Touch of Evil

Released:  1958

Cast:  Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor

SUMMARY:  Newly married Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) and Susie (Janet Leigh) are strolling through the border town where Mike lives when a car drives past them, crosses the border into the United States — and then explodes.  Mike instantly realizes the potential for trouble:  it looks as though a Mexican-made bomb has exploded on U.S. land.  Even though Mike is involved in drug enforcement at the border, he is allowed to tag along with the American team that soon arrives to investigate the bombing.  This team includes the Police Chief and the District Attorney, as well as famed investigator Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and his subordinate, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia).  Quinlan is known for solving near-impossible cases, and once took a bullet in the leg for Menzies:  this resulted in a permanent limp and hero-worship from Menzies.  The team quickly learns that the man killed by the car bomb was rather inmportant, and that he had a daughter.  They also learn that this daughter was married, which her father was unaware of.  This secret husband, a man named Sanchez, becomes their prime suspect.  The whole group goes to the man’s apartment to interview him, and Mike is again allowed to come along.  As Sanchez is questioned, Mike starts looking around the apartment; in the bathroom, he accidentally knocks over a shoebox, which turns out to be empty.  Only a short time later, Menzies also looks around the bathroom, but when he comes out he announces that he has found two sticks of dynamite in the very same shoebox.  Quinlan declares the case solved, saying that this dynamite is leftover from the batch that blew up the car.  However, Mike is sure that the shoebox was empty, and accuses Quinlan of planting the evidence.  Furthermore, he accuses Quinlan of using this same tactic on a number of previous occasions in order to close cases.  Quinlan and Menzies deny everything, but the District Attorney also starts to have doubts.  He allows Mike to have access to the records of Quinlan’s past cases.

Meanwhile, the situation has caused Quinlan to start drinking again, after being sober for 12 years.  While he is in a bar drinking, he is approached by Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the brother of a famed Mexican drug lord/gang leader.  Grandi’s brother is in jail awaiting trial, and was put there by Mike.  Grandi proposes a deal with Quinlan:  they will work together to discredit Mike, which will help Grandi’s brother in his trial, and restore Quinlan’s reputation.  When Quinlan agrees, Grandi sends out a small group of his young thugs.  They track down Susie Vargas at a small, isolated motel, where she is the only guest.  They then wrest control of the motel from the night manager, the only staff around, and begin to intimidate Susie.  They play loud music constantly, party in the next room, and refuse to put her calls through.  Finally, they drug her and take her back to the border town, to a hotel Grandi owns.  During this time Mike has repeatedly tried to call his wife, but the thugs find various excuses and reasons why the call cannot be put through.  At Grandi’s hotel, Quinlan and Grandi are discussing their plans when Quinlan suddenly attacks Grandi, ultimately killing him.  Susie, who is still unconscious, is in the same room, and Quinlan leaves her and Grandi’s body in there, in the hopes of implicating Mike (I suppose he thought it would look as though Grandi had drugged Susie, so Mike attacked him).  However, Mike is still working on the case, and has found evidence to support his theory.  He shows this evidence to Quinlan’s partner, Menzies, who doesn’t want to believe it.  Mike then decides that his job is done, and goes to the isolated motel to join Susie.  When he finds out that she has been kidnapped, he returns to town, finds the thugs in a bar, and attacks them.  He is then informed that Susie has been arrested for murder, after she was discovered in the room with Grandi’s body.  Mike sees his wife at the jail, but is then pulled aside by Menzies, who has shocking evidence:  he found Quinlan’s cane at the crime scene.  Mike decides that he must have a confession from Quinlan himself to prove his theory, so he fits Menzies with a wire.  Menzies then meets with Quinlan, while Mike listens nearby.  Menzies brings up the planted evidence, and Quinlan admits to doing it, but only when he knew the people to be guilty.  However, Quinlan also figures out that Menzies is wearing  wire, and shoots him.  He then finds Mike and holds him at gunpoint, but is shot himself by Menzies, who is not quite dead.  A short time later, a coworker of Mike’s arrives, with the news that Quinlan was right:  Sanchez really did commit the bombing crime; his evidence-planting was unnecessary.

MY TAKE:  This is a weird movie, but there’s probably a good reason for that.  Apparently, Orson Welles had finished filming and editing the film, and turned it over to the studio.  However, they decided that they didn’t like it, so they shot some more and did a major re-edit.  Welles was not a happy camper, and wrote a famous 58-page memo (if you can call that a memo) explaining his feelings.  The end result was not what either Welles or the studio really wanted, and was actually released as a B-movie.  Over the years, the film has been restored to be as close as possible to what Welles wanted, but obviously it’s still not the same movie he presented to the studio.  That, in my mind, is probably why its confusing:  too many cooks spoil the broth.  It took me a long time to figure out that the main gist of the film was not the investigation of the bombing, but the uncovering of Quinlan’s shady tactics.  To complicate matters, there’s a major sub-plot involving Grandi and Susie Vargas.  I also had trouble understanding Grandi’s motives for quite a while, I think just because they weren’t made clear.  He was looking for a way to disrupt his brother’s trial, not kill Mike, which explained some of the early passive-aggressive stuff.  The film makes more sense as you go along, but the beginning was nearly incomprehensible to me.  The kicker is that after all of the shenanigans and hoops everybody went through, Quinlan turned out to be right.  He planted the evidence, but he had the right culprit.  Much has been made of the fact that Charlton Heston plays a Mexican in this movie, which takes some imagining.  At the time, the studios wanted a leading man to play the main part, and there weren’t exactly a lot of Hispanic leading men at the time.  It didn’t bother me too much, except for the fact that he’s obviously not a native Spanish speaker.  He sounds like a gringo.  The other thing that really stood out to me was the fact that Janet Leigh’s character, Susie Vargas, winds up at an isolated motel, run by a weird single man, as the only guest.  Two years later, she was in the same situation in Psycho, and everybody knows how that ended (insert famed shower music/scream here).  She doesn’t get offed in this movie, but she does get drugged and kidnapped.  She really ought to stay away from small motels and stick to the big chains.

RATING:  Hard to follow.


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