Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil (1958) is an American crime drama film, written, directed by, and co-starring Orson Welles. Paul Monash and Franklin Coen also wrote scenes for the film. The screenplay was loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson. The cast includes Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich. Touch of Evil is one of the last examples of film noir in the genre's classic era (from the early 1940s until the late 1950s).

The movie opens with a three-minute, thirty second continuous tracking shot widely considered by critics to be one of the greatest long takes in cinematic history. Beginning on the Mexico/US border, the shot shows a man placing a bomb in a car and then the journey of the car into the United States. The shot ends with newlyweds Miguel ("Mike") (Charlton Heston) and Susie Vargas (Janet Leigh) kissing. The scene then cuts to the car, containing a man and a woman, exploding.

Vargas, a drug enforcement official within the Mexican government, realizes the implications of a Mexican bomb exploding on American soil and begins to investigate. Police Chief Pete Gould (Harry Shannon) and District Attorney Adair (Ray Collins) arrive shortly on the scene, as well as police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Quinlan's friend and partner, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia).

While Quinlan and Menzies interrogate their prime suspect, a young Mexican named Sanchez who was secretly married to the daughter of the victim, Vargas visits the restroom and knocks a shoebox into the empty bathtub. He places the box back in its place. Moments later, Menzies announces that two sticks of dynamite were found in the shoebox in the bathroom. Vargas, aghast at the duplicity of the two men, determines that Quinlan may have been habitually planting evidence to help win convictions for years.

Vargas then studies the public records on Quinlan's previous cases, and confronts the Americans with his findings. A furious Quinlan tosses his badge to the floor and threatens to resign.

While Vargas is investigating Quinlan's corrupt tactics, Susie Vargas is dismayed to find that the out-of-the-way motel Menzies recommended to her is solely inhabited by the dimwitted night manager (Dennis Weaver), and gets taken over by a group of gang members. The gang members are members of the Grande family, who Vargas is fighting as a drug enforcement official. Vargas becomes concerned when his attempts to reach her at the motel are sabotaged. Under orders from Quinlan and his criminal associate Grande, (Akim Tamiroff) the motel’s owner and brother of a man Vargas arrested, Susie is kidnapped by the gang, injected with drugs, and taken to Grande’s other motel in town. There, Quinlan strangles Grande and frames Susie Vargas for the murder in order to ruin her husband.

Meanwhile, Vargas confronts Menzies about the suspicious fact that so many murders have been solved by Quinlan and Menzies where the defense claims the primary evidence was fabricated. In all those cases, Menzies or Quinlan discovered the evidence. Initially, Menzies dismisses Vargas's claim.

Vargas returns to the motel only to discover that Susie is gone. Vargas also sees that the gun he left for his wife is missing. After learning that the motel is owned by Grande, Vargas travels to Grande's other motel, unaware of Grande's murder, and confronts the young gang punks who attacked his wife in a desperate attempt to learn of Susie's location. When the punks refuse to answer him, the enraged Vargas systematically beats them up, one at a time. Vargas is then informed by Al Schwartz (Mort Mills), who was working with Vargas in his investigation of Quinlan, that his wife has been arrested. Vargas goes to the jail to discover Susie barely conscious. Vargas seems to be in a hopeless situation, with no proof that his wife did not commit the murder. Menzies then shows Vargas Quinlan's cane, which Menzies had found at the crime scene. Menzies sets out to confront Quinlan. Menzies wears a crude wire and Vargas must follow the moving Quinlan and Menzies with a radio that must be within a certain distance to record Quinlan and Menzies' conversation.

Quinlan admits to Menzies that he did frame people, but that everyone who was framed was "guilty, guilty". Quinlan and Menzies come to a bridge, and Vargas must sneak under the bridge to maintain the recording. Quinlan hears the echo, and according to Quinlan his game leg informs him of Menzies' wire. Quinlan orders Vargas to show himself, and when Vargas does, Quinlan shoots Menzies with Vargas' gun.

As Quinlan is readying to kill Vargas, Menzies fatally shoots Quinlan. It is then reported that the suspect that he framed has confessed and really did commit the crime. The movie ends with Vargas leaving town with Susie.

There are two stories as to how Welles ended up directing Touch of Evil. Charlton Heston recalled that Welles was originally hired to act in the film only, not to direct or write. Universal was keen to secure Heston for the lead, but he wanted the studio to confirm the director before he signed on. After learning that Welles was in the cast, Heston expressed his greater interest in starring if Welles were directing. The other story is that Welles had recently worked with producer Albert Zugsmith, known as the "King of the Bs", on a film called Man in the Shadow and was interested in directing something for him. Zugsmith offered him a pile of scripts, of which Welles asked for the worst to prove he could make a great film out of a bad script. At the time, the script was called Badge of Evil, after a Whit Masterson novel on which it was based. Welles did a rewrite and took it into production. After a decade in Europe during which he completed only two films, Welles was eager to direct for Hollywood again, so he agreed to take only an acting fee for the role of Quinlan.

A number of notable actors pop up in minor roles. Dennis Weaver plays a mentally unbalanced night clerk at an isolated motel. Welles liked Weaver as Chester on TV's Gunsmoke and worked closely with him on his part, which was shot on a three-day hiatus from the TV show. Zsa Zsa Gabor, who appears briefly as the impresario of a strip club, was a friend of the producer. Welles's old friend Joseph Calleia portrays Quinlan's betrayed partner. Many of the actors worked for lower wages just to make a film with Welles. Marlene Dietrich's role was a surprise to the producers and they raised her fee so they could advertise her involvement. Welles' friend and Mercury Theater colleague, Joseph Cotten, appears uncredited as a police officer.

Janet Leigh recalled how Welles asked for input from the actors in the cast:

"It started with rehearsals. We rehearsed two weeks prior to shooting, which was unusual. We rewrote most of the dialogue, all of us, which was also unusual, and Mr. Welles always wanted our input. It was a collective effort, and there was such a surge of participation, of creativity, of energy. You could feel the pulse growing as we rehearsed. You felt you were inventing something as you went along. Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn't want one bland moment. He made you feel you were involved in a wonderful event that was happening before your eyes."

Welles wrapped production on time, delivered a rough cut to Universal, and was convinced that his Hollywood career was back on the rails. However, the film was then re-edited (and in part re-shot) by Universal International pictures. The editing process was protracted and disputed, and the version eventually released was not the film Universal or Welles had hoped for. It was released as a B-movie, the lower half of a double feature. The A-movie was The Female Animal, starring Hedy Lamarr, produced by Albert Zugsmith and directed by Harry Keller, whom the studio had hired to direct the re-shot material in Touch of Evil. The two films even had the same cameraman, Russell Metty. Welles's film was given little publicity despite the many stars in the cast. Though it had little commercial success in the US, it was well-received in Europe, particularly by critics like future filmmaker François Truffaut. Even as originally released, it was a film of power and impact.

Three versions of the film have been released:

1. The original 1958 release version
2. A longer version, released in 1976
3. A 1998 restored version that attempted to follow Welles's 1958 memo as closely as possible.

Welles's rough cut as submitted to Universal no longer exists. This was worked on and trimmed down by Universal staff, and in late 1957 Universal decided to perform some reshoots. Welles claimed these were done without his knowledge, but Universal claimed that Welles ignored their requests to return and undertake further work. This was when Keller came aboard: some of his material was entirely new, some replaced Welles scenes. Welles viewed the new cut and wrote a 58-page memo to Universal's head of production, Edward Muhl, detailing what he thought needed to be done to make the film work. However, many of his suggestions went unheeded and Touch of Evil was eventually released in a version running 93 minutes.

In the mid-1970s, Universal discovered that it held a 108-minute print of Touch of Evil in its archives. Aware that there was a growing audience of cineastes with a strong interest in Welles' work, the studio released this version to cinemas in 1976 and later issued it on video, billing it as 'complete, uncut and restored'. In fact, this print was not a restoration at all, but a preview version which post-dated the Welles memo but pre-dated the release version. Whilst it did feature some vital Welles scenes which had been cut from the release version, it also featured more Keller material: the new footage had been cut into the film, but much of it ended up being cut out again, resulting in pointless expense for Universal.

In 1998, the film was re-released in a re-edited form, which was based on the Welles memo and edited by Walter Murch, working from all available material, with Bob O'Neil (Universal's director of film restoration) and Bill Varney (sound engineer) participating in the restoration. As Welles' rough cut no longer exists, no true 'Welles cut' is possible, but Murch was able to assemble a version incorporating most of the existing material, omitting some of the Keller scenes (though some were retained, either because they had replaced Welles scenes which no longer existed and were necessary to the plot, or because Welles had approved of their inclusion). In addition, some of Welles's complaints were concerned with subtle sound and editing choices, and Murch was able to re-edit the material accordingly. Notable changes include the removal of the credits and music from the three-minute opening shot, crosscutting between the main story and Janet Leigh's subplot and the removal of Harry Keller's hotel lobby scene. Rick Schmidlin was the producer on the 1998 edit, which had a limited but successful theatrical release (again by Universal) and was subsequently made available on DVD. The DVD includes a reproduction of the 58-page memo.

Originally scheduled to be premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival with Janet Leigh, Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin attending, the screening was cancelled in the eleventh-hour after threats of litigation from Welles' daughter Beatrice Welles, who has in the past issued similar threats against some parties who try to show or alter her father's work (such as the Touch of Evil restoration or the completion of Welles' last film The Other Side of the Wind.) The reason given for the litigation was that Beatrice Welles was not consulted for the restoration.

In 1993, Touch of Evil was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film was placed #64 on American Film Institute's 100 Years, 100 Thrills.

The opening scene is replicated midway through Brian De Palma's 1974 camp musical film Phantom of the Paradise. De Palma's version involves a prop car on a theatrical stage being pushed out of the wings with a time-bomb in the trunk and an increasingly panicky blonde passenger. The novel approach here is that De Palma's take was shot in split-screen with Paul Williams's Swan character and the Phantom alternately observing the histrionics from the balcony and proscenium, respectively.

The film is also jokingly referred to (although not by name) in the Tim Burton film Ed Wood. In a scene near the end of the film, Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) is complaining to Orson Welles about how producers always want the wrong actors to play certain parts in their movies. Welles says, "Tell me about it. I'm supposed to direct a thriller for Universal. They want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican!"

A similar line is used in Get Shorty, where movie fan Chili Palmer invites another character to see a screening of Touch of Evil, saying, "We can see Charlton Heston play a Mexican." We later see Palmer watching the final scene of the movie, mouthing the words together with the characters on screen. Part of Mancini's score was used as the love theme between Chili and aging starlet Karen Flores, as well.

Touch of Evil is being watched by a security guard at the beginning of Sneakers. Vargas's comments foreshadow the final scenes of Sneakers.

In James Robert Baker's novel, Boy Wonder, fictional movie producer Shark Trager makes it his goal to surpass Touch of Evil's three minute opening tracking shot when filming a movie of his own. Tana's line, "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?" was also quoted extensively in the book.

The opening shot is discussed briefly in the opening of Robert Altman's 1992 film, The Player, by two characters who work for a fictional Hollywood studio. The shot in which the discussion takes place is itself a similar type of extended, uninterrupted tracking shot that spans the first three minutes of Touch of Evil. The opening is also referenced by Rainn Wilson in the DVD commentary of The Office episode entitled "Performance Anxiety".

In the independent film Into My Heart, the characters Ben (Rob Morrow) and Adam (Jake Weber) are seen exiting the old Thalia Theatre on Broadway after their 'yearly viewing' of the film, whose name can be seen on the marquis. Before heading to a nearby bar, both declare "I don't drink" in Hank's voice.

Singer-songwriter Tom Russell has a song titled "Touch Of Evil" on his 2001 album Borderland that references the movie extensively, including the long opening shot and the dialogue between Dietrich and Welles about his future.

In the 2008 film In Bruges, the opening shots of Touch of Evil can be seen playing in the background during the scene when Harry (Ralph Fiennes) instructs Ken (Brendan Gleeson) to kill Ray (Colin Farrell).

On the TV show House, Dr. Wilson has a Touch of Evil poster on the wall behind his desk.

Cabaret Voltaire have a song called "A Touch of Evil" on their record Red Mecca.

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