Touch of Evil [Restored Version] (USA, 1958/1998)

b05983ramguDirected by: Orson Welles. My initiation into the cult of Orson Welles has come embarrassingly late, especially because I consider myself a “film guy.” But better late than never. I’ve always enjoyed Citizen Kane, of course, but it’s more of an academic exercise than a visceral dose of enjoyment. This is the first Welles film I’ve seen where I’m actually a fan by the end of it. It’s just a great film, but of course, already, I have to make some clarifications. Part of the initiation into the cult of Welles is becoming familiar with the battles and pitfalls of the old studio system, the great epic struggles between the lone genius (Welles) and the cold, unfeeling, misguided forces of industry and commercial interests (everyone else). The narrative that comes to us is a bit one-sided, but suffice it to say, this film, and most of Welles few existing films, only exist to us today in a form of controversial, long-winded, edits and re-edits and “final versions” and “final final versions.” I believe, to the best of my knowledge, that what I saw, the “Restored Version” is the “final final version” of this film, released on DVD in 1998. So, to that extremely subtle and long-winded extent, I am a fan of this film that I saw, which for brevity’s sake, I’ll just refer to as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. This movie had me hooked instantly. The close up of the clock bomb, a mysterious person who we don’t see is sneaking around to plant it in a car trunk, and immediately we have the Welles treatment: a crane shot, a moving crane shot, one that moves all the way down an entire city street, block after block, with tons of stuff going on, all of it in deep focus so we can see it all, multiple lines of action, the introduction of Heston and Leigh, our main characters (and very much co-protagonists in this Restored Version), and the car slowly cruising down beside them. Already there’s tons of tension and dramatic irony—we know there’s a bomb in the car and they don’t!—already we get a visual feast, watching all that busy street life bustling back and forth as the moving crane shot swoops down and pulls back up high, back and forth, high and low, high and low, all while it’s in motion, and…all in one giant fucking long take! Somehow, I had either never read about this legendary first shot of Touch of Evil, or (more likely) I’d heard about it and then forgotten it, but it completely took me by surprise, and it was the first time in a long time that I’ve been genuinely in awe while watching a movie. I was instantly baptized in the cult of Welles, and a little bit un-baptized from the cult of Scorsese—as cool as that long take at the Copacabana in Goodfellas is, knowing that he was just copying Welles makes it a little less impressive. As for the movie itself…what do you think I’m going to say? It’s great! Even with the built-in corniness of Charlton Heston with brownface and a sterotypical moustache to portray a Mexican, and Welles’ old/fat makeup and slightly over the top Wellesian performance, and Russian actor Akim Tamiroff in similar brownface and Mexican moustache, and the exaggerated Reefer Madness conflation of soft drugs and hard crime—even with all of that shit, this film is still totally grounded for me, it’s still totally dark (literally and figuratively), and still completely compelling and real and memorable. I’m sure it’s been said before, but the true genius of this film is the way that it takes everything—all that this film is—and condenses it into one character. The minor character of Marlene Dietrich’s show-stealing gypsy Tanya to me is the perfect summation of all the things that make this film great. She’s a bit hokey, the old trope of the mysterious gypsy woman who basically fills the role of the Western’s whore with a heart of gold. She doesn’t perform much of a function in the plot—the plot could really get along just fine without her. But when she’s portrayed by someone with the masterful gravity of Marlene Dietrich, the effect is so enchanting it’s difficult to put into words. This is the magic of cinema at its most mysterious and effective. And maybe I ought to hold off here before I go off the deep end. This is a fantastic movie, completely remarkable to film nerds for all of the same reasons that Kane is remarkable, but this one is completely watchable, full of incredibly enjoyable performances, an incredibly smart plot featuring a shift in emphasis towards a minor character at the end, beautiful cinematography, and a great ending. Go and see this thing already!

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4 responses to “Touch of Evil [Restored Version] (USA, 1958/1998)

  1. Pingback: The Magnificent Ambersons (USA, 1942) | Offhand Reviews·

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