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If The Maltese Falcon was the birth of film noir and Double Indemnity was the genre all grown up, then Touch of Evil was its last grasp at life. Released in 1957 to almost no acclaim, Orson Welles' last film in Hollywood is the best example of noir available. It is dark, brooding, grimy at every turn and filled with characters who have such interesting personalities that the audience doesn't care that the plot makes almost no sense.
Charlton Heston is Ramon Miquel Vargas, a well-respected Mexican prosecutor, and Janet Leigh is his new American wife, Susan. The two are planning a honeymoon together in Vargas' home country and they enter Mexico through a seedy border town. Suddenly, there's an explosion in a car that kills an important businessman and the young girl he's sleeping with. Hank Qinlan (Welles) is called in on the case and Vargas gets stuck seeing how this fat, racist, mumbling detective solves a crime.
Meanwhile, Uncle Joe Grande (Akim Tamiroff) sees that Vargas – the man who's about to get Grande's brother a death sentence after breaking up his narcotics ring – is in his town. Grande has a gang of younger Grandes torment Mrs. Vargas, mostly for the fun of it, but also to try to dissuade Vargas for prosecuting his brother.
These two strings do eventually come together, but the film is so disjointed, that the plots really don't matter. The crime at the beginning of the movie doesn't matter and only will to members of the audience who are paying really close attention. Welles' focus turns quickly to Quinlan and how this detective has the whole town in his pocket by framing criminals. And we're also worried about how Vargas and Susan will finally get back together. The movies teach you that it's never a good idea for a newleywed couple to split up and that plays out here. It's also never a good idea to leave Janet Leigh at a motel.
From Citizen Kane onwards, Welles developed a knack for casting. Even though it had been a decade since he made Macbeth in Hollywood, Welles kept contact with his friends there. It meant that Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Joseph Cotten agreed to take bit parts in Touch of Evil. Dietrich's role of a gypsy woman who had a past with Quinlan was expanded and she even got the great last line of the film.
The performances from the leads are also fantastic. It may be a little hard to take Heston as a Mexican, but he still does a good job going face to face with Welles. The director also clearly relished this role as the heavy (supposedly, Universal offered Welles the part and Heston suggested that he direct). Leigh is also underrated here. Sure, she's the damsel in distress, but scenes like her first one with Tamiroff show how under-appreciated she was.
Like may of Welles' films after Kane, there's multiple versions and Touch of Evil is, unfortunately, no different. After principal photography wrapped, Welles moved on to another project (apparently not learning his lesson from the Magnificent Ambersons debacle) and Universal made their own cut of the film. Welles saw a preview cut and wrote a now-iconic 58-page memo on the corrections he wanted. Of course, Universal ignored it and made further cuts to create a 96-minute theatrical cut. Then, there is a 1998 'restored' cut that does pay attention to the memo. While the restored version does make the story more coherent, I enjoy the theatrical cut, as a shorter film that at least retains some of the great character moments.
Thankfully, the lavish 2008 DVD release does include both of these cuts, plus another preview version, two short feautrettes on the making of the movie and an explanation of the cuts. There is also a reprint of the memo and enough commentaries to require multiple viewings of the film. Universal is releasing this package on Blu-ray in April.
Touch of Evil really is the ultimate film noir. It's also likely the ultimate Orson Welles film. While it is filled with several technical flashes of brilliance (like the opening shot that puts Gravity to shame), it also brings in that knack of bizarre characters he developed in Europe. This is the movie that will convince anyone that Welles was not just a flash in the pan with Kane.