Touch of Evil will always be remembered as the movie that finally ruined Orson Welles. After the film was released, the cine-genius never again worked in Hollywood. It’s a tragedy of Cecil B. DeMille proportions, especially considering all that Welles had already contributed to the film art form.
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Citizen Kane—the epitome of all that is good in moviemaking—established Welles’ directorial career; The Magnificent Ambersons solidified it; and Macbeth and Othello gave other versions a serious run for their Shakespeare money.
By 1957, Welles was riding high and living large (in more ways than one) in Tinseltown. Touch of Evil would change all that.
And now, a word from our sponsors: This review is part of an Epinions Movie Experts Write-off in which several of us are simultaneously dissecting this and three other films—Diner, Dr. No and Smiles of a Summer Night. Please visit all the other reviews by my colleagues, posted on this date, by following the links at the bottom of this review.
Today, Welles’ 1958 film noir is considered a masterpiece of the genre. But it’s been a long, torturous road to that pinnacle. When it was first released, Touch of Evil filled the bottom half of a double bill (the “A” movie was a forgettable Hedy Lamarr feature). But trouble began long before that.
If ever a movie was effectively killed by a studio, this was it. (Appropriately enough, the studio system itself was in the final stages of death throes, giving way to independent filmmakers and doing away with contract players). As writer, director and co-star of Touch of Evil, Welles demanded complete control. This shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone familiar with the behind-the-camera story of Citizen Kane. With this picture, however, the studio chiefs at Universal Pictures started to get skittish. The plot was confusing and the theme of racism went against the norms of 1950s society (a mixed marriage between the two main characters was a particular worry).
Welles was halfway through the editing process when the studio honchos snuck a peek at what he’d been working on. According to a recent New York Times article by Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch, “They were horrified. The film committed perhaps the worst sin in the Hollywood book: it was a decade or so ahead of its time.”
In other words, it was an Orson Welles film.
Welles, upset at the studio’s subterfuge, distanced himself from the film and, in a horrible turn of events, was barred by the studio from re-entering the editing room. The studio finished the cuts and splices, straying from Welles’ original vision, and released a 95-minute version with little fanfare. With the choppy edits not helping an already serpentine plot, audiences got lost in the thicket.
Welles was allowed to attend only one screening. Chafing at the thought of his film being butchered like a piece of celluloid meat, he wrote a detailed memo to the head of Universal’s post-production, describing how he would have finished the film. Reportedly, that is the one and only time Welles saw Touch of Evil before he died in 1985. The film withered, championed by a few French filmmakers but largely ignored in America. Welles’ Hollywood career died on the vine along with it. What began with the bull-headed brilliance of Citizen Kane ended with the portly bearded Welles selling “no wine before its time” in TV commercials.
Eventually, someone at the studio saw the error of their ways and re-edited Touch of Evil. That 108-minute version was closer to Welles’ original vision. It was good, but not perfect. Then, in 1998, Murch and producer Rick Schmidlin found Welles’ 58-page memo and went back into the editing room. Using the director’s original notes, they recut and rearranged some crucial shots—altogether making 50 different editing changes. From what I hear, Welles would be happy with the way his film has finally turned out.
Unfortunately, that’s not the Touch of Evil I saw for this write-off. All I could find at my neighborhood video store was the in-between version. While it’s good, I was still left baffled by some of the kinks in the twisting plot.
As with all of the great Welles films, however, the plot is the not the first thing we notice—it’s the visual style that dazzles our eyes: the extreme camera angles, the sharp lighting, the long tracking shots. Welles grabs our attention and, like a pit bull with lockjaw, will not let go. Touch of Evil is never dull; Welles is always doing something creative with the camera to keep us alert and on the edge of our seat. In fact, the visual poetry overwhelms the brain so much, it’s possible to enjoy the film for the cinematography tricks alone, plot be damned.
A closer viewing, however, reveals some of the tricks Welles was up to with the camera. The grimy claustrophobia gets under our skin as Welles manipulates the lens. As the noose of corruption begins to tighten around some of the characters, we start to feel a constriction around our own necks.
Touch of Evil opens with one of the most perfect long tracking shots in film history (rivaled only by Brian DePalma’s opening to 1998’s Snake Eyes):
Close-up of a hand setting a timer on a homemade bomb. The clock is set for three minutes and twenty seconds. Pan left to see a laughing couple walking down a street in a seedy Mexican border town. Swing back to the bomber who runs up to a car and puts the device in the trunk. The couple gets into the car. The car pulls out onto a crowded street and drives toward the U.S.-Mexican border, four blocks away. Pull back to a wide shot, then let the car catch up to the camera. At the intersection, we see another couple cross the street—we later learn this is a Mexican government narcotics investigator named Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his young bride Susan (Janet Leigh). The car with the bomb passes them, but the camera stays on the newlyweds, tracking as they walk toward the border crossing. As they approach the border guard, the car meets up with them again but must wait while the guard strikes up a conversation with Mike and Susan. The newlyweds walk away. Meanwhile the girl in the car complains of this “ticking noise” in her head. The car drives across the border. The camera then searches out Mike and Susan again as they cross into the U.S. They kiss and, exactly three minutes and twenty seconds after the one unbroken shot began, there’s an explosion off-camera.
It’s an incredible technical and narrative feat and Welles pulls it off like a conductor waving his arms during a bold, thundering overture. It’s as if he’s saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, here’s my film! I hope you’ll agree it’s a masterpiece!”
And if we tried to turn away after that brilliant opening, we only have to wait another few minutes for Welles himself to show up as police captain Hank Quinlan, called to the scene of the explosion. Sweaty and squinty-eyed, Quinlan looms large on the screen (emphasized by a low-angled camera shooting upwards over his bulk [the already-obese Welles added extra padding for the role]). Welles, as Quinlan, seems to leer at us from the screen: “Are you sure you won’t agree this is a masterpiece?”
Quinlan, a bitter, paranoid racist, takes charge of the investigation. He’s surrounded by a team of cronies, including the district attorney and police sergeant. Because the bomb was planted on the Mexican side and the murder committed on the American side, Vargas and Quinlan are forced to work together on the case. Neither likes the other—Quinlan because he disdains Mexicans and Vargas because he’s immediately suspicious of how Quinlan goes about pursuing the investigation.
Welles gives a strong performance, delivering his lines in an obese slur. Most of what he says isn’t clear, but with his brooding menace he is always compelling—much like the similarly incoherent performance of Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
The redneck Texas lawman chomps on his cigar, limps around with a cane and claims he gets his intuition from his game leg. His hunches immediately send the investigation down what could be a blind alley. Vargas has his doubts about Quinlan and starts looking into the cop’s other cases where his “intuition” has resulted in quick convictions hung on relatively flimsy evidence.
Meanwhile, intercut with the moral wrestling match between the two lawmen, Welles plays out the story of Vargas’ wife who had been sent back across the border to their honeymoon hotel to wait for Vargas to finish up his part of the case. Before she can get there, however, she’s lured into a trap by thugs belonging to Grandi, the drug lord Vargas was in the midst of prosecuting.
Susan is eventually taken to a deserted hotel where she’s terrorized by the Grandi gang. At the hotel, there’s also a creepy night clerk (played broadly by Dennis Weaver) who keeps his eye on Miss Leigh in much the same way Anthony Perkins would two years later in Psycho.
Eventually, the Grandi and car-bombing plots start to converge. Welles flips back and forth between the two stories, occasionally using parallel camera setups to bridge the transitions. Some of his editing choices—Universal executives be damned—are simply brilliant and show what an intricate cogworks was ticking away inside that head of his.
Not everything in Touch of Evil works so perfectly. Charlton Heston is miscast in the role of a Mexican. He’s got that distinctly flat American accent which layers of dark pancake makeup and a Frito Bandito mustache can’t cover up. While he gives one of his typically wooden-but-earnest performances, I had a hard time believing the authenticity of his character. It’s just a shame that Welles didn’t cast a Hispanic in the role…but I guess the 1958 public wasn’t ready for a “real” mixed marriage up on the screen.
At times, there is so much visual technique on display, that it threatens to overwhelm the complex plot. While Welles is adept at shoving close-ups of sweaty stubble into our faces, we’re so struck by the compelling images that it’s hard to keep up with the writhing writing (which Welles himself adapted from the novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson).
Touch of Evil demands at least two viewings—one just to let the images clobber you over the head, another to let the sweat of the story soak into your brain.
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