skip navigation
Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil(1958)

  • Wednesday, October 29 @ 10:00 PM (ET) - Reminder REMINDER
Up
Down

TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here
ADD YOUR COMMENT>

share:
Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (1)

Shop tcm.com

Touch of Evil - NOT AVAILABLE

Crying Boy

VOTE FOR THIS TITLE:
Our records indicate this title is not available on Home Video. Vote below for it to be released on DVD.

  1. Total votes: vote now!
  2. Rank: (why vote?)

Articles

powered by AFI

SEE ALL ARTICLES
teaser Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil was based on Whit Masterson's pulp novel Badge of Evil. The project sat on producer Albert Zugsmith's shelf for some time before it saw the light of day.

Through a misunderstanding, Charlton Heston, the star of Touch of Evil, thought Welles was going to direct the film. When he learned otherwise, he insisted that the studio offer Welles the job. Universal's head of post-production, Edward Nims, had worked happily with Welles in the '40s, and seconded the recommendation.

Despite Orson Welles' tarnished professional reputation, Universal eventually agreed to hire Welles for the film, but his fee was only for his acting. His writing and directing efforts would be at no charge.

Even though Charlton Heston was mostly responsible for putting Orson Welles in the director's chair, William Alland, then a Universal Studios executive, might have also had a hand in Welles' good fortune. A long-time associate of Welles', Alland plays the anonymous reporter who traces the elusive mystery of Rosebud in Citizen Kane.

One important change that Orson Welles made in adapting the novel Badge of Evil involved the main protagonist. An Anglo-American named Mitch Holt in the novel, the hero became Miguel "Mike" Vargas, a Mexican narcotics agent.

by Scott McGee and Frank Miller

back to top
teaser Touch of Evil (1958)

For the role of Vargas' wife, Welles wanted Janet Leigh. According to biographer Barbara Leaming (in Orson Welles, Viking Press), "Even before her agent had told her anything about Orson's offer, a puzzled Miss Leigh had received a telegram from the director to say how delighted he was that they would be working together. Correctly calculating that she would be as pleased by the idea of being directed by him as Charlton Heston was, Orson had figured that the telegram would get her at a lower price than if he had to negotiate with her agent first."At first all was well on the set of Touch of Evil. Knowing there were studio spies on the set, Welles planned his first day of shooting to start with two uncomplicatedclose-ups. He started work at 9 a.m. and had the first shot finished by9:15. Then he got the second shot by 9:25. The studio spy was called off,so nobody noticed that the next shot wasn't completed until 7:40 p.m.Fortunately, that was a long take that covered 11 pages of script, soWelles ended his first day of shooting two days ahead of schedule.

Welles further evaded studio control by shooting much of the picture onlocation. He had originally asked to make the film in Tijuana, but theexecutives had feared that was too far from Hollywood for them to call theshots. Instead, he proposed shooting in Venice, California, for a few days.Once he got there, however, he settled in for most of the remaining shoot. By then,the executives were thrilled with each day's rushes, so they pretty muchleft him alone.

Orson Welles encouraged Dennis Weaver to improvise his role as the strange hotel manager and together they created a unique character that ran counter to Weaver's role on the popular television series Gunsmoke. Welles later described the part as a "Shakespearean loony." According to Weaver in Barbara Leaming's bio of Welles, "We went into his whole background - about his mother and how he was a mamma's boy. He had this terrible guilt about sex and yet he had a large sex drive. There were no words to indicate such a thing in the script at all - but it gave him an interesting behavior pattern when we put it all together. The main thing was his attraction to women and his fear of them at the same time. That was the thing that was basic to his character."

Even though Orson Welles already weighed nearly 300 pounds, he made himself appear even fatter by wearing padding and using makeup that turned him into a greasy, corpulent specimen of corruption. Maurice Seiderman, the makeup artist who turned Orson Welles into a convincing old man in Citizen Kane (1941), created bags under Welles' eyes, changed his hairline, and added a false nose.

Akim Tamiroff, in the role of sleazy Uncle Joe Grandi, was required to stick the butt of a lamb's tongue into his mouth for his grotesque death scene. Orson Welles felt this was necessary to achieve the proper effect he wanted - that of a criminal who had been strangled so savagely that his tongue was unnaturally distended from his mouth. But as it turned out, the lamb's tongue proved to be too disgusting to show onscreen, so Tamiroff's unenviable ordeal was for nothing.

After finishing a first edit of Touch of Evil, Orson Welles went to South America to start another project. Welles returned to the States to find his film completely re-cut by the studio, who were concerned about the film's commercial viability. Welles submitted a 58-page memo suggesting changes that fell in line with his own vision of the final piece, but no one responded to it.

The biggest and most damaging change was the executives' design to run thelengthy opening tracking shot under the film's credits. That also meantplaying Henry Mancini's main title theme over the sequence. Originally thescene had been scored entirely with sound effects, with the theme onlyappearing as a selection playing on the car radio. Even in this cutversion, Universal didn't know what to do with the film. They kept it outof distribution for months, then finally snuck it into theatres in 1958 asthe bottom half of a double bill. They didn't even bother screening it forcritics. Welles' hopes of a Hollywood comeback were dashed.

by Scott McGee, Frank Miller and Jeff Stafford

back to top
teaser Touch of Evil (1958)

"Your future is all used up."
Marlene Dietrich to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil

When Universal-International wrested control of Touch of Evil away fromOrson Welles in 1957, it may well have seemed that, like the character heplayed in the film, his future was all used up. Certainly that would haveseemed likely when the studio snuck the film into U.S. theatres in 1958.But almost instantly the picture was embraced by European critics, startingit on a steady upward path that has led to its current reputation as one ofWelles' and the American cinema's greatest film noirs.

Welles hadn't directed an American film in ten years when Universal signedhim to a meaty supporting role in a thriller called Badge of Evil.He had spent much of the '50s playing film roles to bankroll internationalproductions like Othello (1952) and Mr. Arkadin (1955), which were shot inbits and pieces over several years as money became available. Welles hadjust finished acting in another Universal film, Man in the Shadow (1957),for which the studio had let him re-write most of his scenes. They werepleased enough with his work to offer him another role, but nobody at thetime thought to give him another shot at directing in Hollywood, where hiscareer had crashed through a series of extravagant failures following histriumphant debut with Citizen Kane in 1941. That all changed when the studio approached Charlton Heston to play the male lead, an international narcoticsofficer who gets caught up in small-town corruption when he sets out toinvestigate a crooked sheriff (Welles). Through a misunderstanding, Hestonthought Welles was going to direct the film. When he learned otherwise, heinsisted that the studio offer Welles the job. Universal's head ofpost-production, Edward Nims, had worked happily with Welles in the '40s,and seconded the recommendation. So the studio offered him the absurdlylow sum of $125,000 to direct, re-write and star in the film. At firstWelles wavered, but then decided it was time to prove that he could workwithin the studio system.

At first all was well. Knowing there were studio spies on the set, Wellesplanned his first day of shooting to start with two uncomplicatedclose-ups. He started work at 9 a.m. and had the first shot finished by9:15. Then he got the second shot by 9:25. The studio spy was called off,so nobody noticed that the next shot wasn't completed until 7:40 p.m.Fortunately, that was a long take that covered 11 pages of script, soWelles ended his first day of shooting two days ahead of schedule.

Welles further evaded studio control by shooting much of the picture onlocation. He had originally asked to make the film in Tijuana, but theexecutives had feared that was too far from Hollywood for them to call theshots. Instead, he proposed shooting in Venice, California, for a few days.Once he got there, however, he settled in for most of the remaining shoot. By then,the executives were thrilled with each day's rushes, so they pretty muchleft him alone.

Throughout filming, Welles tweaked the script to get each scene just right.Usually he started his re-writes as soon as the day's (or night's)shooting was done and finished his re-writing in time for the next day'swork. Nobody could tell when he was sleeping.

For all his meticulous planning of camera angles and tracking shots, he wasalso open to improvisation from the actors. The role of the motel clerk,played by Gunsmoke co-star Dennis Weaver, was expanded duringshooting as Weaver and Welles came up with new ideas for the character.Without telling the studio executives, he asked his friend Marlene Dietrichto play a small role on 24-hours' notice. All he could tell her about thecharacter was that she was "dark." Dietrich assembled her own costume frombits and pieces she'd collected from her other films, particularly thegypsy adventure Golden Earrings (1947). When she showed up for one nightof shooting, he kept adding to the part. By the time she went home thenext morning, she had filmed a major supporting role as the town's Madameand Welles' former mistress, serving as a kind of Greek chorus to theaction. And the executives only found out about it when she turned up inthe rushes. Hers was the film's most recognizable cameo. Also featured insmall roles were Joseph Cotten, in old-age makeup, as a police surgeon andMercedes McCambridge, in male drag, as a Mexican gang leader.

The most famous sequence in Touch of Evil was the lengthy trackingshot that opens the film. The three-minute-plus shot opens with an unseenfigure planting a bomb in a car, follows the car through the border town'sstreets, picks up Heston and wife Janet Leigh as they cross the border andends as they kiss, and the bomb explodes off-screen. Welles spent anentire night getting the shot just right. When the customs officerquestioning Heston and Leigh kept flubbing his lines, Welles told him tomouth the words. They could dub the right lines in later. They finallygot the shot at the last possible moment -- the sky was just turning pinkin the east.

Throughout filming Welles maintained a healthy relationship with the frontoffice. They even talked about signing him to a five-picture deal. Butduring editing, everything fell apart. Using techniques almost 20 yearsahead of his time, he cut between scenes taking place simultaneously,telling the story in bits and pieces. While he was out of town to work onanother personal project, his never-finished version of Don Quixote,the executives looked at a rough cut of the film and decided to take overthe editing. Welles was shut out of the editing room and even deniedpermission to shoot necessary re-takes. Initially, Heston and Leighrefused to do the additional shots with another director. Heston even paidfor a day of shooting that had been cancelled when he didn't show up.Under the terms of their contracts, however, they had to do the scenes.When Welles finally saw the studio's cut, he was appalled. He sent off a58-page memo suggesting ways to re-cut the film, but apparently it was lostin the mail. The film was released with a 93-minute running time, andthough Welles was heartbroken, he had to admit that it was closer to hisoriginal vision than any of the Hollywood films he'd made since CitizenKane.

The biggest and most damaging change was the executives' design to run thelengthy opening tracking shot under the film's credits. That also meantplaying Henry Mancini's main title theme over the sequence. Originally thescene had been scored entirely with sound effects, with the theme onlyappearing as a selection playing on the car radio. Even in this cutversion, Universal didn't know what to do with the film. They kept it outof distribution for months, then finally snuck it into theatres in 1958 asthe bottom half of a double bill. They didn't even bother screening it forcritics. Welles' hopes of a Hollywood comeback were dashed.

Although Touch of Evil was largely neglected in the U.S., the picture's European release was met with critical raves. It even won Best Picture at the Brussels Film Festival. That didn't change any minds at Universal, where the film was written off as a loss. But over the years, Touch of Evil continued to find its audience through television and film society screenings which eventually sparked an interest among several of the film's admirers to restore it. The process began in the early 70s when Robert Epstein of the UCLA Film and Television requested a print to show at UCLA for the studio. When the film was screened it ran 108 min. and he believed he found Welles' lost cut; this was reported in The Hollywood Reporter at the time. But this was only a preview cut with many shots that Welles did not direct. A real turning point came in 1992: producer Rick Schmidlin read an article in Film Quarterly by Jonathan Rosenbaum that used excerpts from a 1957 memo Orson Welles wrote to studio chief Edward Muhl offering editing suggestions for Touch of Evil. At this point, Schmidlin, who has since produced critically acclaimed film restorations of Greed, the special edition of Elvis - That's the Way It Is and London After Midnight for Turner Classic Movies got involved in the restoration. As producer Schmidlin brought in Oscar®-winning editor Walter Murch who had just won two Academy Awards for The English Patient and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum as consultent to help construct the current 111 minute version.

This new version premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, won a special award for Schmidlin and his team from the New York Film Critics Circle, The National Society of Film Critics, The Boston Society of Film Critics and The Los Angeles Film Critics Association for "Scholarship and Integrity. Plus, this new edit of Touch Of Evil was called "Best Film Of The Year" by Premiere Magazine and chosen by The National Society of Film Critics as one of the "100 Essential Films" of all time. The 1998 re-edit ended up grossing almost three times the film's original $800,000 budget.

Producer: Albert Zugsmith
Director & Screenplay: Orson Welles
Based on the Novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Henry Mancini
Principal Cast: Charlton Heston (Ramon Miguel "Mike" Vargas), Janet Leigh(Susan Vargas), Orson Welles (Capt. Hank Quinlan), Joseph Calleia (Sgt.Pete Menzies), Akim Tamiroff (Uncle Joe Grandi), Joanna Moore (MarciaLinnekar), Ray Collins (District Attorney Adair), Dennis Weaver (MotelNight Manager), Marlene Dietrich (Tanya), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Night Club Owner),Joseph Cotten (Police Surgeon), Mercedes McCambridge (Leader of the Gang).
BW-111m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

back to top