I admit, the title’s a little off. Welles actually made several amazing films, it just happens that one of them was Citizen Kane. That movie overshadows the rest because it’s usually considered one of the greatest films ever made, if not the greatest. I think that film’s a lot like the works of Shakespeare: You don’t have to love it, or even like it, but if you don’t at least acknowledge how much it shaped the future of the medium, well, then you are just being an asshole. It’s like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Psycho or even The Matrix. These are films that contain things so original that they simply didn’t exist before the directors created them. Sure, nowadays they seem obvious, but, at the time of their creation, they were revolutionary.
But, Citizen Kane‘s not the movie I’m reviewing, so enough about that. Instead, I’m here to review A Touch of Evil a film that isn’t quite the innovation of Citizen Kane, but it is still one of the most hard-hitting and brilliant works of film noir we have. So why is it overlooked? Well, because of studio meddling.
See, Welles adapted this screenplay from a novel called The Badge of Evil, but he wasn’t supposed to direct it, only to act in it. As to how he ended up directing it, there are two stories: Either A) Charlton Heston agreed to play the lead only if Welles was behind the camera or B) Welles agreed to do it for no director’s fee because he wanted to prove that he could take a terrible script, re-write it, and make a great movie. Either way, the studio acquiesced. Then, after the film was finished, they re-cut and re-shot parts of the film under director Harry Keller, which apparently made it pretty awful. It was actually released as a literal B-movie, designed to be part of a double feature. They even superimposed credits on the opening, which is considered one of the greatest shots in film history. Hell, the poster makes it clear they had no idea what the movie was about. Fortunately, in 1976, they re-released the movie with much of the deleted footage worked back in (this was the first version I saw). Then, in 1998, Academy Award-winning Film and Sound Editor Walter Murch (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, American Graffiti) finally re-cut the film as close to the original as he could, using a 58-page memo Welles wrote as a guide. Unfortunately, the original cut has long been destroyed, because some men are dumb enough to shit on a pile of gold and think they’ve made it better.
But, they put the 1998 version on Netflix, and I’m not gonna pass up an opportunity to re-watch one of the most amazing films ever made. I’m doing a full summary on this one at the bottom, so if you want all my notes and observations, go down and click “continue reading.” If not, enjoy the summary and analysis and WATCH THE F*CKING MOVIE. Unlike many films I review, watching this one will actually make you a better person.
A man plants a bomb in a car in a town on the US-Mexico border, which then explodes just over the border into America, killing two people inside the car. Investigating the crime are Mexican drug enforcement officer Ramon Vargas (Charlton “Yes, I’m playing a Mexican in this, it’s 1957, deal with it” Heston) and celebrated American police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Quinlan is famous for having incredible intuition combined with strong powers of deduction, seemingly able to determine guilt or innocence almost instantly.
The pair go to check out a suspect named Sanchez (Victor Millan) and, while using the bathroom at the suspect’s apartment, Vargas knocks over an empty shoebox. However, a few minutes later, Quinlan goes into the bathroom, then leaves to have his men search it. They find dynamite in the same shoebox. Vargas accuses Quinlan of planting evidence. Quinlan denies it, insists that the suspect is guilty, and says no one will believe him because he’s biased towards Mexicans like Sanchez.
However, Vargas starts to look into Quinlan and shows documentation to Quinlan’s superiors which suggest he’s been planting evidence. In response, Quinlan tells them that Vargas and his wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), are drug addicts. Quinlan has also started drinking again, having been sober for the last 12 years.
Meanwhile, Susan is harassed by “Uncle” Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the brother of a gangster Vargas is set to testify against. She goes with Vargas to the US and is dropped off at a motel, which ends up being owned by Grandi, who sends his men to disturb her for days until they abduct her. Grandi convinces Quinlan to help him frame Vargas so that he can’t ruin either of them. After leaving an unconscious Susan in a room filled with drugs, Quinlan betrays Grandi and strangles him to death, leaving Susan to be charged with his murder.
Quinlan’s partner, Pete (Joseph Calleia), finds Quinlan’s cane at the site of the murder, however, and tells Vargas. Vargas has Pete wear a wire and eventually Quinlan admits to killing Grandi and planting evidence, but says that he’s never done anything to anyone who wasn’t guilty. Quinlan realizes what’s happening and shoots Pete on a bridge using Vargas’ gun. Vargas confronts Quinlan. Quinlan tries to shoot Vargas before a dying Pete shoots Quinlan, who falls into a filthy runoff stream.
However, as the movie ends, it’s revealed that Quinlan was correct about Sanchez, who actually was the bomber. Quinlan’s ex-lover Tanya (Marlene “I might be the sexiest woman to ever live” Dietrich) looks at his corpse in the river and remarks:
He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?
Seriously, see this film. The movie is filled with amazing shots that we just don’t see many directors even try. There are a number of long takes in the movie where characters move in and out of the focus of the scene, but the big one is the opening shot. It’s a single shot that is 200 seconds long and it manages to set the tone, relay the setting, introduce the main characters and the initial conflict, and ratchets the tension up to 11. Here, watch it now:
I’ve never been to film school, but even I know how incredible it is to come up with a shot like that, just from a practicality standpoint. I also know that François Truffaut would be inspired by it to do the opening of his 1973 movie Day for Night and is literally name-dropped in Robert Altman’s 1992 movie The Player’s opening shot as an example of something that films just don’t do anymore. So, two of the most famous opening shots on film are actually inspired by this one. This movie has a ton of long takes and single tracking shots like this. Hell, you can almost tell which scenes Welles directed and which scenes of Keller’s were left in just by judging the length of the cuts.
Welles also does several foreground/background scenes in the film, where characters enter in the background while they’re being discussed or referenced in the foreground, similar to his famous shot of the child version of Charles Foster Kane playing in the snow in the background of a flashback in Citizen Kane. He uses the Dutch Tilt when a character is feeling insane or drunk, but only when it actually would emphasize it, not as a matter of course, something filmmakers should make a note about. The lighting is also classic Welles, where a character is lit more for their attitude than for any practical purpose. So, when a character is being corrupt, the light tends to disappear around them. A noticeable one is when Grandi first convinces Quinlan to join him, after Quinlan has finally taken a drink, the light literally goes out behind Quinlan as Grandi asks him to have a drink to cement their partnership.
There are also a number of shots which make rooms and characters seem bigger or smaller than they should be for effect, notably making Welles tower over Tamiroff before he strangles him to death.
The score should also be mentioned, because it was done by Henry Mancini, the guy who won 4 Oscars and 20 Grammys for songs like “Moon River” and the Pink Panther theme and film scores like Days of Wine and Roses and The Great Mouse Detective. This one has some Jazz elements in it which help play up the noir elements of the movie. It’s not Mancini’s best, but that’s like saying this isn’t the best painting by Picasso; it’s still pretty damned good.
Okay, aside from all the great style, the script is also amazing. There are some great exchanges in the film, but one of the best ones is actually in one scene I mentioned. As Grandi is trying to convince Quinlan, the detective, basically without thinking, takes a drink of bourbon after saying he hasn’t given him an answer yet. Then, a minute later, Grandi asks if they should drink to their partnership, and Quinlan responds with “I don’t…” before realizing that he’s already taken the drink, meaning he’s really already agreed to do it and just hadn’t admitted it to himself. This is the moment that Quinlan makes the choice he can’t take back, just like having the drink undid his dedicated sobriety.
It’s also notable that almost nothing in the film is extraneous, with even the smaller details like Quinlan leaving his cane in one scene playing into the overall narrative later, even though they might seem to serve a shallower purpose at the time. Also, I do think that, particularly for a 1950s Film, Susan is actually a pretty strong female character. No, she’s not the focus of the film, but she has her own agency in most of the scenes until she’s left at the motel. At that point, she’s helpless, but anyone in that situation would be. It’s kind of a downer that she serves just as an object after that point, but still, for the first half she was actually pretty strong.
The contrast between Vargas and Quinlan is made clear at several points, with Vargas stating his belief that officers have to first and foremost uphold the law and Quinlan saying that the point of the police is to catch the bad guys. However, the reason Quinlan believes this is because his wife’s murderer got away due to lack of evidence, which is the cause of his alcoholism. Quinlan is also depicted as addicted to candy when he’s sober, to the point that he’s unrecognizable to Tanya due to the weight he’s put on, an indication that Quinlan isn’t capable of ignoring his worse instincts, only of trying to substitute a less harmful habit in their place, much like how he subverted his desire to kill the man who murdered his wife into planting evidence to ensure no other murderers get away.
Which brings us the best part of the movie: That Quinlan was right. In fact, throughout the movie, Quinlan is almost unfailingly right. He instantly knows not only what Sanchez has done and how he did it, but also why (he secretly married the rich victim’s daughter). He figures out what Grandi is going to ask him almost instantly. He knows from first glance that Vargas is someone who will challenge him and immediately becomes combative. Even when almost blackout drunk, he sees a wired Pete and remarks “I thought you were Vargas,” implying his subconscious is telling him that Vargas is listening. And throughout the film, Quinlan states that he never planted evidence on anyone that he wasn’t sure was guilty.
The film pits Vargas’s belief that police serve the law first against Quinlan’s belief that police should be putting bad guys away. Vargas constantly tells people to think about all the innocents that Quinlan put away, however, the film implies heavily that Quinlan actually never did put an innocent away. Yes, Quinlan is dead at the end, floating in a river of filth, but even then, the characters remark that he was an amazing detective, but a lousy cop. And it’s that ambiguity that I love, because it means that Vargas wasn’t completely right, either.
Vargas kept harping upon all the people that would be innocently convicted because of Quinlan, but if Quinlan never actually planted evidence on an innocent person, then has he really done any harm? He’s managed to put away a number of murderers who otherwise would have gone free. It’s a matter of principle versus practicality. In practice, Quinlan is more effective, however, Vargas is upholding the general principle that should guide law enforcement. Quinlan is also driven more by instinct and belief, tending to “sense” things and believe in mysticism, whereas Vargas is grounded solely in evidence and reality. Quinlan is a mythological figure, having almost supernatural ability, being destroyed by the modern age’s new principles which are more than just “bad guy vs. good guy.” At the end, Vargas is alive and victorious, but Quinlan still was right. It’s like a Zen Buddhist kōan, a story which has no simple answer, because the point is that you think about it, not that you find the right solution.
Now, I will say there is one thing I truly don’t like about this film, and I’m not alone. The Night Manager character played by Dennis Weaver is just bizarre. He runs the motel where Susan is left, and he has such strange habits and ways of speaking that I almost can’t understand it. Well, looking at Welles’ memo, sadly, the character was his, but apparently the scenes that explained why he was crazy were lost, so he remains a very odd series of moments in the film that can’t be removed. However, I will justify his existence right now:
So, in November 1957, Serial Killer Ed Gein was arrested and inspired Robert Bloch to start writing Psycho. 3 months later, the original version of this film came out, featuring a very weird night manager of a motel that’s far enough off the main road that a woman staying there is at his mercy. Now, Ed Gein didn’t run a motel, but do you know who did? Norman Bates. Am I saying the Robert Bloch saw Weaver’s interaction with Janet Leigh and was inspired to use that as the job of his psychopath who would later interact on film with Janet Leigh? Yes. Is there any evidence of that? None whatsoever. But, this is the internet, so I don’t have to have any evidence to start a rumor. Enjoy.
I wish more people would see this movie. I think that it stands in contrast to most modern films in terms of level of thought put into each shot and how much ambiguity it leaves its audience. At the end of this film, you have stuff to think about, and that’s what makes the difference between imagery and art.
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So, the opening is technically just watching a man put a time bomb in a car which is then driven by an American man named Linnekar (Jeffrey Green) and his mistress Zita (Joi Lansing) at the Mexican border and watching them drive by our lead characters before exploding. However, what sets it apart is that it’s one single shot.
Honestly, what can be said about the opening to this film that hasn’t been said already? It’s 3 minutes and 20 seconds of almost unmatched genius. It sets the tone for the film, sets up the initial conflict, shows us the environment, shows us the time period, gives us the setting, introduces us to the characters, shows such perfect timing that it basically should have been impossible to do in 1957, makes you constantly second guess what’s going to happen, switches subjects, and ratchets the opening tension up to 11. It does everything short of give you oral sex and serve you pie and I’m not convinced the original cut wouldn’t have done that, given Welles’ love of both. Then, the first cutaway is the violent explosion we’ve been waiting on.
However, the next shot is also a long take, particularly by modern standards, tracking Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas’ (Charlton “You’ll let me play a Mexican or I’ll let you have it with both barrels” Heston) attempt to make his way to the flaming wreckage of the vehicle while his new wife Susan (Janet Leigh) follows. Vargas worries that the bombing of Americans at the border will make things more difficult for Mexicans, especially drug enforcement officials like him. He sends Susan back to the hotel and meets with local officials.
I’ve now written two paragraphs of the first five minutes of a 110-minute film. Lucky for you, the rest will be more concise.
On the way back to the hotel, Susan is met by some local toughs who deliver a message for Vargas. She is taken to “Uncle” Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), a local gangster whose brother Vargas has arrested and is set to testify against. He tries to threaten her, but she stands up for herself to the point of insulting him to his face. He ends up giving her a warning for her husband, then setting his men to tail her.
At the scene of the explosion, Vargas is joined by the American authorities: Police Chief Pete Gould (Harry Shannon), District Attorney Adair (Ray Collins), Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), and Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson “F*CKING” Welles). Quinlan is basically worshipped as a hero among police, famous for his ability to detect a suspect’s guilt, deductive mind, and getting intuitive twinges in his crippled leg. He and Vargas immediately seem to conflict with each other, partially due to Quinlan’s 1950s-era racism. The crew decides to head to a strip club (owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor) where Zita was supposed to perform. However, Zita was new and they learn nothing. At the entrance, Vargas is attacked by a young man with acid. He avoids getting hit, but doesn’t catch the man.
After leaving, Quinlan recognizes a brothel owned by a woman named Tanya (Marlene “I might be the hottest woman to ever live” Dietrich) who used to be his lover. She doesn’t recognize him, however, due to his weight gain. It’s revealed he compulsively eats candy because it’s the only thing that keeps him from drinking. Angry, he then gets into a fight with Vargas where he accuses Susan of wanting to follow the handsome young henchman of Grandi. The conversation also highlights the difference between the men, with Vargas saying that the point of police is to uphold the law and Quinlan saying it’s to catch the bad guys.
Back at the hotel, Susan finds someone shining a flashlight through the window. She then proceeds to turn the light on herself so that he’ll turn the flashlight off, then whips the bulb out of her lamp and hurls it at him, concealing herself back in the darkness. Honestly, Susan might be one of the best-written female characters for a movie from the 1950s. Maybe that’s why the studio hated it. Outside the hotel, Grandi catches the young man who threw acid at Vargas, revealing him to be his nephew. Grandi tells him to leave vengeance to him and then tries to blackmail Susan with a photo of herself and his henchman from earlier. She’s about to tell Vargas about it (thus removing any of the possibility of it being actual blackmail), but instead decides to go with him to America. Grandi follows them, but is arrested when one of the other police officers, Quinlan’s partner Pete, notices him.
What follows is one of the worst scenes in the film, and one that I hope was shot by the other director (Update: It’s not. However, most of Welles’ material from the Nightman scenes has been lost, and Welles himself said that without all of his work in there, the character seems arbitrary). It’s Susan dealing with an extremely weird night manager (Dennis Weaver) who is apparently the only person at the motel. He does reveal some knowledge of Grandi, which concerns Susan. In later scenes that intercut with the main narrative, it’s revealed that Grandi owns the motel and his men take over all the other rooms, circling the building in their cars and playing music loudly to harass her. Miles from anywhere and without a car, she’s at their mercy.
Quinlan and Vargas go to the home of one of the prime suspects, Sanchez (Victor Millan), who is revealed to secretly be married to the estranged daughter of the victim, Marcia (Joanna Cook Moore). Vargas searches the man’s bathroom, knocking over a shoebox accidentally, then replacing it. Quinlan then goes in the bathroom and tells the team to search the apartment. They find dynamite in that same shoebox, which had previously been empty. Vargas realizes quickly that Quinlan planted the evidence. Vargas tries to defend Sanchez, but Quinlan says it’s just his bias towards his fellow Mexicans and that no one will believe Sanchez’s story.
Pete brings Grandi to Sanchez’s apartment and Grandi tells Quinlan they both have the same problem: Vargas. Pete watches the two walk away, seeming disappointed in his partner and personal hero. Quinlan becomes stressed and finally ends up taking his first drink in 12 years. This scene is magnificently lit and performed, with Quinlan taking the drink almost as if it was water, then saying that he doesn’t drink before realizing that he’s already done it, and implicitly agrees to help Grandi get rid of Vargas. Meanwhile, Vargas and District Attorney Al Schwartz (Mort “you remember me from Psycho” Mills) go through Quinlan’s property, looking for clues that he planted evidence. He finds a document that incriminates Quinlan and shows it to Quinlan’s superiors.
Pete comes to meet Quinlan and finds him drunk. Quinlan talks about his wife, who was strangled to death, and comments about how it’s the perfect way to kill. In fact, his wife’s killer got away with it, despite Quinlan knowing his identity and following him for years. He goes to confront Vargas and his superiors, and they again disagree about the nature of policework. Angry, Quinlan turns in his badge “for letting him ask” and leaves. Scared of Quinlan, who has a national reputation for being a great cop, leaving, his superiors tell off Vargas. Quinlan then makes up a story about Vargas and Susan being drug addicts to smear their credibility and promises to prove it. Vargas asks Schwartz to let him look through all of Quinlan’s old cases for other discrepancies, but tells Schwartz not to help him so that he won’t have his career ruined. Pete looks through what he finds, but denies that he ever planted evidence. Pete feels terrible for what Vargas is doing to Quinlan, but Vargas tells him to think about all the people convicted with planted evidence, including those executed.
Back at the Motel, the gang members break into Susan’s room and abduct her. Vargas arrives, finding only the Night Manager, who, again, is crazy and a weird “comic” interruption to the film. Seriously, I hate this character and everything about him directly conflicts with the rest of the movie. It seems that some of Keller’s scenes might have been included because the original scenes were lost and they were integral to the plot, but dammit, I’d rather have just read a card describing the scene than listen to this guy. Vargas learns that Grandi’s men have abducted her and stolen his handgun. He heads back into town.
Grandi plants drugs around the knocked-out Susan when Quinlan arrives. Quinlan puts on gloves and pulls a gun on Grandi, forcing him to call the police. Quinlan tells Pete where to send the Narcotics officers to find Susan, claiming he had a tip. He then strangles Grandi to death and leaves the body next to Susan. She awakens and calls for help, although the sounds of the town make it impossible for her to be heard at first. Vargas even drives by her without hearing on his way to confront Grandi’s gang, before being pulled out by Schwartz, who informs him that the police found Susan and are charging her with murder. However, Pete reveals to Vargas that he found Quinlan’s cane in the room.
Vargas is given the opportunity to leave by Pete and take Susan, but Vargas refuses to leave until he’s cleared his wife’s name. Quinlan is found back at Tanya’s, where Pete goes to meet him while wearing a wire. Quinlan sees Pete and interrogates him, however Quinlan’s intuition seems to realize the truth instantly, even while he’s too drunk to understand it. He still admits that he killed Grandi, but says it was in self-defense. He finally admits that he has planted evidence, but only on people he knew were guilty. He then finally realizes through the drunken haze that Vargas has been following him and that Pete is bugged.
Quinlan then pulls out Vargas’s gun he took from Grandi and murders Pete atop a bridge. Shocked at what he’s done, Quinlan stumbles down the banks to wash the blood off before he’s confronted by Vargas. Quinlan decides to murder him, but Pete shoots Quinlan before dying. Schwartz arrives and plays back the tape of Quinlan admitting his guilt, with Quinlan dying as he hears himself admit all his evils. He approaches Pete, telling him he stopped another bullet, as Tanya runs up to him. Quinlan realizes Pete is dead, then collapses into the sewer runoff, dying in a pile of muck.
Schwartz then tells Tanya that Quinlan planted the evidence. However, he also tells her that Schwartz confessed, because he actually DID plant the bomb. Quinlan was right. Tanya and Schwartz exchange that Quinlan was a great detective, but a lousy cop. Schwartz asks if that’s all she has to say about him, and she replies:
He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?