A seedy border town, a fiery explosion, a corrupt cop, a family of drug lords -- Orson Welles' Touch of Evil has plenty of good old-fashioned entertainment. To read its plot description, you'd think it was no more vital a part of the canon than any other black-and-white crime thriller, yet it is spoken of in reverent tones as a "classic" and a "masterpiece." So what's the big deal? Is it more than just populist entertainment? Or is it just really, really good populist entertainment?
The praise: American audiences didn't care much for it at first, but the Europeans did. It won Best Picture at the 1958 Brussels World Fair and counted critics Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut (both about to become filmmakers themselves) among its fans. In 1993, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry. It's on the American Film Institute's list of greatest thrillers (#64), but not on the overall list of best films of all genres. Just as Welles' Citizen Kane is often considered the best movie ever made, his Touch of Evil is frequently called the best B-movie ever made.
The context: The term "B-movie" comes from the days of double features, when a bigger film was paired with a cheaper, less important one. We use the term metaphorically today, now that double features don't exist anymore, but Touch of Evil really was a B-movie, released with The Female Animal, a completely forgotten drama that's now known only as the answer to two trivia questions: "What was Hedy Lamarr's last film?" and "What movie was on the top half of the Touch of Evil double bill?"
Welles himself was probably the biggest star in the cast. Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh were well known but still had their biggest successes ahead of them. And it's no wonder audiences didn't respond to the film with much enthusiasm -- Universal Pictures didn't give them any reason to. The studio wrested editorial control of the film from Welles, shooting additional footage and re-editing the picture without any input from him. The movie audiences saw in 1958 was 95 minutes long and, true to its film noir roots, a little hard to follow, plot-wise. (Universal had taken the film away from Welles in order to make it easier to understand, but their interference had the opposite effect.) Universal had previously shown a 108-minute version to test audiences, whose dissatisfaction prompted the 95-minute cut. The 108-minute version, lost for 15 years, was found and released in 1976, when Touch of Evil -- even in its bastardized form -- was starting to be lionized by critics. Curiously, even though Welles was still alive and healthy in 1976, Universal didn't consult him on this re-release.
It wasn't until 1998, 13 years after Welles' death, that Touch of Evil was restored to match his original vision, or at least something pretty close to it. Way back in December 1957, Welles saw Universal's cut of the movie and wrote a 58-page memo detailing how to improve it. Universal ignored most of his suggestions. But he'd written them in enough nitty-gritty detail that any skilled editor with access to the raw materials could re-edit the film to match what Welles had in mind. This was done, with Universal's eager participation (they'd come around by now), by Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient), and released in theaters and on DVD with its new 112-minute running time.
Welles was Hollywood's boy wonder, a prodigy whose first feature film, released when he was 26, was Citizen Kane (1941), for crying out loud. You can pretty much only go downhill from there. Studios meddled with everything he tried to make in Hollywood -- Kane hadn't achieved its legendary status yet, so Welles wasn't given the respect he probably deserved -- and this prompted him to head for Europe in 1947. Touch of Evil was his first Hollywood film in over a decade, and he thought he was back in Tinseltown's good graces until he saw what Universal had done to it. He never directed a Hollywood-funded film again.
The movie: Charlton Heston plays Miguel Vargas, a Mexican narcotics officer who has just married an American woman, Susie (Janet Leigh), and is about to embark on a honeymoon with her when a car explodes just a few feet onto the American side of the U.S./Mexico border, killing its two passengers. The American cops have jurisdiction, but since the bomb was planted on the car when it was in Mexico, Vargas wants to lend a hand with the investigation.
The American cop in charge is Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a snarling, obese, grotesque figure who basically runs things in his little border town. He's virulently racist and has no problem planting evidence on suspects if his "intuition" tells him he's got the right culprit. No one has ever stood up to him and his crooked methods before -- but he's never met Vargas, either.
What it influenced: John W. Hall wrote a fascinating piece describing how Touch of Evil influenced Hitchcock's Psycho, and not just because both films feature Janet Leigh encountering weird motel owners in the American Southwest (although that's part of it). Hitchcock and Welles aren't mentioned together very often, and their career paths were quite different, but Hall makes some excellent points about these two films' similarities.
The odd choice of casting Charlton Heston to play a Mexican has been referred to frequently, including in Heston's own Major Dundee (1965), where another character tells him he'd have a hard time passing for a Mexican. (They had inside jokes in those days, too.) In Ed Wood (1994), the title character complains about Hollywood studio politics to Orson Welles (played by Vincent D'Onofrio), who says, "Tell me about it! I'm supposed to do a thriller at Universal. But they want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican."
Apart from the unusual casting, the other element of Touch of Evil most frequently referenced is the opening shot. And with good reason: It's 3 minutes and 20 seconds of one unbroken take, starting with an unidentified man putting a bomb in the trunk of a car and ending with the car exploding several blocks down the road. (One of Welles' objections to Universal's version was that this extraordinary shot had the opening credits superimposed on it. The restored version moves the credits to the end of the film and lets this shot play out unobstructed.) Robert Altman's Hollywood satire The Player (1992) starts with two characters discussing that shot; the opening shot of The Player winds up lasting even longer.
Characters in Get Shorty (1995), In Bruges (2008), Sneakers (1992), Whatever Works (2009), and You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008) are seen viewing Touch of Evil, and there are usually plot parallels between Evil and the film referencing it. (Zohan has several actors playing characters of different ethnicities and deals with hostilities between nations, for example.)
What to look for: Now, obviously, if you're going to set a film in a Mexican border town, you'll want to cast a talented Hispanic actor as the principled Mexican lawman. So please enjoy Charlton Heston as Ramon Miguel Vargas!
This sounds hilarious now, but it didn't cause much of a stir at the time. Hollywood wasn't nearly as politically correct in matters of casting then as it is now. John Wayne played Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956). Welles played Othello in 1952, and Laurence Olivier would do so again in 1965, both in blackface. Natalie Wood played a Puerto Rican in West Side Story (1961). Heck, Mickey Rooney played a Chinese guy in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961). The movie industry was pretty white all the way around in the 1950s, and Caucasian actors regularly played other ethnicities. Heston's portrayal of a Mexican character -- with bronzed skin, thin mustache, and no attempt whatsoever at a Mexican accent -- was so unremarkable that most reviews of the film didn't even mention it.
All of this is a polite way of saying that if seeing Heston play a Mexican makes you giggle, you'll just have to get over it. Focus on his performance instead, which is actually pretty good. Welles is even better, though, as the sweaty, corpulent Quinlan. (Welles would eventually get quite fat himself, but his appearance here is enhanced by padding and makeup.)
You can't help noticing that famous opening shot, being the opening shot and all. As you might expect, it took quite a few takes to get it right -- if one person screws up, you gotta start over again -- and the last one they filmed is the one they used. The camerawork throughout the film is remarkable, with long tracking shots and other unusual techniques. Notice especially how crazy things get in the climactic scene, where Vargas eavesdrops on an incriminating conversation Quinlan is having. The obscure camera angles and relatively fast-paced editing heighten the suspense considerably.
Roger Ebert writes: "The destinies of all of the main characters are tangled from beginning to end, and the photography makes that point by trapping them in the same shots, or tying them together through cuts that match and resonate. The story moves not in a straight line, but as a series of loops and coils."
Watch for Zsa Zsa Gabor in a tiny role as the manager of a strip club. You always thought she was famous just for being famous, but it turns out she occasionally acted, too.
In addition to being a B-movie, Touch of Evil is also one of the last great examples of film noir. Note the elements of that genre: a convoluted storyline, shadowy black-and-white cinematography, an emphasis on murder and sex, a "red herring" to keep the plot moving (the exploding car, which eventually becomes irrelevant to the real meat of the story), and various hard-boiled men and femmes fatales. (Marlene Dietrich, who made a career out of playing such women, appears as the owner of a brothel who's friendly to Quinlan.)
Here's David Edelstein at Slate Magazine: "Part of recognizing that Touch of Evil is a masterpiece means also recognizing that it's often suffocatingly unpleasant, and that Welles is working off his aggression for the vast, trash-movie audience that he hoped to attract. His compositions are teeming, unbalanced, with a center of gravity that lurches left then right. The overlapping dialogue and squealing Cuban-African music heard over tinny-sounding radios seems meant to induce a migraine to accompany the seasickness."
What's the big deal: Some of its prestige stems from its historical significance as the last Orson Welles film that even approaches greatness. It's also, as noted, a terrific example of film noir, and it marks the end of that genre's "classic" period (1940-1958, basically). Factors like that, evident only in hindsight, might be important, but they don't necessarily make the movie any more enjoyable when you're sitting on the couch watching the DVD. (What does make it more enjoyable, of course, is snacks.)
What really sets Touch of Evil apart is the intricate camerawork and the better-than-average performances. B-movies weren't known for excelling in either category, after all; they were mostly about plot and atmosphere. Touch of Evil, on the other hand, puts some complicated characters out front and challenges the audience to keep up with it all. This story's themes had been explored elsewhere, but rarely with this kind of technical proficiency.
Further reading: Don't read these until after you've seen the movie or you'll have the whole story spoiled for you. For all you know, the bad guys win!
Lawrence French gives plenty of background on Welles' famous 58-page memo, then reproduces the entire text of it.
Tim Dirks' detailed, scene-by-scene analysis.
Roger Ebert's Great Movies entry.
John W. Hall's Touch of Evil/Psycho comparisons.
David Edelstein's review of the 1998 re-release.