A toast to a Touch of Evil

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:

This version has been re-edited according to Orson Welles’ original vision, as outlined in a 58-page memo that the director wrote to Universal studio head Edward Muhl in 1957, after Muhl took editing out of Welles’ hands. The new version has been prepared by editor Walter Murch, sound recordists Bill Varney, Peter Reale, and picture restorer Bob O’Neil under the supervision of Rick Schmidlin and film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.

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:

https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=LAWFPAB4XLHAW

22 Responses A toast to a Touch of Evil
Posted By Tom S : February 13, 2011 4:32 pm

Touch of Evil is my favorite Welles, passing both Kane and F for Fake. One of my favorite aspects, which I hadn’t noticed myself until watching it with commentary, is that there are _two_ enormously long, gorgeous takes- the first one at the opening, and one in the middle of the movie, when Quinlan is framing the guy with dynamite. It’s masterful, and also far less showy than the opening- you never notice that it’s all one take until it’s pointed out, but it’s hard not to sit back and admire Welles’ genius once it has been.

The part that always lives in my memory, though, is the ending, with Marlene Dietrich’s curt eulogy and walk away- “What does it matter what you say about people?” expresses so much about Welles, his artistry, and his melancholy, that I can hardly take it.

Posted By Tom S : February 13, 2011 4:32 pm

Touch of Evil is my favorite Welles, passing both Kane and F for Fake. One of my favorite aspects, which I hadn’t noticed myself until watching it with commentary, is that there are _two_ enormously long, gorgeous takes- the first one at the opening, and one in the middle of the movie, when Quinlan is framing the guy with dynamite. It’s masterful, and also far less showy than the opening- you never notice that it’s all one take until it’s pointed out, but it’s hard not to sit back and admire Welles’ genius once it has been.

The part that always lives in my memory, though, is the ending, with Marlene Dietrich’s curt eulogy and walk away- “What does it matter what you say about people?” expresses so much about Welles, his artistry, and his melancholy, that I can hardly take it.

Posted By Oscar : February 13, 2011 4:35 pm

Yes, a masterpiece that has risen from the ashes. Note that Janet Leigh is attacked in a dingy motel with a creepy clerk, two years before Psycho. (Here Dennis Weaver plays the motel clerk.) Ironically, Welles’ brutal policeman turns out to have been right in trusting his instincts, but he is nonetheless doomed. I hope you have a great showing!

Posted By Oscar : February 13, 2011 4:35 pm

Yes, a masterpiece that has risen from the ashes. Note that Janet Leigh is attacked in a dingy motel with a creepy clerk, two years before Psycho. (Here Dennis Weaver plays the motel clerk.) Ironically, Welles’ brutal policeman turns out to have been right in trusting his instincts, but he is nonetheless doomed. I hope you have a great showing!

Posted By dukeroberts : February 13, 2011 4:45 pm

I wish I could be there for that. I revisit the movie every now and then by watching the 50th anniversary DVD. It has two versions of the movie, but I didn’t realize that, aside from Welles’s original version, there were two cuts prior to the 1998 version. Have I seen the 1958 version or the 1970′s version? Regardless, both cuts I’ve seen are extraordinary. Please let us know if Chili Palmer shows up for the screening!

Posted By dukeroberts : February 13, 2011 4:45 pm

I wish I could be there for that. I revisit the movie every now and then by watching the 50th anniversary DVD. It has two versions of the movie, but I didn’t realize that, aside from Welles’s original version, there were two cuts prior to the 1998 version. Have I seen the 1958 version or the 1970′s version? Regardless, both cuts I’ve seen are extraordinary. Please let us know if Chili Palmer shows up for the screening!

Posted By Tom S : February 13, 2011 10:27 pm

@Oscar- the only evidence we get that Welles’ policeman was right is that the suspect confessed- and since the police, under Welles, were obviously trying to beat a confession out of him, I don’t know how much faith I would place in that.

Of course, I believe Welles’ comment was that the whole question of whether he was ‘really’ guilty or not was totally irrelevant, which I agree with.

Posted By Tom S : February 13, 2011 10:27 pm

@Oscar- the only evidence we get that Welles’ policeman was right is that the suspect confessed- and since the police, under Welles, were obviously trying to beat a confession out of him, I don’t know how much faith I would place in that.

Of course, I believe Welles’ comment was that the whole question of whether he was ‘really’ guilty or not was totally irrelevant, which I agree with.

Posted By Stacia : February 13, 2011 11:41 pm

I love “Touch of Evil” and, perhaps unfortunately, never felt infuriated by the film itself. I have, however, gotten pretty irritated at trying to piece together which version is which! The first version I saw was the 1970s version, which I can now compare with the 1998 restoration because of the terrific DVD release, but I’m one of those stuffy purists who gets miffed at the letterboxing when the film was shot in fullscreen ratio! I know, I’m fussy and high maintenance. I fully admit this.

dukeroberts, I believe (and I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong!) that there are 3 versions in that 50th anniversary edition: The 1998 restoration, the 1958 theatrical release, and the “preview version” from the 1970s. Back in the 1980s, people thought this version was Welles’ original cut. We now know it was the version used by the studio for pre-release screenings and was never released to theaters.

Posted By Stacia : February 13, 2011 11:41 pm

I love “Touch of Evil” and, perhaps unfortunately, never felt infuriated by the film itself. I have, however, gotten pretty irritated at trying to piece together which version is which! The first version I saw was the 1970s version, which I can now compare with the 1998 restoration because of the terrific DVD release, but I’m one of those stuffy purists who gets miffed at the letterboxing when the film was shot in fullscreen ratio! I know, I’m fussy and high maintenance. I fully admit this.

dukeroberts, I believe (and I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong!) that there are 3 versions in that 50th anniversary edition: The 1998 restoration, the 1958 theatrical release, and the “preview version” from the 1970s. Back in the 1980s, people thought this version was Welles’ original cut. We now know it was the version used by the studio for pre-release screenings and was never released to theaters.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 14, 2011 12:15 am

Stacia- You are absolutely correct! I had forgotten that there were 3 versions in that set. As soon as I had a chance to look at it I got online to correct my error, but you had already beaten me to it. I know I haven’t seen one of the two older cuts, but I’m not sure which one. I may have to make a weekend out of watching all 3 for comparison. Why not? Football season is over.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 14, 2011 12:15 am

Stacia- You are absolutely correct! I had forgotten that there were 3 versions in that set. As soon as I had a chance to look at it I got online to correct my error, but you had already beaten me to it. I know I haven’t seen one of the two older cuts, but I’m not sure which one. I may have to make a weekend out of watching all 3 for comparison. Why not? Football season is over.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 14, 2011 12:18 am

While we’re on the subject of Welles, might anyone have an idea when The Magnificent Ambersons might be released on DVD? I had the nice TCM VHS edition years ago, but I would love to see it, despite it not being his pure vision-version, on DVD.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 14, 2011 12:18 am

While we’re on the subject of Welles, might anyone have an idea when The Magnificent Ambersons might be released on DVD? I had the nice TCM VHS edition years ago, but I would love to see it, despite it not being his pure vision-version, on DVD.

Posted By Tom S : February 14, 2011 2:03 am

Duke- Warner has said that they want to find additional elements before they release it (which they’ve been saying for years), but you can buy it here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Magnificent-Ambersons-DVD-Joseph-Cotten/dp/B000EHPOVE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1297663229&sr=8-1 if you have a region free DVD player.

Posted By Tom S : February 14, 2011 2:03 am

Duke- Warner has said that they want to find additional elements before they release it (which they’ve been saying for years), but you can buy it here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Magnificent-Ambersons-DVD-Joseph-Cotten/dp/B000EHPOVE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1297663229&sr=8-1 if you have a region free DVD player.

Posted By keelsetter : February 14, 2011 2:20 am

Just got back from the screening and am pleased to report a nice turnout! To address some of the comments above; I concur with the interesting parallels that seem to exist between TOUCH OF EVIL and PSYCHO, in regards to Janet Leigh, the dingy hotel, and the very odd clerk who assists her. Hitchcock also used some shots of Norman Bates with stuffed birds in the background that echo the screengrab above with Welles and the bull’s head. Director’s are always cribbing stuff from each other, and Hitchcock was clearly paying attention to Welles. Now, as to the aspect ratio business, all I can say is that although IMDB lists the restored print as: “1.37 : 1 (negative ratio) / 1.85 : 1 (intended ratio)” my projectionist showed it full screen at 1.37:1 and it looked great! And, Duke, I wish I had answers for you in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS dept – but that’s simply a damn good question. I remember seeing a laserdisc of it (back in the day), and it appears some foreign DVD releases might exist. But why it’s not readily available here in North America is as much a mystery to me as you. Speaking of mysteries; did Heston have it written in his contract that he had to show his pecs any chance he could? After his scuffle in the bar in TOUCH OF EVIL his shirt is torn in a very revealing way that reminded me of the many other times I’d seen his pecs, like PLANET OF THE APES and THE OMEGA MAN. Speaking of Charlton Pecton; his brown-face in TOUCH OF EVIL doesn’t really bug me much, but whenever he spoke Spanish I couldn’t help but cringe a little. Still… what a brilliant film. I’ve still got goosebumps.

Posted By keelsetter : February 14, 2011 2:20 am

Just got back from the screening and am pleased to report a nice turnout! To address some of the comments above; I concur with the interesting parallels that seem to exist between TOUCH OF EVIL and PSYCHO, in regards to Janet Leigh, the dingy hotel, and the very odd clerk who assists her. Hitchcock also used some shots of Norman Bates with stuffed birds in the background that echo the screengrab above with Welles and the bull’s head. Director’s are always cribbing stuff from each other, and Hitchcock was clearly paying attention to Welles. Now, as to the aspect ratio business, all I can say is that although IMDB lists the restored print as: “1.37 : 1 (negative ratio) / 1.85 : 1 (intended ratio)” my projectionist showed it full screen at 1.37:1 and it looked great! And, Duke, I wish I had answers for you in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS dept – but that’s simply a damn good question. I remember seeing a laserdisc of it (back in the day), and it appears some foreign DVD releases might exist. But why it’s not readily available here in North America is as much a mystery to me as you. Speaking of mysteries; did Heston have it written in his contract that he had to show his pecs any chance he could? After his scuffle in the bar in TOUCH OF EVIL his shirt is torn in a very revealing way that reminded me of the many other times I’d seen his pecs, like PLANET OF THE APES and THE OMEGA MAN. Speaking of Charlton Pecton; his brown-face in TOUCH OF EVIL doesn’t really bug me much, but whenever he spoke Spanish I couldn’t help but cringe a little. Still… what a brilliant film. I’ve still got goosebumps.

Posted By dukeroberts : February 14, 2011 1:40 pm

Thanks, Tom! Unfortunately, I guess I have to wait. Warners is stringing me along about releasing my beloved Herculoids on DVD as well. Come on, Warner Brothers!

Posted By dukeroberts : February 14, 2011 1:40 pm

Thanks, Tom! Unfortunately, I guess I have to wait. Warners is stringing me along about releasing my beloved Herculoids on DVD as well. Come on, Warner Brothers!

Posted By suzidoll : February 15, 2011 1:00 am

I think Welles worked MORE for posterity than he did for money, and he knew he was doing it. His whole directorial career was about that. But, then again, he could get away with it.

Posted By suzidoll : February 15, 2011 1:00 am

I think Welles worked MORE for posterity than he did for money, and he knew he was doing it. His whole directorial career was about that. But, then again, he could get away with it.

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