TOUCH OF EVIL

(1958)
With Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes McCambridge, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff
Directed by Orson Welles
Black and White
Reviewed by JL

     For some film historians, John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) marked the unofficial beginning of the era of film noir, whereas Orson Welles's TOUCH OF EVIL was its unofficial end.  Often called the greatest b-film ever made, TOUCH OF EVIL was an examination of corruption that was as trenchant as it was entertaining.  Clean-cut, straight-arrow Mexican DEA agent Charlton Heston goes up against bloated, venal American cop Welles, who will plant evidence and frame anybody to win a conviction.

     Despite fine acting all around (if you can accept Heston as Mexican, that is), the real star of the film is Welles's camera, which is used to determine mood, pace, and spatial relationships that are almost 3D in effect.  TOUCH OF EVIL was as close as Welles ever came to directing another film on his own terms following the fuss and flak created by CITIZEN KANE some 17 years previously.  Even then, the head goons at Universal couldn't resist tampering needlessly with the finished product, their most egregious sin being to plaster titles over the film's legendary single-take opening sequence.  Upon seeing the studio-approved cut of the film, Welles dashed off a 58-page "memo" to Universal, which was promptly ignored. 

     Some 40 years later, producer Rick Schmidlin, editor Walter Murch, and advisor Jonathan Rosenbaum reedited the film according to Welles's directives, their most significant improvement being the removal of the opening titles.  Some have complained that the new version is a bit less taut than the original (something Welles himself might have determined had he been around to do the job himself) and lacks most of Henry Mancini's memorable score (which Welles considered an intrusion on his creative use of sound).  But both versions are nearly equal in overall effectiveness -- and both should be made available, unlike the current DVD that offers only the new version.  Whatever version you can find (the original edit was released on VHS and laserdisc) it's a masterpiece in every respect.   - JL

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