Arriving in 1958, relatively late for a film noir, Touch Of Evil is a film that polarises audiences not nearly as frequently as another of Orson Welles’ masterpieces, Citizen Kane. That said, Touch Of Evil sometimes gets forgotten about, or swept up alongside the budding careers of Godard and Truffaut, themselves inspired by the movie. Contrary to its late appearance in the noir movement and the much documented studio meddling which Welles had to fight tooth and nail, Touch Of Evil is an excellent, inspiring, challenging, dare I saybeautiful, motion picture.
Touch Of Evil deals with the warring factions of both the police department and hoodlums in a Mexican/American border town when a bomb planted in a car on the Mexican side goes off on the American side. Issues of jurisdiction, corruption, heroism and addiction come to the fore as Charlton Heston’s Mexican narcotics detective Vargas, and Welles’ American veteran cop Quinlan quarrel over the crime.
Add to that Janet Leigh’s portrayal of Vargas’ American wife as she suffers at the hands of a drugged gang, and the subplot concerned with Quinlan’s framing of suspects and planting of evidence, and the simplicity of the premise begins to complicate. Notoriously confusing, the plot gets more convoluted as the narrative progresses. However, this is not unusual when it comes to noir, (Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon is especially complex), and as with most noir films the story gets cleverly and neatly wrapped up at the denouement.
The performances are sublime, and fortunately not at the expense of Welles’ famous camera work, drawing an impassioned performance from Heston and a career best from Dennis Weaver as the cowardly night manager. It is a testament to Welles’ reputation that Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marlene Dietrich agreed to appear in the film in cameo performances. (Dietrich has ten minutes of screen time, Gabor gets only twenty seconds).
In fact, Janet Leigh originally turned the film down, objecting to an unfair salary. However, upon learning Orson Welles was directing she relented, stating that “getting directed by Orson Welles was more important than any paycheck.”
Welles struggled to get his vision for the film on the screen, and in his absence after shooting, the suits at Universal completely recut the movie, unwisely assuming they had better ideas. Welles sent a fifty-eight page memo to Universal explaining his concerns, but to no avail. Touch Of Evil was released as Universal intended, and it wasn’t until 1998, when the memo was found among Charlton Heston’s archives, that the reconstructed version was theatrically released, to great acclaim.
Touch Of Evil was recently released on Blu-Ray as part of The Masters Of Cinema series, and contains all five versions of the film, extensive making-of extras, and an accompanying booklet of essays.