“A terrifying Goyaesque vision of corruption…” – Peter Bogdanovich (in 1975)
Mexican cop Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his American wife Susan (Janet Leigh) are on their honeymoon. Vargas soon finds himself drawn into a complex plot that somehow involves local cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). As Vargas investigates, Susan soon finds herself threatened.
In 1958, Welles got to direct a Hollywood movie again, and the result is a masterpiece. Few would begrudge Citizen Kane its place on all-time-great lists, for all its brilliance and influence; but ask them the Welles film they most enjoy and they might often name this one. Welles took an astonishingly lurid B-movie plot and made something extraordinary out of it. Quinlan is one of his key acting roles: a vastly fat police chief long past his prime, a flawed antihero who does wrong, even if it is for the right reasons. There’s a clear descent from ‘Kane and The Third Man‘s Harry Lime to Quinlan. Welles cast the film with many of his friends, including Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich with cameos from Zsa Zsa Gabor and Joseph Cotten. Russell Metty’s black-and-white camerawork adds much: you can feel the desert heat in the long sequence where a gang of hoods (led by Mercedes McCambridge) set upon Leigh. Touch Of Evil has one of the great opening shots in cinema history, beginning with a close-up of a bomb being primed and not cutting until it explodes three minutes later.
Touch Of Evil was taken out of Welles’ hands and re-edited by the studio. A longer version was discovered in the 1970s which was closer to Welles’ intentions, and that is the one on this video. (A slightly different version was produced in 1998 according to instructions Welles left in a memo, but there is little to choose from between the two versions. The main difference in the 1998 reconstruction is that the opening shot does not have credits, or Henry Mancini’s score.)