Touch of Evil (1958) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

For many, Orson Welles’ 1958 film Touch of Evil marks the end of classic Film Noir. It certainly marked the end of Welles’ Hollywood directing career, though it had to wait some forty years before it could finally be seen in a version that was close to his original intentions, especially with regards to the film’s opening sequence. Referenced in films as different as Brian De Palma’s The Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Mike Nichols’ Postcards from the Edge (1991) and In Burges (2008), Welles’ opening long take is one of cinema’s best known sequences and is frequently cited as a model of its kind, though the film to which it belongs seems to have been slightly forgotten .

The following review is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom and you should head over there to see the many other selections.

“If you introduce a gun in the opening of the story, make sure that you have used it by the end” – Anton Chekhov, in a letter to a budding writer

“Ever see Touch of Evil? Great Opening shot” – Walter Stuckel (Fred Ward) in The Player (1992)

Touch of Evil (1958, Universal International) opens with a sequence made up of a single shot that runs approximately 3 minutes and 20 seconds. It begins with a close-up of a timer being set on a clock attached to some sticks of dynamite and ends with the (off-camera) sound of the bomb exploding. This extraordinary opening, a 200 second sequence shot, is probably the most famous of the many long takes that can be found in all Welles’ Hollywood films. But it didn’t spring unbidden from his head and is in fact a fundamental part of a long tradition with its roots firmly planted in the very origins of cinema. This is a film with a fine pedigree and a complex production history, as with most of Orson Welles’ projects. It is also a fine example of the way this genius director could dynamically sum up the themes of a film in a succinct, flamboyant, truly unforgettable way.

“Long takes – shots that ran to uncommon lengths and did duty for a series of briefer shots.” – David Bordwell, On the History of Film Style (1997)

Touch of Evil was the first film that Orson Welles made in Hollywood after an absence of nearly ten years. Charlton Heston, the film’s star and a friend and supporter of Welles, dubbed it “The best B movie ever made”, but it’s much better and deeper than that suggests, and arguably it has been even more influential that Welles’ more celebrated Citizen Kane, especially in its stylistic flourishes such as its deep focus cinematography, overlapping dialogue and particularly in the dynamic quality of its extremely long takes. Between Citizen Kane in 1941 and Macbeth in 1948 Welles was able to complete six feature films, all characterised by the use of unusually long takes, deep focus cinematography, over lapping dialogue, dynamic tracking shots and intricate sound tracks. He then moved to Europe where he had to make do with far fewer resources than had been available to him in America, both financially and technically, and so adopted a whole new style of shooting. For what turned out to be his last chance at directing in Hollywood, Welles’ created a film that stands as the culmination of almost 20 years of bold experimentation within Hollywood Studio System, that most artistically conservative and timid of film-making communities.

Touch of Evil is a film usually described as Film Noir due to its morally ambiguous tone, dark, contrasty cinematography and for its crime story though it also has a strong expressionist and even a Gothic feel to it. It deals with the investigation launched by the DA Miguel ‘Mike’ Vargas (played by Charlton Heston in dark make-up) after a businessman is blown up in his car with a couple of sticks of dynamite. The car had just crossed the US-Mexico border (it is typical of the film’s ambiguous and ambivalent tone that for much of the time we are in fact quite unsure as to which side of the border we actually are on), which brings in the subsidiary theme of race relations. This is further emphasised in that Vargas is a Mexican official who has just married Susan, a blonde and very WASP-y yank (the gorgeous Janet Leigh). It eventually becomes clear that Sanchez, the man who has ‘confessed’ to the crime, has been framed by corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Welles), who then starts putting pressure on the DA and his new wife to halt the investigation. The victimisation and kidnapping of the wife is quite nightmarish and still very powerful, making for quite uncomfortable viewing as the poor woman is framed for possession of narcotics and terrorised by hoodlums in league with Quinlan.

Welles got the chance to direct after having already been offered the role of the corrupt cop. This came as a result of the successful relationship with producer Albert Zugmith on a previous Universal movie about race and corruption, Man in the Shadow (for more on that film, which incidentally shares a lot of thematic material with Touch of Evil, see the fine review over at Riding the High Country). It was an adaptation of the Whit Masterson novel (soon to be reviewed here) Badge of Evil, from which it took its main plot and several concepts and ideas but from which it also diverges in several crucial aspects, not least in switching the cultural heritage of the leading characters. One can in fact see traces of Welles’ previous work here, both from Man in the Shadow but also his earlier Universal thriller The Stranger, which also puts a wife between an investigator and his quarry and also deals with issues of racial hatred.

“…the camera swoops and hovers like a kingfisher, inscribing Orson’s signature on every sequence” – Kenneth Tynan in 1961 on Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil is much darker than the novel, though this aspect varies depending on which version of the film you see. The film in fact exists in three versions – the one first released in 1958 and which ran 93 minutes, a 108 minute version first made generally available in 1976 (and which includes more of the footage re-shot by Harry Keller after the Studio made demands Welles could not meet) and a 111 minute composite version first shown in 1998 which tries to be as faithful to Welles’ conception and which I would argue is in fact the one really worth celebrating, though many disagree about this, not least because it jettisons Henry Mancini’s opening theme music. The best known version for many years, and the one most widely disseminated on TV and Video, was the second, which was in fact a preview version that Welles had almost but not quite completed and which the studio then ‘amended’. The three versions have a number of significant differences, but they all begin in the same way, its celebrated 200-second single sequence, which Welles initially conceived as a curtain-opener, a pre-credits sequence to set the tone and style of the film to follow. The main difference is that in the third version we finally got to see the opening as intended – not as a title sequence with credits and a theme tune, but as prelude to the film that follows. For a full accounting on the variences, see Lawrence French’s detailed analysis over at the late Wellesnet site here.

“The opening shot of Welles’ Touch of Evil was six and a half minutes long … well, three or four anyways. He set up the whole picture with that one tracking shot.” – Walter Stuckel (played by Fred Ward) during The Player’s opening eight minute shot.

This is probably the most remarked upon aspect of the film, although in many ways it was not unique. A number of earlier films also began with long takes, such as Reuben Mamoulian’s 1932 film Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage, while a number of earlier films had takes that ran for considerably longer. One major Hollywood film even went so far as to experiment with the notion that by being shot entirely from the POV of one character it was made up (theoretically) of one long tracking shot (Robert Montgomery’s 1947 film of Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake). Academic research by the likes of Barry Salt and David Bordwell has shown that during the 1930s and 1940s, the average shot length of a Hollywood film was between 6 and 12 seconds. It is not however the longest take in the film – indeed, the most subtle use of the technique belongs to the extraordinary sequence in which Quinlain and Vargas move in the house of the main suspect in the bombing – as they question the suspect Vargas knocks over an empty box in the bathroom, but Quinlan later claims to have found the dynamite in it. Vargas knows it’s a set-up and will spend the rest of the film trying to prove it.

Beyond its extraordinary technique, the film broke new ground in its exploration of racial tensions on the Mexican border and also features several eye-catching performances from the likes of Marlena Dietrich, who as Tana gets most of the quotable dialogue (she reads Quinlan’s fortune and tells him, “You’re future’s all used up”) and the famous “Some kind of man” last line, while Akim Tamiroff as the local gangster is both genuinely funny and truly creepy and gets one hell of a send off in a truly baroque murder sequence. Then there is Dennis Weaver as the peculiar manager of a motel so seedy the Bates’ might want to take over. This is not a film for everyone, its genuinely dark and impressionistic atmosphere, recreating Mexico in the Venice area of LA, conveysm a heightened sense of jeopardy and sexual tension that very few films of the era can match. But it also has a lot of heart, though it is typical that the real love story, as explained in the concluding scene, is not between Vargas and his sexy new bride, but rather between the gross and corrupt Quinlan and his loyal colleague and best-friend Menzies, played beautifully by Joseph Calleia in a performance that should have got the Oscar that year (he didn’t even get a nomination).

Video Availability: All three version of the film are available on DVD and in the UK on Blu-ray too. The Blu-ray offers an improved image transfer and also the opportunity to watch either in widescreen or full frame – the latter is usually the most effective. All these packages offer separate audio commentaries for each version of the film – the best is undoubtedly the one found on the 1970s version by expert critics James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum, for this blogger the two most foremost authorities on Welles.

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Film Noir, Los Angeles, Mexico, Noir on Tuesday, Orson Welles, Scene of the crime, Tuesday's Overlooked Film, Wade Miller, Whit Masterson. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Touch of Evil (1958) – Tuesday’s Forgotten Film

  1. Mike says:

    Difficult at first to agree that this is a legitimate ‘forgotten film’, especially as a big fuss was made of it on its 1998 re-release and I was lucky enough to catch a screening at the Manchester Cornerhouse, but before then it probably was pretty much on the heap, save as you say for that opening sequence. Loved the film, and this was a great write-up.

    • Thanks Mike – I know what you mean about it’s ‘forgotten’ status, but it is one of those movies that people seem to know about and heard of but have rarely seen outside of proper fillm buffs (like ourselves). Also, I originally started writing this with a view of exploring all the aspects of the film beyond the attention-grabbing sequence shots, but darn it if I didn’t fall into the trap I was trying to get out of as I seem to have done just that after all!! I may have to do a follow-up post just on Welles and his fascination with films ‘south of the border’ and then another on the Shakesperean character and themes to be found and then another … such a great movie and such a rich bounty to be had. If not forgotten, then certainly worth celebrating, and the new Blu-ray (which is what got me started) makes it an even more atrtactive a proposition! Glad you enjoyed it, either way.

  2. Colin says:

    Good stuff Sergio.
    I think this is a great movie too. Aside from the famous opening, I love the dialogue (glad you mentioned Dietrich’s brief but memorable and telling cameo) and the relationships between the characters. The friendship of Welles and Calleia’s characters is not only pivotal to the plot but also provides insight into the degenerate nature of Quinlan. Which takes me to Welles performance; it’s one of his greatest roles, albeit not one of his most attractive. The gross, shambling, deceptively muddled figure is the perfect physical embodiment of a soul which has corrupted the body from within.

    As for the film being forgotten in some sense, you do have a point. I think it’s very easy to get sucked into the trap of seeing movies through the eyes of film buffs. We may be familiar with these works, but the general public, if we’re going to be completely honest, is not. At best, some notable aspect, such as the opening, may have filtered through to the masses, but the movies themselves are nowhere near as well-known as we might like to think.

    I have the Eureka Blu-ray sitting in my Amazon shopping cart right now, and I’ll definitely be picking it up in the near future.

    • Cheers Colin. It is an amazingly dynamic film but as you point out it is important to notr the emphasis on character in the narrative – and I didn’t even mention the appearances by Ray Collins, Joseph Cotten, Mercedes Mccambridge and Zsa Zsa Gabor. The film has so many wonderful scenes and ironies (not least the apparently throway resolution to the crime) that it repays constant re-viewing. The Blu-ray is a must-have, all five of the viewing options offer something special frankly and the time spent is a very good investment even if you know, or think you know, the film well.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    This is a great movie and I hope it is not forgotten.

    • Hi Patti – Welles is probably my favourite filmmaker in the sense that I can just sit and re-watch any of his films with renewed awe every time. Maybe more overlooked than forgotten, perhaps? Thanks for the comments.

  4. Ron Scheer says:

    The reconstructed opening sequence is brilliant. Shot in Venice, where I lived for a time, it was interesting to see what there was of the center of town when the movie was made. Only a few of those arches left today.

  5. Yvette says:

    I am so out of the loop that I hadn’t even realized that there was any leftover fuss and muss over this movie. But I also know that where Orson Welles is concerned, there’s bound to be controversy and lots of leftover film on the cutting room floor. It’s too bad this guy could never seem to find the right backers – backers who actually believed in him, I mean.

    Charlton Heston playing a Latin is not something I ever got used to. He almost spoils the film for me because of the incongruity of it. But then, I haven’t seen this in ages and sometimes I get it confused with Orson Welles’ film with Rita Hayworth and those amusement park mirrors.

    Thanks for a fabulous post, Sergio.

    • Cheers Yvette – Citizen Kane is the only one of his Hollywood films that didn’t get re-edited to some extent, which is extraordinary really, though Macbeth probably comes second closest and even that exists in two very different edits – truly exasperating! Lady From Shanghai was brutally re-edited with most of the funfair climax cut out amongst other things, including an opening sequence in the park when Hayworth meets Welles that, like the opening od Touch of Evil, was supposed to be filmed in a series of long and elaborate crane shots but most of these got cut by Harry Cohn. Still a fascinating movie, though perhaps more ‘forgotten’ than Touch of Evil as it looks like plenty of people remember this movie after all – which is great news! Heston is definitely more of a ‘mexican’t’ in that makeup, though it is a pretty decent performance in other respects. It’s the only patently false note in the film (well, apart from having the Russian Tamiroff play an Italian gangster that is – sheesh)

  6. Sergio, thanks for a terrific and authoritative review. It’s an eye-opener for someone who hasn’t seen many noir films, including TOUCH OF EVIL. I also liked the way you have interwoven Welles’ Hollywood career, especially as a director, into the review. How often has Charlton Heston acted in such films? Not many I think.

    • Thanks Prashant, glad to hear it was useful. I am a big fan of Film Noir, as you have noticed no doubt (!), so expect there to be many more added to the pages over the coming months. Heston got so associated with big epic roles that one tends to roget his more ‘down-to-earth’ movies, though there are plenty in the crime and mystery genre throughout his career – I wouldparticularly reccomend his Hollywood debut, Dark City (1950), The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) which Hitchcock was originally assigned to, Two-Minute Warning (1976) which is often marketed as a ‘disaster’ movie but is really a suspense film about an unseen sniper and he did play Sherlock Holmes in the 1991 version fo The Crucifer of Blood, directed by his son Fraser Heston.

  7. Rod Croft says:

    Perhaps I am in the minority, in that I saw “Touch of Evil” when originally released in theatres. It was a film that I well remember and thoroughly enjoyed. I recall that, like Yvette, I was, at first, puzzled by the casting of Charlton Heston. Fortunately, this concern was soon overcome as the film progressed.
    To my mind, Orson Welles always provided “interesting” viewing, whether directing, producing,or acting.
    Maybe “Touch of Evil” has, in fact, been forgotten or ignored by the majority of a new, jaded generation, many of whom refuse to view “black and white” or “older” film but then, there will always be those who appreciate the talent and the effort expended, to provide the public with such “treasures”.
    Thank you for your positive and interesting review.

    • Thanks for the comments Rod. I’ve seen the film only in revival cinemas I’m afraid as it predates me a litte – I think I first saw it in the early 1980s. I pegged it as a ‘forgotten’ film but I’m glad to say that I have been fairly roundly disabused of that notion if the feedback here is anythign go by! The casting of Heston is a bit of a hurdle nowadays (or maybe then too, as you say, even if it was more common), which is a shame as it’s the only thing that dates it badly. Easy to see why you could still remember it after all this time though – great movie!

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