Touch of Evil (1958): Masterpieces of the American Cinema


Orson Welles’ 1958 visually stunning film, “Touch of Evil,” starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, and himself, is his first American production in a decade, after being in exile in Europe.

Nominally, it’s a just another noir thriller set in a border town, but visually, it’s a valentine to the movie medium itself, what with its lurid characterizations, garish tone, and baroque sets.  Above all, the movie reminded Hollywood what a brilliant filmmaker Welles was, capable of elevating the most mediocre of texts with bravura directorial touches and uniquely cinematic properties (POV, camera angle and movement, lighting, framing, and editing). As such, “Touch of Evil” offers legitimacy to film quo film, not as extension of theater or literature.

Thematically, the story of this classic noir is routine, or at least undistinguished . One night on the Mexican border, a millionaire is blown up along with his blond companion by a time bomb planted in his car. At odds in the investigation are Mike Vargas (Heston), a Mexican narcotics investigator on his honeymoon with his American wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), and Hank Quinlan (Welles), a shrewd stateside detective. Quinlan believes that a young Mexican named Sanchez is guilty of the murder and plants evidence to frame him.

Discovering this, Vargas seeks to expose Quinlan. The outraged Quinlan, who has routinely framed suspects ever since he had failed to bring his wife’s murderer to justice, retaliates by enlisting the help of a racketeer, Uncle Joe Grandi, who is seeking to discredit Vargas so that the mobster’s brother will not go to prison. At the end, clear of the drug charge, Susan asks her husband to take her away while Tanya, Quinlan’s old friend, has a last philosophical word to say about the once powerful cop.

Initially underrated by all but a few critics, such as the Village Voice Andrew saris, Touch of Evil is now considered one of Welles’ most skillfully directed films. As usual, Welles is a most impressive presence-off and onscreen.

The luminous opening shot, lasting over three minutes, displays Welles’ propensity for long takes and moving camera. This extraordinary” tracking shot has become a famous point of reference in “film culture,” with later tributes by Robert Altman, among others, in the opening sequence of “The Player.” Running 2 1/2 minutes, it follows a close-up of a bomb about to explode. Hitchcock would have depicted the same scene in a rapidly cut montage of 50 shots.

Heston may not be the most credibly cast Mexican detective, but all three women are superlative, particularly Marlene Dietrich, who may have the best lines in the film. Well-cast as the madame of a Mexican bordello, Dietrich greets the oversized Welles in a personal way: “You’re a mess, honey. You’ve been eating too much candy.” Then at the end, when a bullet punctures Quinlan and he is floating in the water like a dead whale, Dietrich eulogizes him, also in a self-reflexive and self-referential mode: “What can you say about anybody He was some kind of a man…” Is Dietrich talking about Quinlan as a man or Welles as a director ousted from Hollywood Probably both.

Arguably the most bizarre and insidious scene of the film takes place in a sleazy motel, where Janet Leigh is about to be gang-raped by a bunch of hoodlums.  In yet another portrait of a butch dyke, Mercedes McCambridge makes a brief appearance (in an uncredited role) at the motel, claiming “I wanna watch.”  Surprisingly, despite protests from the Production Code (well documentaed by the scholar Richard Barrios), the line remained in the final cut of the picture.  (McCambridge was nominated for an Oscar for playing Rock Hudson’s lesbian sister in “Giant”).

The critic Robin Wood has observed that the ultimate overriding effect of the film is its seductive and insidious invitation to the spectator to accept corruption as a fact of existence, privileging Quinlan ever Vargas, as characters and actors. Indeed, “Touch of Evil” depicts aberrant, non-patriarchal sexuality in the motel scene, where Janet Leigh’s Susan, with a coat draped over her broken arm, is menaced by Mercedes McCambridge and others. However, as some scholars have pointed out, this thematic deviance is then repudiated and repressed for the sake of constructing a more positive and mainstream heroine-and sexuality.


Charlton Heston (Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas)

Janet Leigh (Susan Vargas)

Orson Welles (Hank Quinlan)

Joseph Calleia (Pete Menzies)

Akim Tamiroff (Uncle Joe Grandi)

Joanna Moore (Marcia Linnekar)

Marlene Dietrich (Tanya)

Mercedes McCambridge (Hootlum)

Zsa Zsa Gabor (Owner of Nightclub)

Joseph Cotten (Detective)


Released: May 21, 1958

Running Time: 87 minutes

Director: Orson Welles; additional scenes by Harry Keller

Producer: Albert Zugsmith (Universal-International)

Screenplay: Orson Welles, from the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson

Camera: Russell Metty

Sound: Leslie I. Carey, Frank Wilkinson

Music: Henry Mancini

Art Directors: Alexander Golitzen, Robert Clatworthy

Set Decoration: Russell A. Gausman, John P. Austin

Costumes: Bill Thomas Film

Editors: Virgil M. Vogel, Aaron Stell

End Note

The UCLA Film Archive has discovered a 105-minute version of “Touch of Evil,” which is now included in the American Film Institute Archive at the library of Congress.

Be warned: There are also 95 and 87 minutes-long versions.