The last couple of years have been pretty
good for Orson Welles, even though he hasn’t been around to enjoy
them. Following the discovery of Othello, 1993 brought bits and
pieces of his unfinished South American film It’s All True.
As the year ended, the Library of Congress National Film Registry
selected Touch of Evil as one of 25 films that deserve to
be protected and preserved. The films selected are considered to
be culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.
Touch of Evil was the last film Welles directed
in Hollywood. Critics have called it a baroque thriller, the greatest
masterpiece of all sleaze movies, and an exceptional film noir portrait
of corruption. That’s damning it with faint praise.
Released in 1958, it was never a commercial success,
despite the casting of Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh at a time
when they were near the peak of their popularity.
When the film performed poorly it was trimmed from 108
to 91 minutes and released as the bottom half of double bills. Although
there were gaps in continuity, and the hacked-up version never made
much sense, it was shown for years on TV, at revivals, and in early
video editions. In the process it acquired a cult following.
Fortunately, Welles’s original 108 minute version was
found in 1976 and is now available in what MCA Home Video calls
the complete uncut restored version.
Set in a seedy Mexican border town, the story involves
a murder investigation which pits Heston, as an honest narcotics
cop, against a corrupt sheriff played by Welles. As the plot unfolds,
Welles frames a Mexican youth.
Heston’s bride, Janet Leigh, is kidnapped, terrorized,
drugged, framed for another murder, and possibly gang-raped.
In anyone else’s hands this would have been a forgettable
B movie. With Welles’s direction and Russell Metty’s moody black
and white photography it became a visually striking stylistic film.
Using unusual lighting and unique camera angles, they created a
creepy atmosphere of corruption, foreboding, and suspense. The opening
sequence, which starts with a close-up of an explosives detonator,
pans through a dark parking lot, up richly textured walls, and ends
with a car explosion, is justifiably considered a classic.
As Hank Quinlan, Welles turned in one of the great performances
of his career. Fat, sloppy, cynical, cold, corrupt and world-weary,
Quinlan is the essence of evil as he controls his world by bullying,
intimidating, lying, and if necessary murdering.
He coached fine performances from Leigh, Marlene Dietrich,
and Akim Tamirof A nervously creepy turn by Dennis Weaver is undoubtedly
the best work of his career. Heston, sporting black hair and a moustache,
is competent, if somewhat hard to accept as a Mexican narc. Henry
Mancini contributed a solid bluesy Latin rock score. Joseph Cotten
and Mercedes McCambridge show up briefly in unbilled cameos.
Also not to be missed is the Castle
Hill Productions, Inc. video release of Welles’s film
of Shakespeare’s Othello. Subtitled The Lost Masterpiece,
it contains an enlightening prologue by Welles’s daughter, Rebecca.
Although it won best picture award at the Cannes Film
Festival in 1952, Othello was shelved for several years,
before being shown in a New Jersey vault and restored. Most of the
restoration involved remixing dialogue, rerecording the soundtrack
by the Chicago symphony and Chicago Opera Company, and synchronizing
the audio with visuals.
Othello is a classic plot of deceit and revenge
in which Iago vows to avenge Roderigo, whom Othello has promoted
to Lieutenant over him. Swearing that "a net shall enmesh them
all," his oath is the first in a bloody chain of events that
brings downfalls and doom to many.
To finance Othello, Welles acted in The Third
Man, Prince of Foxes and other films. Because he kept
running out of money, the project took several years to complete,
and Welles frequently had to innovate to solve production problems.
Scenes were started in Morocco and finished a year later in Venice.
The sequence where Iago orchestrates an attempt to murder Cassio
was planned as a street scene. When the costumes failed to arrive,
and his actors were scheduled to leave for other assignments, Welles
solved the problem by wrapping the cast in sheets and towels borrowed
from local hotels. He shot the scene in a bathhouse, which was really
a fish market.
As his daughter says, the result is not Shakespeare
in the traditional sense. It is Wellesian, which among other things,
means it’s very inventive and visual. As in
Touch of Evil and his other films, there are
plenty of unusual camera angles, quick cuts, striking silhouettes
and an emphasis on texture.
The film has been called everything from "one of
the screen’s sublime achievements," to "a great galloping
masterpiece." It has also been said that it "shows more
artistry in a single frame than most movies show in two hours."
That was true of a lot of Orson Welles’s work. MM