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The Boston Phoenix Touch Up

Mending Orson Welles's Evil ways

By Peter Keough

SEPTEMBER 21, 1998:  It wasn't supposed to be a masterpiece, just a solid commercial venture that would restore Orson Welles's credibility with Hollywood, where he hadn't worked in 10 years -- since his last studio-made masterpiece, The Lady from Shanghai, bewildered everyone and bombed. Three minutes into 1958's Touch of Evil, however, it was clear that Welles couldn't help himself -- it was the longest tracking shot in history, setting up every element of the brilliant, melancholy film noir to follow, summing up the genre of which it was one of the last and greatest examples, and blurring the boundaries between good and evil, duty and corruption, longing and loss that this film would forever define.

That despite Universal's ham-handed recutting of Welles's original version. Nonetheless, the newly edited release -- produced after years of painstaking labor by Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin based on a 58-page memo Welles sent to the studio in a last-ditch effort to preserve as much as possible of his handiwork -- is a boon to those who take the director, and film, seriously. The changes are subtle but comprehensive, drawing one inexorably into the eddying streams of narrative and the sourly claustrophobic setting. What at times seemed eccentric now feels inevitable; it unreels like a seedy, shaggy-dog tragedy.

The most obvious changes are in the legendary opening, in which two couples -- a rich American businessman and his blond bimbo joyriding in a convertible, and narcotics officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, in his best performance) and his new bride, Susan (Janet Leigh, likewise) -- take their intersecting, fateful paths through a dingy Mexican town and over the border to the United States. Previous versions had credits pasted on; there are none now. Instead of the jazzy Henry Mancini score, the scene is enveloped by the ambient sound Welles intended, a cacophony of car horns, randy jukeboxes, bleating goats, and a doomed car radio. Both soundtrack and visuals immerse you in a world both ambiguous and inescapable.

Not that Vargas tries very hard to get away. When the other couple's car explodes -- killing them -- just as he and Susan are about to kiss, his first impulse is to send his bride back to their hotel and play policeman and investigate. Separated, the two are at the mercy of evil influences, with the intertwining of their divergent trajectories clearer now that Welles's original cross-cutting has replaced the studio's clunkier, more "linear" editing. A young tough waylays Susan and takes her to "Uncle Joe" Grandi (a menacing, absurd and pitiable Akim Tamiroff), the brother of a druglord Vargas is about to prosecute in Mexico City. In her spirited naïveté, she exposes herself to Grandi's grandiose and sordid blackmail scheme.

Vargas, meanwhile, comes under the basilisk eye of Hank Quinlan (Welles, hilarious and heartbreaking), the local police chief with a vendetta against criminals -- his wife was murdered years before and the killer was never caught. He's set on pinning the murders on Sanchez (Victor Milian), a Mexican involved with the dead man's daughter. In another, even longer tour de force one-shot sequence, Quinlan interrogates Sanchez and searches his apartment, planting evidence to frame him. Vargas discovers the fraud, but the closer he gets to proving it, the more he removes himself from Susan, and the more vulnerable he becomes.

In a sense, Touch of Evil is the inverse of the standard film noir: the femme, instead of being fatale, is the hero's one chance of redemption. The villain's, too. In Quinlan's case, the love interest is his partner, Menzies (a haunting Joseph Calleia, whose performance is enhanced by the new edit, most notably the elimination of a crude reaction shot that debases his motivation), a faithful dog with a canine intuition for rectitude. As Quinlan gets seduced by the wheedling Grandi, their images are reflected on the window Menzies looks through; he's resigned, disapproving, loyal.

Then there's Marlene Dietrich's iconic Tanya, the gypsyish proprietor of the chili joint Quinlan haunted in his drinking days, perhaps a one-time flame, who refuses to read the driven man's future. "You haven't got any," she says. "Your future is all used up." That proved true for Welles with Hollywood. And as this radiantly dark re-release demonstrates, the loss was mostly ours.

Lucky Leigh

Among the many distinctions of her film career, Janet Leigh might be most noted for being featured in two of the most famous sequences in Hollywood film history: the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and the three-minute crane shot that opens Orson Welles's newly restored and re-released Touch of Evil. The former is the consummate masterpiece of montage, the latter of mise-en-scène. Both have been relentlessly imitated ever since, and at the heart of both is Janet Leigh, film icon.

"Isn't that amazing?" says Leigh over a cell phone en route to the airport for Toronto, where Touch of Evil is to be shown at the festival. "They're both so different, you know -- it's like apples and oranges. But -- how did I get so lucky? How did this happen? I'm higher than a kite right now, because I'm just so thrilled at the picture's reception. I mean, each day, it just seems to get better and better, and I think, 'Finally! We're really going to be able to appreciate the legacy that he left us!' "

Part of that legacy is the legend of the misunderstood genius, uncompromising about his art and thus a persona non grata in Hollywood. But not to Leigh. "Persona non grata? Not in our shooting. That and the two weeks' rehearsal was a sheer delight! We knew it was innovative, we knew it was different; no one knows if the public's gonna think so, you know. But we felt that we were part of something that was historical."

The trouble came after the shooting, during post-production.

"Orson gave his cut. Then they made some changes, but he said, 'I can live with this.' And he went to Mexico [to shoot his unfinished independent film Don Quixote]. Well, then what they did was they really re-edited it, and changed much of the intent, many of the relationships, and tried to make it what they considered at that time to be a normal, neat little package of a B picture. And of course it was much more than that! Orson could never make anything ordinary and had no intention of doing so. They didn't understand that at all, this didn't fit the pattern. And then they started to realize that maybe they were, like, in trouble or something, because it wasn't working."

So they started shooting new scenes, with another director, Harry Keller.

"We did added scenes, which were only what they called 'clarification' scenes. And they weren't at all; they only confused the matter. There was nothing I could do about it. Charlton Heston had much more to say, as far as clout, than I did. I voiced my objections, and that's as far as I could go. His stand was, 'I won't do these added scenes without Orson, the director.' "

Heston refused to shoot until he conferred with the studio head. They cancelled a day of shooting -- which Heston paid for -- but it was to no avail. When Welles saw the new version, he issued the now famous 58-page memo of suggestions as a kind of damage control. That memo, when it finally resurfaced, provided the basis for the new restored version, a labor of love for editor Walter Murch and producer Rick Schmidlin.

"It's clearer and more suspenseful," says Leigh. "They have reconstructed, as close as is humanly possible, without Orson actually being here, the picture he would have presented to us 40 years ago. I have to tell you, personally, when I saw it, I was so emotional, I just cried."

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