The prevailing myth about Orson Welles is that he was his own worst enemy. Well, there’s some truth to that, but what isn’t said often enough is that Welles was dedicated to breaking cinematic rules in order to make innovative films, and that was not okay with the men who ran the Hollywood studios. You needed to do things their way, or else. And thus, with the exception of his first film, Citizen Kane, Welles always ended up dealing either with studio interference or absence of adequate funding for his films. His one last stab at a Hollywood film was called Touch of Evil, made in 1958 for Universal, and inevitably it was interfered with—despite this, however, it’s one of his best movies.
The picture opens with an amazing single-take tracking shot. We see a hand placing a time bomb in a car. Soon a couple gets in and starts driving. The camera pulls back and eventually soars overhead with a crane as we follow the car through a town to a border crossing, and then past. And finally in the distance we see it blow up The producers tampered with this masterful sequence by putting the film’s credits over it—a boneheaded move, but the brilliance is still there.
Charlton Heston plays Vargas, a Mexican drug cop on a honeymoon in this little U.S. border town with his Anglo bride, Susie, played by Janet Leigh. Pulled into the investigation of the bombing, Vargas encounters the local police captain, a huge, ugly shambling monster of a man named Hank Quinlan, played of course by Orson Welles. Soon he discovers that Quinlan and his men have planted evidence on an innocent Mexican in order to close the case. When Vargas threatens to expose Quinlan, the corrupt cop enlists the help of a slimy crime boss, played by Akim Tamiroff, to kidnap Vargas’s wife Susie, shoot her up with drugs, and implicate her in a murder. Let’s just say things get ugly.
The style of Touch of Evil is Welles at his most hallucinatory. The camera never establishes a solid spatial sense. Everything looks dark, distorted, nightmarish. And long before Robert Altman got famous for using overlapping dialogue, Welles pioneers it here—the voices run into and over each other in a sinister babble that really gets under the skin. Some have enjoyed making fun of Charlton Heston playing a Mexican, which is unfair, really, casting practices being what they were. The truth is Welles would never have gotten to direct this film without Heston, who specifically asked for him. Anyway, he’s fine in the lead, and Welles is amazing as the grotesque, sweaty old man in a rumpled suit and hat, with his brutal squinting eyes. He has a later scene with Marlene Dietrich, playing a madam, where she tells him that he should “lay off those candy bars.” Welles actually makes you feel a little sorry for this evil character. Then there are scenes with Janet Leigh being menaced in an out-of-the-way motel, including Dennis Weaver as a crazy desk clerk, and these are weirdly prophetic of the role she would play in Hitchcock’s Psycho a few years later.
Well, the studio had new scenes shot by a different director to be inserted into the film, supposedly to help it make sense, then they stuck the movie in the B-slot in a double feature and it died, only to gain in reputation as the years went by. A cleaned-up version was released in 1976. Then in 1998, the great editor Walter Murch did a restoration that is probably the closest we’ll ever get to what Welles intended.
Touch of Evil is available on DVD.