Touch of Evil review: inventive, nightmarish, fun
It has undergone a narrative restoration, but Orson Welles’ baroque masterpiece remains pitch-perfect
Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil
Film Title: Touch of Evil
Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich
Running Time: 112 min
Mexican-born cop Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) is honeymooning with his new bride Susan (Janet Leigh) when he agrees to investigate an explosion. Sadly, Vargas’ interest in the case does not suit the corrupt, racist police captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), who cuts a deal with local mobsters to frame Susan on a drug rap. A battle of wits ensues.
Movie lore tells us that Touch of Evil was taken away from its director Orson Welles and was butchered by parent studio Universal. The Genius versus the genius of the system.
In 1998, the film was restored by producers Albert Zugsmith and Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch using the detailed 58-page memo Welles wrote upon seeing the studio cut.
In truth, many of the changes are minor. And not all are improvements. Consider That Opening Shot: a three-minute, white-knuckle ride through a Mexican border town in the company of a ticking bomb and the most famous overture in cinema. The restoration leaves out the opening credits and replaces Henry Mancini’s down-and-dirty Latin score with an audacious cacophony of competing sounds and music.
It’s a dazzling effect, but it doesn’t fit the picture’s sweltering noir the way unfiltered Mancini does.
No matter. Elsewhere, Welles’ baroque masterpiece is pitch-perfect. Welles had not directed a studio picture for 10 years when Charlton Heston suggested him, and Touch of Evil is, accordingly, characterised by invention and, for all its nightmarish qualities, fun. Russell Metty’s superb camerawork, defined by fluid, low-angle shots and sweaty gloom, makes the viewer feel like they’re watching from the gutter. Welles’ scenes with Marlene Dietrich’s brittle brothel-madam are, narratively speaking, superfluous, yet they serve the film’s moral ambiguity with aplomb.
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