Touched By an Evil

Orson Welles noir masterpiece-on the big screen, the way you were meant to see it

Based on Whit Masterson's popular crime novel Badge of Evil, Welles added a character who was not in the book nor the original adaptation that Universal commissioned and rejected before hiring Welles to rewrite it. The new character did nothing to advance the muddled plot. Welles was apparently chatting with aging screen goddess Marlene Dietrich when it hit him she'd be perfect for his little picture, even though there was no part for her. So he wrote in steamy brothel owner Tanya, whose approval a childlike Quinlan desperately seeks. Welles excitedly accepted Dietrich's suggestion that she create her own gypsy-esque wardrobe using pieces of outfits from her previous movies. Each time Tanya appears on screen, the same old-timey piano roll tune plays.

There's much more campiness: racktacular Leigh's cone-shaped bra/slip; drug-hazed references to Mary Jane and mainlining; Dennis Weaver, Chester from TV's Gunsmoke, playing a neurotic, voyeuristic, borderline retarded motel clerk, in a mostly improvisational performance that may have informed Anthony Perkins' neurotic, voyeuristic, criminally insane motel clerk in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho two years later; perspective shots like those Welles used in Citizen Kane that, depending on what he was going for, make men appear larger than life or as small as they really are; playful uses of pulp dialogue; and chiaroscuro that harks back to other black-and-white noirs in one scene, then seemingly mocks them in another. Even Mancini's brassy tune, when repositioned to the end of the film in the restored version, hammers home that what you are watching is both noir-cinema and dark-comedy bliss.

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In wooing Heston for his project, Universal Pictures' "King of the B's" producer Albert Zugsmith told Heston that Welles had been cast to play the heaviest of Touch of Evil's heavies. Heston, fearing the script would devolve into another rote Hollywood detective story, said he would be interested if Welles was in the director's chair.

Welles and Zugsmith had competing, separate versions of Welles' hiring—just more fodder for the confounding legend of the confounding Orson Welles. But his influence surely propelled Evil into the extraordinary, especially because of Welles' determination to blur boundaries both figurative and literal. Badge was set in San Diego; Welles moved the story to both sides of a grungy, fictional border town called Los Robles. Filming actually took place in Venice, the glitzy LA suburb already going to seed in the late '50s; you're not always sure which side of the border you're on. In the original, the hero is a dashing Anglo married to a Latina; Welles flipped it, making Mike Vargas, a Mexican investigator, the classic outsider sniffing out the truth behind a murder on the American side of the border.

The film's key moment may involve the character Welles cobbled into the script. When Quinlan drunkenly asks Dietrich's Tanya to tell his fortune, she tells him, "Your future is all used up." Critic Roger Ebert says she was foreshadowing Quinlan's future on Earth as well as Welles's in the Hollywood studio system. But there's another possibility: in a film very aware of its own politics, Tanya was talking about America.


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