Film Noir Friday – TOUCH of EVIL

I’ve had a horrendous case of writer’s block this week, trying to come up with something original to say about Orson Welles’ 1958 film noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil. As I noted last August, it’s practically impossible to say anything that hasn’t already been said about Welles and his work. After all, there are countless books and movie blogs rightly singing their praises, and Touch of Evil has long been regarded as a great of the film noir genre. But I’ve got to add my $.02 because Detroit Film Theatre is showing the film on Saturday, January 14 at 4:00 p.m. as part of their DFT 101 series. So I’ll just list why I’m so looking forward to this opportunity to see it as it was meant to be seen:

  • Touch of Evil is arguably the last in the film noir classic cycle. Welles’ own Citizen Kane is considered an important influence on what would eventually come to be known as film noir, and it’s clear that he had mastered the elements of film noir style, exemplified by his use of chiaroscuro lighting and subjective camerawork. Welles also wrote the film’s script, which contains most of film noir’s thematic elements. A hero (Charlton Heston as a Mexican narcotics officer named Mike Vargas) lost in a labyrinth of shadiness and duplicity, shadowed streets, corruption, and seedy characters. In Welles’ hands, it’s a feast for the eyes.
  • Welles also stars in this, his last American film, taking on the role of corrupt, alcohol-soaked cop Hank Quinlan. Quinlan’s jurisdiction is Los Robles, a seedy town on the Texas side of the U.S.-Mexico border where all sorts of crime occurs, but Quinlan seems to be the worst. We see him slowly losing even the pretension of moral authority, as he conspires against Vargas, endangers Vargas’ wife (Janet Leigh), plants evidence, drinks to excess, and generally acts as judge and jury, convicting anyone he doesn’t like, usually a Mexican.


  • It will be a joy to see the film’s opening sequence, a three-minute, 20-second long take, on the big screen. We are shown a bomb being armed and concealed in the trunk of a Cadillac, which we then follow over the border in an amazing continuous shot, that ends with the explosion of the bomb.
  • As Tana (Marlene Dietrich) might have said about the 1958 version of Touch of Evil, “Honey, you’re a mess.” Welles wasn’t allowed to control the film’s final cut. The studio’s version placed the credits over the long take, added a musical soundtrack to it, and added some scenes to the rest of the film —  apparently the film’s plot was deemed to intricate for the average moviegoer. Thankfully, DFT will be showing the 1998 restoration, which was based on a painstaking 58-page memo Welles sent to the head of Universal Studios (who ignored it), so that what we see on Saturday will be as near to what Orson Welles intended as possible. Don’t miss it!

The DFT is located on the John R side of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward Avenue. To purchase tickets, call 313.833.4005 or visit the DFT Ticket Info page.

10 thoughts on “Film Noir Friday – TOUCH of EVIL

    1. I think it was worth the wait…anytime I can see Welles’ work on a big screen is good. Also the version I saw before had credits over the long take, so it wasn’t the restoration.

  1. I’ve GOT to see this… I mean Charlton Heston as a Mexican?? He did that in El Cid too, right? Haven’t seen that either but I do like Heston as an actor.

    1. I definitely think you should see it and not just for Heston 🙂 I won’t lie, Heston’s casting sounded like bit of a stretch to me too before I saw it, but it works. Heston and Welles make the antipathy between their characters very believable. Basically Quinlan (Welles) hates anybody who gets in his way. The guy who introduced the movie at DFT on Saturday said that the picture wouldn’t have gotten made without Heston because the studios considered Welles to be too much trouble. Heston reportedly said he wouldn’t sign on unless Welles directed. PS: I have not seen El Cid so am not sure.

    1. Isn’t it amazing? I’d never seen it the way Welles intended before. It was pretty cool ~with the credits and the music tacked on, but without them…incredible. Thank you for your comment!

  2. Hi, Paula:

    ‘Touch of Evil’ is one of the best examples of getting the most bang for the buck.
    Welles had his own agenda in keeping the suits and overseers from Hollywood as far away as possible. Filming mostly at night while using Venice, California as Los Robles.

    The suits got their revenge by messing up the exquisite opening crane shot. Until Welles’ will fixed that problem and kept ‘Citizen Kane’ far away from Ted Turner’s box of colorized crayons.

    The film’s introduction of Welles’ Quinlan isn’t as grand as in ‘The Third Man’, but it’ll do!

    1. LOL “Ted Turner’s box of colorized crayons” great phrase Jack 🙂
      Yes, more panache in Third Man 😉 That’s gonna be on TCM 2/20 at 10 p.m. EST by the way.
      Quinlan is really imposing on a big screen tho…i was surprised at how huge he looked.
      I didn’t know they shot in Venice, very interesting. I’m gonna go out on a limb here & say I bet they didn’t have a permit. And yeah Welles was allergic to suits, but I can’t figure out why he took off after Touch of Evil wrapped, particularly after they carved up Magnificent Ambersons. Do you know? Very counter-productive.

  3. He left to work on his long-planned version of “Don Quixote” (a movie that, quite fittingly, he never completed) while the suits at the studio blew their lids over “Touch of Evil”‘s supposed problems…He never worked in America again.

    1. I agree…quixotic. I guess I need to look into it further to understand why he wouldn’t just put off filming QUIXOTE to finish TOUCH OF EVIL.

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