The behind-the-scenes drama for this Orson Welles film noir has a reputation almost as notable as the film itself. Welles and the studio had such contentious creative differences that the studio kicked him off the project, re-cutting the film as they chose and dragging in a couple of the actors (or resorting to doubles) for reshoots. In protest, Welles wrote up an exhaustive memo to studio heads in which he painstakingly explained exactly what his creative vision was, and why – and that memo clocked in at 58 pages. It was so detailed, in fact, that film conservationists were able to re-edit the film in 1998 to match Welles’ vision as closely as possible; that re-edit is the version I saw. Unfortunately, it was lot of fuss for something that left me lukewarm at best – but my objections probably didn’t have anything to do with either editing approach. I can see why the studios might have been concerned, though.
Based on an existing novel about a corrupt cop, Touch of Evil deals with a pair of crimes in a US/Mexico border town, and the pair of detectives handling the case – forthright Mexican detective Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and jaded US Marshall Hank Quinlan (Welles). The first case sets Vargas and Quinlan off on the wrong foot – a US citizen has been killed by a time bomb stowed into his car trunk. Quinlan thinks it should be his case since he got blown up on the US side – but Vargas takes an interest since the victim’s car had just passed through the border crossing, which means the bomb was planted on the Mexican side. Vargas soon senses that their territorial squabbling is being exacerbated by an anti-Mexican bias on Quinlan’s part – which makes him all the more determined to keep tabs on the case.
Complicating matters is one of Vargas’ other cases – his investigation into the Grandis, a criminal family in Mexico. Vargas already has one Grandi in jail – but his brother Joe (Akim Tamiroff) is still at large, and starts leaning on Vargas’ new wife Susie (Janet Leigh) to scare her into getting Vargas to drop the case. Susie is feisty and smart, though, pushing Joe Grandi and his nephews into bigger and bigger threats against Susie. Neither she nor Vargas give in. So Grandi finally reaches out to Quinlan, suggesting that maybe since they both have a problem with Vargas, maybe they can work together…
This is all set up within the first 20 minutes. Roommate Russ reports being shown the very first scene in film class, and it is a gripping shot – a real-time sequence in which we see an unknown figure place something in the trunk of a car, just narrowly escaping before the car’s driver gets in a moment later. The camera then follows the car as it navigates traffic and is waved through customs, just as Vargas and Susie are making the same Mexico-to-US crossing on foot. Then moments after the car passes off camera, it blows up.
The following scenes are a bit of a jumble, though, as Vargas ushers Susie to safety and then gets caught up arguing with Quinlan, while at the same time Susie is being lured to another place to be threatened by Grandi. The studio felt that the two subplots being launched simultaneously would be too confusing for audiences, and their recut version introduces Grandi a bit later. I was indeed a little confused for the first part of the film – but not because of the order of the shots, however. Rather, I was having a hard time hearing any of the conversation in Quinlan and Vargas’ first scene because everyone was talking simultaneously, and so I didn’t know who Quinlan even was until later. Similarly, it wasn’t until well after Susie’s encounter with Grandi that I even realized she was back in the Mexican side of the border, and it was another two scenes before someone addressed Vargas by his first name and I realized Charlton Heston’s character even was Mexican.
So the first several minutes had me at a loss as I tried to wade through “so where are we and who is that guy and why is she following him but what about those cops and what does this have to do with the car that blew up and hold up time out what’s happening“. Things do clear up after that, as I gradually learned more about Vargas and Quinlan and Grandi, but 20 minutes is a long time to be feeling adrift as to who the characters are and what the plot is. And I don’t think simply re-ordering the scenes would have fixed that issue. To be fair, I also know that one of the points causing my own confusion was a casting choice (Charlton Heston as a Mexican man? Really?), but that is because I’m approaching that casting choice from a 21st-Century perspective, and there may have been some other factors at play that would have clued 1950s audiences in to Heston’s nationality that I just wasn’t picking up. (Heston’s not the only Caucasian actor in heavy makeup in the film – Marlene Dietrich has a cameo as “Tanya”, a Mexican madam who is Quinlan’s sometimes-girlfriend.)
And it’s a shame, too, since the rest of the story is a decent little police procedural crossed with side orders of anti-racism and anti-corruption. So it’s a little meatier than other film noirs I’ve seen, in ways I appreciated. But that initial bit of confusion was a little hard to overcome.