Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Touch of Genius

There is now out on dvd a brand new restoration of Orson Welles masterpiece from 1958 Touch of Evil. This wonderful set includes not only the beautiful pristine sharp black and white print restored to the way that Welles wanted it, but also the original chopped up theatrical release print and another print which is a preview version that was found in 1976. I’ve only watched the restored one, which is the one that I saw at the Film Forum a few years back. Originally released as I said in 1958 in a botched and butchered form and dumped like a bag of garbage on a double bill at neighborhood RKO theatres, the film never had a chance. Even though the reviews were generally good, the film I think was just too outrageous for the conservative movie going public of the late 1950‘s. This core group of movie goers were more interested in seeing the ponderous overweight 500pd French pastry of a musical Gigi and the stiff theatrical bound but “serious” “Separate Tables” than this Welles picture or the Hitchcock masterwork Vertigo, which was also generally ignored and not so happily received. As it turns out of course, no one today could give a shit about the big Oscar winners of 1958, while Touch of Evil and Vertigo are now considered the masterpieces that they always were. Touch begins with one of the most audacious and thrilling openings in film history and in the restored version is without the opening credits that were added to the film over Welles‘s protests. Quickly we see someone place a package (it turns out to be some sort of explosive) into the trunk of a car, as Henry Mancini’s cha cha cha music score plays on the soundtrack. The camera in one amazing 3 minute long tracking shot follows the car, as it makes it way through the skuzzy streets of a seedy sordid town on the border between California and Mexico. In reality this was really the sordid skuzzy neighborhood of Venice before it picked itself up and dusted itself off. During this long take we are introduced to the newly married Mexican detective played by of all people Charlton Heston (in bad dark makeup) and his lovely blonde wife played by the always good Janet Leigh who are on their honeymoon. Soon enough the package that was placed in the car trunk explodes and we are off and running. The film is about corruption and evil big and small played out against a mostly nighttime nightmare of Welles’s imagination with very little day light peeking through. Based on a forgotten little potboiler called Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson and which Welles took and turned into this steamy visually superb thriller. There are some startling and memorable sequences and scenes: Welles arriving at the scene of the crime shot from below exiting his car looking as big as a whale, Heston using the phone at a crummy candy store while the female blind owner fills one side of the screen listening to his conversation, Leigh caught up in a horrible degrading scene at a motel with a nutty motel manager played intensely by Dennis Weaver , some 50’s drugged up-delinquents and a positively scary lesbian hood played by the uncredited Mercedes McCambridge. Leigh would again have her problems with a motel and a nutty motel manager a few years later that alas doesn’t end as happily for her as this one does. There is also an amazing scene of a car speeding down a tight alleyway with the camera literally in the actor’s lap. There are many other small and large moments along with lots of Welles's signature overlapping of dialog and conversations and his superb use of space. Much of the film takes place in tight cluttered and constricted small rooms and dingy bars and the superb lighting and camera work by the great Russell Metty is a major contribution to the film. The acting is all first rate with especially wonderful performances by Joseph Calleia as Welle’s loyal partner, Akim Tamiroff as the ridiculous, inept and oddly loveable head of a Mexican crime family and the great Marlene Dietrich in a black fright wig as a gypsy Madame of an strange after hours rundown gin joint whorehouse. It’s Dietrich who delivers some of the most remembered lines of the film, and she ends the movie literally walking into the early morning dawn. This is some kind of a film.


Blogger Ron said...

We saw the restored version here at the Campus Theater in Lewisburg a few years ago. They brought in Janet Leigh to introduce the film and to answer audience questions. My sister happened to be in town. Evening options: barn dance? or see Janet Leigh in person and in this great old Orson Welles flick? No contest. It really is an amazing film.

9:31 AM  

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