"Touch of Evil"

The famous unbroken shot that opens Orson Welles' gutter-baroque extravaganza gets cleaned up -- and, at last, shown as Welles intended it.

By Michael Sragow

Published November 1, 2000 7:00PM (EST)

"Touch of Evil"
Directed by Orson Welles
Starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Calleia
Universal Studios; widescreen (1.85:1)
Extras: Welles' 58-page memo on the editing of the film

"Touch of Evil" opens with a mind-blowing traveling shot that starts at the level of a belt buckle and then swings left and right and up as a quicksilver figure sets a time bomb and places the device in the trunk of a car. Continuing in one unbroken movement as a blond and a millionaire get into the car, the camera pulls away into a panoramic view of the border town of Los Robles, Mexico, then floats down to follow Mexican narcotics investigator Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his Philadelphian wife (Janet Leigh) as they prepare to cross from his country to hers on foot. ("You folks are American citizens?" the border guard asks pointedly.) The Vargases reach the checkpoint just as the millionaire and the blond in the car do -- and the blond complains, "I've got this ticking noise in my head."

The Vargases kiss. Orson Welles cuts and -- kaboom! -- he nails down the movie's mood, its setting, its plot and even its racial friction in one audacious piece of virtuoso camera choreography. (The shot clocks in at three minutes and 20 seconds.)

For roughly four decades, movie lovers savored this shot despite the opening credits that Universal Studios draped over it and a Henry Mancini score that hyped all the surface excitement while diluting the atmosphere and obscuring the ticking-bomb progress of the car. But three years ago producer Rick Schmidlin hired editor and sound designer Walter Murch to put "Touch of Evil" into the audiovisual shape Welles had outlined in a 58-page memo protesting the studio editing of the film. In the Murch reedit, just released on DVD, you get to see this sequence -- one of the most influential in movie history -- without the opening credits and with an ominous aural backdrop, including a car radio for the doomed vehicle that operates like a tracer in the viewer's mind.

When this keen-witted version opened theatrically in 1998, a few fans missed the Universal-cum-Mancini credit sequence; the hardscrabble splendor of the reediting didn't jibe with these fans' memory of the cheap-thrill happiness of discovering a movie classic in a drive-in or on '60s late-night TV. Of course, at the time, Murch anticipated this controversy. As he told me then, the traveling shot had become "the Ten Commandments for a number of filmmakers," even in its tarted-up state. But, as he went on to explain, "Universal had dropped those titles on it simply, I think, because that's the only way they could deal with a three-minute shot. And because you had titles, Henry Mancini had to write 'title music.' We replaced the Mancini music with the kind of aural tapestry that Welles wanted: complicated, overlapping sounds from car radios, nightclubs, tourist traps, strip clubs." (In the course of their labor of love, Murch and Schmidlin obtained an additional 12-page memo and nine pages of music notes, and also referred to production records and Welles' personal copy of his final shooting script.)

At any rate, the dynamism and solidity of this version of "Touch of Evil" go way beyond the opening sequence. When Welles signed on with Universal to direct and write as well as act in "Touch of Evil," he wasn't slumming -- after nearly a decade abroad, he was fighting for the chance to once again be an American artist working in America. He thoroughly revamped the script, based on Whit Masterson's serviceable policier called "Badge of Evil," making anti-Mexican racism a key issue, telling the story from three different points of view and bringing a tragic dimension to his heavy of heavies -- Captain Quinlan, an obsessive police captain with an adoring henchman as well as an instinct for finding culprits and a penchant for framing them. Reversing the racial makeup of two key characters, Welles turned the putative hero (Heston) into Mexican supernarc Vargas and his new wife (Leigh) into a spunky Anglo. He managed to meld old colleagues like Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Akim Tamiroff and Marlene Dietrich, young stars like Leigh and Heston and seasoned Hollywood hands like Joseph Calleia into a melodramatis personae vivid enough to anchor a gutter-baroque extravaganza.

All those creative priorities are reflected in Welles' 58-page memo, which Universal wisely duplicates on the DVD. Near the top Welles writes, "I assume that the music now backing the opening sequence of the picture is temporary," and goes on to sketch his inventive ideas for the aural texture. He argues with brilliance, force and specificity against new cutting rhythms, studio-inserted additions and, in particular, a glued-together sequence that he designed to play out in two pieces. Welles' goal is always to maintain the integrity he built into the screenplay. "What's vital," he writes, "is that both stories -- the leading man's and the leading woman's -- be kept equally and continuously alive." As Welles describes his original story line, it's all about the testing of a honeymoon couple by a violent incident that engages the man's professional conscience and subjects the wife "to a series of indignities which irritate and bewilder her and which her husband fails to completely appreciate."

The Murch-Schmidlin reediting restores that critical male-female balance, thus intensifying the payoff to Susan Vargas' frightful time at a motel (a precursor to Leigh's nightmare motel stay in "Psycho") and her perilous confrontations with Tamiroff's comic-grotesque crime boss.

Similarly, some deft celluloid surgery near the end of the reedit heightens what Curtis Hanson (director and co-writer of "L.A. Confidential") once told me was "the most heartfelt love story in Welles' body of work: [that] between the corrupt but larger-than-life Captain Quinlan, played by Welles, and his partner, played by Joseph Calleia. Quinlan is assisted, idolized, loved by his heartsick deputy, who would rather die for him than betray him -- and who ultimately does both."

As this version of "Touch of Evil" makes dark-crystal clear, it's a classic because its brave emotions match its towering bravura.

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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