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Touch of Evil

October 12, 2010

330. Touch of Evil
Directed by Orson Welles
USA, 1958  (‘Restored’ version 1998)
IMDB | allmovie

Reviewed by Ally
Umpteenth viewing


Two people are killed by a car bomb in a seedy town on the Mexico-US border, causing police from both countries to investigate. Mexican lawman Miguel ‘Mike’ Vargas (Charlton Heston) clashes with corrupt American police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Meanwhile Vargas’s American wife Susie (Janet Leigh) is targeted by the criminal Grandi family, who have a grudge against Vargas.

Essential Scene:

Vargas, Quinlan and his entourage are at the apartment of Manolo Sanchez (Victor Millan), the prime suspect in the car bomb case. A call comes from off-screen; “I found it!” Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), Quinlan’s loyal friend and partner, has found two sticks of dynamite in Sanchez’s bathroom.

Pete Menzies: Well, Hank has done it again, he’s nailed his man.

Captain Quinlan: Thanks to you, partner.

Pete Menzies: Me?! Say… If that dynamite had been a snake there in the bathroom, it woulda bit me!

Captain Quinlan: Orders of Chief Gould that I keep you informed, Vargas, so I’m doing it. This is it, we’ve broken the case. Rudy Linnekar was blown up with eight sticks of dynamite and Sanchez stole ten, that leaves two and we found them both. You heard that boy, we found the dynamite.

Sanchez is stunned. He repeatedly asks where the dynamite was found. “Where you stashed it, of course.” Desperately he pleads innocence. Vargas eyes Quinlan suspiciously.

Manolo Sanchez: What are you trying to do?

Captain Quinlan: We’re trying to strap you to the electric chair.

Pete Menzies: We don’t like it when innocent people are blown to jelly in our town!

Captain Quinlan: Yes, an old lady on Main Street last night picked up a shoe. The shoe had a foot in it. We’re gonna make you pay for that mess.

As Sanchez is lead away by Quinlan’s officers, Vargas asks to see where the dynamite was found. Menzies goes to the bathroom and fetches a shoebox containing two sticks of dynamite. This confirms Vargas’s suspicion. He used the bathroom earlier. He accidentally knocked over that very shoebox. It was empty.


Like most Orson Welles films, Touch of Evil has a troubled history. The studio disliked Welles’s initial cut and fired him from the production, re-cutting the film in the hopes of making it more commercial. Welles was horrified by the studio’s ham-fisted changes and promptly wrote a 58-page memo with suggestions for improvements. These suggestions were ignored until 1998, when the film was restored as close to Welles’s wishes as possible with the available material. It’s this restored version of Touch of Evil I know and, irreparably compromised though it may still be, it’s this version I love.

The film may have a ridiculously elaborate plot but it’s dripping with atmosphere. The sleazy dilapidated town, hot jazz and rock ‘n’ roll blaring from the dive bars and strip joints, corrupt cops, menacing gangs, the bizarre motel night manager… There are a couple of instances of inappropriate casting, with Charlton Heston playing a Mexican and Marlene Dietrich as a gypsy, but it’s a small complaint when there’s so much to enjoy.

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