Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
Touch of Evil (1958)
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Background

Touch of Evil (1958) is a great American film noir crime thriller, dark mystery, and cult classic - another technical masterpiece from writer-director-actor Orson Welles. It was Orson Welles' fifth Hollywood film - and it was his last American film. Touch of Evil was the last great film noir during the so-called 'classic' era of noirs, from the early 1940s to the late 1950s.

Although unappreciated in its time in the US, a box-office failure, and criticized as artsy, campy, sleazy pulp-fiction trash, the low-budget film - in retrospect - has been ranked as the classic B-movie of the silver screen. (It was met with rave reviews in Europe, and won Best Picture at the Brussels Film Festival).

It was completely un-nominated for Academy Awards -- bypassed by the Academy that instead gave Best Picture honors to the frothy, somewhat distasteful musical tale of Gigi (1958) (with a record nine Oscar wins), about a young woman trained to be a courtesan of a wealthy suitor.

This great noir was shot on location in Venice, California rather than in the film's setting of Mexico (possibly the border town of Tijuana but called Los Robles in the film). The film's script, written in about two weeks, was loosely based upon Whit Masterson's (a pseudonym for Wade Miller - aka Robert Wade and William Miller) 1956 pulp novel, Badge of Evil.

It was regarded as a rebellious, unorthodox, bizarre, and outrageously exaggerated film, affronting respectable 1950's sensibilities, with controversial themes including racism, betrayal of friends, sexual ambiguity, frameups, drugs, and police corruption of power. Its central character is an obsessed, driven, and bloated police captain ("a lousy cop") - a basically tragic figure who has a "touch of evil" in his enforcement of the law. Its other unusual and seedy characters include a nervous and sex-crazed motel manager, a blind shopkeeper, a drug smuggler, a sweaty drug dealer with a poorly-fitting wig, a terrorizing gang of juvenile delinquents, and an intense good cop - an international narcotics officer who is honeymooning (but ignores his wife), all in a sleazy border town (and a number of dark hotel rooms) within a twenty-four hour period.

The film parallels and pre-dates Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) by a few years - similarities include actress Janet Leigh in various states of undress who is victimized in an out-of-the-way motel managed by a creepy "night man" (Gunsmoke's co-star Dennis Weaver). Besides major stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, Welles easily persuaded Joseph Cotten (as a police surgeon), Marlene Dietrich (in a supporting role cameo), Mercedes McCambridge (in male drag as a member of a Mexican motorcycle gang), and Keenan Wynn to appear in the film, with the added bonus of a small cameo by Zsa Zsa Gabor. Welles incorporated four actors from his Citizen Kane (1941) cast into this film: Joseph Cotten (uncredited), Gus Schilling (uncredited), Harry Shannon and Ray Collins, and Quinlan's cane undoubtedly makes reference to the earlier film.

The version of the film that was released in 1958 with 93 minutes of running time (later revised and restored with 15 minutes of additional scenes in 1976), was disowned by director Welles, who was paid $125,000 to direct, re-write, and star in the film. Before its release by Universal International Pictures, some scenes were reshot, and the film was edited, cut and bastardized without his full approval, while he was out of town working on another project. Universal was so unimpressed with the film that it was double-billed in movie theatres as the second B-movie film when first released, following the main feature The Female Animal (1958).

In 1998, the film was re-edited and/or restored based upon creator Welles' original, newly-discovered 58 page memo of editing instructions to Universal International boss Ed Muhl. The new version did not contain new footage, but was a reconstructed "quasi-director's cut" with re-organized, cross-cut scenes (with a total of about 50 changes). The most impressive change was that the legendary opening shot (described below) was seen without obscuring, super-imposed credits, and the blaring, distracting Henry Mancini background music during the elaborate scene was stripped away and replaced by natural source music (from doorways of dives the couple passes, or from car radios). The credits were re-positioned at the end of the sequence. Other changes included: repaired torn shots, restored sound quality, excisement of "explanatory scenes" added by the studio, re-positioning and trimming of scenes, and restoration of originally-cut footage. The re-edited version, the fourth version of the film, now runs 111 minutes (compared to 93 minutes in the earliest version).

The Story

The film opens with its most famous sequence. It's an audacious, incredible, breathtaking, three-minute, uninterrupted crane tracking shot under the credits (appearing superimposed on the left of the screen). The entire tracking shot covers four blocks from start to finish. In a close-up, hands set an explosive, timed device. A shadowy figure runs and places it in the trunk of a parked convertible. The pounding of bongo drums and blare of brass instruments are heard (Henry Mancini's score), accompanied by the ticking-tocking of the mechanism on the soundtrack. The camera pulls away sharply, identifying the car's location - it is parked on a street in a seedy Mexican border town. An unsuspecting, wealthy American man - Rudi Linnekar (the boss of the town) and his giggling, blonde floozy, mistress/girlfriend [later, we learn she is a striptease dancer named Zita] emerge out of the background darkness and get into the car, driving off through the streets toward the US-Mexican border about four blocks away.

From high above, the camera tracks the movement of the doomed pair in the shiny car through the squalid-looking town. It is a dark night as they drive through the town, the setting for the rest of the film. In the border town, there are flashing neon and electric signs, tawdry hotels and stripjoint nightclubs ("The Paradise"), crumbling arches, dark roofs, winding streets and twisting alleys with peeling posters on sides of walls and houses, heaps of trash, and vendors pushing carts. The black-and-white visuals emphasize the seedy atmosphere and the moral decadence, decay, and nightmarish dirtiness of the scene.

As the convertible moves along and then turns a corner and stops at a traffic light, the camera descends and picks up another cheerful couple, Ramon Miguel "Mike" Vargas (Charlton Heston), a handsome, Mexico City narcotics investigator (of the Pan-American Narcotics Commission) with his voluptuous blonde, honeymooning American bride Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh). They are walking down the street, moving across the road where the car has stopped at the traffic light. (The rigged car and the Vargas couple are both on their way through the town to the US/Mexican border.) Each group arrives at the border checkpoint at the same time. The walking couple must answer a few formal questions. Susan Vargas identifies herself as a newly married "Mrs." born in Philadelphia [it is a racially-mixed marriage]. Her husband downplays his reputation when recognized - he is only "on the trail of a chocolate soda for my wife." As he leaves the border area, the officials compliment him on his recent success in catching a druglord (named Grandi) in a drug case - "the Grandi business."

The blonde floozy in the car complains to the border guards about the ticking noise she hears in the back of the vehicle, but she is ignored by the border official and her companion. The car moves past the checkpoint across the border after clearance, driving out of the frame. As Vargas and his wife walk into the US (this is the first time they've crossed the border together), they exchange intimacies:

Susan: Mike, do you realize this is the very first time we've been together in my country?
Mike Vargas: Do you realize I haven't kissed you in over an hour?

Just then, as the newlyweds kiss, the sound of the explosion of the detonated car overlaps on the soundtrack, and they turn their faces toward the blast - the "very bad" incident violently disrupts and fragments their relationship.

The film makes its first cut (after almost three minutes) to a quick-zoom view (accomplished with skipped frames) of the exploding, flaming body of the car in midair. Filmed with hand-held cameras, the couple run toward the burning wreckage, joined by police, other witnesses, and shady characters to view the ball of flames engulfing the burning and mangled convertible on the American side of the border. The explosion kills the American businessman and his girlfriend, burning them in the wreckage. The Vargas' have accidentally become witnesses at the scene of a disturbing crime. Vargas tells Susan that they will have to postpone the chocolate soda:

Vargas: This could be very bad for us.
Susan (bewildered): For us?
Vargas (clarifying): For Mexico, I mean.

To keep her from any harm related to the car bombing, Vargas sends Susan back to their Mexican honeymoon hotel in Los Robles to wait for him. By sending her away as he hurries to the bomb site, he inadvertently sends her directly into "harm" on the streets.

Technically, the crime is to be handled by Americans, although it was committed on both sides of the border (the bomb was planted on the Mexican side). Conscientiously, Mexican police official Vargas gets involved in the investigation. While returning alone on the dark street to the Mexican hotel, Susan begins to attract the attention of Mexican males. She is approached and accosted by a young, leather-jacketed Mexican thug (she dubs "Pancho"). With a feisty tone, she self-confidently reacts to him, using an old man as an interpreter:

I understand very well what he wants...Tell him I'm a married woman, and that my husband is a great big official in the government, ready and willing to knock out all those pretty front teeth of his.

She is waylaid and persuaded to join him after reading a note: "Follow this boy at once. He has something very important for Mr. Vargas." As she shrugs and agrees to accompany the sinister-looking, shady Mexican tough who eyes her appreciatively, she blithely responds: "Well, what have I got to lose?...Don't answer that! Lead on, Pancho....Across the border again?"

Back at the scene of the explosion on the American side, a billboard identifies the frontier Mexican town across the border, welcoming "stranger" Vargas [signs play a prominent, yet ironic role throughout the film]:

WELCOME STRANGER! To Picturesque Los Robles, The Paris of the Border.

The District Attorney Adair (Ray Collins) makes the first few remarks about Captain Quinlan, the local Texas cop who has not yet arrived at the scene: "Old Hank must be the only one in the county who didn't hear the explosion." Adair comments on the construction magnate's former position in town: "An hour ago, Rudi Linnekar had this town in his pocket." An aging police surgeon (Joseph Cotten) adds: "Now you can strain him through a sieve." Linnekar's charred body is identified by his despising daughter Marcia Linnekar (Joanna Moore): "I guess that's my father." Not interested in identifying the woman, she explains: "I'm not acquainted with my father's girlfriends."

Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a fanatical, redneck, unshaven, corrupt Texas cop, an obscene monstrous character with no redeeming value is obese and whale-like at almost 300 lbs. [Welles was padded and made-up to look bloated, and usually filmed from below to emphasize his enormous bulk.] He is called "our local police celebrity" by Adair, and first viewed below eye level as he struggles to pull himself out of the back seat of a car that has pulled up. He is there to conduct the investigation of the car bombing in his jurisdiction. Appearing with a vast paunch and slovenly dressed in a massive gray raincoat and wide-brimmed hat, he is chomping on a cigar as he speaks. His face is ill-shaved and eyes are half-closed - he needs a cane to support his enormous girth and limp.

Quinlan mumbles to his long time partner Sgt. Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia): "Did they, uh, toss it in, or was it, uh, planted ahead of time?" He rejects the idea of questioning the dead man's daughter. With one look at Quinlan, Vargas treats him warily: "I wonder, what makes you so very sure it was dynamite?" Menzies suggests that Hank's hunches and "intuition" come from twinges in his game leg. By-the-book, straight-arrow Mexican investigator Vargas [made up to look dark but speaking with a natural American accent] offers his unofficial assistance to the case as an observer - he postpones his honeymoon plans to go to Mexico City and prosecute the Grandi dope trial. Vargas smiles and promises: "Captain, you won't have any trouble with me." An immense close-up of Quinlan's grotesque face with a pulpy nose responds menacingly: "You bet your sweet life, I won't." Quinlan interprets the aid as an encroachment on his territory, and as a threat to his superior methods of law enforcement.

Susan, wearing a tight sweater exaggerating her massive chest, is led through the dark streets back across the border to the dingy Ritz Hotel on the US side for a confrontation with the brother of the corrupt drug dealer mentioned earlier - "Uncle Joe" Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). Outside the hotel, she is lured into having her picture taken with 'Pancho'. Grandi is a typical slimy (with a greasy, slicked down, unmanageable and ill-fitting hairpiece), vulgar, cowardly, eye-popping small-time hood - one of a family that appears to rule narcotics traffic on both sides of the border (both in Los Robles and in the US). In a menacing scene with moments of comic caricature, Grandi tries to intimidate her, but the strong-willed newlywed isn't easily scared. He first asks her why she called his nephew 'Pancho', and she doesn't know why, responding: "Just for laughs, I guess."

Grandi runs the town's vice after Vargas put his brother in jail. When Grandi threatens her by effecting gangsterisms (flashing a gun at her and almost poking her with a big phallic-like cigar in his mouth), she is unmoved and instead accuses him of "seeing too many gangster movies." Susan reminds him that her husband will soon be looking for her: "I may be scared, but he won't be." She accuses Grandi of being "a silly little pig" and pretending to be like actor Edward G. Robinson - "you ridiculous, old-fashioned, jug-eared, lop-sided Little Caesar!" Grandi advises that her husband should lay off the case against his brother in Mexico City. Grandi lets her leave, emphasizing that nobody was holding or keeping her there against her will: "Nobody laid a hand on you. You were just paying us a little visit." As she leaves, he licks his lips lasciviously.


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