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[whitespace] Touch of Evil
Touched By Evil: As the wife of upright police officer Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh gets caught in the moral crossfire in Welles' dark version of film noir.

Orson Welles' Touch of Evil returns in a version that finally resembles his original intentions

By Richard von Busack

THE RE-EDIT of Orson Welles' 1958 Touch of Evil is one of the biggest cinematic events of the year. But that isn't a surprise, is it? It's not as if editor Walter Murch and company had rebuilt the Parthenon. A new 35mm print of Touch of Evil was circulating this January, and the film looked marvelous then, even without the changes carefully applied from Welles' own notes.

The timing for the rerelease couldn't be better, though. This summer, Welles earned a richly deserved No. 1 spot on the American Film Institute top-100 list with his debut, the 1941 Citizen Kane. It was an ironic choice, too. The AFI was celebrating the American studio system--even claiming some very British films like Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago because of American financing.

At the top of the AFI pyramid is a film that defies the studio system, instead of defining it. One of the reasons Citizen Kane is unusual is that it so opposes the typical Hollywood movie. It's downbeat, it's dark, it doesn't "redeem" the wealthy hero but shows his tragedy to be caused by certain American qualities that no American likes to think about except at 3 in the morning.

In the wake of this remembrance of Welles, Touch of Evil returns. It's a thriller that packs all of the stunning artistic prowess of Citizen Kane into an easily accessible pulp-fiction frame. When Welles turned his hand to the film noir--those shadowy tales of urban crime, of cops as criminals and of criminals as antiheros--Welles made the best noir ever seen.

In 1956, Welles had been working overseas and raising money with his acting in American films. The director/actor/writer had been hired on as a villain for a border-town policier by low-budget producer Albert Zugsmith (High School Confidential). At the request of his co-star Charlton Heston, Welles was given the director's job. Welles rewrote the script and hired his friends for cameos. After the shooting, there were cuts, re-edits and reshooting by the studio. Welles protested but was overruled, and he never made a Hollywood movie again.

Recently, Welles scholar and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum discovered a long memo in which Welles asked the studio for changes to Touch of Evil. Using the memo as a blueprint, film editor Walter Murch (The Godfather and many more) re-assembled Touch of Evil into a form closer to Welles' wishes. This version doesn't contain new material; instead it reworks the existing material, changing the story from strict noir to noir-flavored tragedy.

Touch of Evil takes place in 24 hours, from dawn to dawn on the Mexican border. Welles stars as Capt. Hank Quinlan, the grossest, most corrupt policeman in all of film noir. He's unshaven and unbathed; he has circular scars around his eyes as if the pennies had already been pressed into them.

Personal tragedy haunts Quinlan. He's been on the wagon for 12 years; this is the day he will fall off. Passing through town is the important Mexican anti-drug agent Miguel "Mike" Vargas (Heston--miscast of course).

After witnessing the car-bombing of a bigwig, Vargas decides to interrupt his honeymoon with his new American bride, Susan (Janet Leigh). Mistake: Susan is kidnapped in retaliation for some earlier arrests Vargas made. The kidnappers are a drug-running family called the Grandis, led by Akim Tamiroff as Uncle Joe, a hideo-comic pipsqueak with china-doll eyes, a greasy mustache, and a wandering toupee.

Welles delights in the artificiality of his film, from masquerading himself as a buffalo-sized cop to disguising the skid-row of Venice Beach (a half-abandoned vernacular architectural folly in L.A., complete with canals) as Los Robles, the Latin Baghdad.

Marlene Dietrich's special brand of artifice lights the movie. She plays Tanya, an ex-lover of Quinlan's, a typical Dietrich man-eater, broken-down 30 years later. Tanya's supposed to be the proprietor of some sort of chili parlor/whore-free whorehouse.

THE NEW EDIT straightens out some of the elliptical places in the original. The titles have been removed from the justly famous opening shot. The camera tracks--all in one uninterrupted shot--a car laden with a ticking bomb, follows it through mazelike streets and then heads up into the air aboard a Chapman boom to give us a flying-carpet view of the lively, squalid border town of Los Robles.

With the obscuring titles out of the way, we not only see the mechanics of the amazing opening shot but also hear the ambient noise Welles called for to give dimensions to this tableau. (What's lost--and it's too bad--is Henry Mancini's ballsy baritone sax-laden title theme, though the well-known music is heard later, muted, during a murder sequence.)

The new order of scenes in Murch's reconstruction puts additional emphasis on the discovery of Quinlan's corruption by his adoring sergeant, Pete Menzies (played by the Maltese born ex-opera singer Joseph Calleia). In the old version, the end of Quinlan was the necessary cleaning-up of a corrupt old man. The restoration makes Quinlan's end more tragic, a story of loyalty betrayed. The cold, Hemingway-like epitaph for Quinlan pronounced by Tanya seems justified at last.

In this version, Quinlan displays a pathetic mix of loftiness, truculence, guilt and sorrow. Maundering about the toughness of a policeman's life, Quinlan is shut up by Vargas' retort: "It has to be tough. The policeman's job is only easy in a police state."

Evil isn't banal, it's exhilarating, Welles suggests. Touch of Evil is hardly just a touch of evil--it's a veritable storm of different sorts of evils: violence, prejudice, ignorance and poverty, fixed in black-and-white. The film's moral authority is summed up with an unforgettable image of a man trying to wash the blood off his hands in an open sewer: the Styx-like river that divides Mexico and the U.S.

WELLES CLAIMED that all of his movies were the story of Faust--naturally, this is a legend that would haunt a film director who had as much trouble with the money-men as Welles did. During his life, Welles always portrayed himself as the victim of ignoramuses: "They always tear the film out of my hands--violently," he complained to Cahiers du Cinema.

But even sympathetic accounts of Welles' many postproduction hassles admit that Welles deserved part of the blame.

After photography on Touch of Evil was through, Welles exercised his usual custom of leaving the country and starting a new project, right when it was time to battle with the execs. As Murch himself noted a few months ago, Welles had a great actor's ability to play bosses and plutocrats. Knowing those kinds of people so intimately, why couldn't he manipulate them when it came to asking for money or a final cut?

When speaking of Welles, someone always hauls out F. Scott Fitzgerald's profundity about there being no second acts in American life. Of course, Fitzgerald was half-way to a second act when his heart gave out; he was writing The Last Tycoon and turning out witty Pat Hobby stories for money.

After Citizen Kane, Welles made three Shakespeare films that are still the best screen versions of the plays in question: Othello, Macbeth, and Henry IV 1 and 2 (which Welles combined with bits of The Merry Wives of Windsor as the film Chimes at Midnight). Welles made Confidential Agent/Mr. Arkadin and adapted Kafka's The Trial. He made Touch of Evil, too.

In addition to all of this brilliant, little-known work, Welles was spicing up dumb movies with short appearances, coasting happily, narrating a documentary of sorts about Nostradamus--one old fraud saluting another--charming novice directors and inspiring them to bravery. If this wasn't a "second act," it was the longest curtain call anybody ever had.

Welles claimed to be the sort of artist who was more interested in creation than outcome. "I'm not interested in works of art, you know, in posterity, in renown--only in the pleasure of experimentation itself." Welles enjoyed that pleasure in abundance, and he passes it on to viewers today. In Touch of Evil, the greatest director America ever produced took a last look at his native country before crossing the border for new adventures. The public might be ready to join him at last.

Touch of Evil (1958), directed by Orson Welles, written by Welles and Paul Monash, based on a novel by Whit Masterson, photographed by Russell Metty and starring Orson Welles, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh.

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From the October 1-7, 1998 issue of Metro.

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