The camera focuses in on what is a homemade time bomb. An unidentified young man carries it to a car, placing it inside the trunk. Unknowingly, an American with his bimbo girlfriend gets into the car and drives off. The camera pulls back; we are in a sleazy Mexican border town. The camera follows the car. Coming in to the moving camera’s ranges is Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican police officer and his newlywed American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh). They cross the street heading toward the U.S. side of the border. We pass one bar and strip joint after another, the music–jazz and rock and roll–blaring out from each one. At the border station, Vargas stops and talks with the guards while the two Americans in their car pass through, the girl mumbling something about hearing a ticking sound but no one pays her much attention. Moments later the car explodes into a fiery ball. With the strategic assistance of cinematographer Russell Metty, director Orson Welles brilliantly frames this opening all in one astounding, continuous long-running shot.
It’s a spectacular beginning to one of the most interesting works in film noir, made right toward the end of what is generally considered noir’s classic period. The film is also my own personal favorite Orson Welles work. Citizen Kane is certainly a greater work, but for sheer low budget filmmaking, 1958’s Touch of Evil cannot be beat. Released on the top half of a twin bill, at least in New York, the film played at theaters around the city for four days, scaled back to one theater for another three days and then quickly disappeared.
Charlton Heston, who had recently completed filming The Ten Commandments and just finished a revival on Broadway of “Mister Roberts,” was offered the role of a police officer by Universal for a film called “Badge of Evil.” After reading the script, what he found to be essentially a “B” cop film, Heston told them, “police stories are like westerns: you guys have been making them for 50 years, all the great ideas are used up. It really depends on who’s directing. Have you set anyone up?”
The answer was no, not yet, but studio head Ed Muhl and producer Albert Zugsmith told Heston Welles was on board for the film as an actor in the small role of a corrupt cop. Heston wanted to know why Welles wasn’t directing. I imagine some coughs and “ahem” moments must have occurred before the studio bosses responded. As many know, Welles had a reputation for overspending and doing movies his way. Still, Universal did not want to lose Heston, who just finished playing Moses on screen, and, after all, who wants to piss off Moses? They offered Welles the job to direct and even let him rewrite the script with the caveat of no extra pay. Welles jumped at the chance in what would turn out to be his last Hollywood directing assignment.
The first thing Welles did was rewrite the script, with Heston’s blessings. They became friends and Heston’s support during filming certainly helped Welles with the politics of Hollywood. Heston liked the improved script even with the many modifications, including changing Heston’s character to a Mexican police officer named Vargas, from an important family, and relocating the action along the U.S./Mexican border (in the novel the setting was San Diego). Vargas’ wife, who was Mexican in the novel, became an American with the All-American name of Susie. The changes were so extensive Welles received sole screenplay credit. Welles also increased his own role in the film, making the story more about the rise and fall of his corrupt character, Captain Hank Quinlan, than about Heston’s virtuous lawman.
Location shooting was done in Venice, California, since Universal would not spring for the money to shoot in Mexico and wanted to keep a close eye on Welles, which was easier if he filmed in the States . Welles found enough dilapidated, low-class buildings in Venice to substitute convincingly for the border town in the film. Based on a novel by Whit Masterson, the first version of the screenplay was written by Paul Monash. It was this version of the script that was sent to Heston and would soon after be revamped by Welles.
Hank Quinlan is not so much a crooked cop as he is a cop who does not go by the rules. If there is no proof and his gut tells him the suspect is guilty, he’ll manufacture the proof to complete his investigation. When Vargas, a straight, by-the-book cop of obvious good breeding begins to question Quinlan’s methods and attempts to bring him down, Quinlan sets in motion a plan to get back at Vargas by going after his young and virginal new American bride.
In Welles’ hands, the film became more than just another cop story as Heston feared it would before the egotistical master’s involvement. Welles turned Touch of Evil into the rise and fall of Quinlan, a one-time well-admired cop respected for his intuitive investigative skills, now nothing more than a grandstanding alcoholic blowhard willing to frame a suspect with falsified evidence to get a conviction and prove he is still the man he once was.
With the film completed, Welles put together the first rough edit…which Universal honchos took one look at and did not like. After a second edit without Welles’ input, studio head Muhl decided some additional scenes were needed. Welles wanted to direct those scenes. The studio denied him that request and any other future attempts to collaborate went unanswered. Instead they bought in television director Harry Keller to film the additional scenes. A 108-minute preview version was shown and met with lukewarm results from the audience. Universal then attempted another edit, trimming it down to 96 minutes. This even more confused edition was the one released in theaters with surprisingly no financial success. In 1998, the film was re-edited according to a now-famous 58-page memo Welles wrote after viewing cuts made by the studio without his involvement. This version gives audiences the opportunity to see the film as the director envisioned–or at least as he describes in the memo–and remains the closest we may ever get to Welles’ original idea. It does restores much of the complex storylines balancing out the parallel scenes of Vargas and his wife, which studio heads reduced in their truncated version. This newest iteration also removed the opening credits as Welles wanted and removed Henry Mancini’s title music, putting back the more natural sounds of jazz and rock and roll blaring out from the various clubs and strip joints as the camera moves along during its three-and-a-half-minute running time. (1)
The end result of it all is a dark, dirty crime film that clarifies many of the murky questions asked but left unanswered in the earlier chopped up versions. Welles does not spare himself. His Hank Quinlan is a unkempt, overweight, beastly looking character. Visually, he made himself grotesque, at one point placing the camera at a very low angle in front of a car as his character Quinlan lifts his massive body up and out of the car so we get the full brunt of his size and hideous clothes right in our face.
(1) For a detailed look at the making of this film and the post production battle between Welles and Universal, I highly recommend Clinton Heylin’s book “Despite The System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios.”
Other Sources of Information:
An Actor’s Life: A Journal – Charlton Heston
Orson Welles: A Critical View – Andre Bazin
Take One (Volume 3, No, 6) Heston Interview by James Delson
John Greco has had a life-long fascination with cinema and photography. Raised in New York City, he is now living in Florida. For more information, visit Twenty Four Frames.