|Touch of Evil (1958)
It is doubtful that any other American filmmaker has had to suffer the way Orson Welles did.
This self-proclaimed genius managed to invoke such bitterness and inspire such divisiveness unlike
anyone else. His acknowledged masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941), made when he was in his mid-20s,
was dismissed upon its initial release and was a financial failure. Another of his brilliant films 1942's
The Magnificent Ambersons did not test well in preview screenings. RKO cut nearly an hour of footage,
rearranged scenes, tacked on a "happy ending" and released the film as B movie paired with a Lupe
Velez Mexican Spitfire vehicle. Sadly that missing footage has been lost forever but despite that,
The Magnificent Ambersons is an immensely pleasurable experience. Welles wisely surrounded himself
ith superlative craftspeople who were just as willing to push the limits of film. If anything, Welles never
seemed to learn.
In 1958, he agreed to appear in a low-budget programmer at Universal. According to Welles, it
was through a series of misunderstandings that he ended up as scenarist and director of the project. Based
on a pulp novel by Whit Masterson, Touch of Evil (1958) has come to be ranked as one of Welles' greatest
accomplishments. Again at the time of its release, though, the film was basically taken away from him,
arry Keller was brought in to direct additional sequences and the chopped up version became a
programmer. What Universal failed to recognize was that it had produced a minor masterpiece. In
merica, the film was dismissed by most critics and was a box- office failure. At the time, Welles issued
a 58-page memo detailing changes in the version he was shown. Recently, copies of that document
urfaced and Rick Schmidlin undertook the project of restoring and re-editing Touch of Evil to reflect
the changes Welles suggested. Employing a team that included Oscar-winning editor and sound
echnician Walter Murch, Schmidlin tracked down a low-forgotten preview print of the film which
had missing footage as well as the original sound mix. Painstakingly working on the project, the fruit
of this labor is now making its way into film theaters. All I can say is that the old cliché of "they don't
make 'em like that anymore" applies.
The opening sequence, a three-minute and twenty-second uninterrupted shot, has long been
admired by film buffs and students. (Recently both Robert Altman in The Player and Paul Thomas
Anderson in Boogie Nights have attempted something similar.) The 1958 version, though, had the titles
and credits superimposed as well as Henry Mancini's jazzy theme music playing. This restored version
does away with both and what has always been a marvel takes on new prominence. The sound Welles
wanted, a cacophony of music and nightlife noises with bits of dialogue emerges. The audience watches
as a bomb is placed in the trunk of a car and the car makes its way across the Mexican border into the
USA. Along the way, the audience is also introduced to a newlywed couple, Mexican official
Miguel 'Mike' Vargas (played by Charleton Heston), who has been investigating drug trafficking, and
his spunky Anglo wife Susan (Janet Leigh). Just as they share a kiss, the bomb explodes and the story
kicks in. Vargas goes to investigate and comes face to face with a noted police investigator Hank
Quinlan (Welles under mountains of make-up and padding). There is an immediate dislike between the
two men and the impetus for this character study of corruption is set in place.
There are so many things about this film that make it a treat; Russell Metty's glorious black-and-white
cinematography, Mancini's score, the production design which turned Venice, California into a Mexican
border town. Welles' script is a marvel of economics and craft with choice memorable dialogue, something
few contemporary scripts manage to achieve. As a director, Welles often employed odd camera angles
(Quinlan is almost always shot from below to emphasize his girth) that enhance the tension in the scene
rather than merely call attention to themselves. He also assembled a marvelous cast. In those
pre-politically correct times, it was not unusual to have actors play outside their ethnicity; hence
Marlene Dietrich, Akim Tamiroff and Heston as Hispanics. While modern audiences may object,
for the most part it works. These are strong performers who do not succumb to racial stereotyping
in their work. Welles always meticulously cast his films and Touch of Evil is no different. There are
members of his stock company (former Mercury Theatre Players) like Joseph Cotton and Joseph
Callea, as well as appearances by Mercedes McCambridge (as a butch gang leader), Dennis
Weaver (as a nervous hotel manager) and even Zsa Zsa Gabor as a stripper. Heston and Leigh
are superb as the couple, although Leigh's role goes from spunky to victim. Her Susan is attacked
in a hotel room and then finds herself accused of being both a drug addict and a murderer. Heston
proves stalwart and avoid the pomposity that infected some of his other notable characterizations.
Tamiroff as a gang leader and Dietrich as a fortune teller are both fine. Welles as Quinlan is a
perfect embodiment of nastiness, but he was smart enough to give the audience glimpses of the man
underneath so there are occasional moments of sympathy for the character.
This version of Touch of Evil ("a silly title", according to Welles) may be as close as we can come
to what Welles envisioned. It has been handsomely restored and remastered and should be seen on a
big screen to fully appreciate it in all its glory. Now if only someone could find that missing footage from
The Magnificent Ambersons . . .
|© 2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.