Touch Of Evil is probably the last of Hollywood's initial Film Noir cycle, bookending a trend that began with The Maltese Falcon. It's an exceptionally dark film; literally so, because several scenes take place in almost pitch blackness. Like all great Noir films about high-level police corruption, it has a superb sense of authority and gravitas that it takes great pleasure in unravelling in its conclusion.
The opening shot is often cited as the greatest sequence in cinema: a four-minute crane shot following an American couple as they cross the Mexican border. When Orson Welles was interviewed for This Is Orson Welles, he said that, with hindsight, he disliked the bravura of his opening shot, pointing out that there is another, longer, more complex crane shot later in the film. This later shot, in which the camera moves through several rooms of an apartment, is less flamboyant and therefore, according to Welles, more of an achievement.
The film can be seen as a collaboration between two of the greatest icons in all of cinema: Orson Welles and Marlene Dietrich. Welles and Dietrich both have a certain mythic quality about them, and this is especially evident throughout Touch Of Evil. For example, Dietrich's line to Welles, that he has been eating "too many candy bars", reflects their off-screen friendship as much as the motivations of their on-screen characters.
The moral message of Touch Of Evil is more complex than it first appears. In the film, a corrupt police chief (Quinlan, played as a huge, growling, and wheezing old man by Welles) plants evidence in the room of a man whom another police chief (Vargas) believes is innocent. When the planted evidence is found, the audience is also directed to sympathise with the framed man, the implication being that Quinlan planted evidence simply in order to close the case quickly. It transpires that the man is actually guilty, though Vargas subsequently uncovers a long history of corruption and surruptitiously tricks Quinlan into taping his confession. However, in the novel on which the film was based (Badge Of Evil), Quinlan plants the evidence because he knows the man is guilty, and Welles's own sympathies lie with Quinlan as he sees the tricked confession as an unacceptable betrayal. At several points in the film, Quinlan mentions his "intuition" - but is it a genuine ability to ascertain a suspect's guilt, or a corner-cutting method of guaranteeing a conviction regardless of real proof?
Famously, the film was altered by Universal against Welles's wishes. Some extra exposition scenes were added, and the film was re-edited behind his back. Welles wrote a long memo to the studio, arguing eloquently against the revised version ("In most cases, I can see, or guess, the point of view which has motivated the change, even when I don't happen, personally, to agree with it"), though most of his requests were refused. In 1976, an attempt was made to release Welles's own version of the film, and this restoration is the only version of the film I have seen - I have not yet watched the original theatrical (studio-altered) version. The restoration, while marketed as a director's cut, is more accurately a compromise between the studio's version and Welles's intended vision. It does restore several key scenes originally removed by the studio, though it also retains the non-Welles sequences that the studio forcibly added.
One final point: in Touch Of Evil, Janet Leigh stays as the only guest at an isolated motel, staffed by a single nervous desk-clerk; two years later, in Psycho, Janet Leigh stayed as the only guest at an isolated motel, staffed by a single nervous desk-clerk. Admittedly, she isn't murdered in Touch Of Evil (in fact, perhaps to appease the censors, it is made unrealistically clear that she is never harmed), though the situation is similar nonetheless.