Release Date: February, 1958
Directed by: Orson Welles
Written by: Orson Welles
Based on: Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson
Music by: Henry Mancini
Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor
Universal International, Universal Pictures, 95 Minutes, 111 Minutes (restored cut)
“A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.” – Ramon Miguel ‘Mike’ Vargas
Touch of Evil wasn’t a roaring smash when it came out but it got the respect and the recognition that it deserved as time marched on. In 1993, this motion picture was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Over the years, it has become recognized as one of Orson Welles’ greatest bodies of work.
While the appearance of Charlton Heston as a Mexican is a bit bizarre and would have all the people up in arms today, once you get beyond his pencil thin mustache and brownface, you realize that beneath the visual stereotype, he is at least playing the Mexican character heroically. Plus, Heston’s not a bad actor anyway and he does his best to make the character of Miguel “Mike” Vargas work.
The cast also includes the eternally alluring Janet Leigh and Orson Welles, who wrote and directed this thing. Zsa Zsa Gabor even shows up in a strip club but this is the 1950s and boobies weren’t allowed to be seen in legitimate motion pictures.
Watching Heston and Welles play off of each other was a magnificent sight. These two men truly felt at odds with one another and their rivalry developed flawlessly on screen. The tension between them was so strong and overbearing that it really drove the picture. Janet Leigh and her character’s situation also added an extra level of suspense that made this one of the most powerful film-noirs I have ever seen.
The story takes place on the Mexican border in Southern California. A bomb explodes in a car near the border gate and it brings in the American detective, played by Welles, and the Mexican detective, played by Heston. As the story rolls on, Heston’s Vargas realizes that Welles’ Quinlan is a crooked and racist prick. As Vargas delves deeper in trying to solve the mystery, Quinlan fights back and takes action against Vargas and his wife. Ultimately, the film paints the white American police force as bigoted and corrupt while painting the Mexican detective as just and true with many of the Mexican characters being victimized by the corrupt white cops. I can see where this would have ruffled some feathers in the 1950s.
While not quite the masterpiece that Welles’ Citizen Kane is, Touch of Evil still greatly showcases Welles’ ability as a filmmaker and an auteur. He has a dark and brooding style that is remarkable and stands tall, in a way that is very uniquely his own. Truthfully, Welles was using a noir visual style before the genre even cemented itself into 1940s Americana.
Touch of Evil is a magnificent picture. It challenged social norms and still provided the world with a solid film-noir, as the genre was coming to its end. It doesn’t feel derivative or like something we’ve seen before, which is pretty impressive, nearly two decades into this genre’s peak in popularity.