Touch of Evil, a classic thriller written, directed and starring Orson Welles, was released in New York City 65 years ago today
Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan, a dirty cop who rules a corrupt, drug-infested border-town in Touch of Evil, 1958
Touch of Evil, classic thriller written, directed and starring Orson Welles, was released in New York City 65 years ago today.
The screenplay for Touch of Evil was loosely based on the novel, Badge of Evil, by Whit Masterson. Along with Welles, the cast includes Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff and Marlene Dietrich.
Touch of Evil is one of the last examples of film noir in the genre's classic era from the early 1940s until the late 1950s. Since its release, the film's reputation has grown in stature, and it is now widely regarded as one of Welles's strongest films.
There are two stories as to how Welles ended up directing Touch of Evil.
Charlton Heston recalled that Welles was originally hired to act in the film only, not to direct or write. Universal was keen to secure Heston for the lead, but he wanted the studio to confirm the director before he signed on. After learning that Welles was in the cast, Heston expressed his greater interest in starring if Welles were directing.
The other story is that Welles had recently worked with producer Albert Zugsmith, known as the "King of the Bs," on a film called Man in the Shadow and was interested in directing something for him. Zugsmith offered him a pile of scripts, of which Welles asked for the worst to prove he could make a great film out of a bad script. At the time, the script was called Badge of Evil, after a Whit Masterson novel on which it was based.
Welles did a rewrite and took it into production. After a decade in Europe during which he completed only a few films, Welles was eager to direct for Hollywood again, so he agreed to take only an acting fee for the role of Quinlan.
A number of notable actors pop up in roles. Dennis Weaver plays a night clerk at a motel. Heston liked Weaver and his film acting work. Zsa Zsa Gabor, who appears briefly as the impresario of a strip club, was a friend of the producer. Welles's old friend, Joseph Calleia, portrays Quinlan's betrayed partner. Many of the actors worked for lower wages just to make a film with Welles.
Marlene Dietrich's role was a surprise to the producers and they raised her fee so they could advertise her involvement. Welles's friend and Mercury Theatre colleague, Joseph Cotten, appears uncredited as a police officer.
Welles wrapped production on time, delivered a rough cut to Universal and was convinced that his Hollywood career was back on the rails. However, the film was then re-edited (and in part re-shot) by Universal International pictures.
The editing process was protracted and disputed, and the version eventually released was not the film Universal or Welles had hoped for. It was released as a B-movie, the lower half of a double feature.
The A-movie was The Female Animal, starring Hedy Lamarr, produced by Albert Zugsmith and directed by Harry Keller, whom the studio had hired to direct the re-shot material in Touch of Evil. The two films even had the same cameraman, Russell Metty. Welles's film was given little publicity despite the many stars in the cast.
Though it had little commercial success in the U.S., it was well received in Europe, particularly by critics like future filmmaker, François Truffaut. Welles's rough cut as submitted to Universal no longer exists. That cut was worked on and trimmed down by Universal staff, and in late 1957 Universal decided to perform some reshoots.
Welles claimed these were done without his knowledge, but Universal claimed that Welles ignored the studio's requests to return and undertake further work. It was at this point that Keller came aboard. Some of his material was entirely new, others replaced Welles scenes.
Welles screened the new cut and wrote a 58-page memo to Universal's head of production, Edward Muhl, detailing what he thought needed to be done to make the film work. However, many of his suggestions went unheeded and Touch of Evil was eventually released in a version running 93 minutes.
In the mid-1970s, Universal discovered that it held a 108-minute print of Touch of Evil in its archives. Aware that there was a growing audience of cineastes with a strong interest in Welles's work, the studio released this version to cinemas in 1976 and later issued it on video, billing it as "complete, uncut and restored."
In fact, this print was not a restoration at all, but a preview version which post-dated the Welles memo but pre-dated the release version. While it did feature some vital Welles scenes that Universal cut from the release version, the preview version also featured more of Keller's material than the release version.
In 1998, Walter Murch, working from all available material, re-edited the film based on the Welles memo, with Bob O'Neil, Universal's director of film restoration, and Bill Varney, Universal's Vice President of Sound Operations, participating in the restoration.
As Welles's rough cut no longer exists, no true "director's cut" is possible, but Murch was able to assemble a version incorporating most of the existing material, omitting some of the Keller scenes (though some were retained, either because they had replaced Welles scenes which no longer existed and were necessary to the plot, or because Welles had approved of their inclusion). In addition, some of Welles's complaints concerned subtle sound and editing choices, and Murch re-edited the material accordingly.
Notable changes include the removal of the credits and Henry Mancini's music from the three-minute opening shot, crosscutting between the main story and Janet Leigh's subplot, and the removal of Harry Keller's hotel lobby scene.
Rick Schmidlin produced the 1998 edit, which had a limited but successful theatrical release (again by Universal) and was subsequently made available on DVD. The DVD includes a reproduction of the 58-page memo.
Originally scheduled to be premiered at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival with Janet Leigh, Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin attending, the screening was canceled at the eleventh hour after threats of litigation from Welles's daughter, Beatrice Welles. She issued similar threats against some parties who tried to show or alter her father's work (such as the completion of Welles's film, The Other Side of the Wind). The reason given for the litigation was that Beatrice Welles was not consulted for the restoration.
The film opens with a three-minute, twenty-second tracking shot widely considered by critics as one of the greatest long takes in cinema history.
In 1993, Touch of Evil was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
Here’s the opening tracking shot from Touch of Evil
Tom Russell performs "Touch of Evil"