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  • Writer's pictureThomas Duncan

Touch of Evil (1958)


  • Orson Welles, Writer/Director

  • Henry Mancini, Music

  • Charlton Heston as Ramon Miguel Vargas

  • Janet Leigh as Susan Vargas

  • Orson Welles as Police Captain Hank Quinlan

  • Joseph Calleia as Sgt. 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

  • Zsa Zsa Gabor as the Strip-club owner

  • Marlene Dietrich as Tana


  • While Touch of Evil was officially released on April 23, 1958, on January 31, 1958, Touch of Evil was given a sneak preview at a theater in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. This version of the film ran 108 minutes, and was not well-received. Heston wrote in his journal that "I'm afraid it's simply not a good picture. It has the brilliance that made each day's rushes look so exciting, of course. Indeed, there's hardly a dull shot in the film. But it doesn't hold together as a story." Unfortunately, the critics of the time agreed.

  • In February 1958, Touch of Evil was attached in a double bill with The Female Animal, starring Hedy Lamarr, which was also produced by Albert Zugsmith and directed by Harry Keller. The two films even had the same cameraman, Russell Metty. This general version ran only 94 minutes.

  • The different runtimes were due to the multiple editing processes over the course of post production with Welles and his normal partner, Virgil Vogel, starting originally and then it being assigned to a studio editor later on. On December 5, 1957, having been screened a new cut, Welles presented a 58-page memorandum addressed to the studio head, detailing what he thought needed to be done to make the film work. However, these were not followed.

  • During the early 1970s, Robert Epstein, a UCLA film studies professor, had requested a film print for a screening in his class. Inside the Universal archives, he discovered a 108-minute print of Touch of Evil. On December 15, 1973, it was publicly screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of "The 50 Great American Films". In June 1975, the American Film Institute, recognizing the historical value of the discovery, had submitted a duplicated negative to the Library of Congress for preservation. A 16 mm re-release provided through United World Films, Universal Pictures' non-theatrical distribution arm, was also discussed. Subsequently, it was screened at the Paris Film Festival, which was followed with a wide theatrical re-release by Universal Pictures that recognized an increased interest among film fans in Welles's works.

  • In 1975, Jonathan Rosenbaum published an article in the film magazine Sight & Sound, claiming that, except for a few minor details, the version was "apparently identical to Welles' final cut," and described it as the "definitive version". Joseph McBride, in a letter to Sight & Sound, issued a correction, identifying the cut as the "preview" version.

  • In 1998, Walter Murch, working from all available material, re-edited the film based on the Welles memo, with Rick Schmidlin who produced the re-edit and with the help of 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's lost scenes and were necessary to the plot or because Welles had approved of their inclusion). 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 Henry Mancini's music from the opening sequence, cross-cutting 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 an on-screen reproduction of the 58-page memo.

  • Further critic re-evaluation started as well around that time as Roger Ebert added Touch of Evil to his Great Movies list, and Time Out conducted a poll and the film was voted 57th greatest film of all time.

  • In 2000, the film was ranked at No. 55 in The Village Voice's 100 Greatest Films list, and Touch of Evil was placed No. 64 on American Film Institute's "100 Years, 100 Thrills" list in 2001.

  • In the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time 2012 poll, the film was placed No. 26 and No. 57 by the directors and the critics respectively.

  • In 2015, the film ranked 51st on BBC's "100 Greatest American Films" list, voted on by film critics from around the world.

  • Touch of Evil currently holds a 95% among critics on RT, a 99 score on Metacritic, and a 4.2/5 on Letterboxd.

What is this movie is about?/Elevator Pitch: I don't know what this is supposed to be about? Is it racism, police corruption, good policing v. bad policing?

Plot Summary: In "Touch of Evil," director Orson Welles crafts a gripping, noir-infused masterpiece that immerses the audience in a world of corruption, betrayal, and moral ambiguity. Set in a seedy border town on the U.S.-Mexico border, a car bomb explosion on the American side of the border sets off a chain of events that exposes the underbelly of law enforcement and political power.

At the center of the narrative is the enigmatic and morally compromised police captain Hank Quinlan, played with remarkable depth by Orson Welles himself. Quinlan is a brilliant detective known for his unorthodox methods, but his obsession with bringing criminals to justice has led him down a dark path of manipulation and deceit. He's a character who personifies the blurred lines between good and evil, justice and corruption. Opposing Quinlan is the charismatic and determined Mexican narcotics officer, Mike Vargas, portrayed by the charismatic Charlton Heston. Vargas is determined to solve the bombing case, and is willing to confront the pervasive corruption that infects both sides of the border. As the investigation unfolds, "Touch of Evil" delves into themes of racial tension, prejudice, and the abuse of power, all set against a backdrop of gritty urban decay. The film's supporting cast, including Janet Leigh as Vargas's wife, Susan, and Marlene Dietrich as a mysterious fortune-telling gypsy, adds depth to the story and further complicates the moral landscape.

"Touch of Evil" is a cinematic tour de force that continues to be celebrated for its complexity, social commentary, and innovative filmmaking techniques. It's a film that leaves a lasting impression by challenging viewers to question their own notions of justice and morality in a world where darkness lurks just beneath the surface. Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" is a timeless classic that remains a must-see for cinephiles and lovers of thought-provoking cinema.

Did You Know:

  • Janet Leigh's agent initially rejected her participation in this film due to the low salary offered without even consulting the actress. Orson Welles, anticipating this, sent a personal letter to the actress, telling her how much he looked forward to their working together. Leigh, furious, confronted her agent telling him that getting directed by Welles was more important than any paycheck.

  • The opening scene took an entire night to get right, mainly because the actor playing the customs officer kept blowing his lines. It was beginning to get light on the horizon when Orson Welles made the final take of the night, saying to the cast, "All right, let's try it one more time." Then he looked at the actor and said, "If you forget your line this time, just move your lips and we'll dub it in later, but please, God do NOT say, 'I'm sorry, Mr. Welles!'" This is the take seen in the film. However, it is important to add that Welles categorically refused to consider firing this unhappy actor at any point, although Universal executives who were on the set repeatedly urged him to.

  • Despite popular speculation, Orson Welles is wearing make-up throughout the film. For hours every night, they'd add pounds and pounds onto him, and use prosthetics for his face. He once said that he was late going to a dinner party at his house during the filming, and arrived with his make-up still on. A famous actress approached him when he entered and in all seriousness said: "Orson! You look wonderful!"

  • Was screened at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, where judges (and then critics) Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut awarded it the top prize. It was said the film was a great influence on starting Godard's and Truffaut's illustrious careers, both of whom within a year went on to make their first films: Breathless (1960) and The 400 Blows (1959), respectively.

  • The entire film was shot on real locations, apart from the ten-minute take in the Mexican shoe store clerk's apartment, which is actually a set. The studio wanted the entire film to be shot on sets, even going so far as to build numerous locations on its lots, but Orson Welles insisted on filming in a real city, settling for Venice, California, when he couldn't get his initial choice of Tijuana.

Best Performance: Orson Welles (Director/Writer/Quinlan)

Best Secondary Performance: Russell Metty (Cinematographer)/Joseph Calleia (Menzies)

Most Charismatic Award: Charleton Heston (Vargas)/Janet Leigh (Susan)

Best Scene:

  • Cold Open

  • Dynamite Found

  • Vargas Exposes Quinlan

  • Susan Kidnapped

  • Quinlan Murders Grandi

  • Final Showdown

Favorite Scene: Dynamite Found/Quinlan Murders Grandi

Most Indelible Moment: Quinlan Murders Grandi/Final Showdown

In Memorium:

  • Patricia Cray, 82, American actress (Wonder Boys, Love and Other Drugs, The Kill Point).

  • Dick Butkus, 80, American Hall of Fame football player (Chicago Bears) and actor (Hang Time, Johnny Dangerously).

Best Lines/Funniest Lines:

Ramon Miguel 'Mike' Vargas: A policeman's job is only easy in a police state.

Ramon Miguel 'Mike' Vargas: Who is the boss? The cop or the law?

Pete Menzies: Convictions. Sure. How many did you frame?

Quinlan: Nobody.

Pete Menzies: Come on, Hank. How many did you frame?

Quinlan: I told you. Nobody. Nobody that wasn't guilty. Guilty. Guilty.

Pete Menzies: All these years you've been playing me for a sucker. Faking evidence.

Quinlan: Aiding justice, partner.

Quinlan: My game leg is startin' to talk to me.

The Stanley Rubric:

Legacy: 5.25

Impact/Significance: 4

Novelty: 6.5

Classic-ness: 5

Rewatchability: 5.75

Audience Score: 8.9 (86% Google, 92% RT)

Total: 35.4

Remaining Questions:

  • Ok, so we supposedly know that Sanchez was guilty, but what about the others that Quinlan framed?

  • What exactly was Grandi's plan regarding Vargas? Did he want to intimidate him or something?

  • Why did Charleton Heston have to be a Mexican official for this script to work?

  • What was Tana's relationship to Quinlan?

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