|Touch of Evil|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 31 October 2000|
Most people seem to think that Orson Welles made one really great movie, "Citizen Kane" -- but though all his other films were compromised in one way or another, he made many other excellent movies, none better than this dark, sinister and hypnotic film noir classic.
After years of partly self-imposed exile in Europe, Welles returned to the U.S. in the mid-50s, and managed somehow to convince Universal-International to back his movie version of
Whit Masterson's novel Badge of Evil. He was given two bankable stars, Charlton Heston (improbably cast as a Mexican) and Janet Leigh, plus whatever else he needed to make the movie. During production, he was pretty much left to his own devices, largely because he'd carefully planned everything, and didn't go over time or budget in any significant way.
But he wasn't allowed to complete his cut of the movie; the film was taken away from him, and released without fanfare in a 95-minute cut. Stories that it played only as the bottom half of a double bill aren't true; it generally played as the top feature on the bill, but in Los Angeles, perhaps out of sheer spite, it was indeed relegated to second feature status.
And then it won awards around the world.
Many years later, footage -- some directed by Harry Keller -- was restored to the movie, and a 108-minute version was released. But then someone found Orson Welles' 58-page memo (included on this DVD) sent to production head Edward Muhl about how to improve the cut Universal planned to release. A group of dedicated film buffs, including great sound technician Walter Murch, film restorer Bob O'Neil and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, used Welles' memo and the surviving negative to try to put the film together in the way Welles wanted. It wasn't possible to do this completely, since much of the original elements have been lost, but this 111-minute cut is as close as anyone can come to what Welles wanted.
Most people, even those fairly familiar with the original cut, won't notice many differences -- but the memo makes it clear that Welles wasn't after major differences. Again and again, he patiently and clearly explains to Muhl the small but telling changes he wanted made, all of which were for narrative or character clarity, not because of his ego. Really, the only changes most are likely to notice is that Henry Mancini's perfectly acceptable title theme (under the long, unbroken take that famously opens the movie) has been replaced by the "source" music (coming from cantinas that Heston and Leigh pass) that Welles wanted, and that the credits are now all at the end.
But there's no doubt that this movie now flows smoothly, hypnotically, there's no doubt that it seems even more like an Orson Welles movie. He liked to play with dialog in a unique manner; many other directors like overlapping dialog, but Welles treated dialog almost like music -- the overlapping lines have their own rhythms, interrupted by the emphasized intrusion of the next speaker. It's as hard to describe as it is easy to recognize. But Welles only used this kind of stylistic flamboyance occasionally; he knew when enough was enough. (At least in terms of editing, he did.)
The story was always seemingly awkward. Mexican politico Mike Vargas (Heston) and his American bride Susan (Leigh) witness a bombing of a car at an unidentified border town. Grossly fat American cop Hank Quinlan (Welles, padded) immediately begins investigating, and decides that a young Mexican was responsible. But he plants evidence, a fact realized by a shocked Vargas. Quinlan views himself as the ultimate authority on both sides of the border, and so targets both Vargas and Susan, hoping to discredit them before they can discredit him.
Robert Clatworthy and Alexander Golitzen are credited with the art direction, but one suspects that it was more the work of Welles himself, who shot the film quickly and efficiently on locations in Southern California, mostly in Venice. Russell Metty was the cinematographer; his shadowy work is rich with vivid compositions and unusual angles. Everything about the film seems fresh and inventive, including the performances (although Heston's is conventional), the music and the excellently-edited sound.
In a way, this is the ultimate film noir, if you consider Quinlan to be the central character, rather than Vargas. Film noir heroes were often flawed idealists, and from what his partner Pete (Joseph Calleia) and saloon owner Tanya (Marlene Dietrich, no less) say about Quinlan, we can believe that even he was once an idealist. But now he's so corrupt you can almost smell him; grossly fat, constantly chomping on candy bars, turning again to drink as events don't go his way, Quinlan is a monster of his own creation. He's so far gone that Tanya, his former lover, at first literally does not recognize him. Ten years before, Quinlan would have been the down-at-the-heels hero of a story; now he's the grotesque, bloated but still-shrewd villain.
Welles stuffed the movie with excellent character actors, from Akim Tamiroff as a non-Mexican Mexican, to "Citizen Kane" alumnus Ray Collins, to a memorably jittery Dennis Weaver, down to bits by the likes of Mercedes McCambridge and long-time friend Joseph Cotten. Despite its bleak mood and sense of decay, there's something playful about "Touch of Evil;" it may be a disturbing movie, but it's a very entertaining disturbing movie -- Welles is making a great film, but he's not overwhelmed by any sense of importance. He may have thought he was just making a fun potboiler -- but he made a masterpiece.