Touch of Evil (1958)
Touch of Evil (1958)

Genre: Film Noir and Crime Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 35 min.

Release Date: April 23rd, 1958 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: Orson Welles Actors: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joanna Moore, Ray Collins, Dennis Weaver, Joi Lansing, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor




n 1957, Orson Welles completed principal photography on “Touch of Evil.” But his first cut didn’t meet with studio expectations, prompting executives to insist upon additional scenes and reediting. Meeting their displeasure with some of his own, he wrote a memo asking for further changes to uphold at least a sliver of his original vision. The opening sequence, involving the planting of a car bomb, all done in a four-minute, single take with exquisite use of a dolly, exemplifies the complex, specific artistry employed by the auteur. And these shots continue to appear throughout, many times tailing the characters onscreen to place viewers in the middle of the action. Although the theatrical release would insert title credits over the top of the initial shot, a 1998 restoration removed them, while also providing alternate edits that came closer to Welles’ wishes.

As the story begins, narcotics agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susan (Janet Leigh) stroll along the crowded streets of Mexican border town Los Robles, coincidentally walking next to the booby-trapped vehicle. Just as they veer away from the car, it explodes, drawing a crowd of busybodies, including District Attorney Adair (Ray Collins), Sergeant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), and bigshot policeman Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). As Mike observes the crime scene, Susan is whisked away by one of “Uncle” Joe Grandi’s (Akim Tamiroff) thugs, intending to threaten her so as to stop her husband from pursuing Joe’s crime boss brother back in the States. And moments later, another stooge tries to throw acid at Vargas. Clearly, he has a wealth of enemies, despite not being in the city for official business. In fact, he’s there for his honeymoon.

One of the most notable aspects of “Touch of Evil” is Welles’ appearance. He’s overweight, swollen, slow, sweaty, and looking as if he’s always about to collapse, but his exceptional largeness imparts an undeniable degree of fortitude. He’s a grotesque version of his former self, yet this eerie transformation makes him the perfect villain for a tale of murder and corruption (in Quinlan’s mind, the ends justify the means). His predilection for rough questioning, jumping to conclusions, planting evidence, and being argumentative creates a consistent feeling of combativeness. It’s almost as if the entire picture is one protracted verbal altercation, full of shouting and objections and racial intolerance.

Amid the lawlessness of Quinlan’s district, there’s a sense of neglect and carelessness concerning Vargas and his wife. She seems to be perpetually harassed, and her husband doesn’t appear all that distressed about her safety. Nor does he behave cautiously enough to be a convincing detective, especially when it comes to interacting with questionable associates. It doesn’t help that everyone comes across as suspicious – from a nervous motel night-man, to targets of interrogation, to bombing victim and construction magnate Rudolph Linnekar’s daughter (Joanna Moore), to errand boys, to everyone on Quinlan’s police force.

Although Quinlan has villainy written all over him, it’s never explained why he’s so bitter and antagonistic. He doesn’t like to leave cases unresolved, but that shouldn’t be enough to pressure him into such a vile streak of framing and intimidation. He values his reputation, but it doesn’t seem to influence his every move. Nevertheless, the heinousness is palpable, permeating virtually all of the characters, regardless of how brief their involvement. Eventually, the murder mystery mutates into a deadly conspiracy to discredit Vargas’ dubiety towards Hank. And the unscrupulous police captain’s improprieties escalate, thrusting everyone who crosses his path into chaos. The desperation and anxiety are extreme, mitigated by weak minds and aided by an inexplicable ally. The finale is full of suspense – and boasts an unforgettable showdown (one that reminds of “The Third Man”) – but it’s not enough to make this noirish drama one of Welles’ better works. Instead, it feels confused, unfocused, and unsatisfying – perhaps a result of studio meddling and the director’s waning visionariness.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10