Touch of Evil

Rating **** Masterpiece

Directed by Orson Welles

Written by Welles

With Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich.

By Fred Camper

Touch of Evil was released by Universal in 1958 on the bottom half of a double bill, in a version butchered by the studio over Welles’s passionate protests. The last Hollywood film by the famous maker of Citizen Kane, it was hardly a success at the box office or with critics, seeming to confirm the story told in Welles’s obituaries in 1985 that he never lived up to the promise of his first film. The same story was repeated earlier this year by the American Film Institute’s poll determining the 100 “best” American movies: though Citizen Kane was number one, none of Welles’s other movies made the list.

By the time I saw Touch of Evil in 1965 it still had virtually no recognition in the United States. Though it earned high praise from Truffaut and Godard in 1958, Americans generally thought it a sleazy crime picture. The faculty adviser to our college film society sponsored a showing of it, then ridiculed the film as not worthy of anyone’s attention. The outlet that rented 16-millimeter prints of Touch of Evil classified it as a “budget” film and rented it for just $10.

But within a few years, film societies began renting it often, and by the time a friend of mine at Harvard tried to rent it in the late 60s, the distributor told him it had been upgraded from “budget” to “international film masterpiece”–and the rental was now $35. Still, the version we saw was the butchered original release, which included scenes not shot by Welles and excluded about 15 minutes of his own work; in the mid-70s a longer version, the one shown at a pre-1958 preview, was released. This version, produced months after Welles had been removed from the picture, still disregarded many of his wishes, as indicated in a long memo he wrote to Universal in 1957 after seeing the studio’s initial cut. Only now, following Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s publication of excerpts from Welles’s memo in a 1992 issue of Film Quarterly, has an attempt been made to produce a version incorporating Welles’s 1957 suggestions.

This version makes it even clearer that Touch of Evil is a flat-out all-cylinders-running, eye-popping masterpiece, one of a few monumental 1950s swan songs marking the end of the great epoch of traditional studio filmmaking. It belongs alongside Vertigo and The Searchers and Kiss Me Deadly and Some Came Running as a tribute to the kind of directorial vision that used the machinery of the studio to create a work of pure visual poetry, translating a script into stunningly original compositions and camera movements that unify the narrative and the imagery. Viewers with art-house standards of classy dialogue and acting who gravitate to the obvious stylistic flourishes of Citizen Kane will still prefer that film to the integrated visual field of Touch of Evil. But if you’re open to the idea that the visual qualities of depth and perspective are a key part of the language that film speaks, Touch of Evil should offer nearly two hours of ecstatic if uneasy pleasure: together the style and script intertwine the themes of moral corruption and mental breakdown.

Even more than the original, this version of Touch of Evil reveals two stories with no initial connection. In the first, Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) is a Mexican official investigating drug dealing in a Mexican border town; he’s accompanied by his American wife, Susan (Janet Leigh). Vargas has imprisoned a member of the drug-dealing Grandi family, but the man’s brother, “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), hatches a bizarre plot to intimidate Vargas by attacking Susan, preventing him from testifying. In the second story, a young shoe clerk in the same town, Manolo Sanchez, may have murdered his girlfriend’s rich father, Rudy Linnekar–Linnekar’s car explodes–so that he and the girl can live off Linnekar’s money. Investigating the case is the corrupt police chief of the American half of the town, Hank Quinlan (Welles himself), since the explosion occurred on the American side; Vargas, correctly assuming that the bomb was planted in Mexico, observes Quinlan’s investigation closely. (Those who prefer not to know more of the plot are advised to stop reading now.) Halfway through the film the two stories come together: Vargas suspects that Quinlan has planted evidence against Sanchez and begins investigating the police chief, who quickly unravels. Going on a drunk after 18 years on the wagon, Quinlan conspires with Grandi in his assault on Susan.

Welles, conflating the two stories with Quinlan’s search for redemption, creates a labyrinthine film, wedding a common motif in Welles films–that of an oversize character on a quest–to another key Welles theme: self-deception. Except for Vargas and Susan, the characters want to be something they’re not. Bitterness fostered by the unsolved murder of his wife three decades earlier makes Quinlan want to be a cop who always gets his man–thus his manufacturing of evidence. It may be that, as he says, he framed “nobody that wasn’t guilty,” but clearly Welles condemns Quinlan’s violations of the law.

Emotionally and structurally, Quinlan lies at the film’s heart; every other character is presented in relation to him. His loyal assistant Menzies seems the mirror opposite of Quinlan’s strength: Joseph Calleia’s superb performance manages to suggest a weak, centerless character just this side of effeminate who also helps expose Quinlan in the end. Vargas and Susan, passionate newlyweds, form an almost depressingly normal contrast to Quinlan’s apparent kinkiness, revealed in occasional hints of leering voyeurism, which contrast with his fling years ago with Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), a bordello keeper who doesn’t recognize him because he’s grown so fat. Uncle Joe, who has his own delusions of grandeur, is a sort of minor-key parody of Quinlan: Susan correctly calls Uncle Joe a “ridiculous lopsided little Caesar”–he doesn’t even know when his wig’s fallen off. Shorter and less monumental than Quinlan, he still recalls the man’s ambitions.

The convergence of the two narratives further underlines Quinlan’s centrality. And long takes of characters engaged in parallel if unrelated actions reinforce the way that characters echo one another. Indeed, the film seems a giant web, a fatalistic machine driven by duplicity that brings characters together even when they have no wish to be connected.

One of the new version’s chief glories is its revision of the justly famous opening shot. Not only were titles originally printed over it, obscuring much of the action and detracting from the shot’s complexity, but Henry Mancini’s music crowded out much of the ambient sound Welles had so carefully scored. Mancini’s music has been removed from the opening, and now we see and hear this shot in all its power–the planting of the bomb by a shadowy figure, Rudy Linnekar and his girlfriend driving across the border, and Vargas crossing at the same time, seeking “a chocolate soda for my wife.” Welles’s virtuosic camera (aided by the brilliant cinematographer Russell Metty, whose complex composition and lighting work as well for Welles as they did for Douglas Sirk) moves sideways, cranes up, cranes down, moves in and out, and shifts direction, establishing a maze of movements and interconnections: more than once Vargas and Susan’s movement parallels that of Linnekar’s car, linking their destiny to his imminent death. The sound design–music emerging from various establishments, growing louder and quieter–reveals the importance of Welles’s previous work in radio: he’s particularly sensitive to the way sound can evoke space. Here the shifting aural perspectives combine with the shifting camera movements to plunge us into an unstable, nearly chaotic world full of momentary convergences.

Virtually every composition, cut, and camera movement in Touch of Evil can be justified as a visual correlative to the narrative. After Vargas unknowingly leaves Susan at a Grandi-controlled motel, he phones her from a store where he’s seen alongside the blind storekeeper, underlining Vargas’s own blindness. Welles’s camera reduces the physical differences between Quinlan and Grandi at the end of a key scene, first showing them seated together, then pulling back and up, equating them. And Welles presents Quinlan’s brutal interrogation of Sanchez in two separate long takes, grouping multiple characters in a cramped apartment, conveying not only the interrogation’s claustrophobia but the way that Quinlan’s corruption ensnares all around him.

But as masterful as Welles’s filming is, what makes Touch of Evil a staggering masterpiece is the global quality of his style, which causes every image to echo almost every other in the film. Using a wide-angle lens both affords deep focus–foreground and background alike are sharp–and seems to stretch or curve the space. Welles’s intensely physical approach makes one feel the images to be collages of sensuous surfaces. Together his roving camera, complex lighting, and shifting perspectives seem parts of the filmmaker’s quest to forge an intimate contact with every object in the world. Each faintly lit street, every corner of every room, seems plumbed by a camera that wants not only to see but to touch everything within view. Welles’s script also reflects this almost polymorphous-perverse desire to incorporate everything. Quinlan’s desire even extends to others’ sex lives: he twists Vargas’s words to make it seem as if Susan has gone on a date with one of Grandi’s lackeys, and he shows a similar voyeuristic interest in the affair between Sanchez and Linnekar’s daughter.

Welles’s style perhaps represents Quinlan’s own mental state, an interpretation the film supports. Quinlan is grotesquely fat (already round, Welles had himself padded for the role) because he substitutes candy bars for his previous addiction: “It’s either the candy or the hooch,” he says. Excessive ingestion of food or liquor can blur the distinctions between oneself and the world; often the addict seeks to recover a kind of primal unity lost since the undifferentiated state of earliest childhood. Welles also gives Quinlan a lost love–his murdered wife–as a metaphor for the impossibility of his quest: lacking her, he seeks to dissolve himself.

But as any alcoholic or overeater knows, such attempts at recovering unity are bound to fail. Wherever Welles’s camera roams, it encounters spaces broken by darkness; this brokenness is reflected even in the chaotic layout of the border town (the film was shot in Venice, California–a kitschy environment with its own dislocations). The film’s most unified compositions occur in brief scenes at the bordello, whose relatively evenly lit rooms suggest the pleasurable, womblike enclosures to which Quinlan would like to return. But he cannot: as Tanya warns him, her “chili” might be too hot for him–a warning his obesity makes plausible.

The film’s most pivotal moment, combining its dual themes of the wish for unity and its inevitable breakdown, is a cut very near the end. Menzies calls to Quinlan from outside Tanya’s, trying to lure him out and secure his confession on a concealed tape recorder. As Quinlan emerges, we see him from the extreme low angle Welles has already used for him several times–most notably the first time we see him, emerging from a car like a suddenly congealing giant blob. Such images, further exaggerating his belly, make Quinlan seem both powerful and grotesque. Suddenly we cut to a reverse angle shot from behind Quinlan, with the camera rising above him as he leaves Tanya’s and plunges into the night and his own doom. This shift seems to twist and turn and reshape space, as the curves created by the wide-angle lenses used in both shots merge at the point of the cut. This is the last of the film’s unifying moments, however, and it also suddenly dwarfs Quinlan, placing us outside his psyche for the first time.

In the extraordinary final scene, the camera gives up its striving to unify space. Instead we proceed past disjunct shapes–bridges, canals, oil derricks, drainage ditches, garbage–all of which seem metaphors for the breakdown of Quinlan’s mind. An absurdly phallic oil derrick seen from below, for example, is the perfect sign of his failed ambitions as he’s faced with the imminent unraveling of his identity as an honest cop. A passionate quest for a lost unity with the sensual world–accompanied almost from the beginning with an acknowledgment of that quest’s impossibility, mirroring the larger themes of love and its loss, life and death–is the outsize true subject of a low-budget crime film, ironically labeled by a contemporary Variety review “not a ‘big’ picture.”

When Rosenbaum published a large portion of Welles’s memo in Film Quarterly six years ago, there were already three extant versions of Touch of Evil–the original release, the preview, and the version now generally available on video (a melange of the first two). The memo made many suggestions that were never incorporated in any of these, and the possibility of producing a film closer to Welles’s express intent attracted the attention of producer Rick Schmidlin, who discussed it with Rosenbaum and interested both Universal and the Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch. (The complete memo, plus Welles’s shooting script and other documents related to the film, will be published by the University of California Press, no earlier than the end of 1999.) Engaging Rosenbaum as a consultant and utilizing such materials as scripts, cue sheets, and production reports as well as the memo, they followed Welles’s instructions as far as they could. In the minutes following the opening take, for example, the two stories are now intercut; most of the other alterations are smaller. But in Murch’s words, “Every single suggestion from the memo [made] the film better.”

The commendable result not only plays better than the earlier versions, it looks more like a Welles film. Unlike other “new versions” of masterpieces purportedly closer to the director’s intent–a version of Cukor’s A Star Is Born, for example, that replaces missing footage with black-and-white stills, a device utterly contrary to Cukor’s style–this one does not read like a film scholar’s tract or an attempt to salvage wreckage. It’s simply a great film made greater. My only reservation is that the print looked a bit soft, not as sharply focused as earlier versions.

But it’s important to understand what this new version is not. It’s not a “restoration” or a “director’s cut.” In addition, the memo was written, if one can take Welles’s word for it, not to produce a film more to his own taste but to create a clearer story line and better film on the studio’s terms. It might be that Welles was prevaricating to get the changes he wanted, but the elaborate reasons he gives for the changes do argue for simply playing better to a typical audience. Further, Welles never saw the results of his suggestions, and he was known to revise even more than most after suggested edits were made. It seems almost certain that if Universal had let Welles back into the editing room, the final film would have been quite different from this version.

Finally, I would argue–and Rosenbaum agrees–that the earlier versions should remain available: typically they’re eliminated when a new version is issued. If you want to see A Star Is Born today, for example, you get the black-and-white stills along with the ‘Scope and color movie whether you like it or not. In particular, the original release print of Touch of Evil is a historical artifact, a record of what opposing forces–cinematically illiterate studio bosses and a brilliant filmmaker–produced together as well as a record of what millions of people saw. Welles may be the author of the film I love, but for better or worse, Universal is the coauthor, though not as much today as in 1958.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.