1958. Starring Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh. Directed by Orson Welles.
Hollywood never knew how to handle a genius like Orson Welles, which may be why he’s such an enigma today. When I was growing up, he was a walking metaphor for unrestrained appetites and shameful failure, self-deprecating in his TV appearances and insincere in his grotesque-gourmand image of a pitchman for Gallo wine. Only years later, after seeing Citizen Kane and The Third Man and Lady From Shanghai, did I realize that I had misjudged him.
Once I saw Touch of Evil, though, my appreciation of Welles took a giant leap. Film noir through a sideshow hall of mirrors, like Twin Peaks with fedoras, Touch of Evil is about corruption and vengeance, and is so oily and damp that you can almost smell the sleazy characters.
Charlton Heston (a truly confounding casting choice) portrays Miguel Vargas, a Mexican detective about to honeymoon with new bride, Janet Leigh. They never get started as a car bombing forces the Mexican and American police to cooperate on the investigation — cooperation that is suspended when esteemed Hank Quinlan (Welles) appears on the scene, and quickly arrests his first suspect. But was the arrest based on one of Hank’s “hunches” or did the evidence mysteriously appear in the suspect’s possession, as it has in so many of his past cases?
Meanwhile, the new Mrs. Vargas has been transported to wait at a remote hotel, managed by the strange Dennis Weaver (his character seems Scandanavian AND bi-polar), who would seem to be riffing on Psycho’s Norman Bates — if not for Psycho being released two years later. But the hotel is actually owned by the Grandi gang, a Mexican gang of bikers and small-time thugs who have been following and tormenting Leigh. They attempt to derail Vargas’ investigation into the gang’s crimes by kidnapping his wife, drugging her and framing him for a murder.
Yeah, it’s hard to follow, but you won’t mind a second viewing, because you’ll never see filmmaking like this again. The opening scene is studied in film school, as a bomb is planted in a closeup that expands to an overhead establishing shot, then follows a couple down the street as they pass the car with the bomb, which then drives by, all while dialogue sets up the characters and kicks the plot into motion.
Every shot in Touch of Evil is something special — the lighting, the framing, the movement, the sets. The characters talk over each other, move in and out of each other’s scenes, uncomfortably squeezed face to face in scenes where you have to watch everyone’s expression. Welles is sweaty, unshaven, bloated and rumpled as the veteran cop. “Don’t you recognize your old friend? I’m Hank Quinlan,” he asks the oddly-cast fortune teller played by Marlene Dietrich. “You should lay off the candy bars,” she replies. She later tells him, without having to turn over her cards, that he has no future, that it’s all used up.
Welles is very generous in making himself so physically representative of his character’s depravity and corruption. Universal was less generous, taking the editing away from Welles after his first cut. Universal reshot some scenes and released their version, causing Welles to write a 58-page memo of changes to match his original vision. A revised version was produced in 1975, before a team re-edited the film to match Welles’ memo and released it as the “Director’s Cut” in 1998. It may not be exact way Welles wanted it, but it is fantastic, and it’s hard to believe a studio would have ever questioned his genius.