Mexican Narcotics officer Ramon Miguel 'Mike' Vargas has to interrupt his honeymoon on the Mexican-US border when an American building contractor is killed after someone places a bomb in his car. He's killed on the US side of the border but it's clear that the bomb was planted on the Mexican side. As a result, Vargas delays his return to Mexico City where he has been mounting a case against the Grandi family crime and narcotics syndicate. Police Captain Hank Quinlan is in charge on the US side and he soon has a suspect, a Mexican named Manolo Sanchez. Vargas is soon onto Quinlan and his Sergeant, Pete Menzies, when he catches them planting evidence to convict Sanchez. With his new American wife, Susie, safely tucked away in a hotel on the US side of the border - or so he thinks - he starts to review Quinlan's earlier cases. While concentrating on the corrupt policeman however, the Grandis have their own plans for Vargas and they start with his wife Susie. Written by
A Great Detective, A Lousy Cop, And Some Kind Of Man
That's a great epitaph Marlene Dietrich and Mort Mills put together for Orson Welles's character police captain Hank Quinlan. In a sense, since Welles directed himself in Touch of Evil he both created the character and the circumstances that bring him down.
Two stories intersect in Touch of Evil. The first involves a particularly grisly murder in a Texas/Mexican border town of a man named Rudy Linnaker. The weapon was a car bomb, that went off just as Linnkaer and some chippie he was seeing crossed the border. Driving in the car just behind the late Mr. Linnaker was Charlton Heston as Mexican police detective Mike Vargas and his wife Janet Leigh.
Heston is returning to Mexico City where in a few days he's taking the witness stand in the trial of a local drug kingpin. The kingpin's brother is Akim Tamiroff who's the local crime lord in that border town. Heston's case against Tamiroff's brother and Welles's investigation into the car bombing are completely unrelated, but do to some cleverly worked out plot machinations they get intertwined together.
Charlton Heston has been quoted many times in saying that Orson Welles was the greatest director he ever worked for. He also rather modestly has stated that he did not give Welles his best screen performance. My own thought on it is that he really is not a terribly convincing latino. Maybe someone with Robert Mitchum's gift for dialect or a latino actor like Gilbert Roland might have been better. Still it's an earnest effort and Heston has nothing to be ashamed of.
In fact Heston says and I agree that the story is really about Welles and his destruction. Welles has great instinct as a detective, but he's not really all that scrupulous about due process. That's what has Heston's back up and it forces Welles into an unthinkable alliance with Tamiroff.
Janet Leigh gives us a sneak preview of what was in store for moviegoers in Psycho when she's trapped in that motel room with those punks that Tamiroff has sicced on her. One of the punks in fact was Mercedes McCambridge doing a little gender bending generations before Boys Don't Cry. At the motel Dennis Weaver has a marvelous bit part as the useless and feckless 'night man.'
Welles put a lot of his favorites in small roles here. Ray Collins took time away from Perry Mason on television to play the District Attorney. Joseph Cotten has a small bit as a medical examiner, Harry Shannon was the state's attorney, it was a regular Citizen Kane reunion.
Marlene Dietrich who was Welles's foil and partner in his magic act plays the owner of a border town dive and his mistress who loves him though she recognizes all his faults. This was a banner year for Dietrich because she also did her highly acclaimed role in Witness for the Prosecution.
One part though that should have been up for an Academy Award was Joseph Calleia who was Welles's devoted subordinate who in the end ironically helps to bring him down. It's a great piece of acting and Charlton Heston said that Joseph Calleia never did anything better in his entire cinema career. I wouldn't argue the point.
Now that the 'director's cut' is available we can now see Touch of Evil and realize what Welles's vision was for this film. Indifferently received when first out, it's grown to become a classic and probably one of the three or four films Welles the director gets the most acclaim for.
And now it's probably better than when first seen by the public.
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