Tomorrow, May 6, would have been film auteur Orson Welles’s one hundredth birthday, and we can only imagine that the notoriously egotistical but nonetheless genius filmmaker probably wouldn’t have had many good things to say about the last thirty years of cinema that have rolled on without him.
In honor of the day, though, the Sie FilmCenter is presenting one of his greatest works, Touch of Evil, one of the last staples of the noir genre from its golden days. Welles’s career was filled with incredible highs — The Magnificent Ambersons, The Third Man, The Lady From Shanghai and, of course, Citizen Kane — but the story behind Touch paints a fascinating portrait of a director scrambling to get his career back on the rails and finding a roadblock that wouldn’t move until well past his death.
An interesting legend exists in how Welles came to direct Touch, based on the pulpy novel Badge of Evil, by Whit Masterson. The director had just emerged from a decade in Europe working on a scant number of projects and was chomping at the bit to return to Hollywood and regain his foothold in the industry. Working with self-proclaimed “King of the Bs” producer Alan Zugsmith, Welles offered him a unique proposal: let him direct one of the many lower-grade scripts that was littering Zugsmith’s desk but make sure it was the worst one possible and Welles would rewrite it and make it incredible. Touch of Evil was pulled to the front and the filmmaker went into production, taking only a nominal acting fee as payment to also star as gritty villain Hank Quinlan.
Pulling together a robust cast of industry luminaries and fresh faces — Charleton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marlene Dietrich – Welles began the tale of a Mexican cop named Vargas (Heston) who witnesses, along with his new wife (Leigh), a car explosion on the American side of the U.S./Mexico border. The detective’s investigation uncovers a corrupt cop in the form of Quinlan (Welles), who may or may not have planted evidence on a suspect — and Vargas finds himself and his wife in danger as he investigates closer to the truth.
The film was completed and handed over to Universal Pictures, which was very unhappy with it and ordered a re-edit and shooting of new scenes without Welles’ approval. Welles watched the new version and angrily assembled a 58-page memo detailing everything the film needed to actually work. But his complaints fell on deaf eyes at the studio, which decided to release its version of the film without any of the fanfare expected for what was to be Welles’ great return to Hollywood; it was made into the second half of a double feature alongside the Hedy Lamarr-starring The Female Animal, which, ironically, was directed by Harry Keller, the man Universal hired to re-shoot scenes in Touch (and shot by the same cameraman Russell Metty).
Despite not turning out the way he planned and being a box office dud, the redone Touch still had Welles’s fingerprints all over it. One of the biggest and most noteworthy was his opening scene – a three-and-a-half-minute-long shot, beginning with a view of a bomb being set and placed in the trunk of a car, which we watch a couple get into and drive alongside the border with, introducing us to Heston and Leigh’s characters, all while filling us with dread that at any moment the bomb will explode. That opening shot has inspired filmmakers for decades and its elements have led folks like Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson (in The Player and Boogie Nights, respectively) to do their own versions to different effects.
Also notable is that the film exists as a “coffin nail” film for the noir genre which, by 1958, was on its last leg of freshness and originality and desperately in need of a cleansing rain to rejigger tropes with a fresh spin and set the needle in a new direction. Touch delivers characters that are self referential to other characters in noir hits, one hood is deemed “Little Caesar” after one 1931 title, and like meta films that would come long after it like Blazing Saddles and Scream, which changed the state of westerns and slasher films by essentially killing them, Touch presents the rules of noir in its plot as a way to break them and start over again. In fact, the effect of Touch’s commentary marked the end of one era transitioning into a slow burning introduction into “neo-noir” with later titles like The Long Goodbye (1973), Chinatown (1974), Blade Runner (1982) and Blood Simple (1984) ushering in a new dawn of noir sensibility.
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In 1998, famed film editor Walter Murch worked with Universal pictures to restore Welles’ original vision by taking his famed 58-page memo and painstakingly returning Touch of Evil to the glory that the director worked so hard previously to achieve. Welles passed away on October 10, 1985, and would never get to the see the accolades that would eventually come rolling in for his film, forty years too late, but he can rest assured that in the end, his return to Hollywood had been successful all along, leaving a mark on cinema that was truly a touch of greatness.