A Touch of Evil

In my review of “L.A. Confidential,” I commented that although it was good, it did not come close to matching the great film noirs (French for “black films”) of the past.

The classic film noirs came out in the ‘40s and ‘50s. They dealt with crimes, and they often used black and white photography and creative lighting to paint a bleak, pessimistic view of the world. Some of the film noir directors were Jews that escaped from Germany, so the anti-authoritarianism in film noir may be partially a response to Nazi tyranny.

Some of the most important film noirs include “Out of the Past,” ”Double Indemnity,” “Laura,” “Detour,” “The Third Man,” “The Maltese Falcon,” and “Kiss Me Deadly.”

Orson Welles’s “A Touch of Evil,” is arguably the greatest of all film noirs.

But when "A Touch of Evil" was first released in 1958, it came out in a butchered form. Several of Welles’s most innovative effects (including his modern cross cutting between scenes) were eliminated or altered to make the film more accessible. Even worse, some shots by another director were inserted.

A few years back, Universal released an improved cut of Orson Welles's "A Touch of Evil" which may be the greatest film nor of all time. This version will be playing at the Music Box on December 30-January 5.

This version comes closer to Welles's original vision of the film. It incorporates many of the suggestions he included in a 58 page memo that he sent to the studio before the film was released. Many scenes were reordered or reconstructed using the negative. A total of 50 changes were made

The most striking change occurs during the justifiably celebrated opening tracking shot. In the earlier versions, part of the complex scene was covered up with annoying titles, and a Mancini score obscured the film's brilliant use of sound (Welles used to work in radio so he used sound well.) The new version of the opening shot is more moodily evocative. The visuals and the music in tandem create a more chaotic and dangerous mood.

The film’s masterful titled camera angles, creative uses of sound and unforgettable dialog have more to do with the film’s status than the actual plot

A straight arrow Mexican narcotics agent named Ramon Vargas (believe it or not, Charlton Heston) is honeymooning with his American wife (Janet Leigh) near the Mexican border.

A nearby bomb blows up a millionaire, and the police quickly find a suspect. They believe that a show clerk set off the bomb, so he could live off the inheritance of his girlfriend’s wealthy father. Since the incident happened near Vargas’s territory, he takes a break from his honeymoon, and gets involved in the investigation.

The territorial American cops see Vargas’s help as intrusive, and they blindly follow their commanding officer, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles shot in the most grotesque, least flattering manner possible.).

Vargas begins to suspect that Quinlan is planning evidence, and he also strongly disapproves of his strong-arm tactics. In turn, Quinlan is threatened when Vargas begins digging up dirt on him. In order to take the heat off himself, Quinlan conspires with a gang leader to frame Vargas’s wife, Susan (Janet Leigh in another excellent performance.)

In one scenes, “A Touch of Evil” foreshadows “Psycho” which was made a year later with the same lead actress, Janet Leigh. In “A Touch of Evil,” Leigh’s character, Susan stays at a sinister hotel complete with a deranged clerk (Dennis Weaver.) After talking about Susan, Quinlan crushes an egg which reflects her role as a “captive bird.” “Psycho” also included some woman as bird gags, images, and puns.

“A Touch of Evil “includes some marvelous character interplay. The clash between Quinlan and Vargas when they express their views toward law enforcement is one of the best moments in the film.

It’s interesting and ironic to see the normally conservative Heston express the liberal, pro human rights view. He attacks Quinlan’s view towards the law when he says: “It [A policeman’s job} is supposed to be…it has to be tough. A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.” “

Like “Citizen Kane” the movie film seems to be as much about Welles as it is about his fictional characters. In one of the last scenes in the film, Quinlan asks Tanya played by the marvelously photogenic Marlene Dietrich.) to use her tarot cards to read his fortune. When she tells Quinlan, “You haven’t got any….your future is all used up,” the statement might well have been about Welles himself. He never made a film this great again, and he never quite fulfilled his enormous potential.

The movie has one major flaw. Its casting of Charlton Heston as a Mexican is ludicrous. Heston’s acting in the role is good, but his accent is all wrong. Also, after seeing him in dozens of films, it is difficult not to think of him as a Caucasian. Still, this does not seriously hurt the film.

“A Touch of Evil” should be seen again and again by every serious film buff. The film is so visually rich that only one viewing is inadequate to appreciate the full scope of the film’s achievement (I’ve seen it eight times, and I still notice new angels every time.)

Seeing the director’s cut of the film for the first time was one of my greatest experiences as a film critic. “A Touch of Evil” is a powerful and sublime masterpiece. If any film currently playing deserves four stars, it’s this one.


Vittorio Carli teaches film at Richard J. Daley College, and literature at Moraine Valley Community College. Visit his web site at www.artinterviews.com. E-mail him at carlivit@yahoo.com


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