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The Real 'Touch of Evil'

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 1998

  Movie Critic

Touch of Evil
Orson Welles directed the 1958 thriller "Touch of Evil." (AP photo)

Orson Welles
Orson Welles;
Charlton Heston;
Janet Leigh;
Marlene Dietrich;
Dennis Weaver;
Joseph Calleia
Running Time:
1 hour, 58 minutes
Contains scenes of a woman in jeopardy and some violence
Poor Janet Leigh never had much luck in motels. In "Psycho," she was stabbed to death in a motel shower. And in "Touch of Evil," something much worse happened: She was locked in a motel room, deprived of sleep and made to listen to bebop music until she cracked.

But if she didn't have much luck in motels, she had great luck in movies set in motels; after all, she was in both "Psycho" and "Touch of Evil."

The greatness of the former is beyond argument, and now, happily, so is the latter. Orson Welles's mad 1958 candy factory of film noir bonbons and his own sugar-soaked nougat-slathered acting is back, finally reedited to his specifications after Universal took it from his control and tried to reinvent it as a regular thriller. That was akin to trying to turn one of Liberace's rhinestone-studded jackets into a nice Republican cloth coat. Moreover, it contained what is considered the definitive corporate atrocity against genius: The Universal editors layered the titles over the movie's most flamboyant sequence, a three-minute no-cut tracking shot that set up the premise, introduced the characters, defined the milieu and got the story rolling – just a casual flourish of brilliance that has never ever been matched.

That is the first thing you notice in this restored version, formally titled "The Re-Edit of 'Touch of Evil'": The titles have been removed from the film's opening, and that great gush of genius, at last, is rendered without an interfering scrim. The film's sound editing has also been restored, readmitting Welles's use of overlapping dialogue and impressionistic sound (he served time in radio, after all). And the time scheme has been slightly altered: The original studio release in 1958 recast the narrative into strictly chronological sequences. Welles's own plan was to cross-cut, to suggest that things were happening simultaneously. The new editors, Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin, have gone to a great deal of trouble to rescue his original concept.

One result, or so it seems to me, is that it seems the long brutalization of Leigh in that motel room has been spread throughout the film; this somehow intensifies it uncomfortably, giving us time to imagine what is going on instead of merely hitting us over the head quickly. That's part of the movie's flirtation, too, with exploitation: It teasingly contrives to get the most curvaceous women in the world stripped down to one of those fantastic plastic-rubberized gadget-laden undergarment contraptions of the '50s that seem an enterprise of both prurience and world-class elastic-stress engineering. It turns her body into a stylization of art moderne and deco; it weirdly and dangerously eroticizes her ordeal (as, ironically, Hitchcock would do two years later in "Psycho").

That wasn't the only dangerous thing the ever-adventurous Welles did. He built the film out of taboo oppositions (there are three white-Hispanic couples). That's the touch of evil he was documenting: sexual resentment as it played across racial grounds.

That he approached such ideas is amazing; that he got them into a B-movie in 1958 is truly heroic, particularly when one considers how his career had collapsed since its apogee in 1940, when he flew out to Hollywood to shoot the movie that would become "Citizen Kane" with an unprecedented amount of freedom. By 1958, with one unmitigated commercial failure after another on his resume, he had achieved an almost unprecedented lack of freedom.

In fact, so unusual is the film's origin that it seems to represent the artist's cynicism at its highest point, his contempt for Hollywood. He agreed to take, almost as a finger exercise, the worst script Universal owned if he could but rewrite it for two weeks (the script was originally adapted from "Badge of Evil," by Whit Masterson). In this act, one can see his faith in his own powers, his need to subvert the system, and at the same time his desperate need to be loved.

It's probably the most passive-aggressive production start-up ever. He had to know they would take it from him. They always did. But his credo seemed to be: I will make art from crap, because that is what I do; then you will turn it back into crap, because that is what you do.

Permission was ultimately granted when Charlton Heston, then at the peak of his star power on the strength of "The Ten Commandments," agreed to star, out of his own enthusiasm for Welles's work. Of course, like all good-deed doers, Heston was well rewarded with punishment. His was the thankless role of the straight-arrow good guy amid all the orchids of human evil flourishing in the hothouse atmosphere of what looked like a Mexican border town, but was really Venice, Calif., about 30 minutes from Welles's beloved Chasen's. And on top of that, Heston had to wear shoe polish on his face and somebody's idea of a Mexican mustache!

The movie really exists in three planes. Its first, the story, is the least interesting: In a corrupt border town, a visiting Mexican police agent named Vargas (Heston) discovers that a legendary American lawman named Hank Quinlan (Welles) is fabricating evidence to convict a Mexican youth of murder. When he presses his objection, the old cop bands with a Mexican crime boss (Akim Tamiroff) to kidnap the agent's wife (Leigh); but the agent rescues his wife, pursues the investigation and ultimately brings the lawman down. Only then – el cheapo ironic denouement – does it become clear that the Mexican youth really was guilty of the crime.

You could write a better story in a morning without coffee. What makes the film extraordinary is its second plane, which is the visual. Using the brilliant cinematographer Russell Metty and shooting in the then largely passe black-and-white, Welles unleashed a torrent of nightmare images that set the piece not in "El Robles," or even in Venice, but in his own subconscious. We are strangers in that strange land:

You can pick any of two dozen moments of genius in the film, but to do that, really, is to atomize the totality of it. It is of a piece, one dark rhapsody on the theme of guilt and pride, set in a swirling sewer of a place, peopled with grotesques of such vividness that they linger in your mind like Munch's screamer on the bridge.

The camera itself is almost a character; it glides through the perfectly syncopated action, its grace the only note of beauty in the squalor. It stops now and then to admire a particularly grotesque character, such as Dennis Weaver's craven motel manager, a being so creepy he would give Norman Bates the shakes.

Then there is Marlene Dietrich, under a black fright wig, so incongruous she could have wandered in from the set of "Der Rosenkavalier" next door. This movie even finds room for Zsa Zsa Gabor and, ladies and gentlemen, if we can agree on no other thing, we can agree on this: "Touch of Evil" is the best film Zsa Zsa Gabor ever made.

But the secret thrust of the movie, its third plane, is autobiographical. Amid the perky, pointy Leigh, the noble, suffering Heston, the enigmatic Dietrich, the weirded-out Weaver and the shamelessly submissive Joseph Calleia, as Quinlan's number one guy, there is Welles's Hank Quinlan.

"Honey, you're a mess," says Dietrich, with her gimlet-eyed Teutonic realism. Yes, but what a mess: Quinlan is a great slobbering ruin, his eyes tiny behind the bulging meat sack of his face. He moves slowly, with a bristle of beard, on a game leg, in a suit that's a collection of feed bags and burlap. He has an old lion's eyes, too old to hunt but driven insane by the scent of flesh.

He's a kind of anti-Falstaff, a font not of life but of death, so locked into his way he cannot change. The movie amounts almost to Welles's mea culpa for the waste he's made of his career. Heston's Vargas is the new Hollywood, impatient, disrespectful, morally right but somehow without vision. He is simply dull, and his dullness isn't the flaw of the actor but the design of the piece.

Hank, it is said, always got by on instinct. That is, he knew. He had talent. He could sniff out the guilty. Because he was so powerful he had no need to play by the rules. But now his time is over – brought down by, among other things, technology (Welles makes a great deal of the tape-recording gizmo, which is the instrument of Hank's defeat), but more by lack of faith. It's no longer enough simply to feel things, as genius does; you have to analyze them first.

In death, the great Hank floats with the grandeur of an Egyptian pharaoh's barge down the river Styx on a moonless night four thousand years ago, stately, plump, dead. It's really just a fat, corrupt cop, his suit having captured bladders of air, drifting down a river of garbage. Yet what it foretells, tragically, is Welles's own death in a world where genius is never again quite enough.

"He was a man," says Dietrich, offering up an epitaph as aircraft carrier Hank floats away.

But you're thinking: Actually, he was a director.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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