Cinema and Media Studies Touch of Evil
Craig Simpson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0366


Much like its maker, Touch of Evil is elusive, durable, and contains multitudes. It marked the auspicious homecoming of Orson Welles to Hollywood, and led to his swift and permanent return to independent filmmaking. It died a quick death upon its initial theatrical run, only to win Best Film at the Brussels World Fair overseas, then be subsequently revived by effusive French critics of Cahiers du Cinema, and finally (re-)introduced to enthusiastic American film scholars. It has been described as wholly consistent with Welles’s technique since Citizen Kane and an outlier to his oeuvre, the greatest B-picture ever made and the end of film noir. To date, Touch of Evil has undergone three permutations: the 1958 studio release, with a 93-minute running-time; the 1976 “preview cut,” discovered a few years earlier by UCLA Professor Robert Epstein in the Universal Studios film archives, at 108 minutes in length; and the 1998 “restoration” or “reconstruction,” adhering to the objectives outlined in a 1957 memo by Welles, and 111 minutes long. Notwithstanding which Touch of Evil is considered the best of the three—an appraisal that may be aligned less with the director’s “intentions” and more with Henry Mancini’s opening score—it is evident that public and academic interest have increased with each version. Especially in the years following the critical and commercial triumph of the 1998 rerelease, Welles’s film has split into tributaries of study about its style and content, and complex (or confused) enough to spawn contentious disputes over its perceived attitudes on race, gender, sexuality, criminal law, police brutality, cultural appropriation, and the Mexican-American border. Even today, Touch of Evil still feels fresh, urgent, and a little dangerous. Yet although it was inducted into the National Film Registry in 1993, and placed fifty-seventh in the critics’ poll and twenty-sixth in the directors’ poll for Sight and Sound in 2012 (dropping from fifteenth among critics yet climbing from thirty-first among directors in 2002), there have been troubling limitations to its availability in the age of streaming. Moreover, as seven of the fourteen films directed by Welles now bear the Criterion imprimatur (a gratifying four since the 2015 Welles centenary), Touch of Evil is the most notable title among the half that do not. It remains to be seen whether its visibility and stature will rise or fall among Orson Welles’s collective works.

General Overviews

Very few monographs or anthologies have been devoted solely to Touch of Evil. The oldest attempt is Comito 1986, an anthology edited by a former professor of English at George Mason University who wrote articles on the film starting in the early 1970s even before the discovery of the “preview version.” (See Comito 1971 under Aesthetic Elements.) The newest is Deming 2020, written by the director of creative writing at Yale University.

  • Comito, Terry, ed. Touch of Evil: Orson Welles, Director. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

    Pioneering anthology by one of the earliest American scholars to find Touch of Evil worthy of serious study. Highlights include the Continuity Script; André Bazin’s interview with Orson Welles and James Delson’s with Charlton Heston; select reviews from François Truffaut and Howard Thompson; and an excerpt from Heath 1975 (cited under Aesthetic Elements). Currently in limited circulation.

  • Deming, Richard. Touch of Evil. London: BFI Classics, 2020.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781911239048

    Lively, idiosyncratic monograph that lends currency to the film and its by-now wide-ranging literature. Aside from the rare error (e.g., misspelling [Rick] “Schmidlin” as “Schmedlin”), Deming is accurate in his knowledge and acumen, as well as attuned to the complexities of Touch of Evil and the hairpin turns of its history. Features a superbly detailed array of endnotes as well as a useful bibliography with suggestions for further reading.

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