When a prominent American and his girl friend are blown to bits near the Mexican border it sparks a turf war between good and bad cops on both sides. A Mexican crime family under investigation kidnaps the American wife of a Mexican Narcotics Commissioner and a grizzled American detective takes the law into his own hands.
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There are some who believe this film is a masterpiece and it may be so; but it helps to have a tin ear – maybe turn the sound off all together; or turn up the sound and imagine the film with a ‘Sin City’ treatment. Everything about it is oversized, over dramatic, cartoon-like. Welles was an artist of the first rank, but here he seems to anticipate Roy Lichtenstein and the pop art of the sixties and treatments that would not be available to film makers for several decades.
It is often brilliant visually. In black and white it begins with a famous long shot – a man plants a bomb in the trunk of a car. Another man and woman get in the car, unaware of their explosive cargo, and drive through the streets of a Mexican border town. The camera travels high over buildings, descends to street level, lets the car overtake it and pass – by now our attention has shifted to a handsome young couple walking with the night crowd. They come to the American border where the loaded car is stopped. We feel any moment it’s going to explode but it doesn’t – it drives on and our lovely couple is spared – beat -- boom!
The couple: Mike Vargas (Heston) and his American wife Suzan (Leigh) are newlyweds. He heads a Mexican American Commission investigating the narcotics trade. (Orson Welles was originally only supposed to act in the film. Heston signed on believing Welles was directing and when he discovered otherwise he had the clout to force the studio to bring Welles on as director.)
Soon the chief American detective is on the scene -- Hank Quinlan (Welles) is old school times two. All the characters seem amped up. Quinlan works on intuition and his bum leg tells him a Mexican living with the dead man’s daughter is the culprit – he quickly frames the man for the crime. This doesn’t fly with Vargas but he’s on foreign soil and can only protest. His work on the commission has put pressure on the Grandi’s, a Mexican crime family. They turn to his wife for revenge. Vargas puts Susan up at hotel in the desert to keep her from harms way – it just happens to be owned by the Grandi’s. Soon they have her drugged and kidnapped. As Joe Grandi sees it Vargas is a problem for both him and Quinlan. He cooks up a deal with Quinlan to shut Vargas up but Quinlan murders him and tries to pin it on Susan.
Welles rewrote the script (– it brings to mind Herman Mankiewicz’ quip: he’d be happy to accept the Oscar for the ‘Citizen Kane’ script in Welles absence, as he was happy to write it in Welles absence.) Touch of Evil is not on Kane’s level – few scripts are -- there are subplots that add very little, characters and scenes that seem mere filler. Quinlan follows a lead into Mexico and finds himself at a honky tonk run by an old girlfriend, played by Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich did the film as a favour to Welles – all her scenes were filmed in one day. So we have Heston sounding like Heston playing a Mexican. And we have Dietrich sounding like Dietrich playing a bar owner; and Welles grunting a parody of Sam Spade; while Janet Leigh lounges in her skivvies in a cheap hotel room – this has resonance, nobody does cheap hotels better than Janet Leigh. Dennis Weaver’s turn as an eccentric night manager strikes an odd chord and doesn’t work, frankly. Welles wrote the part for him. But the film surges forward with the adrenalin of its maker – much of it shot at night to avoid nosey studio executives – frenetic in design and execution. (Welles could not sit still: he worked on several projects simultaneously and seldom shepherded a project through the critical post-production phase.)
Quinlan’s partner Pete finally turns on him. When he sees Susan being framed for Grandis murder and discovers Hanks cane on the murder scene he helps Vargas clear his wife’s name – there is a big shoot’m up ending and justice prevails. The irony is that Hank Quinlan was right all along – the man he framed for the original murder is guilty of the crime.
This is a dark noir style film – brimming with visual energy, shot on actual locations – there’s only one studio scene – with Venice California doubling as a Mexican border town. Welles actors speak over each others lines – garbage swirls in the streets – the camera moves with the actors effortlessly. This was not originally a Welles film, that’s what you have to remember. He came to it as an actor first and then proceeded to put his considerable stamp on the production -- what is good in the film is good precisely because he put his hand to it.