One of the last of the classic era film noirs, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil surprised audiences with its potent, controversial blend of police corruption, racism, interracial relationships and drug use. Indeed, in an age now dominated by characters like Denzel Washington’s Alonzo in Training Day, or The Shield’s Vic Mackey, it was one of the earliest examples of a film having a prominent corrupt cop as a key character. Mismanaged by Universal Film Studios, who fired Welles and re-cut the film, it was poorly received theatrically in the US, but has since gone on to garner significant critical acclaim over the years, with several new versions being released over the years, each successive one an attempt to recapture Welles’ original vision. So what exactly makes this film so special?
“All a lawyer cares about is the law.”
“Captain, you are a policeman, aren't you?”
The story follows Mexican drug enforcement official Miguel Vargas, who witnesses two US citizens getting blown up by a car bomb – on Mexican soil – and promptly takes an interest in the ensuing investigation, which is headed up by veteran police Captain Hank Quinlan, something of a celebrity along the border. As Vargas’s wife becomes embroiled in her own murky plot – the target of the brother of a local gangster that her husband is investigating – Vargas himself starts to become concerned with Quinlan’s tactics; convinced that the highly-regarded detective planted incriminating evidence on a suspect in the bombing incident, he sets out to compile the necessary evidence against him; but it’s a daunting task with no support from his US counterparts, who worship Quinlan, blinded by the man’s results. And with his reputation on the line, there is seemingly nothing that Quinlan won’t do to prevent Vargas from getting to the truth.
Kicking off with one of the greatest opening scenes, and greatest single takes, in cinematic history – a three-and-a-half-minute continuous tracking shot over buildings, down streets, and along and across the US/Mexican border as we follow a car which has had a bomb planted in its trunk – the film immediately establishes the tense thrills that the director is going to exact upon you in a way that would make even Hitchcock jealous. Yet this was just one of the key elements marred by the Studio changes in post-production; changes which would only be rectified some 40 years after the film was made, long after Welles had passed away.
Originally signed up just to co-star in the piece, alongside Charlton Heston in the lead, Welles would later go on to take up directorial duties at no extra fee and, in the process, rewrite the script quite extensively. Although he never read the pulp crime novel that the script was based heavily upon, his starting point was nevertheless the first draft, which followed the book fairly closely. The working title was Badge of Evil, just like the book, and the script shared the same story – a young Assistant District Attorney, and his Mexican wife, becoming embroiled in a plot involving Hank Quinlan and his celebrated but overtly corrupt partner, McCoy, whilst investigating a car bombing along the US/Mexican border – the only real difference being that the script made Quinlan into the main antagonist, rather than his partner, a minor role-reversal which was basically a change in name only.
“We're gonna get him where it really hurts and without laying a hand on him. He's got a reputation. He's got a young bride. He's gonna leave this town wishing he and that wife of his had never been born.”
Welles, who was already signed up for the role of Quinlan, would go on to make more drastic changes to the story and characters: he shifted and further integrated the sub-plot involving the local gangster and his brother; he tweaked his own character of corrupt cop Quinlan to be a much murkier shade of grey; and, perhaps most notably, he changed the nationality, and thus job, of the protagonist. Maintaining the interracial relationship, the lead character became Mexican himself, and his wife was made American. Of course the lead actor was already cast, and thus, Charlton Heston was transformed into one of the most unconvincing on-screen Mexicans in cinema history.
Luckily Heston would manage to act beyond the restrictions of his terrible makeup and limited knowledge of Spanish, and thankfully the character of the wife had not yet been cast yet. Although the original scream-queen, Psycho’s Janet Leigh, would at first turn down the role, after Welles made it clear that he would be directing the film, she agreed to participate, jumping at the opportunity to work with the master filmmaker. Similarly extracting performances from a number of other big names who were personal friends of his, Welles brought Joseph Cotton and Zsa Zsa Gabor on for small cameo roles, even casting Marlene Dietrich as his character Quinlan’s old flame, a gypsy fortune-teller.
Welles himself would thoroughly transform his own appearance for the role, using 30kg of body prosthetics and makeup, and a fake nose, to play the part of a man 20 years older and heavily overweight. Of course, 20 years later Welles himself would assume a similarly large physique, and so many latter-day viewers would assume this was a film made during his ‘Brando years’ – in actual fact, at the time, it was such an unrecognisable look for him that many theatrical cinema audiences were shocked to see the famous filmmaker looking so different.
“Captain, you won't have any trouble with me.”
“You bet your sweet life, I won't.”
Despite these strange outward appearances the man was clearly on his game – and not just on the acting front. Meticulously rehearsing the scenes with his cast, many of whom had never participated in such extensive preparatory work for a film before, the process often led to further script rewrites, with the actors bringing to the table ideas about what might work better. Indeed his entire cast would be made to feel special; like they were involved in a truly important production.
Shooting to schedule and budget (give or take a day and a few thousand dollars), Welles felt that he had perfected his vision, and felt that this would be the movie that would bring him out of the European doldrums and put him back into the Hollywood big-league; the Studios felt differently. Universal disliked the cut and, with Welles refusing to return, reshoot, and re-edit it, they hired a second director to work on the film and produce a second cut. The cast upset at having to work without Welles – and against Welles’ wishes – the new version was not only not the version Welles had intended to release, but it was also not the version that even Universal had desired.
Furious at what had happened, Welles famously wrote a 58-page memo to the head of production at Universal, citing what he thought needed to be done to perfect the film. It largely went ignored, and the film was retitled Touch of Evil, sidelined and eventually released in its 93-minute re-edited form, and only as part of a b-movie double-feature; discarded where the Studios hoped nobody would find it.
“There's an old lady on Main Street last night picked up a shoe. The shoe had a foot in it. We're going to make you pay for that mess.”
Almost twenty years later and just the opposite had happened: despite its mistreatment, the public had found the film, and loved it; the growing critical acclaim stirring Universal to search through their archives, where they found a 108-minute preview print which they believed to be the original Director’s Cut. Re-released theatrically, this new-found version further increased the popularity of the movie, which had now grown beyond mere cult classic – the trouble was that this Preview version was not Welles’ original vision. Indeed it was a further cut, made after Welles lost control of the project, but before the final cut was edited down and released back in 1958. Whilst it was indeed a longer version, and thus did include some of the Welles-shot scenes that hadn’t made the 1958 final cut, it also featured even more footage that Welles had not shot; reshoot footage by the second director.
It would take a further twenty years for justice to be finally served on this classic, some 13 years after Welles had passed away. It was 1998, and Walter Murch, acclaimed film editor and sound mixer, and long-time Francis Ford Coppola collaborator (they had worked together on Apocalypse Now, the Godfather movies and The Conversation) – together with the support of Universal’s director of film restoration and president of sound operations – culled together all the possible source footage of Touch of Evil, and, using Welles’ original 58-page memo, attempted to reconstruct a vision that was closest to the one Welles had originally intended. It was re-edited from the various sources, and even the soundtrack was remixed in places; Welles had originally sought to have most of the sounds be diegetic: i.e. integrated into the scenes from organic in-shot sources, rather than using an external score, and Murch attempted to honour this, most notably stripping the famous opening long-shot of its Henry ‘Pink Panther theme’ Mancini score, to great effect. Again re-released theatrically, this new 112-minute restored cut was still not perfect, and certainly should not be confused with Welles’ original cut (which had long since been lost), but it is probably the closest thing that we have to a final, near-perfect cut; indeed even closer than the original cut, as Welles’ own memo, aside from criticising the loss of certain scenes, had actually approved of a number of changes in the re-shot version of his film.
“Just because he speaks a little guilty, that don't make him innocent, you know.”
It is a testament to the power and enduring strengths of the film that, no matter which version you watch, you will likely find Touch of Evil to be a great film noir; a flawed one, perhaps (if for no other reason than the various tinkering done over the years), but a flawed masterpiece. Whether you watch the shorter original theatrical release, with its faster pacing, less daring editing, and alternative soundtrack; the longer preview version, with its unnecessary exposition scenes, slower pacing, and with the most footage not shot by Welles; or the arguably superior restored version, which retains Welles’ cross-narrative cuts (that interspliced the storylines of the lead character Vargas, and of his wife, but which Universal removed, concerned that audiences would be confused by this jumping back and forth), his restrictive use of close-ups (he liked to use them to make a point, rather than just for show), the majority of the footage that he wanted to be in the final version and the corrected soundtrack, at the end of the day, you will be watching a thriller which will enthral and entertain you for its duration.
Atypical, boundary and convention-pushing, packed with all the requisite ingredients for a sumptuous feast: both meaty and weighty subject-matter, with sex(uality), drugs, and violence all in healthy measures, Touch of Evil is one of those films that you simply have to see.
Watch it for the direction: from Welles’ stunning, utterly gripping, opening crane shot, to the long shot of Heston talking to his colleague whilst driving his car, at speed, through the streets (it sounds like nothing by today’s standards, but this was the first time in film history when a scene with dialogue was shot in a moving car, and it still remains a great sequence); from Welles’ playful use of shadows, and heavy contrast, with half-masking close-ups of the characters, to his sharp angles of shot, which would later inspire the likes of Brian De Palma (for whom the angled-shot is now also something of a trademark – c.f. Mission Impossible or Carlito’s Way).
Watch it for the story: crossing boundaries, breaking taboos, taking in racism, sexism, sexuality, drug use and interracial relationships, and throwing in a political mindfield of US/Mexican border controversy and twisted, corrupt cops; interweaving intricate and fully-rounded story arcs for each main character, naturally and organically fusing them together and bringing us some of the most colourful and human characters crafted during the classic film noir era of the 40s and 50s.
Watch it for the performances: from Heston’s stalwart Gregory Peckian portrayal of the hero, strong enough to transcend the limitations of his appalling makeup and faux Mexican traits (compare with Russian actor Tamiroff, who would not fare so well in the role of the caricature villainous gangster), to Janet Leigh’s fantastic support as the loyal wife, refreshingly strong-minded and independent for the time, and yet not without both vulnerability and sexuality in decent measures; from the numerous striking cameos and supporting players (Marlene Dietrich’s scenes, shot in just one day, would carry the subtext for the entire movie – her opening dialogue, not recognising Welles’ Captain Quinlan as being her ex-lover because of his massive weight-gain acknowledging how audiences must have felt to Welles’ striking look in the film; her pivotal lines to Quinlan would be foreboding for the rest of the movie) to the powerhouse presence of Welles himself, crafting another immortal character – the tragic, corrupt, but still somewhat sympathetic beast that is Captain Quinlan. Indeed, for those who have seen the movie, the great thing about it is that on each successive viewing you draw closer to siding with Quinlan – even if it is just fractionally so, it is easy to get swept up in the feeling that, without Vargas interfering, things might have turned out differently, and maybe better; after all, Welles himself goes to great lengths to remind us that Quinlan’s ‘gut-feeling’ (when his wounded leg starts to ache) is never actually proven wrong. Like all the greatest corrupt anti-hero cops (the aforementioned cop-shooting Vic Mackey from The Shield and the lead character in Training Day are still the most obvious modern-day comparisons), you can’t help siding with them a little bit, and wondering how things may have turned out differently.
Whatever you do, whichever version you choose, just watch it; you won’t be disappointed.
“Come on, read my future for me.”
“You haven't got any... Your future is all used up.”
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