Touch of Evil

This article is about the 1958 film. For the Judas Priest song, see A Touch of Evil.
Touch of Evil

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Orson Welles
Produced by Albert Zugsmith
Screenplay by Orson Welles
Based on Badge of Evil
1956 novel
by Whit Masterson
Music by Henry Mancini
Cinematography Russell Metty
Edited by
Universal International
Distributed by Universal International
Release dates
  • April 23, 1958 (1958-04-23) (Los Angeles, California)
  • May 21, 1958 (1958-05-21) (United States)
Running time
95 minutes
108 minutes
(1975 alternate)
111 minutes
(1998 alternate)
112 minutes
(Director's Cut)
Country United States
Language English
Budget $829,000
Box office $2,237,659[1][2]
1,232,534 admissions (France)[3]

Touch of Evil is a 1958 crime drama film noir, written, directed by, and co-starring Orson Welles. The screenplay was loosely based on the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson. Along with Welles, the cast includes Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich.

Touch of Evil is one of the last examples of film noir in the genre's classic era (from the early 1940s until the late 1950s).[4] Since its release, the film's reputation has grown in stature, and it is now widely regarded as one of Welles' best films, and also one of the best classic-era films noir.

In 1993 Touch of Evil was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[5][6]


In a Mexican town along the U.S.–Mexico border, a time bomb is planted in a car. Rudy Linnekar (Jeffrey Green) and woman Zita enter the vehicle and make a slow journey through town to the U.S. border, the woman (Joi Lansing) insisting that she hears something ticking. Newlyweds Miguel "Mike" Vargas (Charlton Heston), a drug enforcement official in the Mexican government, and his wife Susie (Janet Leigh) pass the car several times on foot. The car crosses the border, then explodes, killing the occupants. (The cut to the exploding car is the first one in the film, the single-camera opening sequence lasting nearly three and one-half minutes.)

Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston

Realizing the implications of a Mexican bomb exploding on American soil, Vargas takes an interest in the investigation. Police Chief Pete Gould (Harry Shannon) and District Attorney Adair (Ray Collins) arrive on the scene, followed by the game-legged police captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Quinlan's longtime partner, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia)—who clearly worships Quinlan. The obese and disheveled Captain nostalgically visits a brothel run by Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), who barely recognizes him.

Quinlan's and Menzies' prime suspect is Sanchez, a young Mexican secretly married to the victim's daughter (Joanna Moore). They interrogate Sanchez in his apartment with Vargas present. Vargas visits the bathroom and accidentally knocks over an empty shoebox. Moments later, Menzies enters the bathroom and announces that two sticks of dynamite were found in the same shoebox. Vargas accuses Quinlan of planting the evidence and begins to suspect that he may have been doing so for years, to help win convictions. Quinlan dismisses the Vargas claim, saying he is just biased in favor of fellow Mexicans. The stress of these accusations, along with pressure from "Uncle" Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the brother of a man Vargas has been investigating, to strike a deal to discredit Vargas, causes Quinlan—who has been sober for 12 years—to fall off the wagon. With assistance from District Attorney's Assistant Al Schwartz (Mort Mills), Vargas studies the public records on Quinlan's previous cases, revealing his findings to Gould and Adair. Quinlan arrives in time to overhear the discussion and angrily threatens to resign.

Susie Vargas is moved from her Mexican hotel to a remote American motel to escape the unwanted attention of Grandi. The motel, which Menzies recommended to her, has no other guests and is staffed only by a very peculiar night manager (Dennis Weaver), and, unknown to Susie, is owned by Grandi himself. Grandi's family members take over the motel and terrorize Susie. Vargas becomes concerned when his attempts to telephone Susie at the motel are blocked. Quinlan conspires with Grandi, arranging for Susie to be raped, kidnapped, injected with drugs, and taken to Grandi’s hotel in town. Quinlan then double-crosses Grandi, strangles him, and leaves Susie, still drugged and unconscious, in the room with Grandi's body, all in order to discredit Vargas. However, exhausted, drunk, and shaken from killing Grandi, Quinlan carelessly leaves his cane at the scene of the murder, implicating himself. When Susie wakes up, she sees Grandi's body, screams for help, and is arrested on suspicion of murder.

Vargas confronts Menzies about the history of evidence "discovered" by Quinlan. When he goes to Susie's motel, but can't find her, Vargas learns the motel is owned by Grandi, and that his handgun has been stolen. He rushes back to town and enters a bar, where he confronts the gang members who attacked his wife. When they refuse to answer his questions, Vargas violently beats them down, destroying the bar in the process. Schwarz then informs a shocked Vargas that Susie has been arrested for murder. At the lockup, Vargas finds her barely conscious. Menzies reveals to Vargas that he discovered Quinlan's cane at the murder scene. Vargas fits Menzies with a wire. Near an oil field, Menzies meets Quinlan, while being tracked on foot by Vargas, who is recording the conversation.

Quinlan admits to Menzies that he planted evidence on people, but insists that he did so only because he knew they were guilty. Quinlan hears an echo from the secret microphone and says his "game leg" has informed him of Menzies' betrayal. Quinlan demands that Vargas show himself. Quinlan then shoots Menzies with Vargas's gun, which he had earlier stolen from Vargas's briefcase. Quinlan prepares to shoot Vargas (saying that he can claim Vargas was resisting arrest) but is, instead, shot in the final act of the dying Menzies. Quinlan staggers backwards into a filthy pool of wastewater and dies. Schwartz arrives at the scene and tells Vargas that the planted dynamite was unnecessary because Sanchez confessed to the crime. Schwartz asks Tanya, as she walks away, what she has to say about Quinlan. Tanya replies, "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?"


Welles directing
From the trailer
Welles and Zsa Zsa Gabor
Janet Leigh


There are two stories as to how Welles ended up directing Touch of Evil. Charlton Heston recalled that Welles was originally hired to act in the film only, not to direct or write. Universal was keen to secure Heston for the lead, but he wanted the studio to confirm the director before he signed on. After learning that Welles was in the cast, Heston expressed his greater interest in starring if Welles were directing.

The other story is that Welles had recently worked with producer Albert Zugsmith, known as the "King of the Bs", on a film called Man in the Shadow and was interested in directing something for him. Zugsmith offered him a pile of scripts, of which Welles asked for the worst to prove he could make a great film out of a bad script. At the time, the script was called Badge of Evil, after a Whit Masterson novel on which it was based. Welles did a rewrite and took it into production. After a decade in Europe during which he completed only a few films, Welles was eager to direct for Hollywood again, so he agreed to take only an acting fee for the role of Quinlan.[7][8]

A number of notable actors pop up in roles. Dennis Weaver plays a night clerk at a motel, in a truly over-the-top performance. Heston liked Weaver and his film acting work. Zsa Zsa Gabor, who appears briefly as the impresario of a strip club, was a friend of the producer. Joseph Calleia portrays Quinlan's betrayed partner. Many of the actors worked for lower wages just to make a film with Welles. Marlene Dietrich's role was a surprise to the producers and they raised her fee so they could advertise her involvement. Welles' friend and Mercury Theatre colleague Joseph Cotten appears uncredited as a police officer.

Janet Leigh recalled how Welles asked for input from the actors in the cast:

It started with rehearsals. We rehearsed two weeks prior to shooting, which was unusual. We rewrote most of the dialogue, all of us, which was also unusual, and Mr. Welles always wanted our input. It was a collective effort, and there was such a surge of participation, of creativity, of energy. You could feel the pulse growing as we rehearsed. You felt you were inventing something as you went along. Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment. He didn't want one bland moment. He made you feel you were involved in a wonderful event that was happening before your eyes.[9]

Welles wrapped production on time, delivered a rough cut to Universal, and was convinced that his Hollywood career was back on the rails. However, the film was then re-edited (and in part re-shot) by Universal International pictures. The editing process was protracted and disputed, and the version eventually released was not the film Universal or Welles had hoped for. It was released as a B-movie, the lower half of a double feature. The A-movie was The Female Animal, starring Hedy Lamarr, produced by Albert Zugsmith and directed by Harry Keller, whom the studio had hired to direct the re-shot material in Touch of Evil. The two films even had the same cameraman, Russell Metty. Welles' film was given little publicity despite the many stars in the cast. Though it had little commercial success in the US (Welles himself claimed that the movie turned a good profit but other records disputed his claim), it was well received in Europe, particularly by critics like future filmmaker François Truffaut.

The film opens with a three-minute, twenty-second tracking shot widely considered by critics as one of the greatest long takes in cinema history.[10][11]


Three versions of the film have been released:[12]

  1. The original 1958 release (93 minutes). This version differed substantially from Welles' original cut, both in the editing and in the addition of new scenes directed by Harry Keller.
  2. A 108-minute version released in 1976 that incorporated material cut from the 1958 release.
  3. A version released in 1998 that implemented Welles' notes from his long memo to the studio. Welles wrote this memo in December 1957 after viewing a version incorporating Keller's scenes, and that had been edited without Welles' participation.[13]

1958 release

Welles' rough cut as submitted to Universal no longer exists. That cut was worked on and trimmed down by Universal staff, and in late 1957 Universal decided to perform some reshoots. Welles claimed these were done without his knowledge, but Universal claimed that Welles ignored the studio's requests to return and undertake further work. It was at this point that Keller came aboard: some of his material was entirely new, others replaced Welles' scenes. Welles screened the new cut and wrote a 58-page memo to Universal's head of production, Edward Muhl, detailing what he thought needed to be done to make the film work. However, many of his suggestions went unheeded and Touch of Evil was eventually released in a version running 93 minutes.

1976 release

In the mid-1970s, Universal discovered that it held a 108-minute print of Touch of Evil in its archives. Aware that there was a growing audience of cineastes with a strong interest in Welles' work, the studio released this version to cinemas in 1976 and later issued it on video, billing it as "complete, uncut and restored". In fact, this print was not a restoration at all, but a preview version which post-dated the Welles memo but pre-dated the release version. While it did feature some vital Welles scenes that Universal cut from the release version, the preview version also featured more of Keller's material than the release version.

1998 release

In 1998, Walter Murch, working from all available material, re-edited the film based on the Welles memo, with Bob O'Neil, Universal's director of film restoration, and Bill Varney, Universal's Vice President of Sound Operations, participating in the restoration.[14][15] As Welles' rough cut no longer exists, no true "director's cut" is possible, but Murch was able to assemble a version incorporating most of the existing material, omitting some of the Keller scenes (though some were retained, either because they had replaced Welles scenes which no longer existed and were necessary to the plot, or because Welles had approved of their inclusion). In addition, some of Welles' complaints concerned subtle sound and editing choices, and Murch re-edited the material accordingly.[16] Notable changes include the removal of the credits and Henry Mancini's music from the opening sequence, cross-cutting between the main story and Janet Leigh's subplot, and the removal of Harry Keller's hotel lobby scene. Rick Schmidlin produced the 1998 edit, which had a limited but successful theatrical release (again by Universal) and was subsequently made available on DVD. The DVD includes a reproduction of the 58-page memo.

Originally scheduled to be premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival with Janet Leigh, Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin attending, the screening was canceled at the eleventh hour after threats of litigation from Welles' daughter, Beatrice Welles. Her suit against Universal, for not consulting her or obtaining her consent prior to the reworking of Touch of Evil, was settled out of court.[17] Welles later said she had only asked Universal to inform her on what was being done, and when she was ignored she told the Cannes Festival that the restoration was not sanctioned by the Welles Estate. "I saw it later and it was wonderful," she said. "I thought they did an amazing job and it was very well done. It was what he wanted and it made much more sense than that chopped up nightmare there was before. It was fine and it was his. If they had told me that from the very beginning, none of that would have happened."[18]


Touch of Evil was placed #64 on American Film Institute's "100 Years, 100 Thrills" list in 2001.[19]

The 1998 re-edit received awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and National Society of Film Critics.

Cultural references

The opening scene is replicated midway through Brian De Palma's 1974 camp musical film Phantom of the Paradise. De Palma's version involves a prop car on a theatrical stage being pushed out of the wings with a time-bomb in the trunk and an increasingly panicky blonde passenger. The novel approach here is that De Palma's take was shot in split-screen with Paul Williams's Swan character and the Phantom alternately observing the histrionics from the balcony and proscenium, respectively.

An episode of Better Call Saul also begins with a kinematic homage to Orson Welles' famous opening sequence.[20]

The film is also jokingly referred to in the Tim Burton film Ed Wood. In a scene near the end of the film, Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) is complaining to Orson Welles (Vincent D'Onofrio) about how producers always want the wrong actors to play certain parts in their movies. Welles says, "Tell me about it. I'm supposed to do a thriller with Universal, but they want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican!"

A similar line is used in Get Shorty, where movie fan Chili Palmer (John Travolta) invites another character to see a screening of Touch of Evil, saying, "You wanna go check it out? Watch Charlton Heston play a Mexican?" We later see Palmer watching the final scene of the movie, mouthing the words together with the characters on screen. Part of Mancini's score was used as the love theme between Chili and aging starlet Karen Flores (Rene Russo).

In James Robert Baker's novel, Boy Wonder, fictional movie producer Shark Trager makes it his goal to surpass Touch of Evil's three minute opening tracking shot when filming a movie of his own. Tanya's line, "He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?" was also quoted extensively in the book.

The opening shot is discussed briefly in the opening shot of Robert Altman's 1992 film, The Player, by two characters who work for a fictional Hollywood studio, as the longest opening tracking shot in history. It then goes on to surpass that shot in length. The opening is also referenced by Rainn Wilson in the DVD commentary of The Office episode entitled "Performance Anxiety".

In the independent film Into My Heart, the characters Ben (Rob Morrow) and Adam (Jake Weber) are seen exiting the old Thalia Theatre on Broadway after their 'yearly viewing' of the film. Before heading to a nearby bar, both declare "I don't drink" in Hank's voice.

The opening scene of Boogie Nights (1997), written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a three-minute length shot through a bar, presenting all the main characters of the film. Anderson has admitted this is an homage to Touch of Evil.

In the 1999 Steve Martin/Eddie Murphy film Bowfinger, the original movie poster is shown on the wall several times in Martin's character's home.

Singer-songwriter Tom Russell has a song titled "Touch of Evil" on his 2001 album Borderland that makes several references to the movie, including the long opening shot and the dialogue between Dietrich and Welles about his future.

For the 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore interviews Heston in the latter's home, in front of a framed poster for La Soif du mal (the French version of Touch of Evil).[21]

In the 2008 film In Bruges, the opening shots of Touch of Evil can be seen playing in the background during the scene when Harry (Ralph Fiennes) instructs Ken (Brendan Gleeson) to kill Ray (Colin Farrell)—in a six-minute continuous take.

Novelist Craig McDonald's debut fiction release, Head Games, took its narrator, author/screenwriter Hector Lassiter, to the set of the film. The novel, a finalist for both Edgar- and Anthony-Awards, was adapted for a graphic novel by First Second Books for release in 2017.

On the TV show House, Dr. Wilson has a Touch of Evil poster on the wall behind his desk.

Cabaret Voltaire have a song called "A Touch of Evil" on their album Red Mecca.

The film Apartment Zero opens with a shot of cinema owner Adrian LeDuc (Colin Firth) wiping away a tear as he watches the last scene of Touch of Evil.

See also


  1. Box Office Information for Touch of Evil. The Numbers. Retrieved January 30, 2013.
  3. Orson Welles box office information in France at Box Office Story
  4. Tim Dirks, Film Noir, AMC Filmsite,
  5. "Complete National Film Registry Listing". National Film Registry. National Film Preservation Board. Retrieved 2015-11-12.
  6. "Frequently Asked Questions". National Film Registry. National Film Preservation Board. Retrieved 2015-11-12.
  7. Robson, Eddie, Film Noir, Virgin Books, 2005.
  8. Leaming, Barbara, Orson Welles: A Biography. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1985.
  9. Bernard Weinraub (18 September 1998). "Dark Secrets Of Suburbia". New York Times. Retrieved 22 May 2008.
  10. Alan Bacchus; The Long Take, Daily Film Dose, May 4, 2007;
  11. Jessica Kiang; Ranking The 20 Greatest, Most Celebrated Long Takes, March 27, 2014;
  12. French, Lawrence. "Scenes Cut, Changed, or Transposed in Touch of Evil". Wellesnet.
  13. Welles, Orson. "Memo From Orson Welles, December 5, 1957". Lawrence French (introduction and commentary).
  14. Nelson, Valerie J. (2011-04-07). "Bill Varney dies at 77; Oscar-winning sound mixer". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-04-10.
  15. Taylor, Charles (10 September 1998). "Ballad of a fat man". Retrieved 22 May 2008.
  16. Murch, Walter (6 September 1998). "Restoring the Touch Of Genius to a Classic". New York Times. Retrieved 22 May 2008.
  17. Macnab, Geoffrey (29 August 2003). "One of our classics is missing". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 19 August 2006.
  18. Kelly, Ray (April 1, 2014). "Beatrice Welles interview". Wellesnet. Retrieved 2015-11-13.
  19. "AFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2015-11-12.
  20. Turner, Julia (18 April 2016). "Better Call Saul Is Better Than Breaking Bad". browbeat, Slate's Culture Blog. Retrieved 15 August 2016.

Further reading

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