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, Susie; 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 Susie on the Mexican border. Claiming joint jurisdiction (as the bomb 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 are 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 Zugsmith offered to let Welles helm a film based on one of the properties he had rights to. 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 Oscar-winning editor 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. He explicitly says at one point that his weight gain is a result of substituting chocolate for booze in order to stay on the wagon.
- 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.)
- Bait-and-Switch Gunshot: In the final confrontation between Hank Quinlan and Miguel Vargas. Quinlan has his handgun aimed at Vargas, and gloats that he'll tell everyone Vargas was "resisting arrest". A gunshot rings out... and Quinlan collapses. The mortally wounded Menzies had regained consciousness just long enough to shoot Quinlan and save Vargas.
- 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."), as well as later on after Susie gets arrested.
- Cloud Cuckoo Lander: The Mirador Motel Night Manager.
- Creepy Crossdresser: Mercedes McCambridge appears as an androgynous-looking gang member abducting Susie Vargas. Her big line? "I want to watch."
- Cynicism Catalyst: One could assume that Hank Quinlan was at least an honest cop before his wife was murdered. As he was unable to prove that the assailant committed the crime, Quinlan started planting evidence on suspects he believes are guilty, and has been doing so since then.
- Deconstruction: Welles' film was a parody of several B-Movie and Film Noir conventions, taking the genre inside out:
- The film takes the subtext of prior noir movies—specifically that cops are not as honorable as they seem—and makes it blatant text. From the very beginning, the lawmen from both sides of the border are uninterested in the car bombing for its own sake, and more concerned with how the event could be used to advance personal or political agendas. Hank Quinlan in particular makes sweeping judgements about how the crime was carried out, without even examining the crime scene. On a meta level, even the film itself is only interested in the bombing as a device to set up the conflict between Vargas and Quinlan—their conflict dominates the final act, while the bombing case gets wrapped up off-screen via a few passing lines of dialogue.
- Detective Hank Quinlan is also a dark look at police work, showing how a life of crime-fighting has disillusioned and embittered him to the point that he has become worse than the criminals he has hunted down, and absolutely dismissive and snide to the idealistic Vargas. Vargas himself is not happy about some of the measures he has to take to bring down Quinlan, nor the fact that his dedication to his work keeps him away from his wife. As Vargas himself notes, honest policework is never intended to be a easy or safe job.
- Many of the characters are themselves parodies of older films. Suzy Vargas mocks Grandi for being a Little Caesar, and he and his outfits are essentially gangster movie cliches. Suzy's ordeal in the film, where she goes from idealistic newlywed wife to almost being Stuffed into the Fridge to give the hero trauma, and eventually framed as a floozy and murder suspect, is a commentary on the female lead/love interest/femme fatale archetype actresses often played in these movies.
- Dies Wide Open: Grandi when he is strangled.
- Dirty Cop: Quinlan has been framing suspects for years.
- Dodgy Toupee: Grandi has a tendency to lose his "rug", pop it back on, and fidget with it until it sits right again.
- Epic Tracking Shot: The opening consists of one long tracking shot, which is considered by film aficionados to be one of the best ever. The original cut by Universal rather spoiled the tension of the scene by running the opening credits over it.
- 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, or at least he confessed that he was guilty.
- On the other hand, Susie Vargas is completely innocent, but Quinlan conspires to frame her as a drug addict and murderer all the same. It's ambiguous whether this is Quinlan breaking his principles to save his own skin, or a sign that at least some of Quinlan's prior arrests were innocent as well.
- Gambit Pileup: Between Vargas and Border police, Quinlan on the other side, Mexican gangsters and their greasers, and the crook who carried out the original bombing.
- Gory Discretion Shot: We hear a few remarks on what was left of Mr. Linnekar and his girlfriend, but we never get to see their scattered remains.
- Greaser Delinquents: Working for Grandi. They're the ones who kidnap Susie from the motel.
- 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."
- Halfway Plot Switch: More like three-quarters. But while it starts out as if the film is about Vargas being a crusading lawman, it ends up focusing on the final fall and destruction of Hank Quinlan.
- 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.
- It's a subtle hint at Quinlan's downward spiral that after a certain point, Welles stops filming himself from this position, making Quinlan look far less imposing.
- 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, huh?
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. Since the bomb was planted with a short timer and was inteded to blow up immediately, subtlety was not really necessary.
- I Owe You My Life: Menzies, to Quinlan.
- Ironic Echo: "Pete... that's the second bullet I stopped for you..."
- 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.
- Knight Templar: Quinlan firmly believes he's the law and can't do wrong, so when he plants evidence to frame criminals whom he can't convict with available evidence, he's not doing anything wrong. When Vargas starts investigating his activities, Quinlan believes he is perfectly justified to abduct, terrorize and frame his wife to smear his reputation, because obviously he knows best.
- Made of Plasticine: "An hour ago Rudy Linnekar had this town in his pocket." "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. This is justified since the movie is about the toxic relationships between various law-enforcement organizations.
- Meaningful Background Event: During Quinlan and Vargas's final confrontation, in several shots something can be seen moving on the bridge in the background. It turns out to be Menzies, who's survived just long enough to shoot Quinlan at the crucial moment.
- Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: An unusual case where the perpetrator of the Major Plot is someone actively investigating the Minor Crime. A bomb kills Mr. Linneker, then during the subsequent investigation, Vargas catches Quinlan planting evidence to frame the suspect. This prompts Vargas to review the police records, and he realizes Quinlan has been falsifying evidence to get people arrested for years.
- Never Bareheaded: Quinlan's hat never comes off, not even as he strangles Grandi to death or as he falls dead into the murky waters of a stagnant river.
- 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.
- There's even a scene in Ed Wood poking fun at this, where Welles is shown complaining about the sheer absurdity of the studio wanting Charlton Heston to play a Mexican character. This is highly inaccurate, since Welles had no problem with foreigners playing different roles and Heston was integral to the film getting made in the first place. Though, years later, Heston 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.
- 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 is 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.
- Not Quite Dead: Quinlan shoots Menzies for collaborating with Vargas. Menzies collapses and is presumed dead... but regains consciousness just long enough to shoot and kill Quinlan at the climax.
- Not So Above It All: In the end, Vargas must resort to taping a conversation between a drunk Quinlan and Peter Menzies, when the latter agrees that his old friend has gone too far and decides to help Vargas get his evidence. Hank ultimately sees through it, though.
- Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Tana turns and walks away from the camera after delivering the last line of the movie, the famous "some kind of a man" quote.
- 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.
- Playing the Victim Card: After Vargas presents further evidence that Quinlan has been planting evidence to frame suspects, Quinlan tosses away his badge and hysterically insists he can't continue working for the police department if his own officers are willing to entertain Vargas's wild accusations. The other cops take Quinlan's side and demand an apology from Vargas—who stands his ground. Of course, as soon as Vargas leaves, Quinlan takes his badge back and begins plotting to discredit him.
- Re-Cut: A "Reconstruction" of Touch of Evil based on a contemporary Welles memo of how he wanted to salvage the film after seeing the first Preview and the release cut. The main intent for Welles was to preserve the plot structure of several parallel stories intercut together. The original producers recut it to make it more "accessible" but ended up, as per researchers, being more confusing than Welles' version.
- 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.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: Owing to the abundance of Source Music, the score acts as an ironic counterpoint to the action on-screen more often than not. Jaunty rock-n-roll plays as the greasers menace Susie, Grandi gets murdered while big-band jazz blares from the radio, and so on.
- Source Music: The soundtrack (composed by Henry Mancini) is overwhelmingly diagetic, provided by radios, jukeboxes, street musicians, player pianos, or other in-story sources. Even in scenes where there isn't an obvious source for the music, the score still follows the same style as what the characters listen to elsewhere (mostly a mix of jazz and rock-n-roll).
- 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 read his future. Tana warns him: "You haven't got any... Your future is all used up."