Here's a well-written article from today's Toronto Star by that paper's film critic, Geoff Pevere: some lines are memorable:
Touch of Evil borders on craziness
REAR VIEW | This must-have DVD for your library is darkly brilliant. Fat lot of good it did Orson Welles, though
Feb 04, 2007 04:30 AM
TOUCH OF EVIL
(1958, Universal DVD)
Who made it?
By the time Touch of Evil was released in 1958, Orson Welles (1915-85) was 42 years old and already a longstanding U.S. media institution. A child prodigy who simultaneously stormed Broadway, the radio airwaves and Hollywood while still in his early 20s, he went from "boy wonder" to "exiled genius" within mere years of making his first film, the bravura all-American tragedy Citizen Kane (1941). Notorious for his ego, appetite, impetuousness and overwhelming talent, Welles became the most famous casualty of movie industry philistinism – and one-man metaphor for crucified artistry.
What's it about?
While visiting a Mexican border town with his wife (Janet Leigh), a Mexican-American narcotics investigator named Vargas (Charlton Heston) witnesses a murder caused by a bomb stowed in a car. Vargas investigates and runs afoul of the local police authority, an immense – and immensely corrupt – ex-alcoholic named Hank Quinlan (Welles). Convinced that Quinlan is planting evidence to frame an innocent man, Vargas begins probing the big man's own shadowy past and methodology. In the end, Quinlan's suspicions are proved right while his means are left suspended in murky moral limbo.
What's the context?
Welles' Hollywood exile was a decade along when he was offered the chance to make a movie of a drugstore potboiler called Badge of Evil. Initially contracted only to act – the lifelong means by which Welles' subsidized his filmmaking – he only got the directing gig at Heston's insistence. If the studio was wary of Welles' reputation as a pain-in-the-ass maverick, the fears were assuaged by the production, which ran on schedule and on budget. Then the editing began, and with it the predictable Wellesian struggle for creative autonomy. Universal hated his first cut (which it found confusing and needlessly arty) and insisted on changes. A new editor was imposed on the director, who withdrew to Mexico while Touch of Evil was not only recut and restructured but in some cases reshot – and not by Welles. By the time of the film's release, Welles had all but disavowed it. He would never work in that town again.
How was it received?
As per the already well-rehearsed scenario, Touch of Evil was hailed in Europe – where Welles had become the embodiment of the uncompromising auteur – and barely seen in America, where it was dumped with the graceless finality of Welles' bloated Quinlan sinking to oblivion in a polluted creek. Sometimes those who did see it detected something amiss. As Variety wrote: "There is insufficient orientation and far too little exposition, with the result that much of the action is confusing and difficult to relate the plot."
So what's the big deal?
Even in its much-molested original release version (there are now at least three Touch of Evils, the most widely available of which is a 1998 reconstruction based on Welles' original intentions), Touch of Evil attained the status of a classic: a dark, disorienting and utterly Wellesian plunge into a nightmare netherworld where nothing was certain and everything eventually got dirty. Plus it is so stylistically idiosyncratic – long takes, grotesque close-ups, overlapping sound and steep angles – that it verges on sheer craziness.
Most endlessly quotable line:
"He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?"
Most endlessly watchable scene?
The legendary opening three-minute crane shot, which follows the bomb-impregnated car as it crosses the border, passes Heston and Leigh, retreats into the background and explodes. I think the word for this is virtuoso.
Most cogent critical appreciation?
"Welles utilizes his bravura style so effectively that it cannot always be discerned which moments create the dramatic thrust of the film and which are simply full of sound and fury." (Blake Lucas and Tracey Thompson, Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style.)