utilising constantly arresting camera angles and shifting shadows. Welles also gives a tour-de-force performance as Hank Quinlan, the police detective gone to seed, a huge lumbering malevolent figure inexorably hurtling towards his own inevitable doom.

It has been suggested that the scenes that take place at the desert motel featuring a young Dennis Weaver as the unbalanced and disconcerting night clerk influenced ‘Psycho’, the classic and controversial Alfred Hitchcock film released two year later, although I don’t know if there is any truth to this rumour. Janet Leigh, the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis, starred in both films.

Charlton Heston is clearly miscast in the lead role as a Mexican government official, but he still does a competent job. In the end, none of that matters. It is Welles who bestrides the film like a colossus, sweeping aside everyone else in his wake. The film also gave Marlene Dietrich one final memorable role and Joseph Cotton, a long-time collaborator of Welles, dating back to the Mercury Theatre Company in the 1930s, makes a brief appearance as a police detective.

‘Touch of Evil’ is one of the 525 films preserved (as of 2009) in the National Film Registry in the Library of Congress.

Review posted 1 January 2010


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