Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Twenty-Four


#24 — Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)
Search “Touch of Evil” on Google, and the info box that pops up on the right side of the screen lists its release date as September 11, 1998, even as the synopsis cribbed from Wikipedia describes the film as “a 1958 American crime thriller film.” Truthfully, the version of Touch of Evil that I have in mind didn’t technically exist in 1958, at least not in a manner anyone could see. It didn’t even exist in 1976, the first year that Universal Pictures trotted out a revised cut for cineaste audiences that were presumably more amenable to the auteur vision of Orson Welles that those who were buying tickets nearly twenty years earlier when the film played as the second offering in a twin bill, behind the Hedy Lamarr-starrer The Female Animal. That longer cut was an old print used from preview screenings, a cut that had already been mangled by studio interference. It wasn’t until the late-nineties that Walter Murch pieced together what’s considered the definitive version, basing its construction on a slender novella of a memo Welles sent to the studio’s head of production in one last attempt to reclaim his film. Thirteen years after the death of Welles, the closest thing possible to his cut of Touch of Evil was finally available.

One of the fables around Welles holds that he came to Touch of Evil after asking producer Albert Zugsmith to turn over the worst script he had. Welles, ostracized for years from a studio culture that never tired of making him pay for the creative authority he wielded in his wunderkind beginnings in the business, was keen to prove himself. He could make dross into art. (Star Charlton Heston’s version of events is more plausible: Welles was attached to act before there was a director, causing Heston to stump for Welles to fill the open creative role.) Regardless of how the project came to him, Touch of Evil virtually shimmers with black-hearted seediness, all but announcing itself directly and literally as a bottom-dwelling B movie. But this is Welles, so it’s a B movie with rambunctious ambition. As he took the occasion of a radio adaptation of War of the Worlds to show exactly how seemingly straightforward sci fi could alarm when its allegorical potency was properly harness through cheeky storytelling chicanery, so does Touch of Evil get at the horrific corruptibility of the human soul by reveling in the exploitation of base fears, from roving gangs of thugs to sleazy, nutjobs who staff the motel night desk, when a weary traveler is at their most vulnerable.

An avid prestidigitator to the very end, Welles never tired of showing the audience the mechanics of the trick even as he was performing it, or at least making it seem like he was exposing all of the secrets. There’s a veneer of cunning satire to the most raucous and ribald elements of the film, the portions that most definitely mark it as a B movie. When Marlene Dietrich slumps luxuriously into the film or Welles levels his considerable acting talent to play a corrupt police captain, the delirium of the film becomes almost overwhelming. The same is true of the long, serpentine tracking shots Welles uses in the film, which are both clear technical stunts and ingeniously immersive storytelling. Even the most egregious casting, that of Heston as a Mexican drug enforcement officer (buried under heavy, dark makeup), is part of the put-on, the film’s lurid dare against itself. At times, Touch of Evil comes across as a cunning farce played icy serious. Or maybe vice versa. Either way, it’s one of the last examples of Welles’s provocative showmanship. And one of the greatest.

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