Touch of Evil is a 1958 American crime thriller film, written, directed by, and co-starring Orson Welles. The screenplay was loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson. Along with Welles, the cast includes Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich.
Touch of Evil’, when it was released, it was a low key affair without much publicity in US despite the many stars in the cast. Though it had little commercial success in the US, (Welles himself claims the movie turned a good profit but other records dispute his claim.) it was well received in Europe, particularly by critics like future filmmaker François Truffaut.
Touch of Evil marks the end of classic Film Noir in the genre’s classic era (from the early 1940s until the late 1950s). It certainly marked the end of Welles’ Hollywood directing career. This movie had a wonderful opening sequence and frequently cited as a model of its kind.
In fact a fundamental part of a long tradition with its roots firmly planted in the very origins of cinema. This is a film with a fine pedigree and a complex production history, as with most of Orson Welles’ projects. It is also a fine example of the way this genius director could dynamically sum up the themes of a film in a succinct, flamboyant, truly unforgettable way.
The film opens with a three-minute, twenty-second tracking shot widely considered by critics as one of the greatest long takes in cinematic history. On the U.S.-Mexico border, a man plants a time bomb in a car. A man and woman enter the vehicle and make a slow journey through town to the U.S. border. Newlyweds Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) and Susie (Janet Leigh) pass the car several times on foot. The car crosses the border, and then explodes, killing the occupants.
Orson Welles made this movie after an absence of nearly ten years. Charlton Heston, the film’s star and a friend and supporter of Welles, dubbed it “The best B movie ever made”, but it’s much better and deeper than that suggests, and arguably it has been even more influential that Welles’ more celebrated Citizen Kane, especially in its stylistic flourishes such as its deep focus cinematography, overlapping dialogue and particularly in the dynamic quality of its extremely long takes. Between Citizen Kane in 1941 and Macbeth in 1948 Welles was able to complete six feature films, all characterized by the use of unusually long takes, deep focus cinematography, over lapping dialogue, dynamic tracking shots and intricate sound track. He then moved to Europe where he had to make do with far fewer resources than had been available to him in America, both financially and technically, and so adopted a whole new style of shooting. For what turned out to be his last chance at directing in Hollywood, Welles’ created a film that stands as the culmination of almost 20 years of bold experimentation within Hollywood Studio System, that most artistically conservative and timid of film-making communities.
This film is described as Film Noir due to its indistinct tone, dark, contrasting cinematography and for its crime story though it also has a strong expressionist and even a Gothic feel to it. It deals with the investigation launched by the DA Miguel ‘Mike’ Vargas (played by Charlton Heston in dark make-up) after a businessman is blown up in his car with a couple of sticks of dynamite. The car had just crossed the US-Mexico border (it is typical of the film’s ambiguous and ambivalent tone that for much of the time we are in fact quite unsure as to which side of the border we actually are on), which brings in the subordinate theme of race relations. This is further emphasized in that Vargas is a Mexican official who has just married Susan, a blonde and very gorgeous Janet Leigh. It eventually becomes clear that Sanchez, the man who has ‘confessed’ to the crime, has been framed by corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Welles), who then starts putting pressure on the DA and his new wife to halt the investigation. The abuse and kidnapping of the wife is quite outlandish and still very powerful, making for quite uncomfortable viewing as the poor woman is framed for possession of narcotics and terrorized by hoodlums in league with Quinlan.
Welles got the chance to direct after having already been offered the role of the corrupt cop. This came as a result of the successful relationship with producer Albert Zugmith on a previous Universal movie about race and corruption, Man in the Shadow (for more on that film, which incidentally shares a lot of thematic material with Touch of Evil, see the fine review over at Riding the High Country). One can in fact see traces of Welles’ previous work here, both from ‘Man in the Shadow’ & ‘The Stranger’, which also puts a wife between an investigator and his quarry and also deals with issues of racial hatred.
The film broke new ground beyond its surprising technique, in its search of racial tensions on the Mexican border and also features several eye-catching performances from the likes of Marlena Dietrich, who as Tana gets most of the quotable dialogue (she reads Quinlan’s fortune and tells him, “You’re future’s all used up”) and the famous “Some kind of man” last line, while Akim Tamiroff as the local gangster is both genuinely funny and truly creepy and gets one hell of a sendoff in a truly elaborate murder sequence. Then there is Dennis Weaver as the peculiar manager of a motel so seedy the Bates might want to take over. This is not a film for everyone, its genuinely dark and imprecise atmosphere, recreating Mexico in the Venice area of LA, conveying a heightened sense of jeopardy and sexual tension that very few films of the era can match. But it also has a lot of heart, though it is typical that the real love story, as explained in the concluding scene, is not between Vargas and his sexy new bride, but rather between the gross and corrupt Quinlan and his loyal colleague and best-friend Menzies, played beautifully by Joseph Calleia in a performance that should have got the Oscar that year (he didn’t even get a nomination). Strange are the nominations at times!!
Touch of Evil was supposed to be Welles’ triumphant return to Hollywood; it’s not just the camerawork that is amazing in Welles’ movies. He is a master of the entire medium; all the way down to directing actors. Heston may seem silly cast as a Mexican cop, but his performance is restrained, anxious, and proud possibly his best performance ever.
Henry Mancini’s music is another landmark- It’s sort of an afro-Latin rock. There are so many elements contribute to the general feel of the film, which is really like no other film ever made. Audiences in the 50’s and 60’s were probably frightened and confused by Touch of Evil, which, like all Welles films, was years ahead of its time. It’s an oddly quiet and sleepy, yet sinister movie. It keeps you in a haze, and then wakes you up suddenly when it feels like it. No one else came close to filmmaking like this. Maestro Alfred Hitchcock’s intensely psychological ‘Vertigo’ released the same year. While Vertigo would have reached abysmal depth into viewers psyche, Touch of Evil hypnotizes you in ways that Hitchcock couldn’t have imagined and the passing stroke of Welles shown so profound.
If Citizen Kane isn’t enough, Touch of Evil stands alongside it as a true testament to just how brilliant Welles really was. A triumph of Orson Welles is always underplayed and why Hollywood wouldn’t understand him………….
- Screenplay & Directed by Orson Welles
- Produced by Albert Zugsmith
- Based on the Novel by Whit Masterson
- Casting: Charlton Heston; Janet Leigh & Orson Welles
- Music by Henry Mancini
- Cinematography by Russell Metty, ASC
- Editing by Aaron Stell; Virgil Vogel & Walter Murch
- Distributed by Universal Pictures
- Release dates May 21, 1958
- Running time 1958 theatrical cut of 95 minutes; 1976 alternate version of 108 minutes & Restored cut of 112 minutes
- Country: United States
- Language: English