If you haven’t seen it:
Touch of Evil is a dark thriller about police corruption and racial tension. It stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, and was directed by Orson Welles, who also co-stars (wearing padding and makeup) as a ruthless cop.
The opening scene is one which is much loved by film critics; it is an impressive 3 minutes and 20 seconds unbroken take – a tracking crane shot following a car (which the viewer knows is carrying a ticking time bomb) through crowded streets, and crossing the Mexican/US border.
Touch of Evil was originally released as the second film (or “B-movie”) in a double-feature. The first film, which had a bigger budget and was deemed more important at the time, was “The Female Animal” – a movie now only remembered by trivia fans in case they are ever asked the question “What movie was on the top half of the Touch of Evil double bill?”. Touch of Evil meanwhile, is often referred to as the best “B movie” of all time.
If you have seen it:
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SPOILER ALERT: The plot summary and comments below contain details that might spoil your enjoyment of the movie if you have not already seen it.
When a car explodes after crossing the border from Mexico to the US, killing a businessman and his female companion, both US cop Hank Quinlan (Welles) and Mexican narcotics agent Mike Vargas (Heston) begin their investigations. Quinlan soon suspects Sanchez, a young Mexican who is involved with the dead man’s daughter Marcia. In order to secure a conviction, Quinlan plants some evidence in Sanchez’s flat. Vargas realizes what Quinlan has done, and suspects that it is not the first time it has happened. With help from Quinlan’s old partner Pete Menzies, Vargas investigates other cases Quinlan has been involved in, and discovers that his suspicions are correct.
While these investigations are going on, Vargas’s new wife, Susan (Janet Leigh) is waiting for her husband, alone in a motel. She finds herself being harassed by a local gang, and eventually kidnapped. The Grandi family are behind the kidnapping – they want to blackmail Vargas, who is causing them trouble in his role as a drug enforcement official. However, Quinlan becomes involved. His intent is to ruin Vargas, who he realizes is a threat to him, so he kills the head of the Grandi family and frames Susan for the murder.
After a frantic search for his wife, including a furious bar room brawl with the kidnappers, Vargas eventually finds out his wife is in jail. He realizes the truth about what happened (because Quinlan left his cane at the scene of the crime) and with Menzies’s help, sets about proving it.
Menzies goes to confront Quinlan wearing a crude wire, while Vargas records the conversation. Quinlan admits to Menzies that he often planted evidence, but that everyone he framed was guilty. Hearing a strange echo, Quinlan guesses about the wire. A shootout follows, and both Quinlan and Menzies are killed.
The movie ends with Vargas and Susan leaving town. In a final ironic twist, it is reported that Sanchez has confessed to planting the bomb after all.
Steve Sunday Says:
I watched this movie with Mrs Sunday, and after about half an hour I casually remarked to her how nice it was to see Janet Leigh not getting murdered for a change. Then the strangest thing happened – Janet checked into a lonely motel run by a creepy and nervous young man, and suddenly she started to seem very vulnerable indeed! It was as if the film makers were messing with my mind. At one point I actually shouted to Janet “Don’t get in the shower, woman”. I was quite pleased with this joke, but after thinking about it for a while, decided that thousands of other people before me had almost certainly made it before. As none of these people own their own movie review websites though, I am going to claim it anyway.
So then I started wondering if perhaps Janet Leigh was the “Kenny” of black and white movies? Was it her gimmick to die in every movie? Well, no, she made it all the way to the end of this one. Orson Welles was not so lucky though – could he be the Kenny instead? He died in Touch of Evil, Macbeth, Casino Royale, Citizen Kane (extra points for dying in the opening scene there), and even, so I am told, as the character he voiced in the 1986 Transformers movie! But then I remembered that he was also in the Muppet Movie – it was a while ago I saw it, but I am pretty sure nobody died in that one.
Trivia Trish Says:
- Charlton Heston only agreed to star in Touch of Evil because he had assumed that Orson Welles was to be the director. Actually, Welles had been hired only to act in the film, but to keep Heston happy, Welles was asked to direct. Welles then rewrote the script substantially.
- Janet Leigh broke her left arm just before filming started. For many scenes she had to hide the fact that she was wearing a plaster cast. In other scenes, the cast was temporarily removed and re-applied afterwards.
- After filming was completed, Welles left to go to Mexico to film his version of “Don Quixote”. At this point Universal asked for cuts, and since he wasn’t around, they began making cuts themselves, and even filmed some extra scenes. When Welles found out he wrote a letter to the production house detailing how he would have wanted the film to be released. This letter was ignored at the time, but formed the basis for a re-edited 1998 DVD version.
- Orson Welles is wearing make-up and prosthetics throughout the film to make him seem older and fatter than he really was. He once told an anecdote about going to a dinner party during the filming – he arrived with his make-up still on, and was greeted by a famous actress with the words “Orson! You look wonderful!”
- The famous opening scene took many takes to get right, mainly because the actor playing the customs officer kept forgetting his lines. Eventually Welles told him just to move his lips, and the words would be dubbed in later.
- The scene with Vargas and Schwartz in the convertible was the first time in film history a scene with dialogue was shot in a genuinely moving car, rather than a stationary car in front of a projection screen.
Chris the Critic says:
It is the long opening scene tracking the bomb that the film is most famous for, but there are a number of other bold and complex set pieces that are just as exciting and innovative. Welles’s technique was to exaggerate certain elements, so that the overall feel of the movie is stylised and flamboyant, even though the stark black and white cinematography and the gritty subject matter suggest a realism, which makes the viewer uncomfortable. The Latino and jazz score, and the experimental sound effects also throw the viewer off balance.
Main Cast and Crew:
Charlton Heston … Mike Vargas
Janet Leigh … Susan Vargas
Orson Welles … Police Captain Hank Quinlan
Joseph Calleia … Police Sergeant Pete Menzies
Directed by Orson Welles