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Welles plays Captain Hank Quinlan, a fat, ugly and sad corrupt police officer. The black-and-white film also features Charlton Heston as Mike Vargas, a Mexican narcotics agent on his honeymoon, Janet Leigh as his bride, and Marlene Dietrich as Tanya, a cigar-smoking Mexican gypsy brothel owner with huge beautiful eyes.
The film begins with an exploding car killing a powerful businessman, witnessed by Vargas and his new wife Susie on the Mexican border. Claiming joint jurisdiction (as the bombing may have been placed in Mexico), he works his way into the investigation headed by Quinlan. Quinlan quickly sets his beady eyes on a lowly Mexican employee that had a grudge with that businessman (the employee wanted to marry the businessman's white daughter). When Vargas notices that some of the evidence found by Quinlan's loyal partner Menzies was clearly planted (but can't prove it), Vargas starts questioning Quinlan's case history. But while this is all happening, Susie Vargas is left all alone at a creepy hotel where some gang members that Vargas is after is holed up as well... and Quinlan starts making a few calls to the gang's boss about what to do with that lonely newlywed...
The story goes that producer Alan Zugsmith offered Welles a pile of scripts to direct and Welles asked for the worst one (based on pulp novel Badge of Evil) to prove that he could make a great film of a bad script. Such a thing isn't really possible, but Welles did revise the script into something much better, and filmed that. Unfortunately, the theatrical cut didn't resemble Welles' vision.
This film provides examples of:
- The Alcoholic: Hank doesn't drink... until he does and then he drinks.
- Author Appeal: Welles had been a huge fan of Dennis Weaver's work on Gunsmoke for years, and wrote his part specifically so he could have the chance to direct him in a movie. Similarly, Marlene Dietrich's role was added during filming because she and Welles were best friends and she wanted a part in the movie.
- All-Star Cast: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Dennis Weaver, and Marlene Dietrich, plus cameos from Joseph Cotten, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Mercedes McCambridge. This is all the more impressive when you realize Touch Of Evil was meant to be a quickie B-picture.
- As Long as It Sounds Foreign: Charlton Heston's attempts to speak Spanish are pretty laughable. When the sentence is short, he'll give it the old college try, but his gringo accent betrays him (e.g. "¿Puedo usar el teléfono?" in Sanchez's apartment). Most of the time, though, he'll just mumble something deliberately inaudible and end it with an appropriate Spanish word. (e.g. "Murmurbliggleblamurmur derechos aquí" in the same scene, presumably explaining to the suspect that he has no jurisdiction.)
- California Doubling: Sorta. While it depicts life on the California/Mexico border, most scenes were filmed in Venice, California about 140 miles away.
- Creepy Crossdresser: McCambridge appears as an androgynous-looking gang member abducting Susie Vargas. Her big line? "I like to watch."
- Dies Wide Open
- Dirty Cop
- Epic Tracking Shot: The opening consists of one long tracking shot, which is considered by film afficionados to be one of the best ever.
- Executive Meddling: The film was made under budget and on schedule, but the studio still took it from Welles's control and re-edited it, cutting some scenes out and reshooting others.
- Heston claimed afterward that he convinced the studio executives that he'd star in the movie only because he thought Welles was the director, when the studio only hired him to act as Quinlan (in truth, Welles and the producer had already agreed to let him direct the movie based on the Badge of Evil novel/script).
- Fake Nationality: American Charlton Heston plays Mexican police officer Mike Vargas. He plays him well, but still, come on -- it's just Chuck Heston with a tan and a Mexican mustache. Lampshaded by several characters, who say that he doesn't look the least bit Mexican.
- Film Noir: Considered one of the last great ones from that era.
- Framing the Guilty Party: "How many did you frame?" "Nobody that wasn't guilty!"
- Subverted with Quinlan's effort to get the Mexican drug gang to kidnap an innocent Susie Vargas, then kill the gang leader and frame the drugged Susie for that murder.
- Gray and Gray Morality: Quinlan only frames criminals he thinks are guilty, and Vargas is only able to stop him when Menzies -- whom Quinlan had previously taken a bullet for, causing his limp -- agrees to betray him.
- Gut Feeling: "I wonder, what makes you so very sure it was dynamite?" "My leg."
- I Can't Believe It's Not Heroin!: There is actual heroin as well, but...
Gang Leader: We've scattered more reefer stubs around.
Grandi: You kids didn't use none of that stuff yourself, anh?
Ginnie: Think we're crazy?
Grandi: Nobody in the Grandi family gets hooked, understand? That's the rule.
- Incredibly Obvious Bomb
- I Owe You My Life: Menzies, to Quinlan.
- Ironic Echo: "That's the second bullet I took for you, partner..."
- Knight in Sour Armor: A long time ago, Quinlan was unable to prove the guy who killed his wife committed the crime. It drives him to start framing guys he's convinced by the pain in "my leg" are guilty.
- Made of Plasticine: "Once he ran this town. Now you could strain him through a sieve."
- Malignant Plot Tumor: The original bombing investigation is almost completely forgotten by the end of the film in favor of Vargas' attempts to bring down Quinlan. The ending shoehorns in a line that the guy Quinlan framed really was guilty after all.
- The Oner: The opening sequence features one of the most famous continuous camera shots. Also, at the shoe clerk's apartment, there is a long continuous shot where the camera moves from room to room following Heston.
- Re Cut: A "director's cut" of Touch of Evil based on a contemporary Welles memo of how he wanted the film to be is now available on video.
- Red Right Hand: Inverted in a way. Quinlan has a limp and says he can tell when someone is guilty because his leg begins to hurt. However, the reason he has a limp is because he took a bullet for his partner.
- Villainous Breakdown: Hank's descent after his last meeting with Grandi.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Hank Quinlan became a very well-respected policeman through careful evidence tampering. In the end, it even turns out that the man Quinlan was trying to frame in the film was guilty, giving him the epitaph, "He was a great detective, but a lousy cop."
- Your Days Are Numbered: When Quinlan visits his friend Tana the fortune teller. He asks her to see his future. Tana warns him "You haven't got any... Your future is all used up."