Touch of Evil (1958) Review

Touch of Evil (1958)  Director: Orson Welles


Touch of Evil is another terrific film noir which Welles wrote, starred in, and directed (though parts of it were, again, chopped up by the studio). This was Welles’s fifth Hollywood film, his final American film. It has sometimes been called the last great ‘film noir’ from the 1940s and 1950s. The film includes other famous cast members, as well, such as Charlton Heston and Marlene Dietrich.

The story is based on the 1956 pulp novel, Badge of Evil. It takes place along the U.S.-Mexico border (despite being shot in Venice, CA). In a famous single shot opening scene, considered one of the greatest in cinematic history, someone plants an explosive in the back of a car that blows up a short distance away across the U.S. border. Mike Vargas, a Mexican police officer (Charlton Heston), investigates the explosion. His law enforcement style contains a “touch of evil.” He is newly married to his wife (Janet Leigh). Additionally, American policy officers arrive on the scene, led by overweight and gimp-legged Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). They interrogate a young Mexican at his home, and Hank accuses the young man of the crime after finding two sticks of dynamite in his bathroom, though Mike had just been in the bathroom and didn’t see any explosives only minutes earlier. He begins to suspect that Hank has been planting evidence to win cases. Hank threatens to resign in disgust at the accusations.

Meanwhile, Susie, Mike’s wife, leaves and visits a remote motel across the U.S. border. Members of a gang find her, capture her, and take her back across the border to another hotel. They drug her. Hank drunkenly shows up and strangles the boss, Grandi and leaves him in the room to frame Susie. Hank carelessly leaves his cane at the scene. In the end, Mike Vargas teams up with one of Hank’s closest admirers and confidants, as he wears a wire to capture Hank’s confession. Both Quinlan and his admirer wind up killing each other, and Hank’s recording is captured. Mike Vargas is freed from prison and reunited with his new wife. We learn that the planted evidence was unnecessary. The young man had confessed to the crime.

Lamentably, Universal Studios significantly cut and revised Welles’s original rough cut of the film, which sadly no longer exists. Welles was furious upon learning of the studio’s unauthorized revisions (recall similar frustrations with the hack-job that was done to Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons). Various editions exist as the film was attempted to be re-made according to the director’s initial vision in the 1970s and the 1990s.

The film was a complete box office and critical flop in its day, and it was relegated to B-movie status. Amazingly, it was wholly bypassed by the Academy (it was the year that the silly comedy Gigi won Best Picture), though it garnered rave reviews in Europe. The film won Best Picture in Europe at the Brussels Film Festival.

Touch of Evil is a cult classic. It is a technically profound film from Orson Welles. Somehow, he always manages to produce something new, something exciting, and something artistic with each of his films. Touch of Evil is a meditation on the nature of law and order framed as an investigation into a planted explosive in Mexico that travels via car across the U.S.-Mexico border. To what extent does the enforcement of the law require a “touch of evil?”

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