Dark Victory

Before Universal released Orson Welles' Touch of Evil in 1958, it added some new scenes, and fiddled with the editing and the soundtrack--all without the director's consent or cooperation. Crushed after screening a pre-debut cut of the film, Welles fired off a 58-page memo to the studio, detailing his objections, and pleading with Universal to reconsider issuing its version. The studio ignored him.

Now, working from that memo, film/sound editor Walter Murch has rehabilitated Touch of Evil, long considered a highly influential masterpiece even in its tainted form; significantly, Murch has deleted one key scene in the middle of the film, removed the opening credits that appeared over the justly famous opening sequence, and enhanced the work's overall distinctive look, sound and feel per Welles' instructions.

The setup: In a flyblown town that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border, a car bomb sends a pillar of the community and his stripper moll to kingdom come. A handful of cops materialize to investigate. Touch of Evil, despite its fairly standard noir story, soars to cinematic Olympian heights as a result of Welles' filmmaking (notably the cinematography of Russell Metty)--the wholly venal, disquieting, menacing aura he imparts to the entire enterprise. The characters here ooze character, their faces so utterly un-Hollywood. Welles also engagingly explores the innate morality--or lack thereof--of a trio of law enforcement officials: gruff, pugnacious, corrupt-to-the-core American police Captain Quinlan (a porcine, cigar-chomping Welles); earnest, straight-arrow Mexican narcotics agent Vargas (Charlton Heston with an overcooked facial "fake bake"); and Quinlan's eager-to-please, boss-worshiping partner Sergeant Menzies (a wrinkled, rumpled Joseph Calleia), the film's most complex figure because he is the only one who undergoes a transformation.

At its heart, Touch of Evil is a love story--two, really--between Vargas and his new bride (Janet Leigh), and Quinlan and Menzies. The stellar cast includes Ray Collins, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes McCambridge and Dennis Weaver in a goofy role. And Zsa Zsa Gabor for five seconds.

Murch's version deserves to be seen.

Touch of Evil
Directed by Orson Welles.


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