This is South of the Border week. We will be featuring movies based in Mexico. Touch of Evil is currently available on instant Netflix.
WATCH: Touch of Evil (1958) – NR – Not rated but contains adult content and violence.
“Narcotics detective Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) sees his honeymoon cut short when a car crossing the U.S.-Mexico border explodes before his eyes. Vargas forsakes his bride (Janet Leigh) to mount an investigation, but soon locks horns with corpulent Sheriff Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). The shady cop is not above planting evidence — or colluding with the local crime lord — to keep Vargas from discovering the ugly truth.”
“He says you do not understand what he wants.” – “I understand very well what he wants.”
“An hour ago Rudy Linnekar had this town in his pocket.” – “Now you can strain him through a sieve.”
“A policemans job is only easy in a police state.”
Orson Welles directed this quintessential noir film. It is sort of based on the book “Badge of Evil”. When Welles took over as director, he completely rewrote the script. Mike Vargas was changed from American to Mexican and his wife from Mexican to American.
Welles was not able to get his vision released in 1958. The studio fired him, cut many of his scenes and had Harry Keller reshoot others. He wrote a 58 page memo detailing his vision of the movie and the interference of Universal.
A version of the film was released in 1975. Most of the scenes added by Harry Keller were cut and several of the scenes by Welles were added back in.
Later, thanks to Charlton Heston, the 58-page memo by Welles resurfaced. It was used as a blueprint for a directors cut. This cut was released in 1998 to theaters and later DVD.
I was lucky enough to catch the 1998 release at the theater.
It begins with perhaps the best tracking shot in motion picture history (though Scorsese has a great one in Goodfellas). An anonymous man sets a kitchen timer on a bomb and plants it in a car. We then follow the car and later the Vargases as they intersect the shot with the car. This is all done in one long continuous shot.
I love the scene where Joe Grandi and Quinlan are discussing their partnership. Quinlan starts to say “I dont…” and realizes that he is drinking.
Charlton Heston does a wonderful job as Mexican police chief Mike Vargas. His character is fairly complex. While he is a righteous police officer, he understands that his out of his depth and jurisdiction north of the border.
Janet Leigh plays his wife, Susie. She does a great job with the woman in peril role while at the same time showing a disdain for Mexicans in spite of being married to one.
The scenes scaring her are very tepid, even goofy by what we see today. On the other hand it is utterly amazing how much got past the censors of the time.
Orson Welles himself plays Hank Quinlan, the American policeman. His staccato speech rhythms work really well here. I love the scene where he is discussing his partnership with Grandi. Quinlan starts to say “I dont…” and realizes that he is drinking.
Marlene Dietrich is simply amazing in her brief part. In her first scene, she looks at Quinlan and with great impact says “we are closed”. She takes an ordinary throwaway line and makes it her own. Her final lines are incredible.
Dennis Weaver (yes McCloud and Chester from Gunsmoke) plays a freaked out night manager. Unfortunately he is terrible in every scene that he is in.
My guess is that Welles was trying for some comic relief to offset the darkness of the noir but it really comes off badly. Basically all the sequences in that hotel are poor especially the music.
The pianola score used through much of the film (not the hotel sequences) is quite haunting.
Apart from the scenes in the hotel with Dennis Weaver, this is a fabulous film noir filled with wonderful directorial flourishes. With two caveats (the hotel and below), I heartily recommend this movie. Hurry though Netflix is retiring this one on 4/7.
Please note: While very worthwhile, the instant Netflix version is the 1958 one (95 minutes). For the 1998 restoration (112 minutes) you will need the DVD version.
While Vargas is the nominal protagonist, the story is actually all about Quinlan. It is clear that Welles in his direction and rewrite subverted the original story and made Quinlan the focus of the picture. Vargas seems more of a catalyst than a hero.
It is hard to believe that one of the greatest noirs of all time was not only a B-picture but was actually the back half of a double bill for The Female Animal.
People Watch: Wow – quite a few cameos here. Zsa Zsa Gabor appears for about four seconds but is instantly recognizable. Mercedes McCambridge appears as briefly as a gang leader who likes to watch (gosh would there be some subtext here to get past the censors?). Keenan Wynn is a lawyer and Joseph Cotton is the coroner in other brief cameos.