As Orson Welles put it, the whole picture's in the opening shot.
A man holds a crude bomb and activates its timer. Over loud salsa music, a couple laughs in the distance, causing the mysterious man to turn in their direction. A heavyset man and much younger blonde are walking cheek to cheek through an adobe archway. The bomber sprints over to a dirt lot, hunches over the back end of a convertible '57 Chrysler, pops open the trunk, deposits the bomb and darts away. The boozy couple reaches the doomed car and climbs inside. The older man starts the motor and steers it onto the streets of this border town, heading for the American side. A Mexican traffic cop, pedestrians and street vendors make it a stop-and-go trip.
Along the way, we pick up a second couple—another shapely blonde (Janet Leigh) and a tall swarthy man (Charlton Heston)—arms locked as they walk to the same border checkpoint. They all arrive at about the same time. As the pedestrians get served first by the U.S. border agents, the driver appears impatient. Turns out the agents know the swarthy man, Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas, a narcotics officer for the Mexican government who has just cracked a case against the Grandi family of drug smugglers. But the agents are having a hard time fathoming Vargas's Philadelphia-born bride, Susan; unions of mixed couples are obviously rare in Eisenhower-era America.
As the Vargases continue on their way to a date with a chocolate soda on the American side, the border agents turn their attention to the millionaire and his floozy in the Chrysler. Ignoring her yammering about hearing a ticking sound in her head, the agents send them on their way. They pass the Vargases, now sharing a smooch before—BOOM!
For the first time in 3 minutes and 20 seconds, the single camera that captured this dazzling sequence makes a cut—to the Chrysler, now engulfed in flames.
Some regard this as the greatest opening scene in motion picture history.
Too bad that's not what moviegoers saw when Touch of Evil hit theaters in 1958. Executives at Universal Pictures hated Welles' rough cut, and it didn't help the legendary director that his garish thriller did not test well with audiences either. After Welles, an admittedly slow cutter, spent three months in the editing room trying to perfect it, Universal ordered him out. Television director Harry Keller was brought in to help re-cut the film, shoot new scenes and dub in dialog to correct perceived continuity problems. The opening scene was chopped in two. Credits that Welles wanted to appear at the end of the picture were superimposed over that painstakingly choreographed first scene. Music that was supposed to emit only from cantinas and car radios was replaced with a brassy theme song created by the studio's young house composer, Henry Mancini.
Made no matter. Critics panned Touch of Evil, Welles' last Hollywood hurrah, and most blamed him even though he'd disowned the film by the time it was released as the second half of a double feature—otherwise known as a “B picture.” It wasn't until 40 years later that the opening scene and much else of Touch of Evil was restored to something close to the way Welles intended it—and the way the Fullerton Film Festival will present what Heston has called “the greatest B movie ever made.”
To ardent supporters, them's fighting words. It's only a B movie, they counter, because Universal jackassedly released it that way. To them, Touch of Evil is a bona fide masterpiece, and if you don't get yourself to Fullerton for a rare big-screen showing, go ahead and slap yourself now for a sorely missed opportunity.
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As with other classic noirs like The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Chinatown, Touch of Evil is a dark, sordid and confoundedly twisty tale of corruption, sex and murder. But more than the others, Evil is haunted by undercurrents of racism, nationalism and superpower might vs. third-world plight that resonate strongly today—hell, more strongly today. But it's also, well, goofy: you'll either laugh at or be offended by the very white, very American Heston playing a Latino in brownface. When Heston's Mike Vargas is asked more than once by befuddled characters, “You're Mexican?” it's as if we're in on the world's worst inside joke.
A showman who never met a makeup chair he wouldn't gladly camp in for hours, Welles accentuated his ultimate ugly American, adorning the sweaty and buffoonish Police Captain Hank Quinlan he portrays with a bulgy, misshapen nose—Karl Malden meets Owen Wilson—and puffed-out cheeks that bring to mind grotesque medieval theater masques. Already well past the 250-pound mark on his bathroom scale, Welles reportedly put on another 60 pounds and wore more padding to make Quinlan's shape that of a large kitchen appliance wrapped in a trench coat. And 14 years before Marlon Brando would stuff cotton balls into his cheeks to similarly alter his voice, Welles's Quinlan spat lines like “I don't speak Mexican” as if he'd substituted a handful of marbles for all-day dinner mints.
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.
TOUCH OF EVIL SCREENS AT PLUMMER AUDITORIUM, 210 E. CHAPMAN AVE., FULLERTON. SAT., 7:30 P.M. $6.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.