The idea of conflict between good and evil is central to this film and the US-Mexico divide in which the drama is played out merely is a geographical divide, and not necessarily to be taken for a moral divide. Having said this let me introduce Mr. Big and he is evil incarnate and he is also a pro. Quinlan exudes the stench of corruption from every pore of his distended, heaving carcass, yet his fellow officers are in awe of him because of his reputation. He short-cuts moral quotient if he could attain his ends. Thus he is also a pragmatist. The twist is that his outlook has been poisoned since the brutal murder of his wife, decades ago. The constant pain fuels a personal vendetta. This is, of course, no excuse, but it does partly explain the prejudice of Quinlan. Enter the Mexican lawmen Ramon ‘Mike’ Vargas and given an international incident and an unsolved crime the stage is set for sparks to fly. Both Vargas and Quinlan have reputations to protect and when it comes down to a one-on-one duel, both are willing to get their hands dirty. Now all it requires is the genius of Orson Welles to give the film its impact and enduring appeal.
The film opens with its most famous sequence. It’s an audacious, incredible, breathtaking, three-minute, uninterrupted crane tracking shot under the credits (appearing superimposed on the left of the screen). The entire tracking shot covers four blocks from start to finish. In a close-up, hands set an explosive, timed device. A shadowy figure runs and places it in the trunk of a parked convertible. The pounding of bongo drums and blare of brass instruments are heard (Henry Mancini’s score), accompanied by the ticking-tocking of the mechanism on the soundtrack. The camera pulls away sharply, identifying the car’s location – it is parked on a street in a seedy Mexican border town. An unsuspecting, wealthy American man – Rudi Linnekar (the boss of the town) and his giggling, blonde floozy, mistress/girlfriend [later, we learn she is a striptease dancer named Zita] emerge out of the background darkness and get into the car, driving off through the streets toward the US-Mexican border about four blocks away.
Through the tawdry streets Linnekar and Zita roll, until the camera smoothly picks up their passing by Mexican lawman Ramon “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his new wife Susan (Janet Leigh). As the newly-weds cross over the border, into the US, they catch up and overtake the automobile. Just a few steps more and the car explodes in a ball of flame, casting harsh shadows. Unfortunately this is an international incident since the bomb was set in Mexico and detonated in America.
Honeymoon plans of Vargas and his wife are now ruined and he sends her to the hotel to await him while he wants to assist the local cops who have arrived at the scene. The cops are awaiting Quinlan (Orson Welles). When he finally arrives from his ranch, with his side-kick Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), the dead man’s daughter Marcia Linnekar (Joanna Moore) comes in to identify the remains of her father but Quinlan seems disinterested, dismissing her (with a tail). Finally turning to his fellow officers, after appraising and disregarding Vargas, Quinlan’s twitching nose takes them onto the Mexican side.
Meanwhile, Susan has been waylaid on the way to the hotel by smooth-looking Pancho (Valentin De Vargas), one of the Grandi boys. Allowing herself to be led to greasy crime-boss “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), puts on a brave face. Since his brother is being investigated by Vargas, he wants him to lay off – a request which cuts no ice with Susan. Her husband hasn’t got much time to think about this development though because Quinlan is hot on the trail of a suspect and Vargas wants to be present. The hunch concerns Manelo Sanchez (Victor Millan), a poor Mexican worker who became involved with Marcia, severely upsetting her father. Thus Sanchez had the motive, which is enough for Quinlan. However the discovery of some damning evidence by Pete seals the case, but disturbs Vargas. He is certain that Quinlan is framing Sanchez, though he’ll have to gather some solid proof if he is to prove this (which means leaving Susan to make the best of her situation.)
We see a stunning portrait of corruption and abuse of power in the hulk of Orson Welles. As I said earlier the opening shots sets the mood and tone. Having introduced main characters early on Welles doesn’t slacken his control over its development. This technical brilliance, flaunted so early, is a driving force, opening the door to extensive range of camera angles and superb editing. Links between separate scenes are established with connecting motifs, such as doors opening or a shared musical theme. When combined with the advanced level of spatial choreography (so that every position and movement latches together into a cogent whole), the result is an extraordinary piece of film-making. There is a greater fluidity in his direction helped firmly by the strong theme and acting.
Lastly, the bizarre casting choices made for Touch of Evil show, in retrospect, a certain genius. Welles is perfect, dominating and beyond reproach, sometimes looming over the screen and sometimes shrunken like a doll. In opposition, Heston and Leigh are excellent as the disturbed newly-weds. However, special mentions must be made of Marlene Dietrich, the gypsy fortune-teller Tanya, Dennis Weaver, the motel clerk, Mercedes McCambridge, a butch gang member, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. This eclectic group of performers forms the broad-sweep of this frontier town, a setting where the weird is commonplace and disparate cultures clash. All of this gives Touch of Evil a deliciously tangy flavour, a film noir at its best. Given the unexpected opportunity to direct( since Citizen Kane had sent him to the dog-house as far as Movie moghuls were concerned), Welles grabbed the opportunity and created a masterpiece (foxing the studio executives). As usual he messed up during the editing stage, by letting the film out of his hands (cf. The Magnificent Ambersons), but now we have the chance to see his vision in all of its electrifying glory.
The version of the film that was released in 1958 with 93 minutes of running time (later revised and restored with 15 minutes of additional scenes in 1976), was disowned by director Welles, who was paid $125,000 to direct, re-write, and star in the film. Before its release by Universal International Pictures, some scenes were reshot, and the film was edited, cut and bastardized without his full approval, while he was out of town working on another project.
In 1998, the film was re-edited and/or restored based upon creator Welles’ original, newly-discovered 58 page memo of editing instructions to Universal International boss Ed Muhl. The new version did not contain new footage, but was a reconstructed “quasi-director’s cut” with re-organized, cross-cut scenes (with a total of about 50 changes). The most impressive change was that the legendary opening shot (described below) was seen without obscuring, super-imposed credits, and the blaring, distracting Henry Mancini background music during the elaborate scene was stripped away and replaced by natural source music (from doorways of dives the couple passes, or from car radios). The credits were re-positioned at the end of the sequence. Other changes included: repaired torn shots, restored sound quality, excision of “explanatory scenes” added by the studio, re-positioning and trimming of scenes, and restoration of originally-cut footage. The re-edited version, the fourth version of the film, now runs 111 minutes (compared to 93 minutes in the earliest version).(ack)