Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene The Greater of Two Evils

The restored "Touch of Evil" is simply stunning

By Jim Ridley

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  Orson Welles suffered from the career equivalent of progenia, the disease that prematurely accelerates the aging process. As a two-year-old in Kenosha, Wisc., he was pronounced a genius. At age 16, he was drawing ovations in adult roles at Dublin's Gate Theater. By the time Welles made Citizen Kane 10 years later in 1941, he had already achieved renown as a stage actor, a director, the founder of a theater company, and a radio star. Yet each new triumph only seemed to bring greater risks--of failure, of disappointment. Radio was considered a lesser medium than theater, the site of Welles' early successes, and movies were regarded as essentially flashy and shallow. It's telling that when Welles made his film debut, as a young man of 26, he was already playing a fallen giant whose greatest years lay behind him.

Far too early in a brilliant career, Kane became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Welles' subsequent films were butchered (The Magnificent Ambersons), panned (The Lady from Shanghai), or hampered by lack of financing (Othello); he left a legacy of unproduced scripts and unfinished projects. By the late 1950s, Welles couldn't get funding for his own infrequent films outside Europe; in Hollywood he could only get work as an actor, mostly in glorified cameos, a seasoning in other director's stews. Yet in 1957, when Charlton Heston was offered a role opposite Welles in a low-budget thriller for Universal, he accepted on the condition Welles be allowed to direct.

The resulting film, Touch of Evil, was taken out of the director's hands in the editing room, after Universal execs took a sneak peek at his footage and panicked. In place of the socko B-movie they'd commissioned, they found a baroque, expressionistic miasma of tilted angles and bleeding neon and unrelenting tawdriness. (The tawdriness wasn't the problem--the producer, Albert Zugsmith, followed up Touch of Evil with passion-pit fodder like Sex Kittens Go to College.) Several heated exchanges ensued. Welles, somewhat self-destructively, distanced himself from the film's editing, and a new director, Harry Keller, was brought in to shoot four "clarifying" scenes.

The day after seeing the studio's finished cut in 1958, Welles dashed off a 58-page memo to Universal studio chief Ed Muhl. The memo addressed aspects ranging from the movie's sound design to its narrative structure; it proposed some 50 changes in Universal's edit. "I am passing on to you a reaction based not on my conviction as to what my picture ought to be," Welles reasoned, "but only what here strikes me as significantly mistaken in your picture." Instead, the studio hacked an additional 15 minutes from the film after bad test screenings; it wound up literally the B picture on a double bill with Keller's Female Animal, starring Hedy Lamarr. Welles claimed never to have seen his movie again.

This year, a team led by film editor and sound wizard Walter Murch set about reediting Touch of Evil according to the specifications in Welles' memo. There's no restored footage: no outtakes could be found. Most of the changes are so subtle that if you watch the two editions side by side, you'll have a hard time finding the individual trims, shifts, and remixes. And yet they have an undeniable cumulative effect. If you haven't seen this lurid jewel in recent years, you'll be surprised by the new edition's texture, narrative force, and suspense.

Touch of Evil's origins are as disreputable as the inhabitants of its grubby locale, Los Robles, the proverbial border town where human life is cheap. According to David Thomson's biography Rosebud, Welles adapted (and kept pieces of) an existing Paul Monash script, which was taken from a Whit Masterson penny dreadful called Badge of Evil. Welles didn't even try to disguise the movie's genesis as hard-boiled drugstore-paperback pulp; if anything, he enhanced it. From the justly celebrated opening--which ticks off, in one unbroken shot, the minutes leading to a fatal car-bombing--Touch of Evil immerses us in extravagant degradation, a hothouse of Latin jazz and sweaty shadows and windows that open onto darkness.

Welles deliberately played up the sleaziness of the locale, the better to measure the fall of his detective villain, Hank Quinlan. In theory, Quinlan isn't the intended focus of the movie: the purported heroes are Mexican narcotics cop Mike Vargas (Heston, playing the unlikeliest Latino since Robby Benson in Walk Proud) and his new bride Susie (Janet Leigh). It's their honeymoon that is shattered by the bombing, which separates the couple; it's their unwanted arrival that sets in motion the plot's skittering trajectory.

But it's Quinlan who dominates the film from the moment he enters, filling the frame like a fleshy balloon. Quinlan is Welles' worst vision of himself: a kind of reverse vanity may have prompted Welles, though already large, to assume rubbery jowls and pounds of padding. But the corrupt, once idealistic lawman is right in keeping with the fallen Charles Foster Kane and the tragic heroes of Welles' Shakespeare adaptations. Welles, after all, chose to play Othello on film, not Hamlet; he played Falstaff, the broken-hearted old wit consigned to insignificance, not bonny Prince Hal.

We're told Hank Quinlan was a great detective once; now he's stuck in seedy nowheresville, fat and sloppy drunk, planting evidence to convict men whose guilt he already knows. His scenes with Marlene Dietrich's fortune-telling madam, Tana, his former lover, are suffused with a resigned self-loathing that grows sadder every time you see the movie. "Wish I'd gotten fat off your chili," he mumbles, taking a joyless, mulish chomp out of his ever-present candy bar.

In the restored version, Murch's editing more evenly crosscuts the scenes of Vargas' investigation and of Susie's siege at an isolated motel, one of the creepiest set pieces in movie history. (Leigh always had lousy luck with room service.) By doing so, though, Murch leaves Quinlan to become the movie's center. Thus, the love story that resonates in the new version isn't between Mike and Susie; it's between Quinlan and his loyal sidekick Menzies (Joseph Calleia), the one man who knows his past greatness--and who ultimately betrays him.

Even in its studio-tampered form, Touch of Evil is remarkable, and some viewers might even miss its drugged, somnambular quality. The most stunning differences, however, are in the opening sequence and the sound design. The re-editing team removed the titles Universal plastered over the astonishing first shot, which starts off with a close-up of a hand setting a time bomb--three minutes, 20 seconds--then wanders in real time through the streets of the town. Russell Metty's camera cranes around a building, then moseys past revelers to catch up with Mike and Susie. Suddenly, there's that damn car again with the bomb in the trunk. Check your watch--the couple inside has a minute to live. Bear in mind that everything in the extremely complicated shot has been timed to coincide with the camera's movement. Then watch it all end in flames.

Without the credits or Henry Mancini's admittedly cool samba-jazz theme, the town immediately comes to life as a locale, not a movie set--it has three-dimensional space as well as a wealth of incidental sounds. (Those sounds aren't accidental either--check out the way the doomed car's arrival is heralded by the song crackling on its radio.) The emphasis on space throughout is crucial to Welles' conception. Notice how many times the director has action take place on opposite sides of a window, or how often he crowds large people into small rooms in diagonal formations that indicate their relative significance at the moment. The town's twisted alleys and gnarled angles could be the corridors of Quinlan's mind: Vargas briefly loses his way in them, but Quinlan's the one who finally sinks into the quagmire. Then Dietrich has the last word--"Adios"--and the movie follows her into the shadows.

Welles went on to a career that was no doubt as frustrating for him as it was for his admirers. Without discriminating, he took bit parts in historical pageants and trashy spectacles and unworthy horror cheapies. He appeared on talk shows and spun outrageous lies about his life and work, as if he had to make up claims for fame. One of the saddest artifacts of Welles' later years is an oft-bootlegged outtake from a pea commercial, in which he harangues the director about the proper inflection and wording of the voiceover. What's sad isn't that someone of Welles' talent was reduced to such a task; what's sad is that he was right about each of his points. He had a showman's sense of what people want from a story and an artist's sense of how best to arrange it, and all too often we were denied the benefit of those gifts. The restored Touch of Evil clears away all the planted evidence; what's left is proof of greatness enough for any man.

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