Orson Welles’ 1958 version of TOUCH OF EVIL is already regarded as a masterpiece. With a steady new appreciation of film noir, Welles’ influence is right up there when it comes to Tarantino and the rest of the young bloods doing their turn meditating on both pulp and the profound. TOUCH OF EVIL thoroughly fulfills this contemplation. Assigned as actor, Welles wrote the script in 17 days and also directed it without pay. He took a crime potboiler, “Badge of Evil,” and turned it to moral issues on the level of Shakespearian tragedy. Welles effectively changed the emphasis from a standard leading man role (Charlton Heston surreally cast as a Mexican narcotics officer with greasepaint and shoeshine polish hair) to the tale of a “great detective but a lousy cop” where “a policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.” Welles as Dectective Quinlan is a fascist we can understand – which is the sort of humanist compassion that informs most of Welles’ work. Though his first film at the age of 26, CITIZEN KANE, is the closest he ever got to his personal vision exercised in full freedom, TOUCH OF EVIL is a mature Welles certainly at the peak of his powers. To me, it is his best film. Ironically and bitterly, EVIL was originally released only as a second feature in America, though it opened to European raves (of course). As Welles himself put it, “I started at the top and worked my way down.”
But it is Welles’ camera eye that begs the most acclaim in EVIL. Much has been made of the opening shot, which is an incredibly long sinuous take. To those outside of film school, the question is probably “Why?” Today’s steady cam, a handheld camera with built-in gyro for fluid moves, can do much that had to be painfully executed on dolly track and crane in the 50’s. All this aside, EVIL’s opening take is still unequalled, because its sense of composition and audacity in moving from extreme close-up to a variety of set-ups (including craning over buildings) is more than mere grandstanding. The form is gorgeous but it is also content, a metaphor for the interdependence of things seen – a metaphor repeated again and again throughout the film. Events are often foreshadowed in the background while major scenes play out. It is one vast dark mandala: causes and conditions are inescapable. Godard said every camera set-up is a moral statement, and Welles accomplishes this with full awareness. I used to joke with film scholar Paul Stiver about the “camera-in-the toaster” shots of the American 60’s – when artiness and dope fused to give us reflections in polished metal for no other reason than it was trippy. The trend, unfortunately, has survived. In efforts to ape Welles, there is often a lack of understanding. His trademark low angles gave Olympian meaning to the events he portrayed. It was a world of earthbound tragic gods. The shots were not for their own sake.
Now Universal says we’ve had a opportunity to see the theatrical release of TOUCH OF EVIL as Welles intended, a film already more than 40 years ahead of its time. A posthumous director’s cut? Certainly a nervier statement than BLADE RUNNER’S director’s cut boasting an outtake from Ridley Scott’s LEGEND (a film that came after his release print of BLADE RUNNER). The big question: to what degree is it really Welles? Jonathan Rosenbaum, Welles scholar maximus, felt that 85% of Welles’s instructions, left behind in a 58 page memo, were followed. Rosenbaum was on board as an objective voice to reign in some of the more creative interpretations that Walter Murch might come up with. Even so, there are some questions. Welles didn’t like a close-up of Joseph Calleia’s face in one sequence – it’s shot with a fish-eye lens and looks quite grotesque. Murch, who is certainly one of the best editors alive, removed the shot altogether. To Murch’s astounding credit, he does so seemlessly – which meant he had to cut around Calleia putting his head down on a table. Think about it. A major piece of action has to be re-cut to look like it never happened. Murch achieves this – but would Welles have removed the shot without a substitute? The DVD actually includes this 58-page memo, so we can check. By God, it’s there in print – Welles wanted the shot out.
Frankly, in spite of many improvements, it is difficult not to have occasional nostalgia for the original, especially if you’ve seen it more than a dozen times and loved it. The opening shot has the titles removed, so you can really see it now. Henry Mancini’s various over-the-top jazz tracks now dimly comes out of cantina jukeboxes and car radios. It is wonderful, but a very different feel. But dare I say it? – I also kind of miss that Mancini title theme blasting. Just as eerie – to see the final shot devoid of end title. Still, it is easy to believe this is close to Welles’ true vision. Less so, a low angle of fatally wounded Welles stumbling back into a greasy pond in the oil field now interrupted with repeated cuts to the radio receiver Charlton Heston holds. When Welles finally falls, the cover of the radio is snapped shot like a coffin lid. Now the “coffin lid” seems like a Welles idea, but the intercut radio close-up repeated over and over? I don’t think so. Let’s take a look at the memo – here it’s hard to see what Welles is talking about – he wanted a sequence restored as he had previously edited it – but now how else could you do rapid cutting unless you did what Murch did? What else was there to intercut? In this, you can’t fault Murch’s choice. But Welles does not refer to the radio close-ups and it doesn’t seem like something he’d ever do – nor did he before and after this film. The insert close-up of the radio is so banally uninteresting – and to cut to it over and over is like a bad television effort at artiness. On the other hand, there’s the distinct pleasure of seeing the removal of a flat scene Welles didn’t direct where Heston explains what’s going on to Janet Leigh for the morons in the 1958 studio.
What an odditity to have this film resurface to fanfare at the same time that Welles-bashing has reached an all-time high. His published script THE BIG BRASS RING is made into a cable TV movie with only 5 recognizable minutes intact. His published script, THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, is junked completely for an inferior one on the same incidents (with no credit to Welles – and why should they – the text is completely different), opening with a clearly Wellesian take mimiced by Tim Robbins, and going on to show Welles himself as some sort of bombastic ham quite thoroughly shorn of genius. Likewise the cable movie RKO 281 which again shows Welles as a narcissitic vampire, and drags out the old Pauline Kael slander that it was really Herman Mankiewicz who is the auteur of CITIZEN KANE and anything else that was any good about it came from talent other than Welles, in spite of his body of work which clearly demonstrates that no matter who he worked with, his movies were Welles movies. In some ways all of this is worse that the treatment he got when he was alive, which was basically to be ignored. Now he is disintered and dragged around behind the demi-gods trying to look good at his expense. But wait, could it get any worse? The DVD release bills itself as widescreen, which amounts to cropping the original image to fool the collector into believing he has the real deal – a tendency Paul Stiver has already noted in other releases – and it’s a nasty one. To give you an idea, the laser disc of TOUCH OF EVIL shows the opening Universal logo – spinning planet Earth, space above and below the polar ice caps. In the DVD, it is cropped so significantly that the polar caps are cut off. Think of it – all those astounding, brilliantly composed Welles shots cropped top and bottom by the same kind of ham-fisted execs that re-edited his picture in the first place – like taking a razor to a Rembrandt so it fits better over the couch. Have you seen those decorator prints of Monet and Cezanne which have phony mattes and boarders? But at least the whole painting is there. To crop these shots is unpardonable – a total rip – fuck this DVD! Thank God I didn’t pay for it. It looks like we will have to keep seeing this version in the theaters.