ORSON WELLES' TOUCH OF EVIL

by William C. Martell


TOUCH OF EVIL (re-cut version)
Rating: NR
Stars: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Dennis Weaver.
Writer: Orson Welles based on novel BADGE OF EVIL by Whit Masterson.
Director: Orson Welles
Distributor: Universal/October Films
Grade: B+


Forty years after its initial release, a recut version of Orson Welles' classic film noir is back on the screen, fifteen minutes longer... darker, more evil than ever before.

Based on the 58 page memo Orson Welles sent to studio chief Edward Muhl after seeing Universal's cut down version, resorter Rick Schmidlin, Oscar winning editor Walter Murch, and film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum have created the film as Welles envisioned it. A posthumous director's cut.

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The plot of TOUCH OF EVIL plays as if it were written yesterday. A Mexican district attorney (Charlton Heston!) takes time out from prosecuting a drug cartel to get married. While on honeymoon with his sexy American wife (Janet Leigh) they witness a car-bomb murder. While Heston helps the bordertown detective (Orson Welles) with the investigation, Leigh is taken to a motel for safe keeping. Some honeymoon. Detective Welles instantly finds a suspect, searches his apartment, and finds two sticks of dynamite... But Heston KNOWS the evidence was planted, and that Welles is framing the poor Mexican shoe clerk for the crime. While Heston is busy compiling proof that Welles is a corrupt cop, the drug cartel kidnaps Leigh. Now Heston must rescue his wife AND find the evidence which will bring down crooked cop Welles.

This may sound like a typical cop drama, but Welles turns it into a tour de force, taking us into the strip clubs, whorehouses, and dark twisted alleys of the border town. Creating nightmare images so vivid, you can practically smell the raw sewage in the canal that runs through the slums. In 1950s America, at a time when Beaver was Ward and June's son, the raw sexuality sweating from every enlarged pore of this film must have been more than shocking. The grimy streets, the gang-bangs with bull- dyke gang girls who want to stay and watch. "Hold her legs!" Even the phone sex between a lingerie clad Leigh (looking good enough to eat) and Heston at a store's public phone is given the added perverse twist of having the blind store owner listening to every word... and smiling. This is the type of twisted film David Lynch wishes he could make.

Welles was constantly pushing the limits of film making, and you'd be hard pressed to find a director working today who could pull off half the amazing shots in this film. Visually TOUCH OF EVIL would be innovating if it had been made today, and many of the filmic elements we take for granted had their roots in this film.

The most obvious change in the recut version is the famous 3 minute opening tracking shot (the subject of the opening scene in THE PLAYER). In the old version, Universal used this shot as a title sequence, destroying the suspense and obscuring the amazing camera work. The re-cut removes the titles, so that you can see everything clearly. This amazing shot opens with an assassin setting a bomb timer for 3 minutes. The assassin spots the victim, then races to the victim's car and plants the bomb in the trunk, darting into the shadows just as the victim turns the corner. Then the camera pulls to a high overhead as the victim drives away. The camera follows overhead as the victim drives through town, lowering to street level as the victim waits for a couple (Heston & Leigh) to cross the street. Suspense builds as Heston & Leigh walk on the street next to the car with the ticking bomb. At the border checkpoint, both Heston & Leigh and the car with the bomb are stopped for the usual round of boring questions. Tick. Tick. Tick. Heston & Leigh are allowed through the border at the same time as the car. It's when Heston & Leigh stop to kiss that the car zooms away... and explodes into the sky. ALL of this is done in one continuous shot.

Like nothing you have ever seen before.

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Another amazing shot you may miss if you aren't watching carefully. It's so effortless, so smooth, you don't even realize you're watching one of the most difficult shots ever put on film. At the shoe clerk's apartment, there is a LONG continuous shot (X minutes) where the camera moves from room to room following Heston. In order to do this shot, the apartment set was built with break away walls and furniture on wheels. The camera glides through the apartment effortlessly, through a team of police investigators, into the bedroom, into a minuscule bathroom where Heston washes his face, then retraces its steps back to the living room through the crowd of investors to the front door of the building. More complicated than the long takes in Hitchcock's ROPE because of the break away walls, moving furniture, and sheer number of actors the camera must jockey around while maintaining a smooth glide.

Every frame of the film is meticulously composed by Welles and his DP Russell Metty (the camera operator was Philip Lathrop, who would go on to do amazing DP work himself in films like POINT BLANK). Giant shadows on buildings chase characters through the street. Deep focus makes hunter and prey clearly visible in the same shot, even though they are hundreds of feet away from each other. Characters are shown in shadow, from low angles, often with the neon from honky-tonk bar signs strobing across their faces. A scene in a file room using deep focus to underscore the amazing composition obtained when certain file drawers in the room have been pulled out, turning the shot into a fascinating visual puzzle.

One shot you may not notice is the conversation between Heston and an American District Attorney in a car moving through the back alleys of town at 60 mph. At the time this shot would normally have been done as rear projection, but Welles mounts the camera on the car and has Heston drive like a mad man. No stunt double. That's Charlton tearing through town, zipping through intersections without even slowing down.

Though the rec-cut version is a vast improvement over the studio's 96 minute trimmed down version, the problems with TOUCH OF EVIL remain the same. The parallel plots seem unfocused, Leigh's kidnapping taking away much of the power of Heston trying to bring down Welles' corrupt chief detective. The plotting is light: we are given little in the way of actual investigation into the frame ups, Heston just goes into a file room and comes out with evidence. Lastly, there's Heston's performance as a Mexican District Attorney: he's laughably unbelievable.

But the amazing work by Welles as an actor (fat, ugly, sad), Joseph Calleia as his second in command (not wanting to believe that "the cop who taught him everything" might be a monster), Valentin De Vargas as the handsome gang member who organizes the gang-bang, Dennis Weaver as the whacked out motel night man who can't think of woman and bed at the same time without getting flustered, and Akim Tamiroff as the crime lord with the bad toupee make this film memorable.

The rocking score by Henry Mancini uses Afro-Cuban rhythms and seems as modern as the theme Mancini would write for PETER GUNN the following year. And the pianola music that plays in Marlene Dietrich's whore house sticks in your mind for days. Dietrich, as the madam who was Welles' lover twenty years and sixty pounds ago gets all of the great lines:

"You're a mess, honey. You ought to lay off those candy bars."

Welles amazing direction and Mewtty's crisp, styling camera work are more modern, more innovative, than anything you will see today. After forty years, TOUCH OF EVIL is more powerful than ever.

...FADE OUT

PURE EVIL - my article on the restoration.

My Gary Graver (Welles DP) Obit


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