Touch of Evil (1958): Classic Movie Review

Touch of Evil (1958): Movie ReviewGuest blogger Alex DeLarge presents this review of the film noir classic Touch of Evil (1958):

In the explosive purgatory between moral boundaries, two men seek Justice by different means: one servant to the Rule of Law and the other…master. This is dynamite in a shoebox. Orson Welles’ sweaty and grimy moral epic vivisects two seemingly disparate men, cops who fight with the same sledgehammer conviction of their acts. Vargas is a young swashbuckling detective who is bound to a rigid code of justification who must bring down Quinlan, a shambling mound of a corrupt officer who is suddenly at an end to his means. But is Quinlan touched by evil, or fully embraced? Welles offers no answer in this film steeped in ambiguity and outrage, just the oblique statement that Quinlan was, “some kind of a man”.

Welles’ direction is beautifully expressionist, from the nearly 10-minute opening tracking shot (considered one of cinema’s finest moments!) to the dominating low-angle caricatures, he signs his celluloid creation with a signature style. Once again, Welles use of mumbling and overlapping dialogue adds a tempestuous realism to the drama. Diagetic sound and Henry Mancini’s evocative score drifts together like smoke in a seedy barroom. In this monochrome world of nebulous boundaries, between both men and their countries, nothing is black and white. Here is a modern world of cyclopean derricks loitering in the darkness, pumping blood from the earth for profit. And Welles is not without humor, twice commenting on Charlton Heston‘s obviously faux-Mexicana with acerbic wit.

Though visually and aurally striking and masterful, the true focus of Welles’ vision is Shakespearean tragedy, as two men physically embody their respective mortal morality. Make no mistake, Vargas is the democratic viewpoint, idealized but Just, his actions on the higher ground. But the film isn’t about Vargas or the crime syndicate he prosecutes, it’s about Quinlan and his rationale, a beast of burden who carries the guilt of the damned while protecting the blood of the innocents. Quinlan is caught planting evidence, framing a frustrated lover caught in his own biracial intercourse (a striking parallel to Vargas and his American wife). He is “aiding Justice”, ensuring that truly guilty men are convicted beyond his reasonable doubt, not framing innocents for profit or sadism. This lumbering and emotionally crippled giant sinks into desperate acts and still maintains some legacy of sympathy: it seems his wife’s murder set him on his vendetta of just cause. Even as he washes his hands of sin and chokes a final testament, he still feels that convicting evil men at any cost is worth the price. Quinlan has become the abyss. What does it matter what you say about anybody?

Final Grade: (A+)

The Trial (1962) Movie Review

Touch of Evil Movie Review

Alex is a staff writer for and Gone Cinema Poaching, as well as publisher of The Korova Theatre film blog. He never watches true crime shows on TV. Alex exists only in the third person.

  • Cynthia LaRochelle

    Just ordered it will let you know.

  • bonnerace

    A truly great movie on several levels. A good crime story. An unusual story concerning a bi-racial couple for the time period (even if Charlton Heston IS a bit of a stretch for a Mexican). Great acting in EVERY area. And, of course, the direction. Orson Welles’ imaginative directing is superb and well thought out. Every time I see it, I catch something I missed previously. The camera work is great also by one of the classic cinematographers. It makes one wonder to think what Welles would have done if given more shots. Without a doubt, a great film.



  • Juanita Curtis

    Touch of Evil is an interesting film despite a few casting decisions. I thought Marlene Dietrichs role was a bit of a caricature and Orson Welles went way over the top with his characterisation.

  • Tito Pannaggi

    I was very much impressed that Janet Leigh played her role with a broken arm. If I hadn’t read I would have thought of it. When you know you can see it.

    I always loved Janet Leigh!

  • Nick

    “You better lay off the candy bars”

  • Bernard Jones

    Truely one of Orson Welles’ best films; only “Citizen Kane” can top it. Unlike some, I find nothing wrong with the casting–Charlon Heston is quite convincing as the Mexican police officer; Janet Leigh excellent as his wife and Welles himself superb as the corrupt cop. And I also like all of the supporting players, especially Marlene Dietrich. The famous opening shot is just amazing; the rich exoridnary black and white photography is stunning; the script superb and Welles’ direction proves him to be one of the finest directors to ever grace the cinema. Even the musical score by Henry Mancini is wonderful. What more can one say? One of the truely classic films of all time–one I can watch over and over again and never get tired of!

  • John Goodwin

    An excellent review of one of my favorite films ( I would be inclined to be critical if it weren’t such a good review.)….”didn’t
    you bring any donuts!!” is all I
    can say…..

  • Carl

    Sometimes too much is expected when too much talent is assembled for an event. This is a movie that never delivers. The over acting, the almost clever dialogue, the mediocre plot devices, and the border town grit, all combine to disappoint on virtually every level.

  • William Sommerwerck

    The theatrical release of “Touch of Evil” is an outstanding film — but the version cut to Welles’ suggestions is even better. There used to be a DVD with both.

    By the way, the opening scene is a classic in the history of film, topped only by a “comparable” scene in “Top Secret!”. (I’m not kidding.)

  • Gary Vidmar

    A great American expressionist film. Amazingly Dennis Weaver and Akim Tamiroff practically steal the show. There is a UK Masters of Cinema Blu-ray (region 2) that has three versions and it is stunning!

  • Jim

    It is a movie that gets better as the decades distance themselves from the 1950s. Does anyone know how the reviews were when the film came out? The more movies that I see from the 1950s, the more inclined I am to view the “Fabulous Fifties” as the cinema’s best decade. I suppose some of it has to to do with the excellent equipment they had back then, but it also seems like the good movies back then assumed an educated public.

    • Nicolas

      An educated Public? Have to disagree with you about that, if that were the case the film would have been sold better, as with another film made two years earlier without much fanfare for that studio ‘Kiss Me Deadly’. those two films of course, I think were far ahead of their times. They would influence respectively BLUE VELVET, and of course PULP FICTION.

  • frankd

    One of the very best noir films ever made. Excellent in every way.

  • Mrs. Gee

    I was bewitched by the hype…did it deliver? Hardly! I call this the stink-bomb of the fifties! You people need to rate this next to a great film…such as “How Green Was My Valley”, which was stunningly superb. However, if you feel you need to throw it (I’d like to throw it…)into a category of Film Noir, then watch “The Killers” or “On Dangerous Ground”.

  • Gord Jackson

    Jim, as to yur question re reviews at the time “Evil” came out, I seem to recall that they were mediocre with excellent notations of the ten minute opening tracking shot. What is more interesting is Universal’s lack of enthusiasm for the film, eventually releasing it as the lower half of a double bill. Ah the suits. They know so much – don’t they!

  • Gord Jackson

    My thanks to whomever made “The Last Hurrah!” today’s trailer. I haven’t seen it in years as it is not on the DVD release. Still my alltime favourite Spencer Tracy film.

  • chris

    I have nothing bad to say about any actor in this movie, I love them all. But, I hate this movie.

  • Baz

    It’s really worth watching the restored and uncut version of this movie. I read that Welles used camera angles to enhance his size but was not yet as obese as he later became and had to wear padding to help the illusion.

  • Jim

    Gord, the bottom half of a double feature! That is really funny, but I guess not too surprising. I suppose a box office failure of 2011 could one day become iconic to another generation! Thanks so much for the info!!

  • Patrick

    I don’t know why Orson Welles was so unhappy with Henry Mancini’s fantastic score for this movie. It was vivid, flamboyant, and moody, constantly changing tempo to suit each changing scene. The music for the opening sequence was a showcase on how music, film, and editing can all work together to create something extraordinary in cinema. Mancini was rightly proud of his work on this film, some of his best. Too bad the filmmaker felt otherwise.