There’s certainly no shortage of stuff written about Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958), which along with Citizen Kane (1941) is my favorite among his work, but I haven’t seen much about Whit Masterson’s 1956 novel Badge of Evil, on which his film noir was based, and for a guy who lives at the intersection of film and literature, that was enough. It turns out that “Masterson,” whose work has also been the basis for several lesser films and an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, was actually one of several pseudonyms (e.g., Wade Miller) for the team of Robert Wade and Bill Miller. One pet peeve: while I commend Carroll & Graf for reissuing the novel in 1992, and understand their publishing it as Touch of Evil with cover art based on a still from the film, there is no indication anywhere in the book that it originally had another title.
For a film written by, directed by, and starring Orson Welles, it’s no surprise that there’s plenty of lore connected with Touch of Evil, including the circumstances resulting in there being three different cuts, representing his vision to varying degrees, although to me they’re all brilliant. The best-known story is that Charlton Heston, asked to appear in the movie with Welles—who had just acted in Jack Arnold’s Man in the Shadow (1957) for the same producer, Albert Zugsmith—assumed Welles would also direct, and essentially made it happen after he learned that this was not Universal’s original plan. According to another version, when Zugsmith offered to let him direct one of several scripts, Welles requested the worst, so that he could strut his stuff by rewriting it as well (and accepting only an acting fee); per the IMDb, he later claimed to have worked solely from an earlier draft by Paul Monash, and only read the novel after the film was finished.
In the novel, prominent businessman Rudy Linneker is killed with dynamite, and D.A. Adair asks a rising prosecutor to work with two veteran cops on the investigation, which seems closed when the prime suspect, the boyfriend of the disapproving Linneker’s daughter, is arrested after dynamite is found in a shoebox in his home. Having reason to believe that the dynamite was planted, the prosecutor examines the records of previous cases handled by the same cops, one of them a heavyset widower with a cane named Hank Quinlan, and deduces that several of the convictions were won with falsified evidence. Despite an attempt to discredit his wife (one half of the couple is Mexican, and the other American) by luring her to a skid row hotel, drugging her, and framing her as an addict, he persuades the more honest of the cops—who has been deceived for years—to wear a wire, but the crooked cop shoots his partner once the prosecutor has his incriminating statements on tape.
The same story we know and love from the film, right? Well, yes and no. First, Welles made a major switch in each of the novel’s opposing pairs. Masterson’s all-American Mitchell Holt and his Mexican wife, Connie (née Consuelo Mayatoreno), already have a young daughter, whereas the artificially swarthy Heston plays honeymooning Ramon Miguel Vargas (now a narc) opposite lovely Janet Leigh as his Philadelphia-born bride, Susan, and the racism displayed by Quinlan—whose wife, we later learn, was murdered by a Mexican “half-breed”—increases the tension. Likewise, Masterson’s brutal but honest Sgt. Quinlan becomes a captain aided by loyal Sgt. Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), giving Welles the flashier (and fleshier, although he was padded and made up) villainous role belonging to Capt. Loren McCoy in the novel.
Next is an important change of setting from a coastal California community, unnamed in the novel but said to be San Diego, to a squalid Mexican border town, with the bleak L.A. suburb of Venice standing in for the film’s fictional Los Robles. These and other changes—including the addition of several scenes and characters—enabled Welles to tell the same basic story with a whole new set of dynamics, and one that frankly makes the movie, masterfully shot by Russell Metty (who was reunited with Heston on The Omega Man  and others), stand out in ways the book does not. Don’t get me wrong, Badge of Evil is a perfectly good novel, but Touch of Evil is a masterpiece, and Welles’s style has everything to do with it, making the movie play like the book on acid, over the top in the best possible sense.
A perfect example is the opening murder, which in the novel occurs on page one as the dynamite is simply tossed into Linneker’s cabaña, and in the film is literally jazzed up into the justifiably famous unbroken three-minute tracking crane shot that begins as the time bomb is set and slipped into the trunk of his car. This inevitably brings us back to the three versions I mentioned, which eventuated because Welles was characteristically absent during some of the post-production on Touch of Evil, at which point Universal swooped in and had certain scenes supplanted or supplemented with new footage shot by studio television director Harry Keller. In a bitter irony, they displayed their lack of faith in the 95-minute finished product, which naturally bombed, by dumping it on the lower half of a double bill with the less-than-classic The Femal Animal, directed by none other than Harry Keller.
When Welles saw what the studio intended to release, he wrote a 58-page memo outlining how he would change it, and wisely didn’t object to all of Keller’s footage, either because it actually did help to clarify the narrative, or because he liked that version’s somewhat darker tone and in any event knew he couldn’t fight city hall. But he was ignored anyway, although a 108-minute “restored” version (which is what’s on my laserdisc) was released in the mid-’70s that, if not his own cut, did include more of his footage and somewhat more accurately represented his intentions. Welles’s legendary memo was later found, and celebrated editor Walter Murch reassembled the film as closely to his specifications as possible in 1998, although some of the original Welles footage is presumably gone forever.
I bring this up partly because two of the most notable changes in the 111-minute Murch cut affect that opening sequence, delaying the credits until the end of the picture and removing the raucous, brass-and-bongos beginning of Henry Mancini’s score. Sure, I understand that’s what Welles wanted, but the score is so in your face and so memorable (I could hear it with pleasure in my mind’s ear even years after last watching the film) that it seems eminently suitable to the film’s style and sleazy setting, and after seeing it that way for so many years, I kinda missed it. I’m not claiming any one version is better than any other, just saying that there’s a reason the 95-minute studio release became a classic in the first place, since I presume that was what I first saw on TV as a kid, and it just blew me away. So, as I said, to me they’re all brilliant.
Throughout the film, the Vargases tangle with members of a Mexican criminal clan called the Grandis, who appear in embryonic form in the novel as the Buccios, successfully prosecuted by Holt just before the story opens. But Masterson’s briefly glimpsed Dan Buccio is not even a dry run for the slimy, toupee-wearing Uncle Joe Grandi (splendidly played by Welles regular Akim Tamiroff), a figure sufficiently larger than life to rival Quinlan himself. Welles also peppers the film with the “stunt casting” of various friends and admirers, such as Citizen Kane co-star Joseph Cotten in an unbilled bit as the coroner, Zsa Zsa Gabor as a strip-club owner, and Marlene Dietrich as Quinlan’s old friend, gypsy fortune-teller Tanya, who delivers his epitaph: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”
Of equal significance, Welles dramatizes important events of which we see only the aftermath in the novel, namely Susie’s ordeal in the Mirador Motel at the hands of the leather-clad Grandi gang led by Mercedes McCambridge, who later provided the voice of the demon, Pazuzu, in The Exorcist (1973). Welles reportedly wanted Dennis Weaver for the role of the jittery night manager because he admired his work as Chester on Gunsmoke, and this memorably high-strung performance, in turn, led Steven Spielberg to cast Weaver in the lead—and virtually only—role of his feature-length debut, Richard Matheson’s Duel (1971). Uneasily united in their hatred of Vargas, Uncle Joe (whose brother Mike has just brought to justice) and Quinlan conspire to have the drugged Susie moved from the Mirador to Grandi’s hotel, but Quinlan double-crosses and strangles Grandi, and when Susie awakens, the first thing she sees is the pop-eyed face of his corpse leaning over the bedpost, his tongue protruding grotesquely.
In the impressive final sequence, Vargas sneaks among Venice’s oil pumps and abandoned canals, trying to stay within range of the transmitter concealed on Menzies, who is shot with Vargas’s stolen gun as Quinlan realizes what is happening; rather than committing suicide like McCoy, Welles’s Quinlan is mortally wounded by the dying Menzies when he tries to kill Vargas. Oddly enough, the solution to the murder that set the plot in motion not only completely contradicts the novel, but also is relegated to an almost throwaway line in the closing exchange between Tanya and Adair’s assistant, Al Schwartz (Mort Mills), as they regard Quinlan’s body floating in the filthy canal. Despite being framed, Manelo Sanchez (Victor Millan) actually did kill Linnekar (as it is spelled onscreen), confirming Quinlan’s supposed intuition, whereas Masterson’s perpetrator was an ex-employee named Farnum, who hangs himself in his cell after falsely confessing to planting the dynamite, but is seen only fleetingly in the film.
Again, it almost doesn’t matter, because—as the title suggests—the object of the exercise is Welles’s portrait of a man and a town touched by evil; aside from Schwartz, Adair (Ray Collins) and his cronies are all portrayed as morally questionable good ol’ boys, so Quinlan fits right in. Tragically, although Welles completed the film’s principal photography on or close to schedule and budget, the shenanigans surrounding its editing doomed his last hope for a Hollywood comeback, and he was condemned to wander in the wilderness of underfunded, often abortive European productions and variable acting roles for the remainder of his life. As with Sam Peckinpah, his talent was too often sabotaged by his penchant for self-destruction, but watching Touch of Evil you have to echo Tanya and say, he was some kind of a man.