Life Abroad No. 3: Touch of Evil (1958)

Touch of Evil Orson Welles

The version of Touch of Evil we screened was released in 1958, a corrective to the two previous cuts of the film. The heroic–artist myth of Welles career – the wunderkind miracle of Citizen Kane and followed in turn by the interference, compromise or collapse of every subsequent project – is founded upon the two opposing forces of Hollywood: the rampant studio, desperate for marketable product versus the perpetual innovator, the boy-genius. Welles has always been seen as too brilliant to contemplate mediocrity but constantly dragged down by failing to wrest final cut of his films back after the ‘failure’ of Citizen Kane.[1] Just as nostalgia is stirred most strongly for times we ourselves half-remember or long pre-date our existence, so Welles’s strongest advocates elevate him to the status of Olympian due to what is not available to us. In Welles’s cinema career, after the miracle of Kane, every project, however great, is hounded by its superior, shadow brother: the film Welles’s could have made without interference, or with funding. Touch of Evil, unlike The Magnificent Ambersons, Don Quixote or Moby Dick—Rehearsed, has the bad luck to be soiled by being complete and approaching a fair approximation of Welles’s vision. In an ironic twist, Beatrice Welles, Orson’s executor, sued to prevent the film’s release, perhaps with a careful eye on maintaining the tragic myth of her relative’s career.

That said, it’s hard not to be impressed with the scale of Welles’ ambition. Universal offered Welles only one (contractually obliged) screening (without pause) of Touch of Evil before releasing the film. The following morning a 58-page letter greeted them: Welles had painstakingly listed all of the changes and corrections to revert to his original intentions for the film.  The document is a testament to the sheer intention and cerebral force of Welles’s filmmaking. However, it took thirty years for Welles’s vision to be enacted. The sensitive eye – and more importantly, ear – that guided the film to something approaching Welles’s intention was Walter Murch. Murch’s skills at editing and his pioneering of the field of sound design made him the perfect choice. One of Welles’s innovations in the filming – and one that Murch had perfected in Apocalypse Now – was the use of decayed sound, conditioned to produce a more diegetic, ‘worldized’ effect (as Murch terms it). Just as Welles’s characters constantly seem to be talking over each other, so the sounds of the city (tinny speakers, car horns, desert winds) compete to produce a rich, unsettling effect.

Touch of Evil finds its way into the series not only because it is a film about crossing a border, but also because it is a film about Hollywood’s idea of crossing the border. Hollywood, a ragtag melting pop of diaspora from across America and from around the world has always had a peculiar view of the foreigner. The film is a catalogue of masquerading characters: Akim Tamiroff (Russian), Marlene Dietrich (German) and Heston himself are all ‘race-lifting’ as the neologism has it.[2] Welles, himself no stranger to the practice, haven played Shakespeare’s Othello on stage and in film some years before, as well as inverting Macbeth for the famed all-black Federal Theatre Project production that recasts Elizabethan witchcraft as Haitian voodoo.[3] The exact racial dynamic and implications of Touch of Evil are hard to trace. Restoration can only gloss certain elements and the standard Hollywood conception of ‘otherness’ seems to be present. Yet Welles seems to be playing a bigger game than the B-movie roots of the film allow, and the main message of the film is of personal responsibility for evil, rather than being racially branded. Contrary to Marlene Dietrich’s parting shot, it does matter what you say about people.


[1] That most still believe Kane was a sizeable loss rather than the modest success it was says a great deal about the connoisseurship involved in devoting oneself to Welles.

[2] http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/RaceLift for a comprehensive list of this practice.

[3] The voodoo extended offstage: after a poor review from the Herald Tribune’s Percy Hammond, a cast member produced a voodoo doll effigy of the critic. Welles found this amusing until Hammond’s untimely death shortly afterwards.

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