Review: Touch of Evil

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

It takes chutzpah to monkey with Orson Welles, even for the best of reasons, and without a doubt this unprecedented revision of Touch of Evil was undertaken with the best intentions. While I can quibble with a few details, the result is a remarkable success. Forty years after the fact, producer Rick Schmidlin and Oscar winning film and sound editor Walter Murch have given Welles his due and made Touch of Evil into the film he wanted to make.

Now let’s be clear on one thing: this is not a director’s cut, although it’s as close as we may ever come to one. “An academic example of what Welles intended,” is how revision producer Rick Schmidlin describes it. In fact Welles never completed his own cut. After studio executives viewed Welles’ work in progress in 1957 they assigned a new editor and asked Welles to step aside. To make a long and very complicated story short, Welles viewed the studio’s rough cut months later and wrote a detailed 58 page memo describing the changes he felt needed to be made to save the film. Discovered a few years back by Welles scholar (and subsequent project advisor) Jonathan Rosenbaum, this memo became the primary source in Schmidlin’s innovative project: using Welles’ very specific instructions to reconstruct Touch of Evil.

Even in its various compromised versions (between film and video there are no less than three existing cuts of the film), Welles’ baroque border town murder mystery is a wild masterpiece, sleazy, grimy, jittery, and ultimately dazzling work of cinematic magic. Charlton Heston plays straight-arrow Mexican government Mike Vargas agent whose planned honeymoon with his American bride Susie (Janet Leigh) is derailed by a sensationalistic murder. Enter police detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a bloated, blustery grotesque with a doughy face and an ill manner. An instant antagonism develops between the educated Vargas and the misanthropic Quinlan which intensifies to a rabid hatred when Vargas uncovers evidence that Quinlan has framed a suspect.

Fans of the familiar Touch of Evil will notice the differences in this revision immediately. The famous opening crane shot turns into a riveting dramatic scene with the removal of the credits and the revelation of the Welles’ dense sound design, previously buried by the brassy opening theme. My initial response was a sense of loss – that bongo beat and the growling horns had become a part of the familiar experience, so married to the image it seemed inseparable. But as the camera follows the parallel journeys of the car (carrying a ticking bomb) and the strolling newlywed couple as they weave their way through the bustling Mexican border town, the rediscovered soundtrack (with musical additions by Murch as per Welles’ instructions) gives a specific sense of place of movement with its street sounds competing with car radios and nightclub music weaving in and out of the mix.

With the abrupt explosion Welles’ style becomes more expressionistic – looming low angles, jittery handheld shots, edgy editing – and the new cutting design outlined by Welles serves this style better. The subsequent scenes are tightened up with insistent intercutting between the Vargas/Quinlan confrontations on the American side of the border and Susie’s run-in with racketeer “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) in Mexico, creating a driving pace with a greater sense of urgency and tension. The subsequent changes are less obvious (a trim here, an insert there, a couple of short scenes cut), though one welcome discovery has come to light: for the first time in my experience the film is presented in its intended 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, resulting in a tighter, more focused visual scheme

Touch of Evil has never looked or sounded better. Walter Murch has avoided the problems of Vertigo by drawing all of his sources from the original soundtracks (though to be perfectly honest his sound mix is a bit distracting in a few—very few—scenes) and the painstaking restoration of film elements shows in every frame. For my money it’s never worked better either.


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