“Your future’s all used up”
Back in Hollywood a decade after his The Lady from Shanghai debacle, Orson Welles‘ Touch of Evil almost met the same fate. He presented his rough cut on time yet Universal brought in Harry Keller to reshoot scenes—replacements and brand new—and truncated it to 93-minutes nonetheless. While the studio destroyed any unused footage, they did let Welles take a gander before its bow. Their cut was ultimately released, but seeing it early allowed Welles the opportunity to write a 58-page memo outlying its problems. He didn’t simply state his was better, though. He actually gave notes on how theirs could be improved. So while a director’s cut is impossible, Walter Murch‘s 111-minute restoration cut to that memo’s specifications at least supplies us something Welles approved.
Loosely based on Whit Masterson‘s Badge of Evil—rumor is that Welles choose the worst script producer Albert Zugsmith had to prove he could make it great—Touch of Evil is a wonderfully constructed thriller with multiple character arcs, competing plotlines, and two leads you can dig into. On the side of good is Mexican police detective Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston with a tan) just arrived in the States to spend his honeymoon with new wife Susan (Janet Leigh); opposite him is American border town folk hero and Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). They unwittingly become embroiled in a murder case under the latter’s jurisdiction that occurred before the former’s very eyes. Because its ramifications could spell disaster for border relations, Quinlan’s boss lets Vargas stay to watch.
It’s this bit of unsolicited oversight that makes a cut-and-dry homicide into so much more. Let’s just say Quinlan has a way of doing things where his bum leg provides the intuition to finger the perpetrator before his partner Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) swoops in to find the “smoking gun”. The same would have happened here except for the fact that the evidence was found exactly where Vargas had previously looked and seen nothing. Suddenly everyone’s favorite hero’s credibility is being questioned and this stranger quickly begins to see how unwelcome he is outside Mexican borders. Only Assistant District Attorney Al Schwartz (Mort Mills) is immune to Quinlan’s aura to gamble with Mike’s hunch and discover the truth. It’s Quinlan vs. Vargas and only one man can win.
Alongside the case—which proves a MacGuffin to incite the real adversarial dynamic as well as serve as the focal point of the film’s legendary opening 3:26-minute tracking shot—is a subplot revolving around Mexican drug cartel family the Grandis currently led by ‘Uncle’ Joe (Akim Tamiroff) thanks to Vargas putting away one and killing two relatives higher on the food chain. For the majority of the film they’re occupying Susan’s time at a motel in the middle of nowhere just in case sequestering her can help them on their quest to get out from under Vargas’ thumb. It’s a suspenseful subplot with some of the darkest (Susan being kidnapped) and lighter moments (Dennis Weaver‘s Asperger’s-riddled Night Manager) of the whole before becoming crucial to Quinlan’s game.
What transpires is a race against time for Vargas to gather evidence on Quinlan being dirty while Quinlan seeks a way to destroy Vargas after twelve years of sobriety are thrown out the window thanks to the added pressure. Every action has deeper meaning with everyone involved looking for an advantage whether Grandi playing the angles or Quinlan spewing lies he may have forgotten weren’t actually true. Vargas has no power, but it’s tough not to believe he’s an honest, no-nonsense man the way Heston performs the role. We accept Schwartz going against his superiors to help him because of this trust and the hope he can show his bosses what fools they’ve become. The key, though, is poor Pete Menzies and his heartbreaking journey towards justice.
Calleia is the unsung hero turning in a poignant performance you wouldn’t expect from the “yes man” with a perpetual grin of loyalty on his face. Menzies is as pure-hearted as Quinlan is coal black. What makes Welles’ portrayal so timeless, however, is that we get the feeling he wasn’t always like this. He’s a good cop, but he’s let fame cloud his due diligence and morality for far too long. We see it in the cold stare of fortune teller Tana (Marlene Dietrich) despite there obviously being romantic history between them and in Menzies’ undying love and appreciation for what his partner has done for his career. After a few drinks emotion takes over and the mess of a man the accolades helped birth shines through uncensored.
Credit Welles for one of his career’s best performances while also keeping the complicated plot cogent. I want to watch the studio’s cut to witness how muddled it is by not cross-cutting Susan’s fate with the Vargas/Quinlan case as Welles’ memo suggested because that back and forth is crucial to the suspense and relevance of both. From the breathtaking opening shot of a bomb timer spun before following the car housing it through customs to the edge-of-your-seat finale of tape-recorded confessions and knee-jerk murder, Touch of Evil rightfully earns its top spot in the annals of film noir. Age renders some performances over-the-top (but deliciously so in Valentin de Vargas‘ ‘Pancho’s’ case) and Heston as Mexican is a stretch, but that’s all surface noise. Underneath is unquestionable greatness.