Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on February 13, 2011
Orson Welles once said “I don’t think that I will be remembered one day. I find it as vulgar to work for posterity as for money.” He’s right about that, on both counts, but that still didn’t stop him from hawking wine for Paul Masson, or from getting a serendipitous and unplanned double-tribute here on the Movie Morlocks page.
All good things do eventually come to an end and even our very sun will implode in a few billion years, so everything is relative in the grand scheme of things. But for now, even though Welles has been dead for over a quarter-of-a-century, here we are – still talking about him, writing about him, thinking about him, and – more importantly – still watching his films, and not just on TV but in the movie theaters proper. Daunting as it is to follow up yesterday’s extremely entertaining and informative post by David Kalat on one of Welles’ more obscure works, I have reason to tub-thump today for one that every film buff already knows intimately: Touch of Evil. The simple reason is that my film series screens it tonight. Even better, the projectionist report on the film inspection makes me smile, for it’s a beautiful archive print (tip of the hat to Paul Ginsburg at Universal for this).
Touch of Evil was based on Badge of Evil, a novel by Whit Masterson that was dismissed by many critics as banal and unworthy of Welles’ attention. Tell that to Charleton Heston; he championed it as a great thriller – Welles only read the book after his rewrites to Paul Monash’s original script. The 95-minute version of the film that first got pushed out into the public was hampered by studio meddling (the producers cut 67 pages from Orson’s rewrite, among other things) and was unceremoniously dumped onto the film market as a B-Movie to Harry Keller’s The Female Animal. (File this under: “Adding insult to injury,” since Keller was the same guy who was brought in by the suits for re-shoots to Touch of Evil that helped mangle Welles’ version.)
Many critics were openly dismissive of Touch of Evil when it came out or, even worse, cruelly condescending of the film. This failure cemented Welles’ separation from the studio system. On the bright side: Touch of Evil went on to win the top prize at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The thanks that the head of distribution got for that was to get sacked by the higher-ups at Universal, they being quite miffed for not having been consulted about the film being submitted to the festival in the first place. (Politics!) From there on out Touch of Evil gained even more traction over the years in both fame and prestige, but it was four more years before Welles got back in the director’s chair. Happily, that result was The Trial in 1962 – an artistic triumph that proved what Welles was capable of when he had final cut. (Yesterday’s post, of course, is an illustration of the opposite, so there’s plenty of room here for paradox.)
True film lovers saw beyond the opening financial failure of Touch of Evil and its “floundering story” (to paraphrase from Variety’s unkind review). It had many formidable achievements, Russell Metty’s cinematography is visually stunning, it has great dialogue, Henry Mancini’s music hits the right notes, and the film hints at dark but cosmic truths. There is also something deeply poignant and personal within this film that resonates alongside Welles’ many other films that portray giants among men who are brought down by their own hubris. In this case it’s Hank Quinlan, a boozy American sheriff situated in a Mexican-American border town. (It should have been shot in Tijuana but the studio wanted it all done on a set. The compromise was Venice, California.)
Aside for the various virtuoso and visual moments that mark Touch of Evil as a seminal film noir, the characters play out bigger roles than that contained by the screen. As Roger Ebert puts it: Quinlan’s character is “running down after years of indulgence and self-abuse, and his ego leads him into trouble.” Which is to say Quinlan becomes a signifier for Welles himself. Or, as Ebert again puts it: “Welles brought great style to his movies, embracing excess in his life and work as the price (and reward) of his freedom.”
Welles was only paid as an actor for directing Touch of Evil and he took on the job reluctantly. Charlton Heston only wanted to do the picture if Welles was at the helm. So not only did Touch of Evil have a reluctant director, but it also had a reluctant producer (Albert Zugsmith). After all, Welles’ reputation amongst the suits had not put him at the top of the list. But business is business, and Heston had clout.
Welles did his part to avoid as many fights as he could with the studio by shooting much of Touch of Evil at night. This was a genius way to discourage micro-managing studio suits from interfering and meddling with him. The good news was this tactic worked and Welles had so much freedom that he later claimed he had the most fun in shooting Touch of Evil than on any other Hollywood picture. The bad news is that having fun and avoiding the studios is not without its consequences.
When he was done, Welles fled the scene of the crime, so to speak. The Tijuana-deprived director managed to get his Mexico-fix after all while pursuing his film version of Don Quixote (again, see yesterday’s great in-depth review by Dave Kalat for more on that). This excursion meant that Welles wasn’t around when the studio asked for post-production cuts to Touch of Evil. Welles got the boot. The studio got the scissors. We got the 1958 cut. Well, not me, I was born later, so what I got was the seventies version.
Re-released in 1975 this Touch of Evil version was 108-minutes long and deleted most of the footage that had been re-shot by Mr. Keller, the uncredited Female Animal guy. That was replaced with some of Welles’ original footage – now finally getting a top billing over Keller’s work. But it was still problematic, and the famous opening shot (referenced brilliantly in The Player, and not so brilliantly in many other films), was still cluttered with opening credits.
The most definitive edit came about twenty years later with the 1998 restoration. Be careful not to call it the “Director’s Cut,” for as IMDB notes: “Welles’ original cut was done immediately after filming was completed. This cut no longer exists.” Also: although Welles wanted to shoot widescreen (I.85:1), the studio made him go full screen (1.37:1), so when the ’98 restoration presents it widescreen, it remains a bit of a fudge for purists. Sometimes the seeds provided for a restoration can only do so much. The seeds in this case go back to when Welles was shown the studio’s original cut. He then immediately shot off a memo to the suits with a missive that contained what was missing and what should have been added, and this is what provided the framework for the 111 minute version that now exists. That famous memo was once thought a lost artifact, but resurfaced when found in Charlton Heston’s possession. I’m tempted to dig deeper into how Heston could lose such a thing, but for now I’ll guess that he misplaced it in one of the Mexican government suits that Welles had tailored for him to use as a costume. Maybe we have an attentive dry-cleaner to thank. Further notes in IMDB clarify how the restoration came to be:
By the way, that would be the same Rosenbaum who left a comment for David on yesterday’s Don Quixote post, and whose B.F.I. Modern Classics book on Dead Man I am currently reading. Small world! Unlike shoddy film pimps who simply quilt blog posts by going through the trivia section of IMDB, Rosenbaum is a true film scholar. (He co-authored Midnight Movies with J. Hoberman – one of my most treasured books.)
But back to my pimping for tonight’s film: if I’ve ignored going into the plot details for Touch of Evil, consider it an homage to Welles himself, who claimed his goal was to purposefully infuriate his audience (and this supposedly in homage to Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep). Herein might lie one of the clues for his bizarre casting choices (already covered in Jeff’s very popular July 17 post, Curiouser and Curiouser Casting Choices). Welles clearly succeeded in infuriating the studio, and his originally botched version may have infuriated many critics, but the film we all know and love has risen far above all that, going much higher than its famous opening crane shot; it has sailed onward and upward into the cinematic firmament where it still surprises us by exceeding the sum of its many parts.
I urge anyone living in Colorado to come to Boulder tonight for its 7pm screening – especially as true repertory programming on celluloid prints from studio archives is becoming harder and harder to come by. Digital projection got a very slow start, but that expansion has officially entered the tsunami stage. We, the lovers of grain, are now officially on the endangered species list.
On a final and noir-related note: Fellow Morlock Mr. R. Emmet Sweeney has asked us to remind lovers of film noir that there is a fundraising effort afoot this Feb. 14th – 21st to help restore Cy Endfield’s The Sound of Fury (1950). Check out the link below and consider making a contribution to this very good cause:
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