Movie Review By Monica Sullivan
The length of time between Orson Welles' halting apology for the national panic he ignited with his "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast and the release of his 1958 Universal film noir "Touch of Evil" was less than twenty years, not long in real time, but light years in the entertainment world. In the interim, he evolved from a dynamic, sad-eyed boy genius with a limitless future to a grizzled, life-worn fat man who seemed a skillion years old. He was just 43. Reviewers were underwhelmed by the sleazy plot line of "Touch of Evil" with its dope fiends, sexual deviates, corrupt authority figures and ersatz "Mexican" narc, Charlton Heston, and Welles' masterpiece was buried in its own time by all but his loyal worshippers. Time has been kinder to the film than to its detractors. They are not remembered, but when today's audiences see the fascinating, attenuated opening shot, they shake their heads at all those myopic judgments from another era.
"Touch of Evil" is simply breathtaking. Based on "Badge of Evil", a Whit Masterson novel, Welles' adaptation is resonant with the small time horrors in a small Mexican bordertown that's blatantly immune from ethical law enforcement. Everyone HAS something on someone else & everyone DESERVES what s/he gets. When a millionaire is blown up with a gorgeous blonde (the ill-fated Joi Lansing), the crooked Hank Quinlan (Welles) tries to frame a young Mexican for the crime. Heston as Mike Vargas is supposed to be on a honeymoon with Janet Leigh as his wife Susan, but he's determined to make Quinlan accountable for this corruption of justice. Quinlan is an old hand at framing suspects, so he calls on Akim Tamiroff as Uncle Joe Grandi, a mobster with a grudge against Vargas. They connive to set up Susan as a drug addict. .
For 105 dizzy minutes, Welles is our tour guide into hell and we never know who's going to turn up next, whether it's Marlene Dietrich as the blowsy Tanya or Zsa Zsa Gabor as a nightclub owner or Mercedes McCambridge as a lesbian delinquent or Dennis Weaver as a motel night manager or Joseph Cotten as a detective. Henry Mancini's grimy score is eons away from "Moon River" and Russell Metty's stunning black-and-white cinematography is an eternity away from his work on frothy Doris Day comedies. (Metty had, after all, worked with Welles a dozen years before on "The Stranger.") The factor that keeps us returning to "Touch of Evil" again and again and always discovering something new in it is the astonishing vision of Orson Welles. To jaded industry hacks of 1958, Welles may have seemed little more than a has-been, but no one then or now could tell a story quite the way he could. The restored "Touch of Evil" (with Universal-ordered footage by Harry Keller deleted and Welles' original editing choices reinstated) is the ultimate tribute to the father of independent film: Orson Welles
© 1998 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 9/16/98
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