Touch of Evil
1958, PG-13, 113 min. Directed by Orson Welles. Starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joanna Moore, Marlene Dietrich, Dennis Weaver, Mercedes McCambridge, Zsa Zsa Gabor.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 16, 1998
Forty years old and still as wonderfully vile as ever, this newly re-edited version (based on a recently unearthed 58-page memo from Welles himself) of the great director's masterpiece of bad juju is as close as we're ever going to get concerning what Welles actually had in mind. And what he had in mind was trouble, the dislocated, transient trouble-fear of nightmares and dreamscapes, in which the sane and rational are spun upside down and away while the outré and surreal take over and nothing makes much sense anymore. Loosely based on Whit Masterson's pulp novel Badge of Evil, the film follows honeymooning Mexican D.A. Mike Vargas (Heston) and his Anglo wife Susan (Leigh) as they run afoul of the hulking, amoral gringo cop Hank Quinlan (Welles) who is searching out the truth about a lurid double-homicide in a seedy, El Norte border town (certainly one of the strangest surprises for modern audiences is the fact that this run-down, barren helltown is actually Venice Beach, California, long before gentrification caught up and revitalized that beachfront community). After wrapping the film in 1957, Welles hightailed it down to Mexico to begin work on Don Quixote and left the editing of Touch of Evil to Universal. Bad idea. The studio ended up patching the film together as they saw fit, unable or unwilling to deal with the fact that what was supposed to be a solid little B-picture had, under Welles' firm hand, become a full-fledged art film, operating on so many different levels that the studio gang didn't know what to do with it. This new edit restores Welles' original vision -- beginning with the classic, three-minute opening tracking shot in which a bomb is surreptitiously placed in the trunk of a meandering sedan (gone is Henry Mancini's brassy, bongo-happy score, replaced as per Welles' instructions with ambient street sounds and chattering extras), and including the restoration of previously specified continuity edits that, while they may not make the film any easier to follow, definitely make it harder to forget. It's more or less universally agreed that Heston was miscast, and while his Latinified skin tone may be disagreeable -- even offensive -- to the modern eye, I'd argue that his staccato, vaguely Hispanic delivery adds yet another layer of the bizarre to an already freakish production. Likewise Welles, who donned a prosthetic nosepiece, padded out his already-blossoming girth (he was 43 at the time), and went through his lines as though with a mouthful of dead kittens -- his Hank Quinlan is an excruciating, sublime portrait of burning-from-the-inside decay, a hulking figure that smacks of the worst of the human id. It's not Welles' best film -- you know what that is -- but it may turn out to be his most important in the way it has influenced (and continues to influence) everything from the ongoing film noir resurgence to bad dreams everywhere. As fortune teller Tanya (Dietrich) tells Quinlan, “Your future's all used up” -- a line that would appear to fit Welles as succinctly as it does his character. That's a mistake, though: To judge from this re-edit, Welles' future is more vital than ever.