Detective Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) has recently been married to Susan (Janet Leigh) and they are planning to go on honeymoon tonight. He is Mexican and she is American, and while they have been spending time south of the border, this evening they are making their way to the checkpoint of this town that will see them off to the north. However, just as they reach that checkpoint, they have been waved through when there is suddenly a huge explosion: one of the cars that had been travelling on the same street had a bomb in it and it has gone off, killing the driver and his passenger, who were known to Vargas. He guesses this means the honeymoon is off as he tells Susan he will meet her later...
He should never have left her alone, of course, but hindsight is always 20/20 in a film that yet again proved Orson Welles was unable to go about the job of directing without some form of trouble behind the scenes, and so it was here in his final American film before he headed for Europe to try and get his projects off the ground there. The production passed into Hollywood legend, with so many oft-told tales about it that it became difficult to ascertain what, precisely, had occurred, but the main consensus was that Welles was hired to play the villain, corrupt detective Hank Quinlan, and star Heston asked why he wasn't directing the project as well, so to appease him producer Albert Zugsmith agreed to see that he would take the reins.
So far so good, and most accounts report he had a great time making it, or at least he did until the studio saw what he had been up to and demanded re-edits and extra scenes, cutting it down from around an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half. This was down to Welles trying to render the plot as murky as possible, and in that trickster sensibility he succeeded only too well which was the reason Touch of Evil took so long to find its audience. The extra scenes were easy to spot when they were clearly not shot in the typically atmospheric style of the original man at the helm, but this did mean there was more than one version, with disagreement as to what the definitive one should be; Welles never really seemed to make up his mind on that one either, so beware any so-called "director’s cut".
Still, for all the compromises there was a lot to appreciate here, even if it had been lauded as a greater work than Citizen Kane by its cultists when its masterpiece status was perhaps a little shakier than Welles' debut. Scene by scene, there was patently a terrific talent playing behind the camera, but it quickly became a case of the sum of the parts being less than the whole when as a film noir of the later period it fell down because Welles was not shooting it as a thriller, he was shooting it as a character study, a musing over what happens to the innately decent and moral when they are beset on all sides by evil. The Vargases were the good guys, and maybe Quinlan had been one of those as well once upon a time, but the milieu of this border town has corrupted him, and that has happened willingly when he can be king of the castle.
All without fearing any repercussions until Vargas throws a spanner in the works. However, this is a two-way street, and Quinlan sees to it that when Mike tries to get his wife out of harm's way, she ends up in the jaws of danger as the bent copper instigates one of his minions, Grandi (Akim Tamiroff, one of many Welles pals to appear here), to arrange that she meets with an "accident". Frustratingly, there is a part that indicates Quinlan was always more or less correct in his assessment the people he set up were guilty, which tends to go against the effect of the final battle between himself and Vargas, but there were a number of niggles about what Welles did with the material, not just what was imposed by the studio, that demonstrated it was a better film to sit back and drink in that rich atmosphere and enjoy the character work from one of those typically eccentric Zugsmith casts. They ranged from Zsa Zsa Gabor on screen for mere seconds, a disguised Joseph Cotten, Mercedes McCambridge as a leather jacket-clad pervert, and Marlene Dietrich who was awarded those fine closing lines. A mixed bag, then, from audacious tracking shot to final descent into literal garbage, but full of essential elements and even brilliance. Music by Henry Mancini.