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Orson Welles' 'Touch Of Evil' Is Recut As The Master Intended.

By Stacey Richter

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  ORSON WELLES' masterpiece, Touch of Evil, flopped when it was released in 1958, but it has since come to be considered one of the great films of all time. Film geeks in particular have a love for Welles' loud, trashy style--a garish sort of film noir--and have heralded Touch of Evil as a marvelous synthesis of high and low art where Shakespearean themes and rich imagery meet sleazy punks in leather jackets. A terrific new re-edited version of Touch of Evil returns it to the big screen in all of its glory, and restores it to the shape the director originally intended.

Welles was an anomalous figure in Hollywood, an Easterner prodigy with little finesse at playing the system. He was notoriously hard to work with and had legendary difficulties finishing projects, often losing interest during post-production. He'd often abandon one film for the next, or wander off to Mexico. Though he was heralded as a genius, no one in Hollywood seemed to much like him for it, and film studios seemed unaccountably pleased to mangle his efforts--including Touch of Evil, which was taken out of his hands during editing by Universal Studios' head Edward Muhl in 1957.

Welles responded to the studio's version by writing Muhl a 58-page memo setting forth his vision of the film in detail. Muhl ignored it. For years, what we have been seeing is Universal's corporate cut of Touch of Evil, which was believed to be more intelligible than Welles'. Apparently, Muhl was thrown by Welles' use of cross-cutting--switching back and forth between scenes of Vargas, a high-level Mexican policeman (Charlton Heston) and his bride Susan (Janet Leigh) as they each have sleazy misadventures on different sides of the U.S./Mexican border. Other significant changes were also made. A soundtrack by Henry Mancini and opening credits were added to the famous opening scene--a three-minute, 20-second uninterrupted crane shot--and some additional footage was added.

The new version was prepared according to specifications in Welles' memo by editor Walter Murch, along with Rick Schmidlin and film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, and at first glance, it isn't radically different from the old. The most prominent change is in the opening sequence, which, without Mancini's soundtrack, is an amazing collage of radio and street sounds that merge into one another as the camera zips along a street in a seedy border town. The shot begins with a hood slipping a bomb into the trunk of a car, tracking the car in a single uninterrupted take over the border. Walking beside the car is Vargas and his new American bride. They kiss, and the car explodes.

The freshly wed Mr. and Mrs. Vargas are separated for the rest of the movie. In the restored version, we jump back and forth between Leigh and Heston, as husband diligently investigates the explosion, while wife goes about being perkily victimized by thugs. Curiously, despite the objections of the studio in 1957, the film is more intelligible to a modern audience than the old version. The cross-cutting technique Welles advocated might have been daring once, but it's so common in films today that the technique is invisible. Though I wouldn't ever have called Touch of Evil boring, the re-edited version has a momentum the earlier version lacked.

If you haven't seen Touch of Evil a gazillion times, a lot of the changes are hard to spot, though they make their presence felt. What I noticed was how certain aspects of the story come forward in the new cut. Investigating the crime on the American side is the corrupt cop Hank Quinlan--a huge and gouty Welles, downing candy bars and wearing the largest raincoat I've ever seen--along with his fawning sidekick Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia). Menzies idolizes Quinlan, and now you can more clearly see his mounting disappointment as he realizes that his beloved idol is, well, evil. The strange, thwarted separation of the just-married Vargases is more apparent too, as scenes alternate between them. Mike Vargas spends his wedding night chasing thugs with a corrupt American policeman while Susan is raped by a gang of leather-clad teenagers hopped up on "mary jane," a drug they like to "mainline."

And all the original splendor of Touch of Evil looks even better in the restored print. The black-and-white photography is unforgettable, tottering on the edge of German Expressionism in its starkness. The story and acting are hard to beat, too. Welles visits his classic theme of the great man brought low, Lear-like, with an uncanny sense of corruption seeping from his every mumble. Heston is annoying, but the rest of the actors are great, walking the delicate line between big and over-the-top that makes Touch of Evil brassy without ever being cartoon-like. This is a film that shouldn't be missed.


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