Film: Touch of Evil

Tana: He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?

Touch of Evil (1958) is one of the last and one of the greatest examples of Film Noir, written, directed and co-starring Orson Welles.

Welles plays Captain Hank Quinlan, a fat, ugly and sad corrupt police officer. The black-and-white film also features Charlton Heston as Mike Vargas, a Mexican narcotics agent on his honeymoon, Janet Leigh as his bride, and Marlene Dietrich as Tanya, a cigar-smoking Mexican gypsy brothel owner with huge beautiful eyes.

The film begins with an exploding car killing a powerful businessman, witnessed by Vargas and his new wife Susie on the Mexican border. Claiming joint jurisdiction (as the bombing may have been placed in Mexico), he works his way into the investigation headed by Quinlan. Quinlan quickly sets his beady eyes on a lowly Mexican employee that had a grudge with that businessman (the employee wanted to marry the businessman's white daughter). When Vargas notices that some of the evidence found by Quinlan's loyal partner Menzies was clearly planted (but can't prove it), Vargas starts questioning Quinlan's case history. But while this is all happening, Susie Vargas is left all alone at a creepy hotel where some gang members that Vargas is after is holed up as well and Quinlan starts making a few calls to the gang's boss about what to do with that lonely newlywed.

The film is an unlikely collaboration between producer Albert Zugsmith (former media lawyer and producer of B-movies and Rock Hudson melodramas) and Orson Welles. There are two versions on how the film got made. In version one, Charlton Heston was cast in the film but on learning that Welles was also cast, he insisted that he direct the film. The other story is that Orson Welles had appeared for one of Zugsmith's films and asked Welles to choose one of the properties he had. Welles chose the less promising one (the pulp novel Badge of Evil), reasoning that the weak material would allow him more creative freedom, less risk and that a success would make it easier to make his long-term projects. It didn't work out as planned though. The film suffered from Executive Meddling, was re-edited and some of the scenes were shot by other directors. It was then dumped poorly and failed at the box-office. It would be Welles' final Hollywood film. There are three versions of the film. The original theatrical cut, an earlier preview version with more Welles footage discovered in the vaults from 1976. In 1998, producer Rick Schmidlin, worked with Walter Murch and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to create a Reconstruction based on a memo written by Welles. Recent DVD-BR releases features all three versions but since the 90s, the Reconstruction is regarded as the film closest to Welles' vision.

This film provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Quinlan doesn't drink often, but when he does he gets absolutely plastered.
  • Author Appeal: Welles had been a huge fan of Dennis Weaver's work on Gunsmoke for years, and wrote his part specifically so he could have the chance to direct him in a movie. Similarly, Marlene Dietrich's role was added during filming because she and Welles were best friends and she wanted a part in the movie.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Charlton Heston's attempts to speak Spanish are pretty laughable. When the sentence is short, he'll give it the old college try, but his gringo accent betrays him (e.g. "¿Puedo usar el teléfono?" in Sanchez's apartment). Most of the time, though, he'll just mumble something deliberately inaudible and end it with an appropriate Spanish word. (e.g. "Murmurbliggleblamurmur derechos aquí" in the same scene, presumably explaining to the suspect that he has no jurisdiction.)
  • California Doubling: Sorta. While it depicts life on the California/Mexico border, most scenes were filmed in Venice, California about 140 miles away.
  • The Cameo: Welles's old friend and former co-star Joseph Cotten makes a brief appearance at the bombing crime scene, as the coroner. ("Now you could strain him through a sieve.")
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: The Mirador Motel Night Manager.
  • Creepy Crossdresser: McCambridge appears as an androgynous-looking gang member abducting Susie Vargas. Her big line? "I like to watch."
  • Dies Wide Open: Grandi when he is strangled.
  • Dirty Cop: Quinlan has been framing suspects for years.
  • Dodgy Toupee: Grandi loses his at one point.
  • Epic Tracking Shot: The opening consists of one long tracking shot, which is considered by film aficionados to be one of the best ever.
  • Fanservice: Janet Leigh laying on her bed (both when talking to Vargas over the phone and later, when sleeping). In a figure-hugging teddy, sans skirt. With her long and beautiful legs featured prominently.
  • Film Noir: Considered one of the last great ones from that era. Indeed, critics noted that it was such a Genre-Busting film and that so many censorship taboos were broken that it ended the classic Film Noir era. In terms of film production, its pioneering use of the lightweight Eclair camera paved the way for independent and arthouse films across the world.
  • Framing the Guilty Party: "How many did you frame?" "Nobody that wasn't guilty!" And in fact it turns out that the bombing suspect actually was guilty.
    • Subverted with Quinlan's effort to get the Mexican drug gang to kidnap an innocent Susie Vargas, then kill the gang leader and frame the drugged Susie for that murder.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: We hear a few comments about what was left of Mr. Linnekar and his girlfriend, but we never get to see their scattered remains.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Quinlan only frames criminals he thinks are guilty, and Vargas is only able to stop him when Menzies — whom Quinlan had previously taken a bullet for, causing his limp — agrees to betray him. Vargas for his part sees the grayness of policework:
    Vargas: "A policeman's job is only easy in a Police State."
  • Gut Feeling: "I wonder, what makes you so very sure it was dynamite?" "My leg."
  • Hitler Cam: Orson Welles was fond of this trope, going all the way back to Citizen Kane. Here he uses it for the scene where Quinlan, Vargas, and others are gathered around the body of the murder victim. Notably he does not use it when showing Menzies, Quinlan's faithful sidekick.
  • I Can't Believe It's Not Heroin: There is actual heroin as well, but...
    Gang Leader: We've scattered more reefer stubs around.
    Grandi: You kids didn't use none of that stuff yourself, anh?
    Ginnie: Think we're crazy?
    Grandi: Nobody in the Grandi family gets hooked, understand? That's the rule.
  • Incredibly Obvious Bomb: So obvious that the lady passenger in the car complains about a ticking noise.
  • I Owe You My Life: Menzies, to Quinlan.
  • Ironic Echo: "That's the second bullet I took for you, partner..."
  • Knight in Sour Armor: A long time ago, Quinlan was unable to prove the guy who killed his wife committed the crime. It drives him to start framing guys he's convinced by the pain in "my leg" are guilty.
  • Made of Plasticine: "Once he ran this town. Now you could strain him through a sieve."
  • Malignant Plot Tumor: The original bombing investigation is almost completely forgotten by the end of the film in favor of Vargas' attempts to bring down Quinlan. The ending shoehorns in a line that the guy Quinlan framed really was guilty after all.
  • Never Bareheaded: Quinlan's hat never comes off, not even as he falls dead into the murky waters of the stagnant river.
    • Subverted with 'Uncle' Joe Grandi, who seems to lose his rug pretty often.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: One of the most infamous examples, Welles assured Heston he didn't have to do a Hispanic accent for his Fake Nationality role as the Mexican Narcotics officer Vargas, cobbling together unofficial backstory saying that Vargas lost his accent due to his travels outside of Mexico and working with Caucasians.
    • It must be noted that there are no Mexicans in the cast. Grandi is played by an Armenian actor Akim Tamiroff and the Gypsy Fortune teller played by Marlene Dietrich who doesn't even hide her famous German accent. The film is set in a border area between America and Mexico and actually shot around Venice Beach, Los Angeles with very distinct, identifiable architecture. It's not a realistic film by any means. In any case, the idea of actors affecting accents for their part wasn't all that common among Golden Age actors like Charlton Heston or Welles, who weren't into the later dominant style of Method Acting. Nevertheless, Heston later said he felt that not doing an accent for the role of the Mexican narcotics officer was a huge mistake, one of the biggest of his career.
  • The Oner: The opening sequence features one of the most famous continuous camera shots. Also, at the shoe clerk's apartment, there is a long continuous shot where the camera moves from room to room following Heston.
  • Re Cut: A "director's cut" of Touch of Evil based on a contemporary Welles memo of how he wanted the film to be is now available on video. Welles' memo states however that the film is still behind his conception since it features footage shot by other directors and for him, the memo is merely a salvage job and not a "director's cut" as we understand it.
  • Red Right Hand: Inverted in a way. Quinlan has a limp and says he can tell when someone is guilty because his leg begins to hurt. However, the reason he has a limp is because he took a bullet for his partner.
  • Sweater Girl: Janet Leigh manages to provide Fanservice while portraying a respectable woman by wearing some very, very tight sweaters.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Hank's descent after his last meeting with Grandi.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: Hank Quinlan became a very well-respected policeman through careful evidence tampering. In the end, it even turns out that the man Quinlan was trying to frame in the film was guilty, giving him the epitaph, "He was a great detective, but a lousy cop."
  • Your Days Are Numbered: When Quinlan visits his friend Tana the fortune teller. He asks her to see his future. Tana warns him "You haven't got any... Your future is all used up."