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THERE’S PLENTY OF CLASSIC NOIR in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, 1958/1976/1998, both on the screen and in post-production. Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits gleaned from my recent (and first) viewing of this flick, and from The New York Times Book of the Movies, together with my usual Internet sleuthing. Good sour racket all around.
The Basics. As described in Wikipedia, Universal-International commissioned the film in April 1956. The plot was based loosely on Whit Masterson’s Badge of Evil (actually a better name, as suggested by Howard Thompson, film critic in The New York Times Book of the Movies). It was star Charlton Heston who suggested Welles as director (not the other way around).
With typical aplomb, Welles not only directed, but co-starred in and rewrote Touch of Evil. What’s more, the Welles artistic sensibilities were to return even years after his 1985 death.
The Players. Janet Leigh portrays Susan Vargas, Heston’s new bride; he, Mike Vargas, a highly respected Mexican special prosecutor. Welles’ Mercury Theatre regulars Ray Collins and Joseph Cotton appear as District Attorney Adair and (an uncredited) coroner.
Others familiar to the era’s movie fans include Akim Tamiroff (as gangster Uncle Joe Grandi), Dennis Weaver (aka TV Gunsmoke’s Chester; here as a cravenly wacko motel night manager), Mercedes McCambridge (a sinister druggie Mexican gang leader), Marlene Dietrich (Tana, brothel-owning pal of Welles), and Zsa Zsa Gabor (a strut-on role as a strip-club owner).
Welles, by the way, portrays Police Captain Hank Quinlan, ex-soon-to-relapse alcoholic obese cane-wielding/limping border-town cop who’s not averse to planting phony evidence against those he feels are guilty.
What to Watch For. I’ll suggest here only plot particulars (for the benefit of those who have yet to be noired by this seedy-border-town skullduggery). Noteworthy throughout is the visual impact of director Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty.
The movie is replete with what Wikipedia notes are “deep focus, off-kilter and low-angle shots (to emphasize the girth of Quinlan), and other stylistic touches that furthered the visual style of film noir. Most notable among the stylistic flourishes in the film is an opening crane shot that runs almost three-and-a-half minutes, which has frequently been commented on by film scholars.”
Indeed, this sequence even had mention (by an obscure film scholar) in “Action! Cut??”
To cite SimanaitisSays: “In fact, this is when the extended take occurs, with a three-minute thirty-two second shot of pedestrians Heston and Leigh accompanying the doomed car crossing the border into the U.S.”
What’s more, there’s even a longer single take in Touch of Evil, this one described by Justin Morrow’s “Watch: How Orson Welles Hid a 12-Minute Single Take in Plain Sight.”
Critic Thompson’s View, 1958: “Any other competent director might have culled a pretty good, well-acted melodrama from such material, with the suspense dwindling as justice begins to triumph (as happens here). Mr. Welles’s is an obvious but brilliant bag of tricks. Using the superlative camera (manned by Russell Merry) like a black-snake whip, he lashed the action right into the spectator’s eye.”
Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll see how post-production hassles complicated (and enhanced) the reputation of Orson Welles. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022