'Evil' improved with Welles' touch

October 02, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

While Orson Welles was editing "Touch of Evil," he left to film a movie in Europe. In his absence, Universal Pictures re-cut the picture and, although Welles wrote the studio an impassioned 58-page memo with his detailed instructions as to how the film should be edited, the "Touch of Evil" that was released in 1958 was Universal's version, not Welles'.

That injustice -- one of the most storied in film history -- has been redressed in this, the fourth version of "Touch of Evil," which has been re-edited to the specifications laid out in Welles' memo. We can't say for certain that this is the master's vision, but it's pretty close.

The funny thing is, it isn't all that different. The most obvious change -- and a welcome one -- is that the titles have been removed from the movie's stupendous opening scene, a three-minute tracking shot for which the words "bravura" and "balletic" were invented. Henry Mancini's score has been removed from this sequence, and although his brassy, pulsating music is one of the best things about "Touch of Evil," the source music Welles wanted to use -- mariachi emanating from cantinas, jazz from strip joints, pop from car radios -- evokes much more menacingly the polyglot clash of a U.S.-Mexico border town.

Indeed, it's in the movie's sounds that viewers will find "Touch of Evil" most changed; its sound editing was just as complex and exquisitely composed as its visual imagery. Here, Welles' overlapping dialogue and atmospheric sound effects can be heard in all their glory, and the effect is as tensile and fraught with danger as any of the movie's visual scenes.

Other than that, "Touch of Evil" is still the mixed bag it has always been. Charlton Heston, in brownface makeup as a Mexican drug agent, can't help but be a little camp, and Janet Leigh, as his pert American wife, primarily acts with her sweater.

But, oh, the desiccated beauty of Welles' incarnation of the corrupt cop Hank Quinlan; you can smell the cigar smoke on his slept-in clothes. And, oh, the deep pleasures of Marlene Dietrich's world-weary madam; Akim Tamiroff's crime boss, continually slapping away at the lawmen buzzing around him; and Joseph Calleia's heartbreaking portrayal of Quinlan's loyal ZTC sidekick. "Touch of Evil" may be the most high-falutin' B-movie ever made, but it still sings a sweet elegy to some long-lost borderland between shadow and light.

'Touch of Evil'

Starring Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh

Directed by Orson Welles

Rated PG-13 (some violence and drug content)

Running time 113 minutes

Released by October Films

Sun score ****

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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