Orson Welles’ 1958 film-noir “Touch of Evil” is one of Welles’s greatest works. Besides directing, he wrote the screenplay and co-stared in this great suspense thriller. This movie has a top notch cast, especially with Charlton Heston in an unusually “dark” role for his screen career. I am impressed with how much Welles “stretched” Heston for this movie, it is a pleasure to see what a great director can get out of a great actor; too often big egos do not mix well! The other great facts that make this one of Welles’s masterpieces is that 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. The suspense is built up slowly and methodically with the ticking of a time bomb in the background. In addition the film score by Henry Mancini which provides haunting tones throughout the movie add much to its ultimate success.
The interesting story of how Welles was hired to direct the movie by Universal after his “exile” from Hollywood goes as follows. 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 a few films, Welles was eager to direct for Hollywood again, so he agreed to take only an acting fee for the role of Quinlan.
Welles wrapped production on time, delivered a rough cut to Universal, and was convinced that his Hollywood career was back on the rails. Sadly 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; thus, 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. It was placed #64 on American Film Institute's 100 Years, 100 Thrills list.
Three versions of the film have been released:
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.
An automobile is blown up as it crosses the Mexican border into the United States. Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), a high ranking Mexican narcotics official on honeymoon with his bride Susie (Janet Leigh) is drawn into the investigation because a Mexican national has been accused of the crime. Vargas embroils himself in the investigation, putting his wife in harm's way. After Vargas catches The figurative and physical presence of idolized ex-alcoholic American Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) planting evidence against a Mexican national suspected in the bombing. Quinlan's reputation for law and order enables him to bend the law without question until Vargas confronts him. Quinlan joins forces with the Grandi family (Akim Tamiroff), to impugn Vargas's character. Local political lackeys, a hard-edged whore (Marlene Dietrich),who is a former lover of Quinlan’s, and a nervous motel clerk also figure in the plot. From that point on, it's a battle of wits between Vargas and Quinlan, with an accelerating pace, that rushes to a climax.
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