‘Touch of Evil’ review: a stunning vision come true…too late

In 1998, four decades after its controversial release—when Universal Studio executives had defigured director Orson Welles’ noir vision into safe mulch—ace editor Walter Murch, digging into all available material and footage, re-edited and reconstructed the movie, based on Welles’ impassioned 58-page memo to the studio. To state that this version of Touch of Evil is the most pleasurable of all three versions would be classic underplaying.

Basing his screenplay off Whit Masterson’s 1956 novel Badge of Evil, Welles opens with perhaps what is one the best single-take shots in cinematic history, master cinematographer Russell Metty zooming out of a time bomb pack in the back of a car, craning up as the car starts and turns into a street, which is where we meet honeymooners Susie (an incandescent Janet Leigh) and investigator Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston, superb, all bronzed up for his Mexican character, that’s candidature for trolling now). As the car crosses streets and the US-Mexican border, the take continues, the sound mixing top notch, street noises, café music mixing into a crescendo of unbearable tension.

Janet Leigh: lights up the screen.

As the story explodes, it brings forth sullen, gruff local cop Hank Quinlan (a snarlingly superb Orson Welles, master of eye-bags make up and padding up) and his partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia, heartbreakingly good) who round up local Sanchez (Victor Millan), who’s indirectly—and directly—connected to the explosion target and victim—as the fall guy. As the newly-weds separate, Welles cuts between their narratives, ratcheting up the evil both face and fight; Susie runs in with Joe Grandi ( Akim Tamiroff, a deadly combination of comic energy and ruthlessness, something that Danny DeVito would possibly channelize in the future in his own solid way) and then into the clutches of the menacing Pancho ( the menacing Valentin de Vargas), stuck in a Norman Bates-like motel, that’s managed by a high-strung night manager played by Dennis Weaver with a Chaplinesque nervous energy.

Orson Welles: snarlingly good.

In the meantime, Vargas sees the darker side of law enforcement thanks to Quinlan, and you realise, drawing from today’s headlines, that while nothing’s truly changed: murderous  corruption and manipulation, racism that chews and spits out any pretense of humane genes—it’s how Welles creates the mise en scene that stuns. Using hand held cameras, a dizzy car- speeding shot in an actual street, and a stalking climax that plays to the drip of water and mic feedback, Welles introduces so many firsts in movie-making, all of which were butchered by the studio in its mad vanitized and sanitized ego trip. With Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Garbor in cameos and Henry Mancini’s moody, catchy score, Touch of Evil is a must watch in its black-and-chromatic glory. 

Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston: troubled times.

There’s a big price to pay for being way ahead of your times. Orson Welles paid that price with the 1958 theatrical release. It’s a tragedy he wasn’t around to see the recreated redemption.  And in the end, that’s what matters. For talent such Welles, Rahul Dev Burman, Sanjeev Kumar, and so many others. For all of us at work—especially now, away from each other, tapping into glowing screens—and the little, creative flourishes we nurture in our little, individual snow globes. As Marlene Dietrich’s character says, “He was some kind of a man… What does it matter what you say about people?”

Touch of Evil (1958) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Touch of Evil is from my personal blu-ray collection and rated U/A ((Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years)) for moderate violence and drug content .

Touch of Evil
Director Orson Welles Time 1h 35min 
Writers Orson Welles, Whit Masterson, (based on the novel by)
Stars Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Valentin de Vargas, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Garbor
Genres Crime, Drama, Film-Noir, Thriller