The corrupt Capt. Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles, left) faces off against honest Mexican cop Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) in the legendary 17-minute single-take from Touch of Evil.

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Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil (1958), is considered one of the last examples of film noir in the classic era (from the early 1940s until the late 1950s). It was directed by Orson Welles, who also appeared as corrupt policeman, Captain Hank Quinlan. more...

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The black-and-white film also features Charlton Heston as Mike Vargas, a Mexican narcotics agent on his honeymoon, Janet Leigh ("at her most perversely innocent" as one critic put it) as his bride, and Marlene Dietrich as Tanya, a cigar-smoking Mexican gypsy brothel owner. The movie was written in two weeks by Welles based on Whit Masterson's novel Badge of Evil.

The plot

Capt. Quinlan is not on the take, but is bitter about the unsolved murder of his wife early in his career and has come to believe he can spot the guilty with his intuition, an aching in his bad leg, and he was willing to frame the guilty to make sure they get their just deserts. (Quinlan's cane, an apparent allusion to Citizen Kane, plays a major part in the film. In fact, Welles was injured during filming and actually needed the cane.) He does frame someone early on in the film, but this time a young police officer is on to it.

The film follows Vargas and his wife who are seperated after the killing early in the film. The wife ends up in a seedy hotel where she is harassed by thugs hired to intimidate her. Meanwhile, Vargas attempts to solve the mystery but is stopped at every turn by Captain Quinlan.

The final scene is a stately chase, with Vargas wrestling with a cranky recorder while Quinlan's partner wears a wire and gets him to confess his crimes.

The people who made the film

Akim Tamiroff plays a border mobster with a wandering toupee, Dennis Weaver is a loony night clerk at an isolated motel, and Zsa Zsa Gabor appears briefly as the impresario of a strip club. Welles liked what Weaver did as Chester on TV's Gunsmoke and worked closely with him on his part, which was shot on a three-day hiatus from the TV show. Zsa Zsa Gabor was a friend of the producer.

Welles's old friend, Joseph Calleia, gives a performance as Quinlan's toady, along with other members of the Welles repertory company, Joseph Cotten, Keenan Wynn, Ray Collins (the police detective on Perry Mason), and Mercedes McCambridge as a biker chick. Many of the actors worked for lower wages just to make a film with Welles. Marlene Dietrich's role was a surprise to the producers and they raised her fee so they could advertise her involvement.

The score by Henry Mancini.

According to Heston, Welles was originally intended to act in the film only, and Heston was highly sought for the lead. Heston pretended to think that Welles was going to direct and based his acceptance of the part on that.

Welles rewrote the script, but after he completed the movie, it was re-edited (and in part re-shot) by Universal International pictures and it was not until 1998 (and the fourth version) that it was released in something like the original form intended by Welles. Nonetheless, even as originally released it was a film of power and impact, though little commercial success. The producer was Albert Zugsmith, known as the "king of the B's".


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