Touch of Evil has a backstory nearly as interesting as its pulpy plot. The story goes that the Universal Studios wanted Charlton Heston to star in the film, and Orson Welles had been hired to act in the film's major male supporting role. Heston agreed to do the film if Welles would direct. Welles had been out of favor with American movies studios for about a decade and had been living abroad. He wanted a foot back in the door of American movies, and agreed to direct Touch of Evil while receiving only his acting fee. Welles was aware that he had a reputation for being difficult to work with as well as finishing a film way over budget. He promptly re-wrote the screenplay and began casting his film.
Surprisingly, Welles delivered the film under budget and on time. He delivered his initial cut of the film to the studio executives who did not like what they saw as they felt the film was too confusing. Welles was fired from the film and banned from the editing room. Universal hired another director to finish the editing and to film reshoots they the executives deemed necessary. A revised edit of Touch of Evil was screened for Welles.
Welles didn't hate the edited film. Instead, he sat down and promptly wrote a 58 page memo to Universal executives that urged a number of changes to the film. Most of these were minor and only involved tweaking the sound and score of the film. However, Welles's memo was largely ignored and the film was released as the bottom half of a double feature. It failed miserably in the United States, though it was hailed in Europe.
I can't comment on the version of Touch of Evil that was released in 1958 because that isn't the version that I watched. I watched the most recent re-edit of the film. In the mid-1990s, Touch of Evil was re-edited to closely approximate the suggestions that Welles wanted in the 58 page memo. The result is simply a masterpiece.
Welles's achievement as a director is no less remarkable than his groundbreaking work on Citizen Kane. He shoots from odd angles and uses creative jumps and cuts to propel the narrative along. His opening 3-minute-plus shot is an astounding creation, truly beautiful to behold as it sets up the movie's plot beautifully. It definitely influenced later film opening shots such as those in Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, Robert Altman's The Player, and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights.
I've never been one to think that genre films couldn't make great movies. Night of the Hunter, The Silence of the Lambs, Pulp Fiction, and a score of gangster films spring immediately to mind. Touch of Evil arrived near the end of Hollywood's film noir heyday. It tells a juicy plot. American Janet Leigh marries Mexican Heston, a drug enforcement border agent. When a car bomb that was set in mexico explodes in a border town on U. S. soil, the authorities begin their investigation with Heston's character observing. Heston's character observes the planting of evidence to secure a conviction, so the corrupt American prosecutor frames Leigh for the car bomb muder and suggests that Heston has a drug problem.