Review: Welles' genius reconstructed in 'Touch of Evil'
Web posted on: Wednesday, September 23, 1998 1:30:18 PM
From Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- The variety of ways that Orson Welles' genius was tampered with by the Hollywood movie-making system has become the stuff of legend over the years. There's no denying that he got royally screwed a couple of times (most notably with the mutilation of one of his masterpieces, "The Magnificent Ambersons"), but I've often felt that Welles, deep down inside, was to some degree pleased to be playing the put-upon Christ figure.
Like Francis Coppola would years later, Welles periodically displayed a casual tendency towards self-destruction. He would struggle like crazy to make a movie, then blindly hop a plane out of town to work on another film during post-production, or neglect to make sure that his editing suggestions were followed to the letter when he wasn't around. That was certainly the case with "Touch of Evil," a shadowy story of police corruption on the Mexican border that would turn out to be the last picture he was ever allowed to direct for a studio.
Though the movie was received with stifled yawns in America during its original release in 1958, the taste-makers of the French New Wave hailed it as one of the greatest pieces of film noir that anyone had ever created. Over the years, "Touch of Evil"'s reputation has grown considerably; you often see it turning up on critics' lists of the best movies of all time. The movie has always had its weaknesses, but, by now, you're considered a heretic if you dare to mention them.
Too bad it's never been the film that Welles intended for us to see. His attachment as director had been tenuous from the start. Universal Pictures had originally hired him only as an actor, but let him take the helm at the insistence of the movie's star, Charlton Heston. (Back then, when "Ben Hur" talked, people listened. Even if he wasn't carrying a gun.) Welles played the game at first, shooting scenes at an escalated pace in the early going when he knew the bigwigs from the studio were keeping an eye on him. Then, when the heat let up, he proceeded to construct a technically dazzling film.
The legendary opening shot alone -- an unbroken three-minute-long take that travels across and above several city blocks as it introduces the setting and the story's main characters -- is enough to mark the film with greatness. Welles went a lot further than that, though. Then his original cut was picked apart when he wasn't looking. He left to work on his long-planned version of "Don Quixote" (a movie that, quite fittingly, he never completed) while the suits at the studio blew their lids over "Touch of Evil"'s supposed problems.
58-page memo revisited
Welles' brilliantly innovative soundtrack -- which relied solely on source music, such as transistor radios and cheap barroom speakers, rather than a traditional score -- was replaced with a self-consciously tawdry Henry Mancini rumba. Another director shot a few close-ups and inserts for "clarification" purposes, and several scenes were re-edited into more overtly linear forms; the studio was afraid that Welles' cross-cutting would lose the audience. Even the soon-to-be historic three-minute shot was altered with the insertion of superimposed credits and Mancini's music, elements that Welles clearly never envisioned as part of the film's opening.
Shortly after seeing the hacked-up version of "Touch of Evil," Welles wrote a thoughtful, 58-page memo to the executives at the studio, making suggestions as to how they could correct the confusion that they now had on their hands. In a move that stands as one of the crowning achievements of the commercial film industry's rampant stupidity (1950s division), the memo was then completely ignored.
Until now, that is.
Producer Rick Schmidlin and the ingenious editor/sound mixer Walter Murch have followed Welles' memo to the letter, painstakingly re-cutting scenes and re-mixing sound to bring forth a "Touch of Evil" that plays a whole lot better than the one everybody's been yodeling about for the past 40 years ... although it still retains the absurd plot mechanics that I'm not supposed to mention for fear of being stoned by an enraged hoard of NYU film students. Seeing it via a new print on the big screen, the movie is an awe-inspiring piece of filmmaking. But there's always that script ...
Tale of two cops
It really doesn't matter what's going on in the long run, but Welles stars as Hank Quinlan, an obese, booze- and candy-ravaged detective who's developed a reputation for an uncanny sense of "intuition" when it comes to solving crimes. As the film opens (again, dig that first shot) we see Mike Vargas (played by Heston) walking across the border between Mexico and the United States with his new bride in tow (Janet Leigh, playing a character who could charitably be called an idiot). Chuck's playing a Mexican cop; you can tell he's Mexican because somebody's rubbed a skin-darkening bottle of Max Factor all over his face. What did you expect -- an accent?!
Suddenly, a car blows up, and there are cops everywhere; Heston shoos Leigh away, and gets down to business. His business is cut short, however, when Welles shows up. The Quinlan character, as I've said, is supposed to be a legend amongst police officers in these parts. I imagine he would be, when you consider how blind everyone in the story is to his obviously underhanded deductive shenanigans.
Hank's been setting people up for years, planting evidence that can then be conveniently found by his sidekick (Joseph Calleia, in an unexpectedly touching performance). Quinlan -- and everyone else -- chalks this up to his unfailing intuition. His ploys are blatant enough to be amusing at first, but they eventually get on my nerves. And his butt must be chapped from all the kissing it receives.
Part of Murch's restored cross-cutting deals with Leigh's adventures after she leaves the scene of the crime. Quinlan starts to worry that Vargas is onto him, so he enlists the aid of a Mexican gang leader (humorously, though sometimes offensively, played by Akim Tamiroff) to distract him. They do this by shuttling Leigh off to a lonely hotel to ... um ... I've seen the movie six or seven times over the years, and I can't tell you for sure what they're trying to do to Leigh. They're obviously terrorizing her, but it's a lackadaisical form of terror if ever I've seen one.
Huge chunks of Leigh's screen time consist of shadowy figures shining flashlights in her eyes while she stands there in her pointy bra, or getting a headache while the bad guys play crummy rock music over the speakers in her hotel room. She combats this annoying barrage by putting on a frilly nightgown and rolling around on the bed like she's got a tummy ache. Eventually the toughs pump her full of drugs in order to besmirch the Vargas name, but let me tell you, it's a whole lot less than frightening.
Plot not improved
Again, I know I'm gonna get in trouble for this, but a lot of the movie plain old annoys me. Dennis Weaver plays the sexually horrified proprietor of the hotel as if he's having a premonition of "The Beverly Hillbillies," hee-hawing around like Pa Kettle on crystal meth. His scenes with Leigh are the worst in the movie by far, so bad that it's a shock when Marlene Dietrich (playing a gypsy-garbed bordello operator) shows up and shares a couple of tender, wryly funny scenes with Welles.
There are bravura sequences throughout (including an 11-minute investigative scene that takes place in two rooms crawling with people), but aside from the Welles/Dietrich moments, the interplay between the characters mostly seems phony and too over-the-top for comfort.
The phoniness is well worth putting up with, though. Any movie fan interested in visual storytelling (or the underutilized power of crafty sound work) can sit back and enjoy this, even if some of the nuttier aspects of the story don't wash. The movie is dripping with inspiration, the kind that only Welles could have provided. It may not be "Citizen Kane" (or "The Magnificent Ambersons" or "Chimes at Midnight"), but it's all Orson Welles. At long last, it's all Orson Welles.
"Touch of Evil" is loaded with stylistic flash; it's sleazy, but in a very jokey manner. No bad language, aside from Weaver and Leigh's noodle-brained dialogue. Leigh's character is injected with drugs, but it happens way off-camera. Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Russell Metty. Not rated, though PG would probably cover it. 111 minutes.
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