"Touch of Evil," 1958, marked writer-director-star Orson Welles's farewell to Hollywood, his final film made in Tinseltown. It's a movie of obvious brilliance, originality, and innovation, yet one that will both inspire and frustrate an equal number of viewers. Like Welles's previous masterpieces, "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons," it was not without controversy. Now, you can see for yourself what all the fuss was about in this restored version from Universal.
It is, above all, a quintessential film noir; perhaps more like film noir with a vengeance. "Touch of Evil" is all dark streets, dark alleys, dark rooms, dark angles, dark humor, and dark motives. It was so dark, in fact, and Welles had injected so many of his personal stylistic eccentricities into it, that its backer, Universal Studios, had serious doubts about its release. Take the famous opening shot, for instance. The camera pans along a street introducing settings and characters to us in a single, sweeping, uninterrupted, three-and-a-half-minute montage. All the while, the elevated camera is following a car with a bomb in its trunk! It's masterful. Look and admire the photography everywhere.
Like Kubrick after him, Welles was in love with the purely pictorial aspects of filmmaking, framing each shot like an abstract painter. The picture is in black-and-white, of course. Welles would have it no other way, and his play of light and shadow, his depth of image in contrasting light and dark tones, is nothing short of amazing. Then there is the director's well-known use of overlapping dialogue that sometimes bothers listeners but conveys a sense of realism unknown to most other movies. Finally, and among other things, there are the bizarre and unusual characters Welles introduces, from the solidly good to the solidly bad to the solidly weird. No, the studio wouldn't go for it. So what they did was shoot some new scenes, reedit the whole thing, the sound especially, and release it as the second feature on a double bill. In other words, they wrote it off.
Orson Welles and Charlton Heston star, but it's really Welles's story from beginning to end. Welles plays Captain Hank Quinlan, ostensibly a highly respected policeman in a Mexican-American border town. He is, however, highly corrupt, and as the story proceeds he gets more corrupt by the minute. One can hardly recognize Welles under a putty nose, a ton of makeup, an affected limp, and added padding. As Quinlan, Welles is supposed to be a man who once had high ideals but lost them somewhere along the way while trying to distinguish himself as a lawman. One of the film's characters aptly describes him as "a great detective but a lousy cop." When he thinks he's right about a suspect, Quinlan finds it more convenient to manufacture evidence than to uncover real facts; his physical deterioration in the film reflects his moral disintegration. But even more frightening is the fact that Welles himself was declining as a filmmaker, and his own extra weight is frightening to behold. So the movie may be an appropriate Swan Song for a man once known as the darling boy or the "enfant terrible" of Hollywood, depending on one's point of view. Overall, Welles puts in a brilliant performance and would know few such accomplishments again.
Welles's costar, Charlton Heston, was fresh from playing heroic figures in movies like "The Greatest Show on Earth," "The Ten Commandments," and "The Big Country." Here he plays another heroic character, Miguel "Mike" Vargas, a Mexican narcotics officer who is traveling through town on honeymoon with his new bride, Susan, played by a plucky Janet Leigh. Unlike Quinlan, Vargas is incorruptible, the epitome of goodness and virture. In spite of Heston's successes in future blockbusters like "Ben Hur," "El Cid," and "Planet of the Apes," he would never deliver a finer performance than in "Touch of Evil." He is human, likable, and vulnerable for a change. His figurative proportions are no longer godlike, but mortal, and he is all the better for it.
Then there is the supporting cast, as peculiar a collection of individuals as you'll find. Joseph Calleia plays Quinlan's longtime partner, an honest cop named Pete Menzies. He may be honest, but apparently he is incredibly naive, too; his disillusionment and sorrow at discovering after all these years that his boss is a crook comes as a major turning point in the film. Akim Tamiroff plays a local hoodlum kingpin, "Uncle Joe" Grandi, whose crime family Quinlan allows to operate in town in exchange for certain implied favors. Uncle Joe--short, round, and bald--is just as inept a criminal as his appearance would dictate. The most intriguing character in the film, however, is the slowwitted night clerk at a nearby motel where much of the story's action unfolds. He's played by Dennis Weaver in an exaggerated mixture of the amusing and the ludicrous. It isn't clear whether Welles intended this character as comedy relief or not; he may either delight you with his over-the-top Norman Bates routine (Bates would actually come later, but Weaver's night man will remind you of him, in any case) or put you off the film entirely. In addition, look for cameos by Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joseph Cotton, Mercedes McCambridge, and Ray Collins.
The plot of the movie is really incidental to the character exposition, but in the event you need some sketchy information on the sketchy story line, it's about the murder of a rich contractor and his girlfriend. Vargas is in town when it happens, witnesses the explosion that kills the pair, and hangs around to lend a hand as Quinlan investigates the crime. Before long, Vargas comes to realize that Quinlan is not above bending the law to get his way. When Vargas tries to interfere and prove that the idol of the police force is a fraud, Quinlan comes after him by attempting to frame him and his wife on drug and murder charges. Welles adapted the script from the novel "Badge of Evil" by Whit Masterson. The musical score is provided by Henry Mancini.
Anyway, as I said, when Universal brass looked at Welles's creation, they balked. Here's the way the current film is introduced: "In 1957, Orson Welles completed principal photography on 'Touch of Evil' and edited the first cut. Upon screening the film, the Studio felt it could be improved, shot additional scenes and reedited it. Welles viewed this new version and within hours wrote a passionate 58-page memo requesting editorial changes. This version represents an attempt to honor those requests and make 'Touch of Evil' the film Orson Welles envisioned it to be." Most of the changes appear at the beginning of the film; the opening credits are removed from the long opening shot, Welles's original idea for the music of the various bars is reinstated, and a whole lot of minor cuts and bridges are restored. I wish I could tell you that the result is an unqualified improvement, but I cannot for two reasons. First, it's been years since I saw the old version, and I can't remember it well enough to notice many of the changes. Second, the opening half of the film in its present, restored state seems more manic to me than I remember, more hyperactive, the characters' odd behavior and curious speech patterns a little nerve wracking. The second half seems the same as I remember, though, with the player piano as melancholy and nostalgic as ever (Welles must have recalled the effectiveness of the zither in "The Third Man"), and the bridge scene as suspenseful, sad, and moving as before.
Universal Studios Restoration Services present the newly reconstructed copy in something approaching its original widescreen size, here rendered on DVD in a 1.74:1 ratio. The picture quality is quite good for an older film, with nothing unusual in the way of digital artifacts or age deterioration. It is a clear, if not sparkling clean, transfer, the blacks perhaps not quite so dark as they might be in relation to the surrounding lighter areas.
The audio is not as impressive, though. Much is made in the movie's attendant notes about the restoration of the sound, but I wish the restoration team had given some consideration to home viewers. The monaural sonics are rough, hard, harsh, metallic, and edgy, accompanied by a small degree of background noise. It may have been what Welles intended, but it is decidedly not what most of us might enjoy.
In addition to the film, the disc offers the complete text of Welles's memo to Universal, all fifty-eight pages; plus cast and filmmaker bios, production notes, recommendations for other Universal DVDs, a meager eighteen scene selections, and a full-frame theatrical trailer. English, French, and Spanish are offered as spoken language and subtitle options.
Is it "Touch of Genius" or "Touch of Madness"? My wife left the room, tired, about thirty minutes in, saying the film was "silly." Maybe "Touch of Evil" is as much about moviemaking as it is about storytelling. You be the judge. I see it as a flawed gem, one that was rejected in its own country but won the International Prize at the Brussels' World's Fair in 1958. The movie would go on to be studied by film students for generations and influence the way films are made forever. Today, audiences may continue to find Welles's characters, dialogue, and photography too unconventional for their taste, which is perhaps the mark of a great work of art--that it is still able to move people one way or another after all these years.