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Touch of Evil

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Touch of Evil (1958), was one of the last and one of the greatest examples of film noir or B-movie ever made. It was directed by Orson Welles, who also appeared as a strangely corrupt policeman, Captain Hank Quinlan. The black-and-white film also features Charlton Heston as Mike Vargas, a Mexican narcotics agent on his honeymoon, Janet Leigh ("at her most perversely innocent" as one critic put it) as his bride, and Marlene Dietrich as Tanya, a cigar-smoking Mexican gypsy brothel owner with huge beautiful eyes.

The movie was written in two weeks by Welles based on Whit Masterson[?]'s novel Badge of Evil. It is not to be confused with another movie of the same title which aired on Mystery Science Theater 3000 during its later years.

Table of contents

The plot

Capt. Quinlan is not on the take, but is bitter about the unsolved murder of his wife early in his career and has come to believe he can spot the guilty with his intuition, an aching in his bad leg, and he was willing to frame the guilty to make sure they get their desserts. Quinlan's cane, an allusion to Citizen Kane, plays a major part in the film. In fact, Welles was injured during filming and actually needed the cane.

Touch of Evil is rich and ripe with menace and atmosphere as Leigh is abducted by hoodlums and Heston attempts to find her, with the moody border ambiance provided by Venice, California with a two sleazy hotels, a desolate motel, and three or four broken down bars, and strip joints, as well as Dietrich's kitsch-filled parlor. The border setting provides Welles with an opportunity to comment on the relations between the United States and Mexico and the treatment of Mexicans by American law enforcement.

The final scene is a stately chase, with Vargas wrestling with a cranky recorder while Quinlan's partner wears a wire and gets him to confess his crimes, with the radio recorder becoming virtually a fourth character.

The people who made the film

The film is filled with character actors playing their roles with great menace and aplomb. Akim Tamiroff[?] plays a border mobster with a madly wandering toupee, Dennis Weaver[?] is a loony night man at a deserted motel, and Zsa Zsa Gabor appears briefly as the impresario of a strip club. Welles liked what Weaver did as Chester on TV's Gunsmoke and worked closely with him on his part, which was shot on a three-day hiatus from the TV show. Zsa Zsa Gabor was a friend of the producer.

Welles's old friend, Joseph Calleia[?], gives a moving performance as Quinlan's toady, along with other members of the Welles repertory company, Joseph Cotten, Keenan Wynn[?], Ray Collins[?] (the police detective on Perry Mason), and Mercedes McCambridge[?] as a butch biker chick. Many of the actors worked for lower wages just to make a film with Welles. Marlene Dietrich's role was a surprise to the producers and they raised her fee so they could advertise her involvement.

The music by Henry Mancini greatly heightens the atmosphere, the cacophony in the streets of loudspeakers from rival bars, a player piano in Dietrich's parlor that stands in for Quinlan's conscience, a jukebox in a the gangster's bar, the roar of crazy, anonymous Mexican rock and roll in the motel where Janet Leigh is kept prisoner.

According to Heston, Welles was originally intended to act in the film only, and Heston was highly sought for the lead. Heston pretended to think that Welles was going to direct and based his acceptance of the part on that.

Universal International[?] acquiesced with bad grace. Welles rewrote the script, but after he completed the movie, it was re-edited (and in part re-shot) by Universal International pictures and it was not until 1998 (and the fourth version) that it was released in something like the original form intended by Welles. Nonetheless, even as originally released it was a film of power and impact, though little commercial success. The producer was Albert Zugsmith[?], known as the "king of the B's".

The movie was literally a B-movie, released as the lower half of a double feature with some long-forgotten A-movie and given little publicity despite the director, the sensational subject matter, and the many stars in the cast.

The 1998 version was produced by editor Walter Murch and released (also by Universal International) on DVD. The DVD includes a 58-page memo written in 1958 by Welles after he had seen the producer's cut of the movie. Some of these suggestions were accepted at the time, but the release on DVD was made as close to Welles' original idea as possible using the original footage. The most striking change was the opening shot, more than three minutes long, all shot from a crane, in one take. The producer had put the credits over this shot, but Murch moved the credits to the end as Welles had wanted. The film went from 96 minutes to 111 minutes.

It was Welles's first film since Macbeth (1948), and he pulled out all the stops, beginning with the three-minute-long continuous tracking shot, as well as many dark litter-strewn streets, ominous oil wells, and deserted desert highways travelled by slick new American cars with huge tailfins.

Welles appeared as grossly fat in the film and is shot from below to emphasize his corpulence, but in fact the fat is mostly padding. It was only later that Welles really got fat.

The film is consistently on the Internet Movie Database's top 250 list, was #64 on American Film Institute's 100 Years, 100 Thrills, and has been deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. It was Welles' last Hollywood film.

Quotations from the film

  • "Honey, you're a mess." Tanya to Quinlan.
  • "A policeman's job is only easy in a police state." Mike Vargas.
  • "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?...Adios!" Tanya, as Quinlan's corpse floats face down in a muddy river at the end of the movie.

Quotation about the film

  • "Touch of Evil, of course, was made by one of the great directors. If it is not Citizen Kane, it has been listed not far behind Kane in the list of Welles' films. It was a remarkable experience for me, a great learning experience, one of the most valuable I've had in my whole film career. I probably learned more about acting from Welles than any other film director I've worked for." Charlton Heston

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