“What are you trying to do?”
“We’re trying to strap you in the electric chair, boy.”
For some reason or other, I’m always getting this film’s title mixed up with a fine John Garfield title Force of Evil (1948, MGM), so if it sneaks in this review later, you’ll know why. Just thought I’d warn you!
In late 1956, Universal International Pictures had signed Orson Welles to play the heavy in an adaptation of a police thriller by Whit Masterson entitled “Badge of Evil.” The existing script was sent to Charlton Heston who expressed some interest depending upon who was to direct. The response was that no one had yet been identified. Hearing that Welles was already aboard as an actor, Heston suggested that Welles be asked to direct as well. And so it came to be, although Heston speculated that the thinking on Welles at Universal might have gone something like: “Ahh, let him direct it. How bad can it be? Heston’ll just get sore if we don’t. F***in’ actors.”
However it went, Welles did agree to direct on the condition that he be allowed to rewrite the script. This he did over a three and a half week period before production began. Principal filming, which was done on location in Venice, California, was completed in April 1957 with postproduction continuing into the summer. Apparently, Universal executives became unhappy with Welles’ unorthodox editing and unusual use of sound, however, and took the picture away from him. Universal did its own edit and some further minor shooting with studio director Harry Keller to accommodate it. Welles was allowed to see the finished product once before it was released. His response was to write a lengthy 58-page memo detailing a number of changes that he would like to see made, but his suggestions were ignored. Universal released Touch of Evil in the United States in 1958 with little fanfare as the second half of a double dill. Despite this, the film has gained recognition over the years, much of it driven by the very positive response it received upon its release in Europe, including one citation of it as “the best B movie ever made.”
In 1992, producer Rick Schmidlin became interested in Welles’ original memo and decided to adjust Touch of Evil to conform to Welles’ vision. He arranged for sound and film editor Walter Murch to undertake the changes, most of which occur during the first quarter of the film. The reconstructed version was released to theatres in late 1998 and has now been brought to DVD by Universal.
Mike Vargas, a Mexican justice department lawyer, and his new wife Susan are strolling the streets of a U.S./Mexico border town one evening when a car just ahead of them suddenly blows up. Dying in the explosion are Rudy Lanniker and his mistress. Lanniker was one of the richest men in the town and there is no apparent reason for his murder. Hank Quinlan, a corrupt American cop soon appears on the scene and takes charge, as the explosion occurred on the American side of the border. Vargas also tries to involve himself in the investigation as the car came from the Mexican side and may have had the explosives planted in it there. Vargas and Quinlan soon develop a mutual antipathy for each other. While this is occurring, Susan is coerced into meeting with Uncle Joe Grandi, a criminal whose brother has been indicted for drug trafficking due to Mike Vargas’ efforts. Joe Grandi delivers a veiled warning to Susan for her husband to lay off Grandi’s brother and she delivers this to Mike.
Quinlan and his men including long-time associate Pete Menzies cross into Mexico searching for suspects into Lanniker’s killing. Quickly deciding that the lover of Lanniker’s daughter is the obvious culprit, Quinlan interrogates him and then plants incriminating evidence in the form of two sticks of dynamite in order to justify an arrest. Vargas recognizes the falseness of the evidence, but knowing that it is his word against Quinlan’s, decides to delve into Quinlan’s past for evidence of similar abuses of justice.
Meanwhile, Joe Grandi and his thugs attempt to compromise Vargas’ case against Grandi’s brother by making Susan appear to be part of a drug-induced orgy.
The various script threads converge in a seedy hotel room in town, leading to the final confrontation between Quinlan and Vargas.
Touch of Evil is a fascinating film noir, rich in its cast, camerawork and sound — all orchestrated by Orson Welles. The result is a world of corruption seemingly extending everywhere: the dirty overall look of the border town; the seedy nature of its hotel and motel rooms; the bloated unkempt figure of Quinlan; the surface ineffectiveness — almost comicalness — of Grandi that hides more sinister capabilities; the garbage and pollution of the town’s river; and even the sense of betrayal that figures so prominently in the film’s resolution. Yet, at times, there is a sense of the surreal to it all that can really disorient you. Objects such as cars seem to be the trigger to this sense. They just seem so big! Long and with the big fins characteristic of the time, they almost seem out of proportion to the streets of the town — that, and the fact that you never see more than one or two together at a time.
The acting is uniformly superb. Welles’ Quinlan has to be seen to be appreciated. Quinlan is a rotting carcass of a bloated, unhealthy human being. Peter Falk’s Columbo is a paragon of fashion, virtue, and fitness compared to this guy. The role of Quinlan is really the lead role in the film and Welles pulls out all the stops in making him at the same time not only thoroughly unlikable and infinitely interesting, but also completely believable. Charlton Heston, the nominal star of the film, played Mike Vargas who in reality is more of an observer of the action and of the decline of Quinlan. Heston was originally signed before the Vargas part became the Mexican lawyer that Welles rewrote it to be — hence the unlikely scenario of Heston playing a Mexican. But he does very well with it, even if he never attempts any sort of Mexican inflection to his speech — something he later wished he had done. As Susan, Janet Leigh is also effective. The part is perhaps not as well written as the other main ones, but Leigh shines when Susan has to stand up to Grandi and his individual gang members. Notice that Leigh sometimes holds her left arm stiffly or hides it with clothing or other props. She had suffered a broken arm and did much of the shooting with a very light cast on it.
Also doing prominent work are Akim Tamiroff as Joe Grandi and a young Dennis Weaver as the motel night clerk. Welles was quite enamored of Weaver’s work at the time (he was playing Chester on the television series “Gunsmoke”) and wrote the part for him. A couple of actors from Welles’ old Mercury Players group are in evidence as well: Ray Collins as the rather fussy and eager to please D.A. and Joseph Cotton in a short cameo as one of the D.A.’s friends. Finally, Joseph Calleia played Sam Menzies. The latter role was written for Lloyd Bridges according to Welles, but the studio wouldn’t make him available so the part went to Calleia (whom Welles had long admired) who handled it skillfully. Throw in cameos by Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor and who could ask for anything more?
So much of the look of the film is reminiscent of Citizen Kane — the unusual camera angles and the distortion of characters that result from that, and quick editing. Welles loved, for instance, skip-framing. Thus, he would heighten the impact of a zoom by actually removing frames of film from within the zoom sequence. In Touch of Evil, a good example is the zoom in on the exploded car near the beginning. Another is the fade out on Vargas’ face when he hears that his wife has been arrested for murder. The film is full of astonishing camera sequences. Two are particularly memorable and are worth replaying several times to appreciate the intricacies of camera movement and positioning involved. The first is the film’s opening sequence and the other is the one in Lanniker’s daughter’s apartment. The opening follows Vargas and Susan as they walk from the Mexican to American side of town all the time either leading or following the car that will eventually explode. The sequence, which lasts 3 minutes and 20 seconds, is one continuous take that required considerable ingenuity to accomplish at the time. It is this sequence which benefited most from the re-editing of Touch of Evil. Welles had always intended this sequence to be free of any opening credits and that’s the way we now see it. The 1958 version superimposed the credits and background music that now appear at the end on top of the opening sequence, distracting the viewer and diminishing the sequence’s impact substantially. The sequence in Lanniker’s daughter’s apartment where Quinlan confronts her and her boyfriend and his assistants was again one continuous take, this time over five minutes in length. Welles considered this more difficult to achieve successfully than the opening sequence. Perhaps he’s correct because he pulled it off and if you’re not paying attention, you’re not even aware of it. The whole effect of what he achieves is to make the apartment seem increasingly more crowded and by the end of the sequence, claustrophobic in the extreme.
A final comment on Welles’ use of sound, and again it pertains to the opening sequence. Welles’ intent had always been to have a cacophony of different music emanating from the different bars and restaurants as Mike and Susan stroll through the town. One can readily appreciate from the new version how much this adds to the atmosphere and authenticity of the sequence. Imagine now the background music by Henry Mancini that accompanies the end credits being used here instead, as the 1958 release version did. It just wouldn’t convey the same sense of urgency and chaos that the current version does.
Universal has released a wonderful looking version of Touch of Evil on DVD. There’s a lot of difficult nighttime material in the film, but it’s nicely rendered on the DVD. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, anamorphically enhanced and with 18 chapter selections. The image is a little soft at times with some blacks not as deep as I’d like to see, but the shadow detail is excellent and that’s important with this film. There’s little in the way of scratching or speckling on the image or noticeable edge enhancement. Overall, I have to give Universal high marks on this one. The audio is also in quite presentable shape. The original mono is spread to two speakers across the front and this gives some added presence to the sound.
For supplementary material, Universal has reproduced Welles’ entire original memo. It’s fascinating to go through it. The typescript is a little variable in intensity, but is readable without too much strain. Included also is the original theatrical trailer (presented full frame) which starts off misleadingly by focusing on Janet Leigh’s character as though the film were principally about a gang of young thugs who force themselves on her. There are, in addition, short cast and crew profiles, and recommendations for other titles — all Hitchcock films, two of whose trailers are included also (Psycho and Vertigo).
When Touch of Evil was first announced, a documentary explaining and illustrating the changes that resulted from Welles’ memo was to have been included with the DVD. Apparently, legal issues precluded its inclusion at this time and rather than delay further, Universal chose to release the DVD without it. This is a real shame for the documentary would presumably have been a very helpful companion piece to the actual memo that Universal has included. I’m not condemning Universal on this point, just expressing disappointment at the piece not being available at this time. Hopefully it can be made available in the future and included on a new pressing of the title. Of course, that means you’ve got to buy the DVD again, but then who amongst us hasn’t run into that before?
Touch of Evil is a fine film noir — well written and acted, and interestingly shot. Universal has done a great job both on its re-editing of the original 1958 release version to conform as much as possible to Orson Welles’ original vision and on its DVD presentation of the result. The DVD’s image is of a high caliber for the nature of the film and is accompanied by several interesting supplements, most significantly Welles’ memo of suggested revisions to Universal’s 1958 version.