office returns and his relative combativeness, the director, following the disaster of his Macbeth (1948) adaptation, packed his bags and set off for Europe, where he remained for nearly a decade. There, he made (and starred in) some of the most interesting projects of his career.
It took an offer to craft a pilot for Desilu productions in 1956 to coax him into returning to the U.S. Fortunately, that undertaking, along with a radio hosting gig and a starring role in 1957’s commercially successful Man in the Shadow, helped bring him back to prominence in the states.
But unbeknownst to Welles, disenchantment would soon overtake him once more, this time as a result of writing and directing Touch of Evil (1958).
Two stories regarding how the filmmaker became the movie’s premier artistic force have held steady over the years. In one, Charlton Heston, the movie’s lead, recalls that Welles had originally just been hired to act in the film, and was ultimately given writing and directing responsibilities after Heston indicated greater interest if Welles were behind the camera, too.
But in the other, Welles is portrayed as being much more hands-on, involved even before production began. In this particularly story, he, wanting to take a risk for his next cinematic venture, chose the worst screenplay in a stack curated by B-film producer Albert Zugsmpth in order to prove that he could turn something shoddy into something great. According to legend, he picked Badge of Evil (1956), itself an adaptation of Whit Masterson’s novel of the same name.
Pre-production was smooth, and so was filming. Shooting went without any major setbacks, finishing on schedule and staying under budget, with, to Welles’ delight, consistent praise from studio bosses fortunate enough to have seen the initial dailies. But once Welles delivered the picture’s rough cut to Universal, the situation steadily declined. Fearing audiences would receive the movie about as well as they had the auteur’s most recent works, the studio re-cut and re-shot much of the movie’s material, so much so that Welles considered disowning the work.
At the height of his frustrations, he even submitted a 58-page memo to Universal head Edward Muhl, each page suggesting what could be done to make the movie more accessible. But the studio wouldn’t relent, and released the film without adhering to any of Welles’ desires. It wasn’t until 1998 that the movie he intended to make was actually seen.
No matter its form, though, Touch of Evil is not a film whose efficiency depends entirely on its storyline. Like Welles’ underrated The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Touch of Evil is a movie made to cater to the senses: the music lulls, tinny and spooky; the cinematography’s all eccentric angles and high-contrasted ink blots; the performances are pulsating and frantic.
Does it even take place in the same cinematic universe as its film noir counterparts? Welles’ unceasing undermining of filmmaking conventions enforces ethereality, sometimes nightmarishness. Though we suspect the latter characteristic is not exactly one developed on purpose; it’s just an effect of Welles sidestepping cinematic tradition and being particularly detail-oriented in the upkeep of his cabinet of stylistic curiosities.
The movie works over us sensorily more proficiently than it does intellectually — “I’d seen the film four or five times before I noticed the story,” director Peter Bogdanovich admitted while chatting with Welles years later — but such isn’t the result of the latter forgetting to embed substance within the style. The substance is here, all right: it’s just that the style is so entrancing that we forget to pay close attention to what thematics and dramatics Welles puts on the table for us. It’s unlike anything I – and, I’m assuming, countless other viewers – have ever seen. Once the movie’s opening, an audacious three-and-a-half minute tracking shot, starts to roll, we’re captivated.
Attempt to step out of its woozy artistic smog, though, and you’ll notice that Touch of Evil, does, in fact, have a plot as stimulating as its burnished sheen. In it, an honest Mexican cop (Heston) wages war against a corrupted lunatic of a detective (Welles) attempting to frame an innocent racial minority for a car bombing.
This allows for the film to break off in many directions. Sometimes it’s a study of power, and how the abuse of it can eventually have a negative impact on those drunk on it. Sometimes it’s a commentary on race relations, and how our own assumptions and micro-aggressions can play a major part in punishment when the stakes are high enough. But it’s mostly about one man’s downfall and another’s having to pay the price for that downfall.
Among Touch of Evil’s many perks, then, is how many interpretations can be thrust upon it without it ever appearing too dense. It can be luxuriated in for its effortless way of grabbing us by the lapels and shaking us for two hours. But viewers can also revel in its shape-shifting, provocative commentaries, and how they carry weight while still being steeped in the nightmarish pulp fantasies of the overarching movie.
Yet Touch of Evil’s greatest assets are the performances, mostly because they dare to be as hyperbolic and cockeyed as the film in which they’re set free. Heston, mustachioed and questionably playing Mexican, is a slab of hyper-masculine heroism — not a thing about him isn’t MGM-perfect, aside from the unfortunate brown face (which seems more a deliberate way to throw us off than a racial insensitivity). As Heston’s wife, Janet Leigh is a blonde icicle, prancing around in a Playboy bustier and hurling raspy-voiced insults until they don’t stick anymore. (There comes a moment when she actually finds actually in danger.)
It’s Welles who runs away with the movie, though. Padded to look like a human bulldozer, sweat profusely seeping out of his pores between emphysemic wheezes, his portrayal of the venal Captain Quinlan is something of a wonder: this man’s rotten, but it’s obvious that he also resents who he’s become.
Marlene Dietrich unforgettably stops by too (as the chain-smoking gypsy Tanya), as do Joseph Cotten (as a bespectacled officer), Joi Lansing (as a victim of the car bombing), Zsa Zsa Gabor (as a strip club owner), and Mercedes McCambridge (as a butch she-demon).
These guest appearances could only work in a film as full of surprises as Touch of Evil – because what a surprising, and surprisingly fresh, movie it continues to be some 60 years later.
Welles would never make a major Hollywood film again (he went back to Europe almost as soon as the feature was released). But we can only thank the studio system for being so stubborn so many years ago: because Welles was so consistently challenged, and so consistently frustrated, his various exasperations and passions ultimately resulted in some of the most vivifying films ever made. Touch of Evil is just one of them. A+
Zsa Zsa Gabor
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
Touch of Evil October 28, 2017
n 1956, Orson Welles was a Hollywood outcast. Though he'd conquered the industry nearly 20 years earlier with 1941’s universally acclaimed Citizen Kane, an immediate progression of poorly received features, combined with a growing disinterest in conventional filmmaking, left the filmmaker disillusioned by the end of the ‘40s.
Viewed by most mainstream studio heads as a risk, given his unsteady box-