"TOUCH OF EVIL"|
113 minutes | Rated: PG-13
Opened: Friday, September 18, 1998
Written & directed by Orson Welles
Starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Maarlene Dietrich, Ray Collins & Dennis Weaver
Restored by Rick Schmidlin & Walter Murch
This film is on the Best of 1998 list.
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 25%|
LETTERBOX: IT WOULD HELP
This is the version restored to Orson Welles' original specs. You owe it to him to try to find it in wide-screen format so you get the full experience. But either way, one of the all-time classic noir movies.
VIDEO RELEASE: 6/29/99
Welles' B-movie masterpiece restored to the way he wanted it
"Touch of Evil" is arguably the best B-grade movie ever made. Orson Welles' deliberately cheapened, bawdy tale of the drug trade and police corruption in a seedy Mexican-American border town is a film noir pressure-cooker, overflowing with tension, fear and deception.
Although it has long been considered a masterpiece (and it is!), the film that came out in 1958 was not the film Welles turned in to Universal Pictures when he finished filming.
Studio officials were nervous about its dark edges and sexual subtext and concerned over the film's non-linear editing -- a technique that, while standard practice today, was considered confusing at the time.
After Welles' left for Mexico to film "Don Quixote," Universal brought in director Harry Keller to shoot new scenes and the film was re-cut so various sub-plots that were simultaneous ran consecutively instead.
A furious Welles fired off a 58-page memo to the studio recommending changes. It was roundly ignored.
In subsequent years three other edits have been released, but the version of the film in theaters this September was restored (by producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch) using that recently discovered memo as a guide, and the difference it makes is evident from the film's very first moments.
"Touch of Evil" opens with a crane tracking shot that follows the car with a bomb in the trunk as it stops and starts through the border town traffic, coincidentally leapfrogging with a pair of pedestrians -- the movie's hero, a Mexican narcotics cop played by Charleton Heston, and his new wife (Janet Leigh).
The scene, always tense but previously diluted by a soundtrack and opening credits that distracted from the danger, now, unadulterated, invokes a tension that freezes the audience in its seats. Until the car explodes -- setting off the murder investigation at the center of the film -- nobody even breathes.
That tension never quite goes away as Heston gets underfoot in the American homicide probe, becoming obsessed with exposing the corruption of the local police chief (Welles himself), and facing down a crime lord, who has Leigh kidnapped, drugged, raped and framed for a killing as revenge for Heston's arrest of his family members.
This is Heston's most natural performance, if not his best. Confident but never comfortable working with (and against) his American counterparts, he subtly portrays a concealed anxiety knowing he's at the mercy of a crooked cop.
Welles' performance is anything but subtle -- his evidence-planting chief is sweaty, menacing, cantankerous, bitter, deliberately repulsive and very overweight.
Layered, gritty and strongly cinematic, his vision as a director, especially in this unspoiled and much more coherent new print, is brilliantly forceful. He frequently uses long uninterrupted takes (a 10 minute interrogation scene uses a single camera, but the action is so engrossing you wouldn't notice unless you're looking for it), and employs sharp shadows, low camera angles and other calling cards noir filmmaking to particularly unnerving effect.
The best example of this unnerving is Leigh's rape, which is only implied, but under Welles' direction it is all the more disturbing because we don't really know what happens to her.
His expert hand also ads irony and mystery to creepy scenes with Marlene Dietrich, as a madam who years before had been Welles' lover, and Dennis Weaver, as the lunatic desk clerk a dusty road site motel where Leigh is victimized (ironically foreshadowing one of her next roles, in "Psycho.")
As much as "Citizen Kane," Welles slightly more famous masterpiece, "Touch of Evil" is great, great movie making.