As the Universal-International logo dissolves, we see an extreme close-up of an explosive device as a hand adjusts the timer to three minutes; the bomb begins to tick.
A woman laughing from some distance away is heard off-camera. The man holding the device abruptly turns to the left in the direction of the laugh as the camera pans in this direction too. It’s night, and through the shadows a man and a woman in deep focus are approaching.
The man with the bomb moves quickly from left to right. His body is turned away so we cannot make out his identity. The camera follows him as he runs, casting his shadow against a wall plastered with posters.
He kneels behind a large American convertible, carefully places the bomb in the car’s trunk and runs off to the right. The camera now swings upward as the man and woman approach from the left and get into the car. The man starts the engine and drives off, disappearing behind a building. As it does, the boom-mounted camera draws back, lifts up high above the building and picks up the car as it turns into a main street lined on both sides by illuminated arcades.
The camera tracking back from the car – which has stopped at an intersection – now descends to eye level and focuses on two pedestrians, a young blonde woman and a man, swarthy in appearance, with a black moustache. Loud Latino music coming from the arcades is heard on the soundtrack. The camera – losing sight of the convertible – now follows these two people as they cross the increasingly crowded and noisy street. As the camera pans right to left, it picks up a sign on a building that reads ‘Customs and Immigration’ and a toll booth in the middle of the road. The camera draws up and back as the convertible with its two occupants slowly moves towards the customs booth, finally pulling up alongside the two pedestrians.
A customs officer stops the male and female walkers and asks them if they are American citizens, and the dialogue establishes their back story. The man is Miguel “Mike” Vargas with his new American bride, Susan. The customs official recognises the name and we learn that Vargas is a Mexican Narcotics official who is walking his wife across the border into the States to buy her a “chocolate soda.”
The conversation continues, and the driver of the still stationary convertible, growing impatient, asks if he can drive through. The customs officer asks him and his female passenger a few questions and finally waves their car through. The vehicle drives off toward the left foreground and we lose sight of it. Vargas and Susan have now also crossed over into the States and as they stop to embrace and kiss there is the sound of a loud explosion off-camera. The couple look up startled, as a long shot of the explosion lights up the night sky. The convertible, along with both of its passengers, has disintegrated into a ball of flame.
This is the iconic and influential three minutes and 21 second single tracking shot and opening sequence of Touch of Evil (1958). It is so revered by filmmakers that it has been endlessly imitated by many leading movie luminaries: Alfred Hitchcock in his opening scene in Psycho (1960), Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) with Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco’s long walk through the kitchens of the Copacabana nightclub, and Robert Altman, who pays total homage in the opening scene of The Player (1992), are just a few examples.
Touch of Evil was directed by Orson Welles, his first Hollywood film in ten years since the ill-fated Lady From Shanghai (1947). Considered then as a total Hollywood pariah, Welles’ involvement as director was the result of a complete misunderstanding by Charlton Heston, the star of the film. Nonetheless, Welles had high hopes that it would lead to a multi-picture director’s contract with Universal Studios, but following the release of Touch of Evil, he would never work in Hollywood as a director again. What he actually achieved and delivered was a visually audacious masterpiece of film noir, but due to unwarranted studio interference, cinemagoers would not get to view Welles’ version until 40 years later.