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Remakers of Touch of Evil try to give us what Welles wanted us to see.

By Joe Leydon

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  Newly restored to something approximating a "director's cut," Orson Welles' Touch of Evil comes across as one of the very best B-movies ever made. And, yes, that is meant as a compliment.

There is a great deal more mood than matter here, as Welles' flamboyant style overwhelms the flimsy substance of a melodramatic plot about crime, corruption and overzealous policing in a U.S.-Mexican border town. Charlton Heston is ludicrously miscast yet undeniably effective as a Mexican police detective who, while honeymooning with his new bride (Janet Leigh), runs afoul of an American cop (Welles) with a penchant for planting evidence. Bad things happen, worse things are implied - and everything, including Marlene Dietrich's cameo as a fortune-telling madam, appears larger and more lurid than life.

The 1958 film, loosely based on a long-forgotten novel by Whit Masterson, originally was intended as a star vehicle for Heston. According to Hollywood legend, it was Heston who suggested that Welles, already cast as the villain of the piece, be allowed to direct. The studio bosses readily agreed, since Heston, then a hot property in the wake of The Ten Commandments, carried considerable clout. They panicked, though, when they saw how the creator of Citizen Kane had turned a conventional thriller into an impressionistic "art film." The movie was re-cut, several scenes were re-shot (by contract director Harry Keller). Worse of all, Welles was rebuffed when he desperately tried to regain control of the project. For all practical purposes, the misadventure marked the end of his American directing career.

Forty years later, preservationists have attempted to give us a glimpse of Welles' original vision. Working from a 58-page memo Welles wrote to Universal Pictures after the studio banned him from the editing room, they have cobbled together a new and improved version that is as close to definitive as we're ever likely to see. It's hard to shake the suspicion that, for all its darkly dazzling technique, Touch of Evil is nothing more than sly sleight of hand by a master movie magician. But it's even harder to remain unimpressed by the sheer virtuosity of this brilliant trifle.


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