Since its original release in 1958, Touch of Evil has been hidden under
a mask of controversy. The original film was not seen the way Orson Welles
intended because Universal Studios interfered with the editing of the film
to meet their needs. In doing so they ignored Welles’ intentions for the
film. After seeing the studio’s edits, Orson Welles wrote a 58-page memo
which outlined suggested changes. In the original release most of these
suggestions were ignored. In the new re-edited version, Welles’ suggestions
have been strictly followed. The film is the way Welles wanted you to see
it. Or is it?
Orson Welles was sent a poorly-written script called Badge of Evil and
was offered the part of a crooked American detective named Quinlan. His
initial response was "maybe." The studio then asked Charlton Heston
if he wanted to play the leading man-his response was "Any picture
that Welles directs, I’ll make." The studio quickly phoned Welles and
asked "Do you want to direct it?" Welles would only accept if
he could re-write the script. The studio agreed, but said that Welles would
only get paid as an actor and not as a director or a writer.
At the time of this offer, it had been 10 years since Welles had worked
on a film in Hollywood. He was famous for Citizen Kane, which is considered
one of the greatest films ever made. The rest of the cast was in various
stages of their careers. Charlton Heston was already a star for his role
as Moses in The Ten Commandments. Heston was given the role of Vargas-a
Mexican narcotics oYcial. Janet Leigh, whose scream would later become legendary
in Psycho, was cast as Susan, Vargas’ wife.
The movie is set on the Mexican-American border. Welles wanted to film
in Tijuana but found it was too expensive and had trouble with censorship
by the Mexican government. Welles’ friend, writer Aldous Huxley, suggested
Venice, California. Venice was meant to be an imitation of the Italian city
with canals and bridges. At that time it was nicely decayed and fit the
film perfectly. When Welles saw the bridge over the canal he rewrote the
end of the film.
The opening shot is an amazing scene which sets the plot for the entire
movie. The scene is a long take filmed without cuts, over three minutes
long. In the original release, the credits were combined with this opening
scene, a scene so pivotal that the credits distract from its importance.
Welles said "The whole story was in that opening shot." In the
re-edit, the credits have been moved to the end.
The movie starts with a close-up of a time bomb being set, then planted
in the back of a car. The bomber disappears as the car’s owner and his girlfriend
get in and start to drive. The camera follows the car down Main Street.
We then see a young couple walking, (Vargas and Susan) and the camera follows
them. The car and the couple arrive at the border at the same time. The
couple cross the border and the car drives away. There is a loud bang and
finally the shot is done. Welles was a master at these long shots.
We then meet Welles’ character, Hank Quinlan, who is a highly honoured
American detective. In the movie we are told Quinlan’s wife was murdered
and he was unable to catch the killer. As vengeance, Quinlan seems to have
made a vow to catch all killers, even if he has to frame them. This character
flaw leads to Quinlan’s corruption and eventual downfall. Quinlan says "I’m
no lawyer, all a lawyer cares about is the law."
Mike Vargas, the Mexican official, is an unusual hero for this story.
Mexicans are most often depicted as the corrupt; Vargas upholds morals and
the law. Vargas catches Quinlan trying to frame the suspected bomber and
has to defeat many obstacles to expose Quinlan.
When filming was finished, the real controversy started in the editing
room. Welles worked with editor Aaron Stell and put together their edited
picture. The studio oYcials demanded to view the film, and subsequently
complained about the logic of the narrative.
Although there are several versions of what happened, I will speculate
and try to create a unified version of what occurred. When Welles took the
project on, he needed a big hit. However, the studio didn’t want a hit,
they only wanted a B-movie that would be a financial success. Welles, though,
had a lot of time and energy invested in the film and was strongly attached
to it. Badge of Evil had become his baby.
When the studio criticized his film, Welles became defensive, creating
bad blood between director and studio.
The studio then went to work re-editing Welles’ work to their liking.
Nearly 30 minutes of black comedy was cut because the studio saw it as irrelevant
to the plot. They also re-shot a few scenes for consistency. The studio
would not let Welles direct these scenes and eventually changed the name
of the film to Touch of Evil before its final release.
When Touch of Evil was released, Universal was still not happy. The film
was given few press screenings and no national advertising. The relations
between Universal and Welles were so bad that he wasn’t even invited to
the preview. When it opened in theatres, it opened as the second film in
a double feature. In America, the film got little recognition, but in Europe
it was a great success. It played in Paris for a year-and- a-half and won
two prizes at the Brussels Film Festival.
Is this re-edited version Welles’ true vision for the movie? Not really,
but it is the next best thing and the closest we will ever get. The 58-page
memo was in response to the studio’s edits and added scenes, therefore the
new version is really Welles’ suggested changes to the studio’s vision.
The changes add to the clarity of the story and the effect of many scenes.
Unfortunately, the black humour died on the cutting room floor.
Touch of Evil is a great story of conflict on and off the screen, and
should be seen in a theatre the way it was intended. It is, perhaps, the
greatest B-movie you will ever see.
Touch of Evil is part of a Film Lovers Showcase playing in weekday matinées
at the Plaza Theatre.