Universal-International wanted to adapt Whit Masterson’s novel Badge of Evil and hired Charlton Heston as the star, Albert Zugsmith as the producer and Paul Monash as the writer.
Heston asked that Orson Welles direct the movie. He joined the project and rewrote the script, appears in the movie and directed the film. He also asked that the actors be part of the process, with Janet Leigh saying, “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.”
Leigh’s agent initially rejected the low salary offered without even consulting the actress. Welles sent her a personal letter about how much he looked forward to working together. Leigh told her agent that being part of a movie directed by Welles was more important than any money.
Welles also added the racism in the storyline — Americans racist toward Mexicans, which as you can assume wasn’t popular — and shift in the narrative point of view. He also was very involved in the editing of the movie, working with Edward Curtiss until creative differences caused the editor to be replaced by Virgil Vogel. The film was finished by Aaron Stell with Universal locking Welles out, at which point he left to make Don Quixote. Welles was so shocked by the new cut that he wrote a memo explaining how he would edit the film.
Universal cut fifteen more minutes and ordered reshoots that would be directed by Harry Keller. Heston and Leigh were contractually obligated to be in these new scenes, including one that had a stand-in play Welles’ character. Heston said, “I have done worse work in the movies than this day’s retakes, but I don’t remember feeling worse.”
After eeing a second cut of his film, with scenes he never shot, Welles tried one more time to save the movie with a 58-page note where he outlined how he saw the film working. The studio demanded that Welles attend a dialogue re-record. He refused.
The film that was released was not the film Welles wanted. It really wasn’t the movie anyone wanted. In 1976, UCLA film studies professor Robert Epstein discovered the preview cut in the Universal archives. This 108-minute edit of the film was as close to Welles vision as had ever been seen by the public. The film was re-edited in 1998 using Welles’ 58-page memo.
What emerged with the re-edits was a movie that was way better than past contemporary reviews would suggest. That said, even the original version won the top two awards at the 1958 Brussels World Film Festival, an event Universal didn’t even want to screen the film at. The judges at that event were Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who made Breathless and The 400 Blows shortly after.
The movie begins with a time bomb killing Rudy Linnekar and his girlfriend Zita (Joi Lansing), a crime investigated by Mexican special prosecutor Miguel Vargas (Heston), who is on a honeymoon with his American wife Susie (Leigh). He’s soon joined by Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) and Sergeant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), who interrogate — and plant evidence — on a man named Sanchez. Vargas suspects that the older policemen have done this before and starts looking into their past.
This puts the two lawmen against one another, with the stress of the battle finding Quinlan starting to drink after more than a decade sober and using the very criminal he’s been investigating, Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), to not only assault Susie but to make it look like she’s using drugs and killed the crime lord.
Welles pushed each actor to doing things beyond what they did before, such as having Dennis Weaver be the opposite of his Gunsmoke character, as well as bringing in friends for small parts, including Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Cotton and Mercedes McCambridge, who has the movie’s most terrifying line, as the gang surrounds the helpless Susie: “I wanna watch.”
Touch of Evil may have taken years to be recognized — Welles originally hated the film’s title but eventually liked it — but now it’s a known classic.
Kino Lorber’s blu ray release of Touch of Evil has brand new 4K restorations of the theatrical (with one commentary track by Tim Lucas and another by F.X. Feeney), reconstruction (with one commentary track by Imogen Sara Smith and another with Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and reconstruction Producer Rick Schmidlin) and preview cuts (with commentary by Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore) of the movie. There are also two featurettes, Evil Lost and Found and Bringing Evil to Life, plus the trailer. You can purchase it from Kino Lorber.
The UHD version has all of the same features as the blu ray as well as Dolby Vision HDR versions of the three cuts of the movie. You can also purchase it from Kino Lorber.