Many consider the late Orson Welles the greatest filmmaker America has ever produced. His 1941 classic, Citizen Kane, was voted the best movie of all time in a recent American Film Institute poll. His 1958 film noir, Touch of Evil, is currently being re-released in major markets around the country in a re-edited version that is closer to what Welles intended. The studio's original release made numerous changes from the filmmaker's cut, attempting to soften and simplify the harsh edges of his point of view. Now we can fully savor the richness of Welles' vision.
The story line is at times conventional, but the filmmaker's treatment plunges us into a dark vortex of cruelty and corruption that's a visceral evocation of how evil operates in our psyches and in the world. Mexican narcotics agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) is honeymooning with his American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh), in the border town of Los Robles, when a car bomb kills one of the region's most prosperous citizens, Rudy Linnekar.
As the device was planted on the Mexican side, Vargas technically has some jurisdiction. But it exploded on the American side, giving famed local police detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) effective control. Quinlan is proud of his record of quickly solving murder cases, and he expects to wrap this one up in a hurry.
Linnekar's daughter, Marcia (Joanne Moore), has been having an affair with a Mexican shoe salesman, Sanchez (Valentin de Vargas), whom the dead man was trying to push out of the picture. Quinlan is certain he has the motive; all he needs is the proof, which he quickly manufactures by planting two sticks of dynamite in Sanchez's apartment.
Clearly, there's prejudice against white-Hispanic couples involved, and Vargas, himself part of a mixed marriage, takes his fellow countryman's side, vowing to establish the accused man's innocence even if it means discrediting the much respected Quinlan.
In his pursuit of the truth, Vargas neglects his honeymoon bride. Joe Grandy (Akim Tamiroff), a leader of a local crime family the Mexican narcotics agent has been prosecuting for drugs, decides to put pressure on the cop by terrorizing his wife — first when she is on her own at night downtown, and later at a deserted motel. In a series of bravura sequences, Welles uses hallucinatory images and jagged camera moves to make us feel part of the nightmare to which she's subjected.
Vargas' mind is elsewhere. He's determined to bring Quinlan down. He discovers that the American lawman has a history of framing murder suspects with false evidence. Quinlan becomes aware of Vargas' ambitions and makes an alliance with crime boss Grandy to smear the Mexican cop's wife in hopes that he can be stopped.
More than most movies, Touch of Evil achieves its power by means other than clever plotting. Based on Whit Masterson's otherwise unknown pulp thriller, it uses purely cinematic devices to make the most of its psychological and moral points. When Quinlan's old friend Tana (Marlene Dietrich) lays eyes on him for the first time in a long while, she quips: “You should lay off the candy bars. You're a mess.”
Quinlan's obese, unshaven appearance succinctly communicates his inner state of moral decay. His original motivations as a police officer were good. He's never taken a bribe, and he walks with a limp because of a bullet he took to protect his longtime associate, Pete (Joseph Calleia).
His intuition for sniffing out the guilty is still uncanny. He says he can feel it in his bum leg when he's on the right track. But, many years ago, the man who strangled Quinlan's beloved wife went free, and ever since he's made it his mission to see that every murderer in his jurisdiction is caught, convicted, and hanged, even if it means bending the rules.
Quinlan has indulged the need to avenge her death, to the point where it's crowded out his virtues. His personality has been deformed by his obsession, and it shows in his face and figure.
At first glance, Quinlan seems to be the movie's villain and Vargas its good guy, but Welles' point of view is more nuanced and ironic. The Mexican narcotics agent is a straight-arrow, by-the-books cop. However, despite his sincere belief in justice, he turns himself into a mirror image of Quinlan. Both are equally self-righteous, and Vargas' pursuit of his nemesis becomes a personal crusade which pushes everything else out of his life. The dangers his wife experiences are as much his fault as Quinlan's.
Welles stages his action so it literally takes place in a world of shadows. Using black-and-white film, which was an anachronism even 40 years ago, his tortured characters move in and out of darkness into scenes of half light. His ever-moving camera prowls after them as they try to hide their guilt and overweening pride.
Black humor of the sort usually found in Shakespeare and other Elizabethan playwrights is employed to depict the horrors of this moral universe. The night watchman (Dennis Weaver) at the motel where Vargas' wife is tormented is played for comic relief, and drug chieftain Grandy often loses his toupee when he's trying to be most menacing.
Touch of Evil is relentless in its exposure of human foibles, but also makes Quinlan and Vargas sympathetic characters even as they suffer and are punished. We wind up caring for the sinner even as we learn to despise his sins.
Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Washington, D.C.
Touch of Evil is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America