Wednesday, April 7, 2010

#18: Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

Released: May 21, 1958

Director: Orson Welles; Screenplay: Orson Welles based on the novel “Badge of Evil” by Whit Masterson; Cinematography: Russell Metty; Music: Henry Mancini; Producer: Albert Zugsmith; Studio: Universal International

Charlton Heston (Ramon Miguel Vargas), Janet Leigh (Susan Vargas), Orson Welles (Hank Quinlan), Joseph Calleia (Pete Menzies), Akim Tamiroff (Uncle Joe Grande), Joanna Cook Moore (Marcia Linnekar), Ray Collins (District Attorney Adair), Dennis Weaver (Night Manager), Val de Vargas (Pancho), Mort Mills (Al Schwartz), Victor Millan (Manolo Sanchez), Lalo Rios (Risto), Phil Harvey (Blaine), Joi Lansing (Blonde), Harry Shannon (Gould), Rusty Wescoatt (Casey), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Strip Club Owner), Marlene Dietrich (Tanya), Joseph Cotten (Detective)

Let’s get the bad out of the way right up front – I still cannot believe that Universal decided to cast Charlton Heston in the role of a Mexican detective. It makes no sense to me and seems like a completely unnecessary distraction. Now, with that being said, there was a time, very early in my noir obsession, where Touch of Evil would have contended for the top spot in a list of this sort. After watching it for the first time I came away convinced that not only was this one of the handful of best noirs of all time, but that it was undoubtedly the best film that Orson Welles ever made, above even the more critically-acclaimed Citizen Kane. This initial reaction, at least in terms of placement in Welles’ overall body of work, was probably more a result of responding better to crime thrillers like this than the straight drama of Kane. I’ve since amended my view somewhat – I now conform to the general opinion that Kaneis not only his greatest film, but his best – but in terms of noir rankings, my initial assessment wasn’t far off. It is lower on the list than it once was, but this is due to becoming familiar with other great noirs, not losing my love for Touch of Evil.

The story jumps all over the place, and if it is not as compelling as the actual moviemaking, it is at least entertaining. When an American millionaire is blown up crossing the border back into the United States from Mexico, an immediate full-scale investigation is launched. The American authorities, led by the legendary Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), are in charge of the investigation, but since the bomb was planted in the car on Mexican soil he is forced to work with Mexican detective Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston). What would normally be routine inter-agency cooperation is complicated due to Quinlan’s unmitigated bigotry, as he detests all things Mexican. Vargas’ concentration is tested by the fact that members of the infamous Grande family, whom he is prosecuting on drug charges, are harassing his wife (Janet Leigh) in hopes of intimidating Vargas to drop the case. Vargas is forced to try and protect his wife from the Grandes on one hand, while at the same time try and keep Quinlan from framing innocent citizens in the bombing case.

Touch of Evil was Welles’ first return to Hollywood filmmaking in a decade, after having spent that time working in Europe. The circumstances concerning how he came to be hired to direct the film have never been completely clarified, but legend has it that he was originally hired just to play the role of Hank Quinlan. Universal had already zeroed in on Charlton Heston to play the lead (again, for some completely unfathomable reason), but he was wary of committing to a project without knowing who would be directing. When he learned that Welles had been hired as an actor, Heston told Universal that he would sign on if they also allowed Orson to direct. Universal complied, agreeing to allow Welles to rework the script and then lead the project. The irony of it all is that Welles returned to Hollywood and ran into the same problems that he experienced during his initial run in Tinseltown. After wrapping production, Welles delivered a cut to Universal that he felt was strong enough to resurrect his career in the States. As happened with almost every film he ever made, though, the studio disagreed. Universal decided – supposedly without the knowledge of Welles himself – to reedit and re-shoot parts of the film, trimming it to just over 90 minutes. When Welles saw the hacked Universal product he was distraught, firing off a 58-page memo to the studio heads in which he outlined the changes he thought needed to be made to the film. Universal ignored nearly all of the suggestions, released the movie in its bastardized form, and it promptly floundered. Thankfully, that memo and a longer cut were rediscovered decades later and were used to produce the “restored version” that is now accepted as the closest to Welles’ vision.

Would it have been too cliché to have begun this review talking about the famed three-minute tracking shot that opens the film? I thought so, so I purposely waiting until now. There is no denying its brilliance. What strikes me about it is the impeccable decision making by Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty. We see the bomb loaded into the trunk of the car and then see it pull out and begin driving toward the border. But the camera does not simply trail the car, watching it the whole way. Welles lets it move like normal, slowing down and speeding up as it moves through traffic. At times, the car goes completely off-screen, as the camera focuses on the Vargas couple walking in the same direction. The car is then picked up and lost a few more times along the way, but it can be identified when it comes into view thanks to the distinctive music coming from the radio. The whole thing is pulled off in such a carefree manner. It is the crowning achievement of an all-around technical masterpiece. Welles and Metty are brilliant throughout, throwing dark (and I mean dark) shadows over everything. They even venture into psychedelic territory with hallucinatory sequences involving Vargas’ wife and the Grandes.

It also features what I view as Welles’ best acting performance. His Hank Quinlan is unforgettable, as is this butchered maseterwork that has thankfully been restored (at least as near as possible) to the original vision of a genius.


  1. Dave,

    This is undoubtedly a good film (for some reason I wouldn't have put it in the Noir pigeon-hole) and second to F for Fake in my estimation of Welles' films.

    I feel that its sweaty claustrophobia is a touch overplayed at times but Welles is very good and the character's weaknesses and strengths compelling. You care more for Quinlan than for the stuffed shirt Vargas, no matter their methods.

    Welles' style here is more suited to his material but I actually feel that the story is more interesting than the moviemaking, more interesting than the other stories he filmed.

    Also, his meeting with Dietrich's character is fantastic - they communicate so much history with so little effort. Magnetic charisma.

  2. Stephen - Interesting that you wouldn't classify this as noir, as I've never seen anyone who _didn't_ recognize it as one. It is universally recognized as the being one of the final films of the "classic noir cycle." I don't think it's pigeonholing it, just classifying it with some relatively similar films. You're spot on about caring more for Quinlan - even if you don't necessarily like him - than Vargas and it's a wonderful performance from Welles.

  3. Dave, no complaint at all from me on this one! It's definitely one of the most impressive noirs I've ever seen. And as with anything Welles directed, some of it is just mind-blowingly masterful.

    I also wanted to praise Henry Mancini's work in this one. It's a very powerful score for me.

    Great post and great pick, Dave!

  4. Jeffrey - Yes, Mancini's work! I often don't praise scores enough (I'm always so busy trying to condense my feelings on other topics into these extended capsules). But Mancini's work here is terrific and perfectly suits the film. Wonderful contribution here, Jeffrey.

  5. My favorite Welles film. I don't have a problem with Heston playing a Mexican. I guess I'm able to overlook it. This would make my top 10. Mancini's score really is wonderful. Similar to the Lang entry, here are my 5 favorite Welles directed movies......M.Roca
    1. Touch Of Evil
    2. Citizen Kane
    3. The Lady From Shanghai
    4. The Magnificent Ambersons
    5. The Trial

  6. It's close Dave between his Hank Quinlan and his Harry Lime as Welles' best performance, but I can't blame you for going for the the longer stint. And yes, this is universally recognized as a signature noir, rarely finishing any lower than a top etchelon of the form. I second Jeffrey's affinity for the Mancini score (another justly famous contribution) and certainly that famous traching shot that opens the film is as celebrated as the opening of Vidor's THE CROWD and Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS.

    But I am grateful for the "re-assessment" with KANE, Dave! LOL!, although still respecting the towering reputation the film has maintained for decades. Russell Metty's work is fantastic of course, helping Welles to negotiate one of teh sleaziest stories imaginable with consumate artistry.

    Another essay of scope, authority and the personal touch.

  7. Even in the chopped up version that was the only one available for so many years this is a great film with the exception of Moses as a Mexican. I never cared much for Heston as an actor but this was truly bizarro casting by Universal. A low budget production, the producer and sometime director, Albert Zugsmith made a career of mostly 2nd feature fillers of varying quality like "The Incredible Shrinking Man", "High School Confidential ", "Sex Kittens Go to College" and "The Private Lives of Adam and Eve." He occasionally produced an "A" film like Sirks' Written in the Wind."
    Agree that this is one of Welles best performances, and Janet Leigh does well here too.

  8. I'll join you Maurizio!

    1. Citizen Kane
    2. Chimes at Midnight
    3. The Magnificent Ambersons
    4. Macbeth
    5. Touch of Evil

  9. A great movie. Orson is a genius for all ages. And I like Chuck Heston, here too. Bad taste, I know, but still...

  10. I'll join in the Orson fun too!

    1. Citizen Kane
    2. Touch of Evil
    3. Chimes at Midnight
    4. The Lady from Shanghai
    5. The Magnificent Ambersons

  11. Regarding Welles' filmography, there's Chimes At Midnight and then there's everything else.

    Tom Waits did an interview with some Canadian radio show a couple months back, and during it he kept repeating "He was some kind of maaaaan" over and over with that growl. It was hilarious. He also said something really interesting about the film. He described Dennis Weaver clinging to the tree and yelling "I'm not the night man," and then you fast forward to the end and Dietrich is saying "He was some kind of man," I never thought about that but it's very interesting.

    What I find most fascinating about Touch Of Evil is how Welles never tips his hand; it's never really clear how straight he's playing it, or how much, if any of it, is intended as satirical. It's a great film.

  12. Superb review, Dave!!!

    This is a brilliant movie, and has the eccentric filmmaker at his best. In fact he did a terrific job in front of the camera too as the grotesque and unbelievably corrupt cop. And yes, I too agree that Charlton Heston was the weakest link in the film.

    1. Citizen Kane
    2. Othello
    3. Touch of Evil
    4. Mr. Arkadin
    5. Lady from Shanghai

    I recently read Orson Welles versus the Hollywood Studio System by Clinton Heylin and would recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Orson Welles intentions and studio struggles. You do a good job of summarizing the fiasco (and with Welles there was always a fiasco). Once Welles did Othello, he started doing his own editing and loved doing it; the only problem is it took him forever or he woudl but heads with whoever was hired to edit for him. To him editing was like music; it had its own rhythm, pacing, etc. The inability to be efficient in editing is one of the reasons he has so many unfinished projects though. He finished Touch of Evil's shooting schedule on time and within budget (nearly a first for him in Hollywood), but if I remember he was firing editors he didn't like and taking forever to get the real movie fully edited to his liking. I don't remember if he ever did put out a 'finished' copy or not; I'm thinking he got removed and someone else finished it for him.

    The current copy that Jonathon Rosenbaum worked on was essentially Welles notes he gave to the studio in a last attempt to work with the them to fix the film that they had jigsaw'd together... as you mentioned above. Once again we have to wonder what could have been if Welles did finish the movie himself.

    Still we are left with a great movie. Hank Quinlan is one of the most interesting characters Welles created. He is a crooked man who thinks that by skirting past the law, he is executing it in a more efficient way. And in nearly every case he is right. But along comes a lawyer who digs deeper into his past and begins unraveling a pretty ugly story.

  14. Chimes At Midnight is a glaring omission in my top 5 because I have never seen it!! I have seen every Welles film until The Trial but have not seen anything he directed after. I watched about 10 minutes on YouTube but I rather save a first time viewing of a great film in a more conventional format........M.Roca

  15. M.Roca - You've kicked off a great Welles firestorm! Top 10 in all of noir for this one is certainly understandable.

    Sam - Agreed on my favorite Welles performances. He's not on-screen for very long as Harry Lime, but he's so electric when he makes his appearances that it is unforgettable. But, we'll do with that in the near future.... LOL

    John - Agree on every point. I haven't seen the original version actually, but it's interesting to hear that even in that compromised version you were able to see the greatness.

    Quirky Character - Not bad taste - I think Heston does well in the role. I just don't buy him as a Mexican detective. His actual performance, I thin, is actually pretty good.

    Doniphon - The more I watch Chimes at Midnight, the closer I am moving toward this point of view. I wouldn't quite go as far as you have, but I definitely understand where you are coming from. I agree with you on the fine line that Welles walks with his performance.

    Shubhajit - Thanks for the compliments, glad to hear that this is a favorite of yours as well.

    Tom - Hall of Fame comment here! Your ranking also makes me realize that I have to see Welles' Othello ASAP. Your contribution here on the saga of Touch of Evil is spectacular, thanks for jumping into the fray here.

    M.Roca - Check, that's where I got my copy at a decent price.

  16. Sorry I'm late, but I'll start with the ranking:

    1. Magnificent Ambersons (averaging the great film that exists and the even greater that is lost)

    2. Citizen Kane
    3. Touch of Evil
    4. F for Fake
    5. The Trial

    As for Touch, I also have no problem with Heston, though had the film been made maybe a decade earlier Pedro Armandariz would probably have been the perfect casting. As usual, I find Welles the actor to be the weak link and Quinlan possibly his most overrated performance. But that doesn't really hurt the film, since Welles surrounded himself with a great ensemble and directed them brilliantly. And since I'd put Touch safely within my own top ten of noirs, I don't really think his acting was that bad.

  17. One of my all time favourite movies.

    Of course,it was a flop in 1958, don't forget this was the time of "Dragnet" and "M Squad".
    Police officers simply did not frame criminal suspects....

    Even after fifty years, nobody has touched the opening moments of the film apart from "A Matter Of Life And Death".

    It became the template for "The Shield" and James Ellroy's brilliant "LA Quartet",amongst others.

    A marvellous review.

  18. Touch of Evil has a complicated plot. It spends much time on exposition, but never feels slow. The film opens while following several different story threads, but streamlines into one in the second half of the movie.

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