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Touch of Evil

(Orson Welles, USA, 1958)


 


Undoubtedly the two most abused words in the lexicon of the contemporary film industry are director's cut.

 

This term evokes a dream of finally seeing certain great films in the exact pristine state that their makers intended them – without producer or studio interference, government censorship or the multitude of other vicissitudes that shape how a movie finally appears on screen.

 

These days, almost any alternate version of a film is sneakily touted as a director's cut. An early assemblage of Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946) was released in the mid ‘90s – a fascinating document but hardly the ultimate incarnation of its maker's intentions. Videos and laserdiscs of films where the image is simply cleaned up a little – or previously discarded material is now tacked as an afterthought – masquerade as director's cuts.

 

In my favourite case, the local World Movies cable channel showed a version of Irma Vep (1996) that was unaccountably missing its final scene, due to a laboratory error. When alerted of this mistake, the channel promptly substituted a full version of the film – but grabbed the opportunity to advertise it as the special director's cut!

 

The most recent (in fact, third) version of Orson Welles' masterpiece Touch of Evil (1958) now available indicates the complex ways in which films are made and re-made – particularly within the Hollywood system. By the time Welles was able to view a work print near to the completion of this project, it had already been significantly tampered with – certain scenes having been re-shot or added by another director.

 

In a final attempt to ensure some overall stylistic and narrative coherence, Welles penned a long memo detailing suggestions for the editing and sound mixing of the film. Twelve years after his death in 1985, this memo was used by a team of reconstructors – headed by post-production guru Walter Murch – to arrive at a speculative reconstitution of Touch of Evil as Welles might have preferred to see (and hear) it.

 

In truth, casual viewers of the new version (including some Welles fans) may be hard pressed to detect many of these changes. Only the justly famous opening scene – a long take that tracks cop Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susan (Janet Leigh) across the Mexican-American border – is strikingly altered, no longer having to compete with credits and Henry Mancini's score.

 

For those who know the film well, however, there can be no disputing the significance of the work done by Murch and his collaborators (including foremost Welles scholar, Jonathan Rosenbaum). Touch of Evil is now tighter, crisper, more of a piece. Into the bargain, the image quality has itself been cleaned up and enhanced – making the movie a more dazzling and baroque vortex than ever. (Arguments still rage, however, about the film’s correct aspect ratio.)

 

Touch of Evil hails from a lost era when nominal whodunits by directors such as Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger always held more in reserve than the simple answer to a plot enigma. This furiously complicated narrative – tracing the struggle between Vargas and his shady nemsis, Quinlan (Welles), over the identity of a murderer – has as its real, profound subject the moral problems of guilt and punishment, appearance and truth, means and ends.

 

But it is perhaps too easy to give the film a high-and-mighty Shakespearean aura, while downplaying what makes it so immediate, visceral and enjoyable. Touch of Evil is a B movie in every sense, fully exploiting the outrageous, scandalous trashiness of its seedy places, events and characters.

 

A key, unforgettable sequence where Susan is menaced by delinquents in a motel room – with its creepy intimations of violence, drug abuse and sexual violation – clearly foreshadows Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) and the entire career of David Lynch.

 

Touch of Evil is sometimes hailed as the last, magnificent gasp of the classic film noir era. To the standard, generic elements – cops and crime, dark streets, bars and bordellos – Welles adds his own intricate patterns. At every moment the story configures a triple transgression, superimposing bodily, ideological and geographical confusions.

 

That famous opening shot is not merely a show-off demonstration of visual style and narrative economy. It is an emblem of the way in which Welles expresses his knotty themes in a brilliant choreography of movement, space and action. The chief virtue of this new – and definitely improved – Touch of Evil is that it compels us to appreciate Welles' greatness all over again.

MORE Welles: The Lady from Shanghai

© Adrian Martin May 1999


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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