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TOUCH OF EVIL(director/writer: Orson Welles; screenwriter: from the novel “Badge of Evil” by Whit Masterson; cinematographer: Russell Metty; editors: Aaron Stell/Virgil Vogel; cast: Charlton Heston (Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas), Janet Leigh (Susan Vargas), Orson Welles (Hank Quinlan), Joseph Calleia (Pete Menzies), Akim Tamiroff (Uncle Joe Grandi), Mercedes McCambridge (Butch Hoodlum), Marlene Dietrich (Tanya), Joanna Moore (Marcia Linnekar), Mort Mills (Assistant D.A. Schwartz), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Owner of a nightclub), Val de Vargas (Pancho), Harry Shannon (Gould), Joseph Cotten (Police Doctor), Dennis Weaver (Motel Worker), Victor Millan (Sanchez); Runtime: 111; Universal; 1958)
“Truly one of the greatest films ever made…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Truly one of the greatest films ever made, but one steeped in controversy ever since cinema’s boy genius, Orson Welles, on his return to Hollywood after being away for 10 years was asked to play the part of the film’s corrupt police chief. Since the film didn’t have a director the film’s star, Charlton Heston, suggested to the suits at Universal that they get Orson to direct it (this is Heston’s version). And direct it he did, pouring his heart into this fantastically shot black-and-white classical film noir — a tale about murder, betrayal between friends, the vile actions of a porcine sheriff, and many other controversial themes not usually seen in the 1950s. It included a gang rape, racism, sexual ambiguity, drugs, and wholesale police corruption. It was magnificently photographed by emphasizing the contrasts between dark and light shades as filmed by the great cinematographer Russell Metty.

It’s a B-film more powerful and hard-boiled than the weak-minded upper-studio heads at Universal could handle. So they did what dullards seem to do when faced with a genius they don’t comprehend — they tried to ruin Orson’s film by re-editing it. They hired a hack director named Harry Keller. He redid parts of the film after Orson left the country to try and get backing for the Don Quixote project he was interested in doing next. Orson pleaded with the studio to keep the film intact, he even sent them a 58-page memo telling them exactly how he wanted the film presented and stood fast on any changes. The studio kept the memo, but made three different versions and released the film ignoring Orson’s wishes. The video that came out in the ’70s was an interpretation of the three re-edited versions, which was far removed from the way Orson wanted it seen. The film was a box office disappointment when originally released, giving ammo to those in Hollywood who said that Orson could only make an art film and not a commercial one. Orson refused to recognize the version that Universal sent to the movie theaters as his film, in fact he called it an ‘odious thing.’

Never fully receiving the recognition that the film should have gotten for the masterpiece it was, it was even considered by some film critics to be disappointing and not comparable to his masterpiece “Citizen Kane.” The film, nevertheless, got recognized abroad, especially by the French New Wave directors and eventually started to get a following among young intellectuals in this country and started to get its just recognition for the poetically visionary and original film it was. It was a film that did things films never did before, both technically and as a hard-hitting Baroque thriller. It was the first film to have natural dialogue in a moving car. It shot its now famous opening scene in a long tracking shot without credits or titles; the shot lasted 3-minutes without a cut and it kept the background natural sounds of the street instead of the Henry Mancini soundtrack as the newlyweds strolled amidst the tawdry bars, strip clubs and sleaze of Los Robles — the run-down town on the Mexican side of the border. It is arguably the greatest opening shot in film history because of its visual impact in setting up the feature’s characters and the tenseness of the story that was to follow. Orson used a hand-held camera and used wide-angle shots, and by his constant intercutting he was able to keep the action flowing and the story suspenseful. The film had been restored somewhat by 1978 for its video distribution and it picked up some running time from how it was first shown at 96 minutes and now it was back to its original time of 108 minutes. In the 1990s the film was finally pieced together from the memo Orson sent the studio and the edited scenes were cut, and it picked up an additional three minutes. The effort to restore the film to the way Orson originally shot it, allowed the story to become clearer and for the film to have the shape the artist wanted it to have. This is about the closest we could get to the way Orson filmed it, since he passed away in 1985 and we have no other idea about what else he may have wanted to do with the film. He never made a Hollywood film since, as the studio system blackballed him.

The film opens in a Mexican border town in California; the actual location of the film was in Venice, California, once a prosperous resort town but now is run-down and surrounded by oil wells and has a seedy look, making it look just right for an unsavory border town. Mike Vargas (Heston) is a Mexican police investigator coming back to his country to be a witness at the trial of the narcotic dealers he arrested, who are members of the Grandi family. Vargas is someone who is well-educated, speaks a perfect English and has connections to the powers in the Mexican government. His new bride is an American named Susan (Leigh). She is a pretty blonde, who is accompanying her husband to the trial in Mexico City and calling this trip their honeymoon. But the story immediately has a strange twist, as someone plants a ticking time bomb in the car of the wealthy businessman Mr. Linnekar. He has just crossed over the border from Mexico when the bomb kills him along with the stripper who is in the car with him.

The crime takes place on the American side, so the notorious police chief Harry Quinlan (Welles) is called in to investigate. Vargas is worried that the bomb was planted on the Mexican side of the border and is afraid that his country might be involved in some sort of international incident, so he sticks around to watch over the investigation. He foolishly leaves Susan alone on the Mexican side to wait for him at their hotel. She gets intercepted by a punk kid named Pancho, who forcefully brings her to a big-eared, toupee wearing character called “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). He schemes up a plan to intimidate her and stop Vargas from testifying at the trial of his mobster brother. To Susan’s regrets the Mexicans act as despicable as she surmised they would.

The film gets more complex as the police immediately arrest a Mexican shoe clerk named Sanchez who has been dating Linnekar’s daughter and living off her money, against the wishes of her father. There is no proof against him but Quinlan catches criminals by using his intuition and when he needs evidence, he is in the habit of planting it. He has a vendetta against criminals ever since his wife was strangled and the murderer was never found. Vargas knows that dynamite was planted in Sanchez’s apartment by Quinlan and therefore cannot let the arrest of Sanchez slide, as he goes on the hunt to gather evidence against Quinlan to prove that he is someone who has a history of framing suspects.

Warning: for those who don’t want to follow the rest of the story, please stop reading at this point and resume reading the last paragraph.

The film tells three stories at this point (Vargas, his wife, and Quinlan), as it intercuts between all of them. Vargas is seen working with the honest Assistant DA Schwartz (Mills) to get the info on all of Quinlan’s arrests. Vargas’s wife Susan, who Vargas neglects because he gets too busy with Quinlan, is being intimidated by Grandi’s relatives in the motel. The gang is threatening to gang rape her. Her only help can be from someone who is not capable of helping her, a nutty night clerk played by Dennis Weaver with manic craziness. He has more tics than a dog with fleas. Vargas is unaware that the motel is owned by Uncle Joe, at this point he is only interested in looking out for the interest of Mexico and his career.

The main story, though, is about Quinlan, whose 30 year career as a crime fighter is about to come falling down. He is now forced to conspire with Uncle Joe to frame Vargas’s wife as a junkie and make out that Vargas is a narcotic dealer in order for him to ruin Vargas and stop him from exposing him.

All these three stories come together in a fantastically lively way. Suzy is trapped in her room by Grandi’s young punks, lesbians and drug-induced thugs, and she is forcefully drugged and probably a victim of a gang rape. She is then brought to a different hotel on the Mexican side of the border, surrounded with drug paraphernalia to make it look like she’s a drug addict. Quinlan uses this opportunity to strangle Uncle Joe in her room and make it look like Susan did it. But Quinlan’s best friend and most devoted follower, Sergeant Menzies (Calleia), discovers Quinlan’s cane in the room and realizes he can’t look the other way any more. He also knows Vargas is hot on Quinlan’s trail and he wrestles with his conscience and decides to work with Vargas by having a concealed microphone taped to his body, while Vargas records Quinlan’s confession on a tape recorder from a short distance away. This is the first time in 18 years that the once alcoholic Quinlan has gone on a drinking binge.

Before Quinlan meets with Menzies there is an intriguing scene where Quinlan goes to his old flame’s apartment, where an automated player-piano cuts into their conversational space. He hasn’t seen her for a long time and she barely recognizes him as he has become very fat (it’s the padding) and walks in a lumbering way. She’s a gypsy fortune-teller tart called Tanya (Dietrich), who reads the tarot cards to tell him that his future is all used up.

Upon meeting Menzies, Quinlan senses it’s too late, that he talked into the machine giving away his guilt. He thereby shoots Menzies, still hoping to frame Vargas for that murder. But as his confession is played back to Schwartz, who has just arrived on the scene to tell Vargas that his wife is OK, Menzies has enough strength left to kill Quinlan. The subtle beauty of this scene is in the restored version, where it looks as if the machine killed him and not the bullet fired from Menzies’ gun. Then Tanya returns to view Quinlan’s body lying in the shallow ditch amid the strewn garbage and Dietrich ends the film with the best film quote possibly ever; when asked about him, she replies: “What does it matter what you say about people… !”

Fans of the cinema should be pleased with this restored work and will have a chance to judge for themselves which version is the masterpiece. There should be no doubt about that. Thanks must go out to those who put in such a worthwhile effort to get this restoration accomplished. Jonathan Rosenbaum, one of the finest film critics today, published a large portion of Welles’s memo in Film Quarterly a few years ago and thereby got the ball rolling to restore the film. His article attracted the attention of producer Rick Schmidlin, who interested both Universal and the Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch (“The Conversation“) to restore the film according to Welles’s memo. This version of theirs is the one I reviewed.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”