Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia, Ray Collins, Dennis Weaver, Joseph Cotten
Written by: Orson Welles, based on a novel by Whit Masterson
Directed by: Orson Welles
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 111
Date: 04/23/1958
IMDB

Touch of Evil (1958)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Some Kind of a Man

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Touch of Evil, which was written and directed by, and stars Orson Welles, has been slowly gaining a following over the years. Now Universal has decided that the time is right for a re-release. But this is no ordinary re-release. The Bay Area's own Walter Murch (Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now and The English Patient) has re-edited the movie into the version Welles had envisioned. It's one of the truly great works of the American cinema, and it shows just what kind of excellence movies are capable of.

I've seen Touch of Evil upwards of 5 or 6 times, and the new changes were imperceptible to me, save for the famous 3-minute opening shot. The old version had loud music and titles blasting over the opening images. The new version has softer music and no more distracting titles, so you can see the action clearly. The shot starts with a close-up of a bomb. A mysterious figure places it in the trunk of a car. A man and a woman get in the car and begin to maneuver the busy streets of a Mexican border town. A cop stops the car, and lets Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife, Susie Vargas (Janet Leigh) across the street in front of the car. Then the Vargas' and the deadly car leapfrog each other down the street, building an eerie suspense that I never noticed before. The shot was always too subtle to have titles running over it. Now it works.

I always had trouble following the rest of the movie. In 1958, Welles saw the pre-release cut just once, and made the notes for changes on paper. Where we had to work so hard to see the movie's greatness before, it's much more involving now, and its themes come across more clearly.

The plot comes from a dime novel by Whit Masterson called Badge of Evil. Welles changed it around such that it explores the nature of (and blurs the lines of) loyalty, justice, law, trust, and -- Welles' favorite theme -- age. The movie is still a crackerjack pulp thriller, but the technical excellence and intelligence behind it bring it to the next level -- it succeeds even more than it tries.

The first image of the car bomb is integral to the story because it's planted in Mexico, and goes off in America, which could create an international incident. On the American side, Hank Quinlan (Welles in heavy makeup) a fat, recovering alcoholic police inspector with a game leg, takes the case. Vargas, who was nearby, begins to investigate from the Mexican viewpoint, even though he is on his honeymoon. Quinlan quickly locates a suspect, a young Mexican named Sanchez, who was in love with the daughter of the dead man. He plants dynamite in Sanchez' apartment and hauls him in. Vargas becomes sure that Quinlan is a dirty cop and sets out to uncover him. But meanwhile, Quinlan and the Grande family, a crime ring that operates on both sides of the border, attempt to frame Susie for drug use and murder. Vargas triumphs, but the climax is a bittersweet one, fraught with unanswered questions and sadness.

According to legend, Universal had hired Welles to play Quinlan, and then tried to get Heston for Vargas. Heston, who had just been in The Ten Commandments, asked who was directing, and Universal told him no one just yet, but they had Welles as an actor. Heston told them that he would do it if Welles directed. So Universal called Welles and asked him to direct but Welles agreed only if he could also re-write the script. and a great film was born.

Touch of Evil was supposed to be Welles' triumphant return to Hollywood, part of a five-picture deal with Universal. (Ultimately, Welles never directed another Hollywood-backed movie again.) Universal was terrified of the film Welles came up with, and shut the door in his face. They cut the film up and released it quietly, to mixed reviews and little fanfare. It's been "restored" several times since.

Now, thanks to Murch, we have Touch of Evil for the first time as it was intended. The sound and picture have been restored so that I could really see the rich set design of the Mexican-American border towns for the first time. Most directors would have been content to just plunk the camera down and photograph the pretty backgrounds, but Welles' camera moves through them like a crocodile, weaving in and around pillars, or lurking in the corner; watching for long minutes at a time. Welles does this just about better than anyone else. Besides the famous opening, there are many long shots in this movie, but Welles keeps the action moving within the frame in such a way that you don't notice most of them. (The cinematographer for Touch of Evil was Russell Metty, who had also shot The Stranger for Welles in 1946.)

It's not just the camerawork that is amazing in Welles' movies. He is a master of the entire medium; all the way down to directing actors. Heston may seem silly cast as a Mexican cop, but his performance is restrained, anxious, and proud -- possibly his best performance ever. Leigh is sweet, fiery, and patient. And Welles himself gives one of his great performances as Quinlan. The movie also stars Marlene Dietrich -- brilliant in a small role, Dennis Weaver -- very funny and bizarre as a hotel worker, Zsa Zsa Gabor in a sexy cameo, Mercedes McCambridge -- frightening in one scene ("lemme stay -- I wanna watch"), and the great Joseph Cotten (also in Citizen Kane) in an unbilled cameo.

The music, by Henry Mancini, is not an orchestral score. It's sort of an afro-latin rock beat that is not on the soundtrack, but hovers above and within the movie, coming out of radios and loudspeakers in the rooms and streets. It sounds realistically bad, and adds to the tension and grittiness.

These elements contribute to the general feel of the film, which is really like no other film ever made. Audiences in the 50's and 60's were probably frightened and confused by Touch of Evil, which, like all Welles films, was years ahead of its time. It's an oddly quiet and sleepy, yet sinister movie. It keeps you in a haze, then wakes you up suddenly when it feels like it. No one else came close to filmmaking like this, not even the master, Alfred Hitchcock, whose intensely psychological Vertigo came out the same year. While Vertigo may reach deeper into its creator's psyche, Touch of Evil hypnotizes you in ways that Hitchcock couldn't have imagined.

If Citizen Kane isn't enough, Touch of Evil stands alongside it as a true testament to just how brilliant Welles really was, and what a terrible, terrible waste it was that Hollywood couldn't... and wouldn't understand him.

DVD Details: Universal's spectacular, essential 2008 DVD release features all three release cuts of Welles' classic. First is Walter Murch's 1998 restoration, which I like best. Then we get the 108-minute cut, which was discovered in the Universal vaults in 1976. And finally, we get the 95-minute, bastardized version, which is what audiences in 1958 saw in drive-ins across the country. Each cut has at least one commentary track. Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh participate in one, and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum provides one for the 1976 cut. There are two featurettes, about the making of the film, and then its subsequent editing and distribution history. Finally, the set comes with a page-for-page miniature reprint of Welles' memo to Universal. Some purists have complained that the three transfers should not have been mastered in 1:1.85 widescreen, but it's my belief that this is the correct aspect ratio.