It isn’t long into Touch of Evil when you realize anything goes. The movie takes place in a border town and it has adopted a free-wheeling, Tijuana temperament to match. Not only does Charlton Heston refuse to alter his Moses-like persona for this late film noir, he doesn’t even bother to adopt an accent for the part of Mexican law enforcement official Miguel “Mike” Vargas. As the picture opens, Vargas has recently married an American blonde named Susan (Janet Leigh). Their honeymoon is interrupted when a car bombing sets off a convoluted crime plot that will involve Susan’s kidnapping at the hands of a gang of lecherous druggies and Vargas’ run-ins with corrupt American police captain Hank Quinlan (an obese Orson Welles). Welles also directed the film, emphasizing – as he did in 1955’s Mr. Arkadin – the grotesqueness of himself and many of his characters. Even Marlene Dietrich, in a late-career bit part as a brothel madam, looks like she could be part of a circus sideshow. Also like Arkadin, Touch of Evil was taken from Welles by the studio and reedited without his consent (working with a legendary 58-page memo written by Welles, film historians restored the movie for a 2000 DVD version). No amount of studio interference, however, could soften the loopiness that pulses through Touch of Evil – it’s too ingrained in the movie’s blood.
There is Akim Tamiroff, for instance, in eyeliner and a disobedient hairpiece sending hoods after Leigh’s Susan. When they stash her in an isolated hotel room and proceed to throw a drug-fueled party, the picture threatens to turn into Reefer Madness, albeit with the visual panache of the man behind Citizen Kane.