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Movie Reivew: A Touch of Evil

By Vladimir V. Zelevinsky
Staff Reporter

Directed by Orson Welles

Written by Orson Welles, based on the novel by Whit Masterson

With Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles

In 1957, Orson Welles finished filming his last American film, a lurid and misanthropical thriller, Touch of Evil. Upon the completion of filming, Universal Studios immediately fired Welles (who was initially invited to direct only because of star Charlton Heston's insistence), and completely butchered the movie by breaking up extraordinary long shots, cutting scenes and introducing new ones, and so on. Welles, outraged, wrote a 58-page memo to the studio, detailing his vision for the film; this memo was ignored - but not lost. Forty years later, the trio of producer Rick Schmidlin, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, and film/sound editor Walter Murch (Oscar Winner for The English Patient) got access to the original footage and re-did the film according to Welles' memo. What emerges is a picture whose impact and influence can hardly be underestimated. Touch of Evil is not as much of a visual show-off as Citizen Kane, Welles' first film, but it has a more emotional - and more bleak - impact.

The film opens with one of the great cinematic moments. The single shot starts with a closeup of a hand setting a timer on a bomb (an attention-grabber if I ever saw one), and proceeds to show the shadowy figure putting the bomb in the path of a car. The car drives off and the camera pulls back to follow the complex trail of the car across the small city (spanning the U.S.Mexico border). The car swerves to avoid a herd of goats, honks at pedestrians, drives next to a walking newlywed couple, Mike and Susan Vargas (played by Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh), crosses the border, and leaves the frame, leaving Mike and Susan talking. Their conversation - and the opening shot - ends with a kiss and an explosion.

What follows is not so much an investigation of the crime (it eventually turns into a McGuffin) as a very creepy thriller, pitting two policemen - Vargas and American Hank Quinlan (Welles himself) - against each other. The plot swerves like the car in the opening scene as loyalties are betrayed and innocent people are terrorized, all of which Welles stages with his trademark mise-en-scene, with the textures, shapes, and spatial compositions being as important as the plot. The streets are littered with newspapers flying in the wind; the huge oil derricks ominously move in the background; stretches of desert seem to be infinite. The most imposing presence is Welles himself, looking grotesquely obese (made up and padded to look extra fat), mumbling and unshaven. He is by far the most interesting character in the film (Susan is more or less an object and Mike is too generic to hold much interest, although, admittedly, Heston manages to make the audience forget his ridiculous casting as a Mexican).

For a classic black-and-while movie, Touch of Evil is surprisingly intense: There is a long sequence where Susan is terrorized in an abandoned motel, and there's a gruesome murder of a supporting character later on, which can really rattle one's nerves. Suspense is maintained almost until the end - the finale, regrettably, suffers from somewhat far-fetched plotting, but this is compensated by the out-of-this-world visuals (the final sequence is kind of a parallel chase, which slowly moves from the town, with its well-lit and regular landscape, to the world of distorted shapes, ominous industrial structures, and liberally strewn garbage).

Of course, now it's clear how truly influential Touch of Evil is. The whole hotel sequence (with none other than Janet Leigh playing a woman in peril!) feels like a first draft of Psycho. Welles' portrayal of Quinlan as a man of inseparably intertwined law-obedience and depravity feels like a precursor of more than just Reservoir Dogs. And the labyrinthine plot, where alliances and loyalties are constantly traded for ulterior purposes, clearly had some influence on L.A. Confidential.