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.
Orson Welles was originally hired only to act in the film, but due to a misunderstanding, Charlton Heston understood 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..
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.
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 twenty seconds at most. Dietrich has a pivotal role and appears in four crucial scenes including the finale.
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 Orson Welles was more important than any paycheck.
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.
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 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.
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. Welles had her wear a leather jacket, he cut her hair himself and had her character say the sinister line, "I wanna watch."
Interviews with Orson Welles in his later years noted that the majority of footage that was cut out of his original version were 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 fired as director during post-production, and the film was recut contrary to his wishes. Before his death, he left instructions on how he wanted the film to be edited, and in 1998 a version was made the way he intended.
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 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-days shooting schedule. Joseph Cotten said in an interview, the final cost was $900,000 and it was completed in 39 days.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.