Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil Information

Touch of Evil is a 1958 American crime thriller film, written, directed by, and co-starring Orson Welles. The screenplay was loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson. Along with Welles, the cast includes Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich.

Touch of Evil is one of the last examples of film noir in the genre's classic era (from the early 1940s until the late 1950s).


The film opens with a three-minute, twenty-second tracking shot widely considered by critics as one of the greatest long takes in cinematic history. On the U.S.-Mexico border, a man plants a time bomb in a car. A man and woman enter the vehicle and make a slow journey through town to the U.S. border. Newlyweds Miguel "Mike" Vargas (Charlton Heston) and Susie (Janet Leigh) pass the car several times on foot. The car crosses the border, then explodes, killing the occupants.

Miguel Vargas is a drug enforcement official in the Mexican government. Realizing the implications of a Mexican bomb exploding on American soil, he takes an interest in the investigation. Police Chief Pete Gould (Harry Shannon) and District Attorney Adair (Ray Collins) arrive on the scene, followed by police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Quinlan's longtime partner, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia).

Quinlan and Menzies' prime suspect is Sanchez, a young Mexican secretly married to the victim's daughter. They interrogate him in his apartment with Vargas present. Vargas visits the bathroom and accidentally knocks over an empty shoebox. Moments later, Menzies announces that two sticks of dynamite were found in the same, empty, shoebox in the bathroom. Vargas suspects Quinlan may have been planting evidence for years to help win convictions. Quinlan dismisses Vargas' claim saying he is just biased in favor of fellow Mexicans. With assistance from District Attorney's Assistant Al Schwartz (Mort Mills), Vargas studies the public records on Quinlan's previous cases, revealing his findings to Gould and Adair. Quinlan arrives on the scene in time to overhear the discussion and angrily threatens to resign.

Susie moved from her Mexican hotel to an American motel to escape the unwanted attention of Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), brother of a man Vargas has been investigating. She finds the motel, which Menzies recommended to her, has no other guests and is staffed only by a mentally challenged night manager (Dennis Weaver). Grandi family members take over the motel. Vargas becomes concerned when his attempts to telephone Susie at the motel are sabotaged. Quinlan conspires with Grandi; they arrange for Susie to be kidnapped by the gang, injected with drugs, and taken to Grandi's other motel in town. There, Quinlan strangles Grandi and frames Susie for the murder in order to discredit Vargas.

Vargas confronts Menzies about the history of evidence "discovered" by Menzies or Quinlan. Menzies dismisses the claim. Vargas goes to Susie's motel but discovers her - and the gun he left with her - missing. Learning the motel is owned by Grandi, Vargas travels to Grandi's other motel in search of Susie, and confronts the gang members who attacked her; when the gang members refuse to answer him, Vargas violently beats them down. Al informs Vargas that Susie has been arrested for murder; at the lockup Vargas finds her barely conscious. Menzies reveals to Vargas he discovered Quinlan's cane at the murder scene. Vargas fits Menzies with a wire. Menzies confronts Quinlan at an oil field and they discuss Quinlan's activities while being tracked on foot by Vargas recording the conversation.

Quinlan states to Menzies that he planted evidence on people, but they were nevertheless "guilty, guilty". Quinlan hears the feedback; Quinlan says his "game leg" informs him of Menzies' wire. Quinlan demands Vargas show himself; when he does, Quinlan shoots Menzies with Vargas' gun. Quinlan prepares to shoot Vargas, but is shot by the dying Menzies. It is revealed Sanchez has confessed and really did commit the crime. Vargas leaves town with Susie.


  • Charlton Heston as Ramon Miguel Vargas
  • Janet Leigh as Susan Vargas
  • Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan
  • Joseph Calleia as Pete Menzies
  • Akim Tamiroff as Uncle Joe Grandi
  • Joanna Cook Moore as Marcia Linnekar
  • Ray Collins as District Attorney Adair
  • Dennis Weaver as the Night Manager
  • Val de Vargas as Pancho
  • Mort Mills as Al Schwartz
  • Victor Millan as Manolo Sanchez
  • Lalo Rios as Risto
  • Phil Harvey as Blaine
  • Joi Lansing as Blonde
  • Harry Shannon as Gould
  • Rusty Wescoatt as Casey
  • Wayne Taylor as a gang member
  • Ken Miller as a gang member
  • Raymond Rodriguez as a gang member
  • Arlene McQuade as Ginnie
  • Zsa Zsa Gabor as the Strip-club owner
  • Marlene Dietrich as Tana
  • Mercedes McCambridge as a hoodlum
  • Keenan Wynn as a man
  • Joseph Cotten as a Detective


There are two stories as to how Welles ended up directing Touch of Evil. Charlton Heston recalled that Welles was originally hired to act in the film only, not to direct or write. Universal was keen to secure Heston for the lead, but he wanted the studio to confirm the director before he signed on. After learning that Welles was in the cast, Heston expressed his greater interest in starring if Welles were directing. The other story is that 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.

A number of notable actors pop up in minor roles. Dennis Weaver plays a mentally unbalanced night clerk at an isolated motel. Welles liked Weaver as Chester on TV's Gunsmoke and worked closely with him on his part, which was shot on a three-day hiatus from the TV show. Zsa Zsa Gabor, who appears briefly as the impresario of a strip club, was a friend of the producer. Welles's old friend Joseph Calleia portrays Quinlan's betrayed partner. Many of the actors worked for lower wages just to make a film with Welles. Marlene Dietrich's role was a surprise to the producers and they raised her fee so they could advertise her involvement. Welles' friend and Mercury Theater colleague, Joseph Cotten, appears uncredited as a police officer.

Janet Leigh recalled how Welles asked for input from the actors in the cast:

"It started with rehearsals. We rehearsed two weeks prior to shooting, which was unusual. We rewrote most of the dialogue, all of us, which was also unusual, and Mr. Welles always wanted our input. It was a collective effort, and there was such a surge of participation, of creativity, of energy. You could feel the pulse growing as we rehearsed. You felt you were inventing something as you went along. Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn't want one bland moment. He made you feel you were involved in a wonderful event that was happening before your eyes."
Welles wrapped production on time, delivered a rough cut to Universal, and was convinced that his Hollywood career was back on the rails. 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, the lower half of a double feature. The A-movie was The Female Animal, starring Hedy Lamarr, produced by Albert Zugsmith and directed by Harry Keller, whom the studio had hired to direct the re-shot material in Touch of Evil. The two films even had the same cameraman, Russell Metty. Welles's film was given little publicity despite the many stars in the cast. Though it had little commercial success in the US, (Welles himself claims the movie turned a good profit but other records dispute his claim.) it was well received in Europe, particularly by critics like future filmmaker François Truffaut.

Differing versions

Three versions of the film have been released:

  1. The original 1958 release version
  2. A longer version, released in 1976
  3. A 1998 restored version that attempted to fulfill Welles's wishes in his 1958 memo.
Welles's rough cut as submitted to Universal no longer exists. That cut 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 the studio's requests to return and undertake further work. It was at this point that Keller came aboard: some of his material was entirely new, others replaced Welles scenes. Welles screened 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.

In the mid-1970s, Universal discovered that it held a 108-minute print of Touch of Evil in its archives. Aware that there was a growing audience of cineastes with a strong interest in Welles' work, the studio released this version to cinemas in 1976 and later issued it on video, billing it as "complete, uncut and restored." In fact, this print was not a restoration at all, but a preview version which post-dated the Welles memo but pre-dated the release version. While it did feature some vital Welles scenes that Universal cut from the release version, the preview version also featured more of Keller's material than the release version.

In 1998, Walter Murch, working from all available material, re-edited the film based on the Welles memo, with Bob O'Neil, Universal's director of film restoration, and Bill Varney, Universal's Vice President of Sound Operations, participating in the restoration. As Welles's rough cut no longer exists, no true "director's cut" is possible, but Murch was able to assemble a version incorporating most of the existing material, omitting some of the Keller scenes (though some were retained, either because they had replaced Welles scenes which no longer existed and were necessary to the plot, or because Welles had approved of their inclusion). In addition, some of Welles's complaints concerned subtle sound and editing choices, and Murch re-edited the material accordingly. Notable changes include the removal of the credits and music from the three-minute opening shot, crosscutting between the main story and Janet Leigh's subplot, and the removal of Harry Keller's hotel lobby scene. Rick Schmidlin produced the 1998 edit, which had a limited but successful theatrical release (again by Universal) and was subsequently made available on DVD. The DVD includes a reproduction of the 58-page memo.

Originally scheduled to be premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival with Janet Leigh, Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin attending, the screening was canceled in the eleventh-hour after threats of litigation from Welles' daughter, Beatrice Welles, who has in the past issued similar threats against some parties who try to show or alter her father's work (such as the completion of Welles' last film The Other Side of the Wind). The reason given for the litigation was that Beatrice Welles was not consulted for the restoration.


In 1993, Touch of Evil was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The film was placed #64 on American Film Institute's 100 Years, 100 Thrills.

The opening scene is replicated midway through Brian De Palma's 1974 camp musical film Phantom of the Paradise. De Palma's version involves a prop car on a theatrical stage being pushed out of the wings with a time-bomb in the trunk and an increasingly panicky blonde passenger. The novel approach here is that De Palma's take was shot in split-screen with Paul Williams's Swan character and the Phantom alternately observing the histrionics from the balcony and proscenium, respectively.

The film is also jokingly referred to in the Tim Burton film Ed Wood. In a scene near the end of the film, Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) is complaining to Orson Welles (Vincent D'Onofrio) about how producers always want the wrong actors to play certain parts in their movies. Welles says, "Tell me about it. I'm supposed to direct a thriller for Universal. They want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican!"

A similar line is used in Get Shorty, where movie fan Chili Palmer invites another character to see a screening of Touch of Evil, saying, "You wanna go check it out? Watch Charlton Heston play a Mexican?" We later see Palmer watching the final scene of the movie, mouthing the words together with the characters on screen. Part of Mancini's score was used as the love theme between Chili and aging starlet Karen Flores, as well.

Touch of Evil is being watched by a security guard at the beginning of Sneakers. Vargas's comments foreshadow the final scenes of Sneakers.

In James Robert Baker's novel, Boy Wonder, fictional movie producer Shark Trager makes it his goal to surpass Touch of Evil's three minute opening tracking shot when filming a movie of his own. Tana's line, "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?" was also quoted extensively in the book.

In the opening scenes of Jeffery Deaver's novel Manhattan Is My Beat, a character, under guard in a hotel, is watching the film. He also comments on Charlton Heston playing a Mexican.

The opening shot is discussed briefly in the opening shot of Robert Altman's 1992 film, The Player, by two characters who work for a fictional Hollywood studio, as the longest opening tracking shot in history. It then goes on to surpass that shot in length. The opening is also referenced by Rainn Wilson in the DVD commentary of The Office episode entitled "Performance Anxiety".

In the independent film Into My Heart, the characters Ben (Rob Morrow) and Adam (Jake Weber) are seen exiting the old Thalia Theatre on Broadway after their 'yearly viewing' of the film, whose name can be seen on the marquee. Before heading to a nearby bar, both declare "I don't drink" in Hank's voice.

The opening scene of Boogie Nights (1997), written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a three-minute length shot through a bar, presenting all the main characters of the film. PTA has admitted this is an homage to Welles' Touch of Evil, just as the end of the film is an homage to Scorsese's Raging Bull.

Singer-songwriter Tom Russell has a song titled "Touch Of Evil" on his 2001 album Borderland that references the movie extensively, including the long opening shot and the dialogue between Dietrich and Welles about his future.

In the 2008 film In Bruges, the opening shots of Touch of Evil can be seen playing in the background during the scene when Harry (Ralph Fiennes) instructs Ken (Brendan Gleeson) to kill Ray (Colin Farrell)"?in a six minute continuous take.

On the TV show House, Dr. Wilson has a Touch of Evil poster on the wall behind his desk.

Cabaret Voltaire have a song called "A Touch of Evil" on their album Red Mecca.

Apartment Zero opens with a shot of Colin Firth as cinema owner Adrian LeDuc wiping away a tear as he watches the last scene of Touch of Evil.

This webpage uses material from the Wikipedia article "Touch_of_Evil" and is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Reality TV World is not responsible for any errors or omissions the Wikipedia article may contain.



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