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Thoughts on “Touch of Evil” (1958, dir. Orson Welles)

Touch of Evil in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Even today the ratio intended by Welles is a question among film buffs.

Of all the styles to emerge after the silent era, the film-noir is my favorite. The lighting, the moral ambiguity, the lighting — did I mention the lighting?

For ages I’ve fought back and forth with myself on if “The Big Sleep” or “The Third Man” was my favorite noir, but after recently rewatching “Touch of Evil” I can say, without any doubt whatsoever, that “Touch of Evil” is not only the greatest noir I’ve ever seen, it’s one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. The opening shot in and of itself is such a marvelous thing that I have to love the movie. On top of that you have the plotting, cinematography, and the absolutely stellar performance by Orson Welles (performance of a lifetime? Maybe.)

As for what the big fuss about the opening is: Today it’s not a big deal, today on film productions we have cars with cranes mounted on them that would allow for the same shot (and even more complicated shots) to be filmed with ease; but in 1958 they didn’t have crane cars. So the question, then, is how did Welles film the shot? To my knowledge it has never been fully revealed how they mounted the camera, allowed it to move down the street, managed to get it to crane higher than a couple of buildings, AND got it to crane down to the ground to look UP at the actors from a low angle. I don’t know exactly how Welles did it, and I doubt that many do. Such a marvelous movie.

Welles performance, as I mentioned before, is surely one of the greats of all time. He melts into the role of Captain Quinlan like a chameleon, and vanishes inside the disguise of an overweight, sweaty, crooked cop. Welles would eventually become rather large himself, but at this time he was still in decent shape; for playing the role of Quinlan, Welles would, each day, put on a fat suit and have prosthetic  jowls attached to his face and neck. The details of a drunkard are all there, right down to the half-beard growing in spots on Quinlan’s chin and neck. Welles allows himself to disappear into the part, and allows Quinlan to come through loud and clear.

Other than the cinematography, plotting, and acting, the film’s production (and post-production) are of interest as well. Originally Welles was intended only to play Captain Quinlan, but he was eventually brought on as the film’s writer and director. There are, as is typical with Welles, many versions to how this came about.

The first, and most believable, is that Charelton Heston, upon learning Welles was to act in the film requested that he direct as well. In an interview Heston even says this is what happened. The second, and slightly less believable, is that upon learning Welles was to act in the film Heston mistakenly believed Welles was to direct as well, and in an attempt to keep Heston happy the studio hired Welles on as the director. The third story, while the least believable of the lot, is the most entertaining one. It goes like this: Welles was friends with a producer of B-films named Albert Zugsmith and had wanted to direct a film for him. Zugsmith brought a pile of scripts to Welles, who apparently asked Zugsmith to pick out the worst one to prove that he could direct anything and make a good movie.

I don’t know which is the real story, but I don’t particularly care either; the mere fact that Welles was able to direct this film is good enough for me, no matter how he got the gig.

As for the actual, physical production: Welles had no trouble from the studio (a first for the troubled director) until production was a wrap. Welles spent a few days editing the film and then headed to South America to start work on his next film, Don Quixote  — this proved to be a mistake. The studio had been supportive of what they had seen in the dailies, but the (unfinished) edit of the film that Welles had left them with managed to leave them confused as to what the movie was. So the studio recut the film and even went as far as to bring in a new director to shoot new material. When Welles saw this new studio cut he was not pleased (claiming that the studio’s cut was more confusing than his own) and wrote a now infamous 58 page memo dictating what should be changed. The studio ignored this and released their cut of the film, and it would remain in this shape until 1998 when an attempt was made to follow the instructions in the memo.

The studio cut of the film was 95 minutes long, the “director’s cut” (or “Memo Cut” as I like to call it) is 112 minutes long. The film can breath now; the film can move. It looks and feels like an Orson Welles’ film. I’m glad that an effort was made to fulfill Welles’ vision as much as is possible, and I’m glad that I have the ability to own this wonderful film.

For those who are interested here is the 58 page memo written by Welles: http://wellesnet.com/touch_memo1.htm

About Andrew Bacon

A home school student turned filmmaker. A filmmaker turned film-blogger. A film-blogger who wants nothing more than to be a filmmaker. Mostly though, I just like movies.

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