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The working title of this film was Badge of Evil. According to an April 1956 news item in Daily Variety, Universal purchased Whit Masterson's novel in 1956, at which time it was to be produced by Albert Zugsmith. Descriptions differ as to how Orson Welles, who had not directed a film in the United States since the 1948 Republic picture Macbeth, became involved sometime later in the Zugsmith production.
Most modern sources credit John Russell as the camera operator who assisted director of photography Russell Metty, but only Phil Lathrop is credited as the operator in contemporary sources. Edward Curtiss, who is credited on Hollywood Reporter production charts as the editor, was fired by Welles when they did not agree on the cutting of the film, but Welles did work well with the next editor assigned to the picture, Virgil M. Vogel.
Among the significant ways in which Welles departed from the novel and the Paul Monash screenplay were to change the character played by Charlton Heston from a white district attorney to a Mexican narcotics agent; to change the nationality of Janet Leigh's character from Mexican to American; and to set the film in a Mexican-American border town rather than in a Southern California town. Welles also heightened racial and sexual tensions in his screenplay.
The famous opening sequence, in which a camera follows the bomb placed in "Rudy Linnekar's" car and introduces "Mike Vargas" and his wife, has become one of the most frequently cited examples of Welles's talent for unusual camera work. Another well-known long take in the film is the interrogation of "Sanchez" in his apartment, which, according to studio production notes in the film's production file at the AMPAS Library, Welles filmed on the first day of shooting to prove to the studio his ability to make the film quickly and efficiently.
Welles shot the film in Venice, CA, where, according to the production notes, most of the filming took place at night. The picture was completed in early April 1957, and in a June 10, 1977 New York Times article, Heston is quoted as saying that the film "had an $825,000 budget and [a schedule of] 38 shooting days...and Orson brought it in for $900,000 in 39 days." Although a March 1, 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item includes Irene Snyder in the cast, her appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. According to a March 21, 1957 Hollywood Reporter item, Marie McDonald was considered to perform a "guest star stint." Some modern sources also include John Dierkes and Billy House in the cast.
The studio did not release Touch of Evil until February 1958 and did not advertize it extensively. The film was a box-office failure in the United States, where criticism varied, with some writers praising Welles's innovative style, while others disliked the story and "artsy" direction. The picture was better received in Europe, however, and Welles accepted the award for best international film at the World's Fair in Brussels in 1958. Despite the critical success of the film in Europe, Welles never again directed a picture in the United States. [Although Welles did work on some independent projects in the U.S., he was never hired by a studio to direct in America after 1957, nor did he complete any independent films there.]
According to a September 4, 1960 New York Times article, Marlene Dietrich considered the role of "Tana" one of her favorites, and claimed that she did her "best dramatic acting" in the last scene, in which she declares, "What does it matter what you say about people?" In the New York Times article, Dietrich also stated that her scenes were shot all in one night. Most modern sources note that Welles wrote Dietrich's part after filming had already begun, calling her the night before he wished to film her scenes to offer her the part. Although modern sources refer to the character played by Dietrich as "Tanya," her name in the film is "Tana."
Much has been written about the production since it was first released. Modern sources offer the following information about the production: Zugsmith assigned Paul Monash to write a screenplay based on the book, although the project was shelved after Monash completed his screenplay. Some writers state that Welles became friends with Zugsmith during production of Man in the Shadow in which Welles appeared as an actor, and after that film wrapped, Welles offered to direct the "worst" script Zugsmith had, which was Badge of Evil.
In an interview printed in a modern source, Welles said that after Universal sent Welles the script, the studio contacted Charlton Heston and asked him to read the script, noting that Welles was also working on the project. Heston misunderstood their comment, however, and thinking that Welles was the film's director, agreed to star in it. To please Heston, the studio then asked Welles to direct the film, and he agreed on the condition that he could rewrite the screenplay. The studio accepted on the condition that Welles would be compensated only for his acting duties. According to Welles, he never read Masterson's novel, and he rewrote the entire original screenplay, keeping only "the basic situation about a detective with a good record who plants evidence because he knows somebody is guilty...and the fellow turns out really to be guilty."
Welles originally wanted to shoot the picture on location in Tijuana, but was unable to do so, and thus the film was shot in the Venice, CA. Some sources state that Universal ordered Welles to shoot closer to the studio so that his shooting schedule could be closely monitored, while other sources state that Mexican government censors, concerned over the depiction of drug use and violence, refused Welles permission to film in Mexico.
According to various modern sources, while scouting the location, Welles fell into a canal and suffered painful injuries that required the use of a sling and a cane while he was off camera. Just prior to filming, Leigh was also injured and the cast on her broken left arm had to be hidden during shooting. During more revealing scenes, such as those set in the motel, Leigh's cast was sawn off and her arm re-splinted after filming. Although, according to a modern interview, Welles originally wanted Lloyd Bridges to play "Pete Menzies," he was "more than happy with Calleia" and considered himself "very lucky with that cast."
Welles prevailed on several friends-Joseph Cotten, Dietrich, Mercedes McCambridge and Keenan Wynn-to act in the picture for union scale wages, although when the studio decided to include Dietrich in the onscreen billing, they were required to pay her more money. Maurice Seiderman, who was Welles's makeup man on Citizen Kane, is often credited with helping transform Welles into "Quinlan," for which he was padded with an extra sixty pounds.
The post-production phase of the project was complicated. In Heston's journals, summarized in a modern source, Heston wrote that after viewing the rough cut of the film in February 1957, the studio requested another day of shooting to clarify the plot. Heston, reluctant to appear in any sequences not shot by Welles, caused the production to be held up for a day, but then agreed to reimburse the studio for the delay. Harry Keller was then brought in to direct the additional sequences. In the interview, Welles stated that two scenes between Vargas and "Susan" in the hotel were added, as well as a scene between Vargas and the district attorney in the hotel. Welles also noted that a scene in which "Menzies" tells Susan how "Quinlan" saved his life years earlier by taking a bullet for him would have explained Quinlan's limp and Quinlan saying "That's the second bullet stopped for you partner."
Other modern sources note that after several months of post-production work, Vogel was replaced by Aaron Stell, who was later assisted by studio executive Ernest Nims. Keller worked with cameraman Cliff Stein and writer Franklin Coen for the added scenes. Another change imposed by the studio was the printing of the credits over the opening sequence. Welles had intended for the credits to appear at the film's end, so that the audience's attention would not be diverted from the long and narratively important tracking shot at the beginning.
Daily Variety news items from June and August 1975 noted that a longer version of the film was discovered in the Universal vaults and subsequently preserved by the American Film Institute. That version, which contains approximately fifteen minutes of additional footage, was at first thought to correspond closely to the original cut made by Welles before the studio re-edited the film, according to the June 1975 Daily Variety news item. However, an August 1975 Daily Variety news item states that the longer version was not the director's original cut, and that it contained additional scenes filmed by director Harry Keller.
Over the years, the picture's stature among critics and audiences has grown, and it has become one of Welles's most analyzed and highly praised films. Often discussed are Welles's innovative use of sound, lighting and the camera, as well as his depiction of racism and sexuality. Many modern critics assert that the the motel scenes in Touch of Evil influenced Alfred Hitchcock, whose 1960 film Psycho starred Leigh and featured work by cameraman John Russell and art director Robert Clatworthy. A restored version of Touch of Evil, with editorial changes based on an editorial memo written by Welles to Universal in 1957, was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1998.