Orson Welles' reworking of a script written by Paul Manash for "King of the Bs" Albert Zugsmith (adapted from Whit Masterson's novel Badge of Evil, which Welles never bothered to read) is widely considered one of his greatest achievements, a dark, perverse thriller about moral
compromise and the price of corruption.
TOUCH OF EVIL was itself a deeply compromised project: Welles had a falling out with the studio during post-production and wound up barred from his own editing room. He went to his grave claiming never to have seen the film again after a painful screening of the studio's version, which strove to
make straightforward and unequivocal all that Welles had tried to make complex and ambiguous. Welles dashed off a 58-page memo to studio executives, attempting to persuade them to undo some of the damage they had done: Thirty years after the film's initial throw-away release at the bottom of a
double-bill featuring sex symbol Hedy Lamar's last picture, the second rate FEMALE ANIMAL, TOUCH OF EVIL was restored by a team lead by Academy Award-winning editor and sound designer Walter Murch, using that memo as a blueprint.
Already famous for directing perhaps the greatest film ever made, CITIZEN KANE, Welles opened TOUCH OF EVIL with what may be the greatest single shot ever put on film, a spectacular tracking shot that follows a doomed car as it crosses the Mexican/US border, visually foreshadowing the thematic
elements to come: national differences between Mexicans and Americans; differences between newlyweds; the line Charlton Heston's character crosses, from law-abiding husband to a vengeful madman; and the line Orson Welles's character crosses, from dedicated policemen to corrupt cop.
In the restored version -- which, unlike most restorations, actually loses some footage that was added in the name of "clarity" -- this opening sequence is the most altered: Henry Mancini's propulsive score, which once played under the entire 3 minute, 20 second shot, is mixed down to a
few seconds. As the white convertible with the bomb in the trunk wends its way through the streets towards the border, we hear a patchwork of snatches of music from every bar and juke joint on the street, combined with the voices of pedestrians, sirens, the bleating of a small herd of goats and
even the car's own radio. The montage of sounds plunges the viewer headlong into the movie's seething atmosphere. The Murch team also removed the credits, so viewers can appreciate the scene's complicated glory without distraction. The rest of their trims and tucks are harder to spot, but the
overall effect of the restoration is to make the story less obvious while strengthening and clarifying its thematic underpinnings.
When a car explodes after crossing the border, both US cop Hank Quinlan (Welles) and Mexican narcotics agent Mike Vargas (Heston) begin their investigations. Almost immediately Quinlan has a suspect, Sanchez (Victor Millan), a young Mexican who is involved with the dead man's daughter Marcia
(Moore). In order to secure a conviction, Quinlan plants some dynamite in Sanchez's flat, but Vargas is wise to Quinlan's game. With help from Pete Menzies (Calleia), a long-time friend of Quinlan's, Vargas investigates Quinlan's past, all the while trying to solve the murder and protect his wife
(Leigh) from a number of dangerous locals. Directing his first film in America since 1948's MACBETH, Welles was originally just supposed to act in TOUCH OF EVIL. The misunderstanding that led to this bizarre and twisted masterpiece began when Heston read a script based on the novel Badge of
Evil. Hearing that Welles was involved, and assuming that his involvement meant as actor and director, Heston told producer Zugsmith that he would love to do the project. Rather than lose Heston, Zugsmith managed to get Universal to agree to let Welles direct, on the condition that he
could also rewrite. Although much of the mystery element is revealed to the audience, it is Vargas who cannot unravel all the threads and make his clues add up to anything.
This nightmarish descent into dark entertainment has so much weirdness going on it's amazing. Marlene Dietrich, reprising her GOLDEN EARRINGS drag, smoking cigars and scraping pots, almost steals it. Complete with German accent and huge, light eyes at half mast, she's the most surreal excuse for a
Mexican gypsy you've ever seen. When she sees Welles, big as a house with a false nose, it's the film's best line and a prophecy of Wellesian doom: "You're a mess, honey. You've been eating too much candy." Like Dietrich, Heston skips the Mexican accent as well. He looks like a muscular, surly
version of an El Greco. Janet Leigh is at her most peversely innocent, and besides lots of grisly scenes (a murder by Welles the worst), there are a slew of outrageous cameos, including appearances by Welles crony Joseph Cotten, Zsa Zsa Gabor (totally unaware what kind of film she's making),
Dennis Weaver (unbelievably loopy), Ray Collins and, wildest of all, Mercedes McCambridge as a butch biker. The blonde in the exploding car is Joi Lansing, the poor man's Mamie Van Doren. EVIL was filmed at Universal, with some locations at Venice Beach. It's greatly enhanced by Mancini's
dangerous, Latin Rock score. Baroque, maddening, and totally inspired.
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- Review: Orson Welles' reworking of a script written by Paul Manash for "King of the Bs" Albert Zugsmith (adapted from Whit Masterson's novel Badge of Evil, which Welles never bothered to read) is widely considered one of his greatest achievements, a dark, perverse… (more)