Those looking for a sequence epitomising the intrepid innovation that defined Orson Welles as an auteur need look no further than the first frames of his 50s noir classic, Touch Of Evil. Plunging the audience into a clammy cesspool of crime, the film opens with a complex, all-conquering and oft-copied 3-and-a-half minute crane tracking shot that follows a car we know to be rigged with explosives as it journeys through a Mexican border town. It’s a striking setup, skilfully executed. A tour de force of filmmaking that’s grandiose to gaze upon, but that doesn’t grandstand.
Welles left many important and indelible marks on the field of filmmaking during his career, and this single shot has rightly come to be regarded by countless cinematic commentators as one of his most significant achievements. Moreover, many critics now consider Touch of Evil to actually rival Citizen Kane as Welles’ masterpiece, which is ironic given the troublingly tepid reception it received back in 1958.
As was the case with so many of his films, Welles found himself to be artistically at odds with those financing Touch of Evil’s production. When Universal was shown the first cut of the film, they seized creative control. The studio believed that what they’d seen could be improved upon, and subsequently set about shooing additional scenes and re-editing the film as a whole. Within hours of viewing the new version, Welles wrote an impassioned, 58-page memo to the studio requesting that there be various editorial changes made. However, his pleas were mostly ignored; Touch of Evil went on to be both a critical and commercial disappointment, and Welles, hurt by the process, turned his back on Hollywood for the last time.
Thankfully though, the memo survived. And in 1998 Oscar-winning film editor Walter Murch and film preservationist Rick Schmidlin produced a new cut of Touch of Evil, based off of Welles’ suggestions, which aimed to bring the film as close as possible to the director’s distinctive vision. And it is this version, now newly remastered, that plays at the BFI Southbank this month as part of a season celebrating the centenary of Orson Welles’ birth.
Based on the pulp novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson, it’s a dark and devious film noir that follows Mexican narcotics officer Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston), who finds himself caught up in a dangerous battle of wits with a local law-enforcer (Welles), and the safety of his newly wed wife Susie (Janet Leigh) placed in jeopardy, whilst investigating a deadly drugs ring operating on the US-Mexican border.
Not as pristine as Citizen Kane, nor as playful as The Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil still stands as one of Welles’ most provocatively powerful pieces. His script is a seething, serpentine story of criminality that’s confrontational in its approach and constricting in its nature. Though certain elements do fail to convince – Janet Leigh is more damsel in distress than femme fatale, who’s watched over by a hideously hammy Dennis Weaver – the film is so forceful that it’s never anything less than a commanding presence.
It’s also distinctively daring, with Welles drawing on controversial themes of police corruption and American chauvinism. And it’s his Hank Quinlan who principally personifies both of these tarnishing traits. He’s a sweating, snarling creature who’s more a bull than a bloke, charging at his prey with ferocious intensity and without mercy. Next to Quinlan, Charlton Heston’s Vargas, despite his confidence, never convincingly comes across as having the strength to stop his aggressor, which enflames the film’s fiery tension.
It is behind the camera, however, where Welles truly displayed an unrivalled excellence for his craft. His virtuoso use of classic film noir components, such as low-key lighting and chiaroscuro shading, calculatingly crafts a heated atmosphere of menace, which is amplified further through the humidity and hostility pervading from Henry Mancini’s Latin jazz soundtrack.
It’s small wonder that so many distinguished directors, from members of the French Nouvelle Vague to such contemporary filmmakers as Jim Jarmusch, the Coen Brothers and Brain De Palma, have recognised Touch of Evil as a major influence over their own work. And inevitably, it all comes back to that exquisite establishing shot; a single moment in the history of cinema that confirms beyond all doubt that Welles was a man blessed with the touch of a true genius.
Touch of Evil is playing at the BFI Southbank and selected cinemas nationwide. For more information, click here.