Film Screening: “Touch of Evil”

In this lesson we are going to examine Orson Welles’ 1958 Film Noir, Touch of Evil. This lesson will be followed by a short quiz to test your knowledge of the film and its production. If you have not seen the film we instruct you to view it before proceeding to the lesson. If you have already seen the film, this may be a good time to revisit it.

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DirectorOrson Welles
WritersOrson WellesFranklin CoenPaul Monash
CinematographerRussell Metty
EditorsAaron StellVirgil Vogel
Restoration edited byWalter Murch
ProducerAlbert Zugsmith
ComposerHenry Mancini

Touch of Evil is a 1958 American crimethriller film, written, directed by, and co-starring Orson Welles. The screenplay was loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson. Along with Welles, the cast includes Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich.

Touch of Evil is one of the last examples of film noir in the genre’s classic era (from the early 1940s until the late 1950s).

Plot

The film opens with a three-minute, twenty-second tracking shot widely considered by critics as one of the greatest long takes in cinematic history. On the U.S.-Mexico border, a man plants a time bomb in a car. A man and woman enter the vehicle and make a slow journey through town to the U.S. border. Newlyweds Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) and Susie (Janet Leigh) pass the car several times on foot. The car crosses the border, then explodes, killing the occupants.

Miguel Vargas is a drug enforcement official in the Mexican government. Realizing the implications of a Mexican bomb exploding on American soil, he takes an interest in the investigation. Police Chief Pete Gould (Harry Shannon) and District Attorney Adair (Ray Collins) arrive on the scene, followed by police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Quinlan’s longtime partner, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia).

Quinlan and Menzies’ prime suspect is Sanchez, a young Mexican secretly married to the victim’s daughter. They interrogate him in his apartment with Vargas present. Vargas visits the bathroom and accidentally knocks over an empty shoebox. Moments later, Menzies announces that two sticks of dynamite were found in the same, empty, shoebox in the bathroom. Vargas suspects Quinlan may have been planting evidence for years to help win convictions. Quinlan dismisses Vargas’ claim saying he is just biased in favor of fellow Mexicans. With assistance from District Attorney’s Assistant Al Schwartz (Mort Mills), Vargas studies the public records on Quinlan’s previous cases, revealing his findings to Gould and Adair. Quinlan arrives on the scene in time to overhear the discussion and angrily threatens to resign.

Susie moved from her Mexican hotel to an American motel to escape the unwanted attention of Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), brother of a man Vargas has been investigating. She finds the motel, which Menzies recommended to her, has no other guests and is staffed only by a mentally challenged night manager (Dennis Weaver). Grandi family members take over the motel. Vargas becomes concerned when his attempts to telephone Susie at the motel are sabotaged. Quinlan conspires with Grandi; they arrange for Susie to be kidnapped by the gang, injected with drugs, and taken to Grandi’s other motel in town. There, Quinlan strangles Grandi and frames Susie for the murder in order to discredit Vargas.

Vargas confronts Menzies about the history of evidence “discovered” by Menzies or Quinlan. Menzies dismisses the claim. Vargas goes to Susie’s motel but discovers her – and the gun he left with her – missing. Learning the motel is owned by Grandi, Vargas travels to Grandi’s other motel in search of Susie, and confronts the gang members who attacked her; when the gang members refuse to answer him, Vargas violently beats them down. Al informs Vargas that Susie has been arrested for murder; at the lockup Vargas finds her barely conscious. Menzies reveals to Vargas he discovered Quinlan’s cane at the murder scene. Vargas fits Menzies with a wire. Menzies confronts Quinlan at an oil field and they discuss Quinlan’s activities while being tracked on foot by Vargas recording the conversation.

Quinlan states to Menzies that he planted evidence on people, but they were nevertheless “guilty, guilty”. Quinlan hears the feedback; Quinlan says his “game leg” informs him of Menzies’ wire. Quinlan demands Vargas show himself; when he does, Quinlan shoots Menzies with Vargas’ gun. Quinlan prepares to shoot Vargas, but is shot by the dying Menzies. It is revealed Sanchez has confessed and really did commit the crime. Vargas leaves town with Susie.

History

There are two stories as to how Welles ended up directing Touch of Evil. Charlton Heston recalled that Welles was originally hired to act in the film only, not to direct or write. Universal was keen to secure Heston for the lead, but he wanted the studio to confirm the director before he signed on. After learning that Welles was in the cast, Heston expressed his greater interest in starring if Welles were directing. The other story is that Welles had recently worked with producer Albert Zugsmith, known as the “King of the Bs”, on a film called Man in the Shadow and was interested in directing something for him. Zugsmith offered him a pile of scripts, of which Welles asked for the worst to prove he could make a great film out of a bad script. At the time, the script was called Badge of Evil, after a Whit Masterson novel on which it was based. Welles did a rewrite and took it into production. After a decade in Europe during which he completed only a few films, Welles was eager to direct for Hollywood again, so he agreed to take only an acting fee for the role of Quinlan.

A number of notable actors pop up in minor roles. Dennis Weaver plays a mentally unbalanced night clerk at an isolated motel. Welles liked Weaver 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, who appears briefly as the impresario of a strip club, was a friend of the producer. Welles’s old friend Joseph Calleia portrays Quinlan’s betrayed partner. 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. Welles’ friend and Mercury Theater colleague, Joseph Cotten, appears uncredited as a police officer.

Janet Leigh recalled how Welles asked for input from the actors in the cast:

“It started with rehearsals. We rehearsed two weeks prior to shooting, which was unusual. We rewrote most of the dialogue, all of us, which was also unusual, and Mr. Welles always wanted our input. It was a collective effort, and there was such a surge of participation, of creativity, of energy. You could feel the pulse growing as we rehearsed. You felt you were inventing something as you went along. Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn’t want one bland moment. He made you feel you were involved in a wonderful event that was happening before your eyes.”

Welles wrapped production on time, delivered a rough cut to Universal, and was convinced that his Hollywood career was back on the rails. However, the film was then re-edited (and in part re-shot) by Universal International pictures. The editing process was protracted and disputed, and the version eventually released was not the film Universal or Welles had hoped for. It was released as a B-movie, the lower half of a double feature. The A-movie was The Female Animal, starring Hedy Lamarr, produced by Albert Zugsmith and directed by Harry Keller, whom the studio had hired to direct the re-shot material in Touch of Evil. The two films even had the same cameraman, Russell Metty. Welles’s film was given little publicity despite the many stars in the cast. Though it had little commercial success in the US, it was well received in Europe, particularly by critics like future filmmaker François Truffaut.

Differing versions

Three versions of the film have been released:

  1. The original 1958 release version
  2. A longer version, released in 1976
  3. A 1998 restored version that attempted to fulfill Welles’s wishes in his 1958 memo.

Welles’s rough cut as submitted to Universal no longer exists. That cut was worked on and trimmed down by Universal staff, and in late 1957 Universal decided to perform some reshoots. Welles claimed these were done without his knowledge, but Universal claimed that Welles ignored the studio’s requests to return and undertake further work. It was at this point that Keller came aboard: some of his material was entirely new, others replaced Welles scenes. Welles screened the new cut and wrote a 58-page memo to Universal’s head of production, Edward Muhl, detailing what he thought needed to be done to make the film work. However, many of his suggestions went unheeded and Touch of Evil was eventually released in a version running 93 minutes.

I much regret that a business meeting Friday and illness Monday prevented me from seeing the picture until Tuesday. Work on the following notes was commenced as soon afterwards as I could obtain help in the typing.

Unhappily, my illness has slowed me up somewhat, and an unexpected shortage in secretarial help finds me, at the end of a long day, without a fair copy of the remainder of these notes to put into your hands. I shall go on working through the night, however, and with typists getting an early start tomorrow, it’s safe to promise you the complete memo sometime before the end of the morning.

Read the Full Memo

In the mid-1970s, Universal discovered that it held a 108-minute print of Touch of Evil in its archives. Aware that there was a growing audience of cineastes with a strong interest in Welles’ work, the studio released this version to cinemas in 1976 and later issued it on video, billing it as “complete, uncut and restored.” In fact, this print was not a restoration at all, but a preview version which post-dated the Welles memo but pre-dated the release version. While it did feature some vital Welles scenes that Universal cut from the release version, the preview version also featured more of Keller’s material than the release version.

In 1998, Walter Murch, working from all available material, re-edited the film based on the Welles memo, with Bob O’Neil, Universal’s director of film restoration, and Bill Varney, Universal’s Vice President of Sound Operations, participating in the restoration. As Welles’s rough cut no longer exists, no true “director’s cut” is possible, but Murch was able to assemble a version incorporating most of the existing material, omitting some of the Keller scenes (though some were retained, either because they had replaced Welles scenes which no longer existed and were necessary to the plot, or because Welles had approved of their inclusion). In addition, some of Welles’s complaints concerned subtle sound and editing choices, and Murch re-edited the material accordingly. Notable changes include the removal of the credits and music from the three-minute opening shot, crosscutting between the main story and Janet Leigh’s subplot, and the removal of Harry Keller’s hotel lobby scene. Rick Schmidlin produced the 1998 edit, which had a limited but successful theatrical release (again by Universal) and was subsequently made available on DVD. The DVD includes a reproduction of the 58-page memo.

Originally scheduled to be premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival with Janet Leigh, Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin attending, the screening was canceled in the eleventh-hour after threats of litigation from Welles’ daughter, Beatrice Welles, who has in the past issued similar threats against some parties who try to show or alter her father’s work (such as the completion of Welles’ last film The Other Side of the Wind). The reason given for the litigation was that Beatrice Welles was not consulted for the restoration.


Quizzes

"Touch of Evil" Quiz