‘Touch of Evil’ – Orson Welles on the border on Netflix

Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh in the film by Orson Welles

Orson Welles’ baroque border town murder mystery Touch of Evil (1958/1998) is a wild masterpiece, a sleazy, grimy, jittery, and ultimately dazzling work of cinematic magic. It’s considered the last great film noir and the bookend to the true noir era. It was also Welles’s last attempt at a career in Hollywood before he packed up to make movies in Europe.

Charlton Heston is a stiff, straight-arrow Mexican government agent Mike Vargas whose planned honeymoon with his American bride Susie (Janet Leigh) is derailed by a sensationalistic murder and police detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a bloated, blustery grotesque with a doughy face and an ill manner who has a habit of creating evidence to speed the process of justice. An instant antagonism develops between the educated Vargas and the misanthropic Quinlan which intensifies to a rabid hatred when Vargas uncovers evidence that Quinlan has framed a suspect and pursues his own investigation. It features Akin Tamiroff as a Mexican border town Little Caesar with a cheap toupee and a wise-guy patter, Dennis Weaver as a sex-obsessed motel clerk on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a guest appearance by Marlene Dietrich as a world-weary bar owner and fortune teller, and cameos by Welles regulars Ray Collins and Joseph Cotten.

Universal Studios wanted a routine crime film with star glamour and an uncomplicated happy ending. They ended up with a grandiosely bravura B-movie crime opera. The film opens on arguably the most famous long take in film history, an elaborate crane shot that begins in close-up (of a bomb, no less) and then rises above the streets of a Mexican border town to watch the trajectories of a car (which is carrying the bomb, unknown to the passengers) and a couple winding through the sleepy streets, and then is broken with a sudden cut to an abrupt explosion that kick-starts the murder mystery. From this point, Welles’ styles becomes more expressionistic with looming low angles, jittery handheld shots, and edgy editing. Always the innovator, Welles encouraged the then-unknown composer Henry Mancini to score the film with a wildly unconventional mix of growling rock and roll and Latin-influenced sounds, which add to the film’s nervous energy as the battle between Vargas and Quinlan becomes personal and gets vicious.

Touch of Evil is a portrait in corruption and racism in a grimy, tawdry bordertown netherworld straddling a kind of moral no man’s land between Mexico and the U.S.. This was a border where the edges blur with all the crossings back and forth (it could only have been done in an era before 9/11), and populated with a gallery of grotesques and eccentrics. It is pure Welles, even in its compromised version.

The film was taken from Welles’ hands and re-edited by studio cutters in a 96-minute version without the involvement of Welles, who was barred from both reshoots and from the editing room. In the 1970s, a 109-minute preview cut was discovered and supplanted the release version, but while it feature more footage directed by Welles, it was not his cut of the film. After film scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum discovered a detailed 58-page memo that Welles sent to Universal executives with detailed notes and suggestions on editing and sound changes on the last rough cut he saw. Filmmaker and producer Rick Schmidlin came up with an unprecedented proposal: take the memo (along with other notes and instructions left behind by Welles) and the two versions of the film and, to the best of their abilities with the materials available to them, honor Welles’ instructions. In 1998, that idea became reality with the help of editor Walter Murch and advisor Rosenbaum.

The differences in this revision are apparent in the first seconds of the film. The studio threw credits over the famous opening crane shot and set it to a brassy theme song from composer Henry Mancini but Welles (ever the pioneer) meant the scene to open the film as a dramatic sequence. By removing the credits and revealing Welles’ dense sound design, previously buried by the music, we find a riveting scene with a completely different sensibility and dynamic. Anyone who grew up on the earlier versions still feel a gang of loss; that bongo beat and the growling horns had become a part of the familiar experience, so married to the image it seemed inseparable. But as the camera follows the parallel journeys of the car (carrying a ticking bomb) and the strolling newlywed couple (Heston and Leigh) as they weave their way through the bustling Mexican border town, the rediscovered soundtrack (with musical additions by Murch as per Welles’ instructions) gives a specific sense of place of movement with its street sounds competing with car radios and nightclub music weaving in and out of the mix.

With the abrupt explosion, Welles’ style becomes more expressionistic—looming low angles, jittery handheld shots, edgy editing—and the new cutting design outlined by Welles serves this style better. The subsequent scenes are tightened up with insistent intercutting between the Vargas/Quinlan confrontations on the American side of the border and Susie’s run-in with racketeer Grandi in Mexico. It creates a driving pace with a greater sense of urgency and tension, but it also weaves their stories together more insistently. The subsequent changes are less obvious (a trim here, an insert there, a couple of short scenes cut) but this cut also restores another, less obvious element to the original intentions.

For decades Touch of Evil was shown in theaters and on home video in the Academy ratio of 1.33:1, the boxy format of old Hollywood and old TV, but archival research suggests that it was shot and framed to be screened at 1:85:1, the standard format by the late 1950s. The 1998 theatrical release and subsequent disc editions restored the film to its correct ratio (rounded down to 16×9 for disc). Compositions became more dramatic, framed more tightly around Welles’ groupings. The long-takes in Sanchez’s apartment feel more claustrophobic, without so much of the expanse of the blank ceiling open above their heads. The characters dominate the frame with more presence. Despite the documentation in the production records and the film elements itself that verify this change, it’s become a controversy among fans and historians, perhaps because of years of familiarity with the old format, perhaps because they prefer the open-frame roominess, a la Citizen Kane. I’m on the widescreen camp: the framing serves this film better and the visual schemes were taken up in Welles’ next widescreen film, The Trial.

The 1998 revision is a unique attempt to retroactively honor a director by following his directions in repairing an artwork taken out of his hands. It’s not a director’s cut in fact or in intention, but the closest we’ll ever come to seeing Orson Welles’ best compromise in his final attempt at making his kind of film in the studio system. It may be the ultimate act of artistic fealty in film history: an honest and honorable attempt to finish the film as it could have been. It was embarked upon with the best of intentions by an enviable team of artists and scholars determined to honor Welles’ vision and the result was a revelation: Welles was right. His suggestions do make it a better film.

I wrote in more detail about the history, making, and revising of Touch of Evil for Parallax View here.

The original version was added to the National Film Registry in 1993.

Originally not rated, it received a PG-13 rating on the release of the 1998 revision.

Netflix presents the 1998 revised version. Queue it up!

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Touch of Evil: Limited Edition [Blu-ray]
Touch of Evil [Blu-ray]
Touch Of Evil (50th Anniversary Edition) [DVD]

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Universal has released the film in deluxe special editions on both Blu-ray and DVD featuring all three existing cuts of the film. It is a package worthy of Criterion. It’s been remastered from original 35mm elements for Blu-ray and looks amazing, and it features the four commentary tracks spread over the three versions recorded for the DVD set. Project producer Rick Schmidlin hosts a track with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, with Schmidlin commenting on the changes in the “restored version” and drawing production stories and experiences from the stars, and he also contributes a solo track, both for the reconstructed version. Welles historian / project consultant Jonathan Rosenbaum and fellow Welles historian James Naremore discuss the “preview version” with a mix of production details and interpretations, and film critic F.X. Feeney offers a solo track on the shorter theatrical release. Also includes the featurettes “Bringing Evil to Life” (one on the making of the film) and “Evil Lost and Found” (on the history of the various versions and the process of reconstructing the new cut) and a reproduction of the original 58-page memo that inspired the entire project. Also features an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears in Vulture, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and Parallax View.

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