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Laramie Movie Scope:
Touch of Evil

Orson Welles' last Hollywood feature film is edgy and askew

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(1958; b/w) In the last feature film he would make for Hollywood, director Orson Welles also wrote the screenplay (from Whit Masterson's novel, Badge of Evil) and played the part of Captain Hank Quinlan, a gargantuan sheriff with a reputation for a keen intuition. After Welles completed his filming in 1957, the studio added scenes and re-edited the picture to the director's dislike, so much so that he composed a 58-page memo of instructions for changes. This version of Welles's noir film is the 1998 result of Rick Schmidlin's efforts to revise the picture according to Welles's requested editorial changes.

For example, the opening credits were removed from the opening scenes of a bomb being planted in a car's trunk before the driver and a woman get in to drive toward the border crossing (credits relocated to the end) with different music. For an article detailing the re-editing, go to http://www.reelclassics.com/Articles/Films/touchofevil-article.htm

Also leaving the Mexican side of Los Robles are Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), a high Mexican government official on a narcotics case, and Susan (Janet Leigh), his young bride from Philadelphia, when the car explodes on the American side.

While Vargas remains at the scene, Susan receives a message to return to the Mexican side, where she's introduced with the intention of intimidation to Uncle Joe Grandi, offering advice for Vargas to lay off his brother Vic, the man Vargas has put in jail in Mexico City on a narcotics rap.

Meanwhile, back where the car blew up with big-shot Rudy Linnekar and a stripper, Hank Quinlan, chomping on a cigar and using a cane for his game leg, finally shows up, making the presumption that dynamite had been the explosive. Making the acquaintance of Vargas, Quinlan says: "You don't talk like one. I'll say that for you. Mexican, I mean." (There aren't many of the Mexican characters who look Mexican. The owner of the nightclub is played by Zsa Zsa Gabor.) Later when he meets Susan Vargas, Quinlan remarks: "She don't look Mexican either."

Making his apologies for the disruption of their honeymoon, Vargas asks another cop Schwartz to drive Susan in Vargas's car to an isolated motel on the US side; Grandi, thinking Vargas is behind the wheel, tails after.

Quinlan and his men go to the apartment of Marcia Linnekar, the dead man's daughter, who's living in a love nest with Sanchez, a Mexican shoe clerk, who says: "I've been at her feet ever since." Tagging along as an interested observer, helping with translation but as a foreigner without official status, Vargas suspects Quinlan of planting evidence after a shoebox found in the bathroom, which earlier Vargas had noticed being empty, suddenly contains two sticks of dynamite.

Realizing that either his or Vargas's reputation will be ruined, Quinlan, "the idol of the police force," makes a deal with Grandi. Back at the motel four of Grandi's boys stage a wild party - a suggestion of Reefer Madness involving the evil weed marijuana, Mary Jane, and mainlining - and remove the drugged bride to the Hotel Ritz in Mexico. By the time Vargas gets to the motel after digging up more evidence against Quinlan, from whom the last criminal to escape his grasp was the murderer who strangled his wife, only the frightened, imbecilic night man (Dennis Weaver) remains; the gun from his briefcase also is missing.

The corpulent cop, who's been on the wagon for a dozen years, using candy as a substitute for booze, gets drunk at Tanya's café. Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) says of him: "good detective, lousy cop."

The conclusion is an effective drama in the dark as Quinlan and his long-time partner Sgt Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), wearing a bug, walk along the bridge, their voices slightly echoing, while below Vargas listens in, recording their conversation.

Some scenes are almost risible, giving the story an edgy, slightly askew feel, with a jazzy score by Henry Mancini. But in the end the mystery of the shoebox leaves the resolution unsettled. The film is referenced in Get Shorty.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2008 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)