Orson Welles' Work of Evil Genius

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Why you should care

Because they don’t make ’em like this anymore. Really, they don’t. 

There’s a real skill to making the image-projected witchcraft of cinema seem less like something you’re watching and much more like something you’re living. But Promethean auteur Orson Welles did just that on May 21, 1958, and made it look easy. Against a jungle of corporate Hollywood involvement that back then, as maybe now, wouldn’t have recognized a good movie if it ran them down, Touch of Evil came to life when Welles, in a big-balled act of bravado, asked for and got the worst script Universal Pictures had.

And for his asking, they’d given him what was intended to be a B-grade film noir thriller called Badge of Evil, after the Whit Masterson novel of the same name. Convinced he could make even this script work, he changed the title to Touch of Evil. And then magic and an unintended series of magical events happened. Welles, who had just signed on as an actor, had the film’s lead, Charlton Heston (playing, in Hollywood’s backward thinking, a Latino cop), insist that Welles be the director, and then a steady stream of A-list talent that was more than happy to have Welles leave his mark after his most recent voluntary exile to Europe joined the cast. In short order, working with Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Keenan Wynn, Mercedes McCambridge, Joseph Cotten, Zsa Zsa Gabor, the later-famous Dennis Weaver and a reworked script about corruption on a Texas-Mexico border town, Welles just did Welles.

Murder, drugs, suggestions of gang rape, alcoholism, prostitution … Touch of Evil was a bouillabaisse of substandard behaviors.

There were long rehearsals pre-filming, during which the actors were asked to improvise and join in the rewrite process — crazy, collaborative and relatively unheard of at the time. And then there was Welles’ directorial genius, evident from the freaking outset, starting with the opening tracking shot lasting three minutes and 20 seconds (framed by students of the form as one of the most fabulous long takes in cinema history) to the now-obese Welles — a transformation from his rakish appearance in 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons to the almost 300-pound clot of vice and appetites that was his corrupt cop character, Hank Quinlan. DeNiro’s latter-day Jake LaMotta would have nothing on Welles’ Quinlan.

“This was one of the last great film noirs,” said Paul Poet, an Austrian filmmaker at Dor Film in Vienna. “And it had it all. There was absolutely no moral ambiguity here at all. It was all pretty clearly evil. At least most of the time.”

And indeed, featuring murder, drugs, suggestions of gang rape, alcoholism, prostitution, guns, knives, bombs and racism, Touch of Evil was a bouillabaisse of substandard behaviors. Strong stuff for 1958 and made even stronger yet by the black-and-white bristle of energy from just about every scene in the movie, up to and including the Henry Mancini score.

And then: Hollywood happened. Studio execs recut the movie, pitched it as a second feature on a B-grade billing and then, when it made not enough money, left it for dead. It was distinctly horrible and there are presently three different versions floating around today, the best one reconstituted from the now-dead Welles’ notes. But since true greatness will out?

Touch of Evil was preserved in the U.S. National Film Registry and has been recognized by the American Film Institute. Even on an original budget of $829,000, it managed to earn a little more than $2.2 million. None of which matters, really, up against the dark sparkle of scenes like the one above.

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