Orson Welles' audacious 1958 noir-thriller Touch of Evil is one wild ride. It starts with a justifiably famous tracking shot of a murder and does not let up. Based on the novel Badge of Evil by Bob Wade and Bill Miller under the pseudonym Whit Masterson with an Orson Welles screenplay. Welles was hired by Universal initially to play Police Captain Hank Quinlan, and signed to direct at the suggestion of the already cast Charlton Heston.
Orson Welles, Charlton Heston
The murder of a wealthy American businessman and his girlfriend to which we are privy is a tricky case to investigate due to jurisdiction. The crime covers both sides of the Mexican-American border. The tough and renowned Captain Quinlan has established his own way of doing the job and is not pleased at having to work with the Mexican authorities as represented by Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston). Vargas is an up and comer whose fame is reaching Quinlan proportions due to his recent work in taking down a notorious crime family.
Quinlan is a mess. An overweight, grotesque ego on legs. Over the years his methods of dealing with criminals have become lax and illegal, although successful. He is not above planting evidence to ease prosecution. Quinlan is an ends justifying means fellow. Vargas calls into question the honesty of the American police officer, starting a no holds barred battle between them.
Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff
Quinlan teams up with the head of the Grandi crime family "Uncle Joe" Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), who has his own issues with Vargas. The plan to bring down Vargas includes the virtual kidnapping of Vargas' wife (Janet Leigh) and framing her for murder.
The cast of characters that populate this time constrained story are as impossibly odd as their creator. Tana the gypsy (Marlene Dietrich) knew Hank in the old days, and she knows him now. Quinlan's long-time partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) idolizes and protects his friend like a mother hen. Calleia's performance is an award-worthy understated heartbreaker. Medium-sized and bit roles by Ray Collins, Mort Mills, John Dierkes, Joseph Cotten, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Mercedes McCambridge keep the audience on their toes, ready for the next unexpected appearance.
The creepy night manager (Dennis Weaver) of the motel where Suzy Vargas is isolated and attacked should have kept Ms. Leigh away from wayside motels for the rest of her career. Don't get the wrong idea about Suzy. She is more than a mere damsel in distress. Suzy is a woman who knows her own mind and can fight for herself, but what she's up against staggers the imagination.
Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia
The battle between Quinlan and Vargas takes place in a span of hours, barely more than a day, but it is the feverish stuff of nightmares. The stakes become ever higher and Quinlan's downward spiral ever deeper. In the end, it is love that will be his undoing.
The bold script and performances are enhanced by two of Hollywood's top craftsmen. Cinematographer Russell Metty, whose two Oscars are for colour pictures, displays his brilliance in black and white in this mostly shot at nighttime film. He makes you feel the heat and it gives you shivers. The film next came under the baton of composer Henry Mancini and his jazzy, rhythmic score is such a complement to Touch of Evil that it is as if he turned what was in Orson's mind into music.
TCM's Friday Night Spotlight in May is devoted to the one and only Orson Welles and Touch of Evil has the prime-time spot on May 8 at 8:00 pm.