When Orson Welles first met with Dennis Weaver, he asked Weaver what he thought was the most important characteristic of "Chester," the role Weaver played on the hit TV show Gunsmoke (1955), Weaver said that Chester was very deferential and always hung behind the other characters. Welles then told Weaver that for "Touch of Evil" he wanted Weaver to be just the opposite - very pushy and in-your-face.
Janet Leigh's agent initially rejected her participation in this film due to the low salary offered without even consulting the actress. Orson Welles, anticipating this, sent a personal letter to the actress, telling her how much he looked forward to their working together. Leigh, furious, confronted her agent telling him that getting directed by Welles was more important than any paycheck.
The opening scene took an entire night to get right, mainly because the actor playing the customs officer kept blowing his lines. It was beginning to get light on the horizon when Orson Welles made the final take of the night, saying to the cast, "All right, let's try it one more time." Then he looked at the actor and said, "If you forget your line this time, just move your lips and we'll dub it in later, but please God do NOT say, 'I'm sorry, Mr. Welles!'" This is the take seen in the film.
Despite popular speculation, Orson Welles is wearing make-up throughout the film. For hours every night, they'd add pounds and pounds onto him, and use prosthetics for his face. He once said that he was late going to a dinner party at his house during the filming, and arrived with his make-up still on. A famous actress approached him when he entered and in all seriousness said: "Orson! You look wonderful!"
Orson Welles was originally hired only to act in the film, but due to a misunderstanding, Charlton Heston thought that Welles was to be the director. To keep Heston happy, producer Albert Zugsmith allowed Welles to direct. Welles made major changes to the already-completed script, including changing Heston's character from a white district attorney to a Mexican narcotics agent, changing Janet Leigh's character from Mexican to American, and changing the setting of the movie from a small California town to a Mexican-American border town.
Orson Welles said that this was the most fun he'd ever had filming a picture, unlike most of his Hollywood films, because he wasn't troubled by studio interference (until after he completed the picture, anyway), he was given a healthy budget and he was working with a crew of some of his favorite actors on a script that didn't involve as much symbolism and all-out cinematic tricks as something like Citizen Kane (1941).
Orson Welles wanted the credits to appear at the end of the film so as not to distract the audience from the long (and famous) initial tracking shot. He finally got his wish with the 1998 alternate version, dubbed "the directors's cut".
Orson Welles stated that his goal with the film was to infuriate the audience with the plot, in much the same way that Howard Hawks did with The Big Sleep (1946). The story became even more confusing once the studio re-cut the picture.
Orson Welles initially despised the title "Touch of Evil", having had nothing to do with its conception. Over the years, however, he grew to like it, and eventually considered it the best title out of all his films.
Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor share a title card ("Guest Starring Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor"). Gabor has a bit part; she is onscreen for 20 seconds at most. Dietrich has a pivotal role and appears in four crucial scenes including the finale.
Was screened at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, where judges (and then critics) Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut awarded it the top-prize. It was said the film was a great influence on starting Godard's and Truffaut's illustrious careers, both of whom within a year went on to make their first films Breathless (1960) and The 400 Blows (1959), respectively.
Oscar winner Mercedes McCambridge only appears in the film because she was having lunch with Orson Welles during filming and Welles convinced her to film a scene. He had her wear a leather jacket, cut her hair himself and had her character say the sinister line, "I wanna watch."
The 1998 restoration was supposed to premiere at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival. However, the day before the premiere, the showing was canceled by Beatrice Welles (Orson Welles's daughter), who has a long history of interfering with showings of her father's work through threats of litigation.
The entire film was shot on real locations, apart from the infamous ten-minute take in the Mexican shoe store clerk's apartment, which is actually a set. The studio wanted the entire film to be shot on sets, even going so far as to build numerous locations on its lots, but Orson Welles insisted on filming in a real city, settling for Venice, California, when he couldn't get his initial choice of Tijuana.
According to a September 4, 1960, "New York Times" article, Marlene Dietrich considered the role of Tana one of her favorites, and claimed that she did her "best dramatic acting" in the last scene, in which she declares, "What does it matter what you say about people?" She also stated that her scenes were shot all in one night.
Janet Leigh broke her left arm before filming commenced, but appeared nonetheless. The arm was in a cast, hidden from the camera, for many scenes. In the more revealing motel scenes, the cast was removed for filming, and re-applied afterwards.
According to Orson Welles, Universal didn't want the film to be screened at the Brussels World's Fair, but the head of distribution had such faith in the film that he submitted it without the studio's knowledge. He was subsequently fired once it was awarded the top prize.
Janet Leigh recalled how Orson Welles asked for input from the actors in the cast: "It started with rehearsals. We rehearsed two weeks prior to shooting, which was unusual. 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".
Executives from Universal Pictures only found out that Marlene Dietrich was playing Tanya when they saw the rushes for that day's shooting; she had filmed her part in one day as a personal favor to Orson Welles and he had not told anyone about it. She agreed to appear at minimum union wage, but when the studio execs decided to give her on-screen credit, they had to pay her more.
Orson Welles was said to have based the drug scenes on his own experiences, with the Grandi kids' use of marijuana symbolizing his own indifference towards the legality of the drug, and the violent use of heroin representing his feeling that anything harder than that was just "suicide", as he once put it.
In the movie Ed Wood (1994), the Orson Welles character complains to the Ed Wood character about administrative meddling in a director's artistic vision: "I'm supposed to do a thriller with Universal, but they want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican," referring to this film (in reality, Heston's character was originally supposed to be white; it was Welles himself who changed it to a Mexican). Wood also tells Welles, "I've even had producers re-cut my films," a significant issue, as it turned out, for Welles with this film.
When Orson Welles discovered that his film was recut, he wrote a letter to the production house with specifics on how he would have wanted the film to be released. This memo, thought to be lost, was found to be in the possession of star Charlton Heston and was the basis for the re-edited 1998 re-release.
Orson Welles was initially offered to only act in the film, but when Charlton Heston demanded that Welles direct, the studios offered him the director's chair as long as he wouldn't get paid for the writing or directing, only for his original salary as an actor.
Interviews with Orson Welles in his later years noted that the footage cut out of his original version was around 20 minutes of humorous scenes involving the Grandi family, adding a light-hearted approach to the picture. However, despite the numerous changes, he was somewhat pleased with the way it was re-cut as a darker picture. His 58-page memo aimed to keep the film bleak and didn't try to include these scenes, happy enough with the transitions that Harry Keller filmed.
The scene with Vargas and Schwartz in the convertible marks the first time that a scene with dialogue was shot for real in a genuine moving car, rather than a stationary one in front of a projection screen.
Among the significant ways in which Orson Welles departed from the novel and the screenplay were to change the character of Mike Vargas from a white district attorney to a Mexican narcotics agent; to change the nationality of Susan from Mexican to American; and to set the film in a Mexican-American border town rather than in a Southern California town. Welles also heightened racial and sexual tensions in his screenplay.
There has been much debate over the aspect ratio of the 1998 re-release. Apparently Orson Welles wanted to shoot the movie in flat widescreen (1.85:1), but Universal ordered him to film it in Academy ratio (1.37:1). When the film was restored, the production team offered to do the restorations in full screen, but Universal had them release it in widescreen, which the DVD is. However, TV viewings in 4:3 help viewers see the full framing that Welles clearly intended for the picture.
Orson Welles originally wanted Lloyd Bridges in the role of "Menzies". The studio refused, and instead cast veteran actor Joseph Calleia. Welles was pleased with this new choice, because he had seen Calleia on stage as a child and thought he was very talented.
Orson Welles encouraged Dennis Weaver to improvise his role as the strange hotel manager, and together they created a unique character that ran counter to Weaver's role on Gunsmoke (1955). Welles later described the part as a "Shakespearean loony." According to Weaver in Barbara Leaming's bio of Welles, "We went into his whole background--about his mother and how he was a mamma's boy. He had this terrible guilt about sex and yet he had a large sex drive. There were no words to indicate such a thing in the script at all, but it gave him an interesting behavior pattern when we put it all together. The main thing was his attraction to women and his fear of them at the same time. That was the thing that was basic to his character."
Janet Leigh was Orson Welles' first choice for the role of Susan. According to biographer Barbara Leaming, "Even before her agent had told her anything about Orson's offer, a puzzled Miss Leigh had received a telegram from the director to say how delighted he was that they would be working together. Correctly calculating that she would be as pleased by the idea of being directed by him as Charlton Heston was, Orson had figured that the telegram would get her at a lower price than if he had to negotiate with her agent first."
Scenes that the studio ordered to be retaken were not filmed by Orson Welles, but by Harry Keller. Charlton Heston at first refused to be filmed by anyone other than Welles and caused a delay of one day. He later reimbursed the studio $8,000 for the delay.
The nighttime filming of the long, single tracking shot opening sequence had many retakes. It took so long that the sequence used was the last chance that night; the first light of the breaking dawn is visible in the background.
The post-production phase of the project was complicated. In Charlton Heston's journals, he wrote that after viewing the rough cut of the film in February 1957, the studio requested another day of shooting to clarify the plot. Heston, reluctant to appear in any sequences not shot by Orson Welles, caused the production to be held up for a day, but then agreed to reimburse the studio for the delay. Harry Keller was then brought in to direct the additional sequences. Welles stated that two scenes between Vargas and "Susan" in the hotel were added, as well as a scene between Vargas and the district attorney in the hotel. Welles also noted that a scene in which "Menzies" tells Susan how "Quinlan" saved his life years earlier by taking a bullet for him would have explained Quinlan's limp and Quinlan saying "That's the second bullet stopped for you partner."
Rupert Everett wrote in The New York Times 5/8/2016: Orson Welles once told me about the day he called Marlene and asked her to be in "Touch Of Evil" - that afternoon. She jumped out of bed, rushed over to Paramount to consult with her Svengali, Travis Banton (the well-known costumer). Together they ransacked the wardrobe department for a hat and a shawl and a couple of wigs, and then she drove like a wild thing down to the border and shot in the afternoon.
The restored DVD was to have included a commentary as well as a documentary on the film and restoration titled Restoring Evil. Both of their inclusions on the DVD were stopped by Orson Welles's daughter, Beatrice Welles.
Akim Tamiroff was required to stick the butt of a lamb's tongue into his mouth for his grotesque death scene. Orson Welles felt this was necessary to achieve the proper effect he wanted--a criminal who had been strangled so savagely that his tongue was unnaturally distended from his mouth. As it turned out, though, the lamb's tongue proved to be too disgusting to show onscreen, so Tamiroff's unenviable ordeal was for nothing.
Premiered as the second half of a double bill (hence its 'B' movie status) after main feature The Female Animal (1958) directed by Harry Keller, the same director hired to re-shoot parts of the film after Orson Welles was fired.
After filming was completed, Orson Welles left to go to Mexico to continue filming his version of "Don Quixote". It was during this time that Universal asked for cuts, and since he wasn't around, they began cutting it themselves.
At first all was well on the set. Knowing there were studio spies on the set, Orson Welles planned his first day of shooting to start with two uncomplicated close-ups. He started work at 9 a.m. and had the first shot finished by 9:15. Then he got the second shot by 9:25. The studio spy was called off, so nobody noticed that the next shot wasn't completed until 7:40 p.m. Fortunately, that was a long take that covered 11 pages of script, so Welles ended his first day of shooting two days ahead of schedule.
Most modern sources credit John L. Russell as the camera operator who assisted director of photography Russell Metty, but only Philip H. Lathrop is credited as the operator in contemporary sources. Edward Curtiss, who is credited on "Hollywood Reporter" production charts as the editor, was fired by Orson Welles when they did not agree on the cutting of the film, but Welles did work well with the next editor assigned to the picture, Virgil W. Vogel.
After finishing a first edit, Orson Welles went to Mexico to start another project. He returned to the US to find his film completely re-cut by the studio, which was concerned about the film's commercial viability.
Orson Welles claimed to have only read "Badge of Evil" by Whit Masterson, the novel on which the film was based, after he completed the film. He based his rewrite of the screenplay upon Paul Monash's initial treatment.
The first scene filmed was the interrogation of Sanchez, under the watchful eye of Universal executives. Orson Welles did it quickly as proof he could make the film within the budget ($825,000) provided and with a 38-day shooting schedule. Joseph Cotten said in an interview, the final cost was $900,000 and it was completed in 39 days.
Some writers claim that Orson Welles became friends with Albert Zugsmith during production of Man in the Shadow (1957), in which Welles appeared as an actor, and after that film wrapped Welles offered to direct the "worst" script Zugsmith had, which was "Badge of Evil".
Harry Keller's shooting of additional scenes were not as extensive as first thought and only took half a day. They were not to replace any of the Orson Welles footage but to clarify certain aspects of the story-telling.