One of the biggest complaints viewers have today about Touch of Evil, the classic film noir written and directed by the late, great Orson Welles, is that it features Charlton Heston playing a Mexican. Yes, Moses himself playing a south-of-the-border, dark-skinned, mustached, Spanish-speaking Mexican.
Let’s not forget, folks, Heston was shoved down Welles’s throat. He didn’t want to cast Heston as Vargas, the by-the-book, Javert-like prosecutor. But the fact was, the studio wanted a “star” in the film, despite the fact that the greatest filmmaker in the world at the time was at the helm. Little has changed in Hollywood. But, truth be told, I think the future NRA frontman did fine in the role–he pulled it off like the pro he is. Or was.
Casting issues aside, virtually the entire movie was cut to shreds and reedited. This happened a lot to Welles, post-Citizen Kane, after a certain newspaper magnate –believing, with good reason, that the movie was about him and had presented him in a most unflattering light, even exposing “Rosebud,” which was his pet name for his mistresses’ …. rosebud — decided to use his prodigious international influence to destroy the cinematic genius. He largely succeeded: case in point, view one of the many youtube videos of a soused Orson trying to meander his way through a script advertising a certain wine not before its time. Luckily, Hollywood has regained its sanity in recent decades. Touch of Evil was later recut to fall more in line with Welles’s original vision. In fact, on the DVD I own, you can read Welles’s impassioned memo to the empty studio heads imploring them to at least respect his film’s tapestry–its flow of visual images that no one but Welles and possibly some of the great film critics could probably even appreciate. Thank God for DVD!
Perhaps one of the greatest noirs ever made, the film was regrettably released as a B film, the second part of a double feature. If those studio execs knew what they were doing, how cinematic posterity would view them, they would have been better off parking cars. What we have here is a rich, visionary take on a sordid tale of murder and police corruption. Playing an obese detective (ironically foreshadowing the obesity Orson would later achieve in true life) who seems to be either a corrupt murderer or a psychic superhero, Welles suddenly has to deal with consummate do-gooder Heston whose wife (played by the lovely Janet Leigh) is abducted. (The film in fact includes what can only be a gang rape of Janet Leigh, and this is a 1950s movie!) The plot really grabs you, though a bit difficult to follow. I won’t divulge much else so as to not ruin the experience for you Touch of Evil virgins.
I will say the film works and is an excellent visual experience, with strong story telling, striking imagery, suspense, shock, twists, and last but not at all least memorable characters (check out Deitrich — and a very young Dennis Weaver as a schizo motel clerk. No less a personage as Steven Spielberg remembered this performance, and it was one reason Weaver found himself starring in Spielberg’s first film, the early ‘70s made-for-TV Duel, another movie worthy of acclaim all on its own.)
Ultimately, Welles’s career was only a shadow of what it could have been thanks to the fallout of Citizen Kane. Yes, Welles would end up fatter than his Touch of Evil character, and selling no wine before its time–but all in all, we are lucky to have Touch of Evil, which, like Citizen Kane, was several years’ ahead of its time in terms of filmmaking.