Perhaps the most surprising thing about Orson Welles' 1958 "Touch of Evil" is the way it continues to surprise. No amount of repeated viewings can dull the edge of its sinister ambience or soften the visual excitement Welles brought to this quintessentially cinematic film. A big-screen re-release in any version--and this film has seen several--would be welcome, but this latest (exclusively at the Nuart starting Friday) does what's never been done before: It presents a "Touch of Evil" that's closest to Welles' intentions.
While directors' cuts have become a standard come-on to publicize re-releases, this new 111-minute "Touch of Evil" offers considerably more than unseen scenes. By following the detailed instructions Welles offered in a celebrated 58-page memo he wrote after seeing what Universal had done to his cut, reedit producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch have made numerous small changes that result in a clearer, more understandable film.
For the paradox of what the studio did to Welles' version, the re-shoots and re-cutting it demanded, is that instead of making the film easier to follow (as was presumably intended), it bollixed things up. Possibly because Welles (who also wrote the script from a pulp novel by Whit Masterson) was ahead of his time in his ideas about crosscutting and use of sound, the director's version actually makes more sense, at least to modern viewers, than the slapdash edition Universal released at the time.
Though they make a considerable difference when added together, most of the modifications Schmidlin and Murch made are too specific to detail. Definitely not in that category, however, is the most visible of the changes: The credits that were once superimposed on the superb three-minute tracking shot, one of the most celebrated openings in American film, have now been banished from the sequence.
That complex shot tracks a bomb from the moment it's placed in a car trunk in Mexico to the resulting explosion that kills a stripper named Zita and Rudy Linnekar, one of the most prominent men in the mythical American border town of Los Robles.
Nearby when the bomb goes off just happens to be crusading Mexican police official Miguel "Mike" Vargas (Charlton Heston), chairman of the Pan American Narcotics Commission, and his brand-new American wife, Susan (Janet Leigh). Since the bomb originated in his country and Vargas is nothing if not conscientious, he immediately involves himself in the investigation.
That doesn't sit too well with Los Robles' local law enforcement legend. Touchy about his prerogatives, alternately bullying, whining, and dismissive, Capt. Hank Quinlan is as memorable a piece of acting as Welles (who wore padding for the role) ever did; a brilliant if grotesque characterization that commands attention from the first moment to the last.
Quinlan is described in the shooting script to "Touch of Evil" as "a grossly corpulent figure in an overcoat, a huge cigar in the middle of his puffy face," but even that image doesn't do justice to the huge, malignant toad Welles creates on camera. Venality and inner demons have marked Quinlan, and they're especially visible in his face, where tiny, gleaming eyes fight for life amid expanses of corrupt, bloated flesh.
The presence of Vargas and his wife soon draw the interest of crime boss Joe Grandi (a wheedling Akim Tamiroff), whose brother is one of those Vargas has imprisoned. Grandi is soon laying complex plans to embarrass and compromise the Mexico City cop, and he has no qualms about involving Vargas' naive young wife in his schemes.
Though their presence is the catalyst for much of the plot, Vargas and his wife are the least compelling people in "Touch of Evil." It's rather the film's gallery of grotesques we remember, like the unnerving blind woman who sits prominently in the frame as Vargas tries to have a romantic telephone conversation with his wife.
Other performances, even if they are small, have become close to legendary, like Mercedes McCambridge as the sinister leader of a drug-using gang, or Dennis Weaver as an unbalanced motel night man who totally loses control at just the mention of the word "bed."
Best of all is Marlene Dietrich, who wore a black wig to play Tanya, the owner of a local dive who delivers nothing but drop-dead lines. "You're a mess, honey," she tells Quinlan early on and later, when he asks her to read his future in the Tarot cards, she comes back with a blood-freezing, "You haven't got any. Your future's all used up."
Photographed by Russell Metty, "Touch of Evil" is one of the standard-bearers for the kind of eye-catching, bravura camera work Welles favored. Expressionistic in the extreme, filled with shadows, angles and cinematic flourishes, the film raises the usual brooding nightmare ambience of film noir to a level few other pictures have attempted.
Welles' original memo about "Touch of Evil" is scheduled to be published next year by the University of California Press, and it's doubtful if a more heartbreaking document has ever come out of Hollywood.
Visible on every page is how much Welles cared about his work, how much he knew about the craft of filmmaking, his passion for detail and, sensitive to his lack of influence, how polite and well-spoken he could be in making his case.
Though Welles is sadly aware that he's "the very last person whose opinion will likely carry any weight," he can't help but plead of his plan, "Do please--please give it a fair try." They didn't, and the man was never to make a film in Hollywood again. And though it's the expected thing to say, the truth remains that "Touch of Evil" shows how much we lost by his absence.
"Touch of Evil," Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles. Friday to Sept. 17; call for screening times. (310) 478-6379.