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Review: Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil

Rating

Director
Orson Welles
Screenplay
Orson Welles (Novel: Whit Masterson)
Length
95 min.
Starring
Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Joanna Moore, Ray Collins, Dennis Weaver, Valentin de Vargas, Mort Mills, Marlene Dietrich, Harry Shannon, Zsa Zsa Gabor
MPAA Rating
Approved (original): PG-13 for some violence and drug content (1998 restoration)

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Review
Corruption in a small, U.S.-Mexican border town threatens to upend the work of a Mexican drug enforcement officer when an investigation into the bombing of a prominent U.S. dignitary in Orson Welles' 1958 masterpiece Touch of Evil.

Foreshadowing much of the struggle against drug operatives in the United States and Mexico, Touch of Evil is surprisingly modern for a film made more than fifty years ago. The black-and-white cinematography creates a prescient, almost otherwordly quality for the film. Ramon Vargas (Charlton Heston in one of his best performances) is trying to thwart a major drug cartel in Mexico, but finds himself at odds with prejudiced, corrupt Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) over the bombing claimed to be part of the drug war. Certain that the culprit could not be a Mexican citizen and afraid that any such validation could damage relations between his country and the U.S., Vargas begins his own investigation into the events while his newlywed wife Susan (Janet Leigh) becomes an unwitting pawn in the whole affair.

Although Heston is the lead and delivers a solid performance, it's Welles who is the clear standout. Welles gives perhaps his greatest performance, eclipsing his celebrated turn in Citizen Kane by a small margin. Quinlan is quick-witted, vicious and deceptive, and Welles does a masterful job keeping the character from verging into caricature. You don't sympathize with the character, but you somewhat understand him and his motivations.

Welles directed few films, but among his works are three of the most celebrated films in history. Citizen Kane is an obvious example of his forward-thinking vision and The Magnificent Ambersons is similarly feted; but Touch of Evil never did meet his personal expectations as studio butchers stripped much of his vision, re-shot and re-edited it and then ignored his impassioned letter requesting his changes be reverted. Today, a re-edited version, attempting to adhere to the designations in his correspondence, is available on DVD and may be the most accurate example of what Welles attempted to do that we may ever see.

Universal, claiming Welles refused to return and do re-shoots to match their expectations of the film, re-edited the rough cut Welles had provided and began manipulating it into something Welles disliked greatly. They even brought in director Harry Keller to perform the desired changes, further maligning Welles' vision. Welles wrote a 58-page memo to Universal detailing how he wished the film to be cut and fixed, but his request went unheeded, releasing it at a scaled-down 93 minutes. In 1976, thinking it had found an original cut, Universal released a 108-minute print that post-dated Welles' letter. It wasn't until 1998 that famed editor Walter Murch took Welles notes and attempted to cobble together a more Welles-ian cut of the film with what available footage they had. Unfortunately, we will likely never see the original version Welles had intended for much of the extant material is lost, so we'll have to accept the 1998 111-minute version (the one that I reviewed) as the closest we may ever get.

But the legacy of Touch of Evil will endure regardless of how much of the original we wont' be able to see. The 3-minute opening shot, a single-take tracking shot, remains one of the most iconic in film history. It has been discussed and mimicked a number of times in history and many filmmakers (like Robert Altman in The Player, Martin Scorsese in The Age of Innocence and Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights) have done their best to create similarly memorable shots, but we'll always remember the terrific one used in Touch of Evil as the most impressive.

The dark atmosphere, compelling story and evocative plot help Touch of Evil stand out as fine example of the film noir genre. The film has aged very little in the last fifty three years. Its dark, daring narrative was more progressive than other films of its time and even when compared with modern films, there's more boldness and inventiveness in even an incomplete cut of the film than most of today's movies aspire to be.
Review Written
March 21, 2011

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