Orson Welles made the American Film Institute's “Greatest American Movie of All Time” when he was 25 years old. It was all downhill from there.
But instead of Citizen Kane allowing Welles to do whatever the hell he wanted to do in Hollywood, he would spend the rest of his life battling studios to make his own movies his own way. In 1958, seventeen years after Citizen Kane was released, Welles was finally poised to make a Hollywood comeback. He had big Hollywood names [Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, and yes, himself] attached to a crackling film noir set in a border town boiling over with corrupt characters, including cops, politicians, and even hotel night managers.
It may seem an odd choice for the filmmaker who made Citizen Kane, but Welles never went for what was easily done. In fact, there is a rumor that Welles became attracted to the film when he asked a B-movie producer to hand him the worst script he had so that Welles could turn it into something beautiful. The script he was given was based off a novel called Badge of Evil, and Welles went to work rewriting it and molding into his next Hollywood triumph. It did not work out that way.
Instead of releasing the film to the acclaim that it deserved, the studio fired Welles—during post-production. They felt that the film that he was delivering was too weird and confusing to be released, and ended up re-editing and even re-shooting parts of the movie. When it finally came out, Touch of Evil was shown as B-movie to a film nobody much remembers now called The Female Animal. By then, Welles was finished in Hollywood.
Even so, Welles remains known for his powerful innovations in Hollywood filmmaking, and there may be no finer example than his version of Touch of Evil. Welles was an absolute powerhouse both in front of the camera and behind, focusing not just on directing, but acting [his grotesque Hank Quinlan defines film-noir evil here], writing, editing, and producing. The amazing thing is that he somehow managed to do all of these things ridiculously well.
What really makes Touch of Evil an essential for me is the fact that it was one of the first films that showed me just how powerful visual storytelling can be. I was no more than fifteen years old when I saw the film for the first time, and the look of it struck me immediately. Every scene oozes with style and menace, from the opening scene [more on that soon], to Heston dragging people down bar counters, Janet Leigh being menaced in a secluded hotel room, and a fantastic last scene set near an oil field at night; all of it is filmed with near perfection.
Welles used a camera viscerally, moving it up and down a set, utilizing deep focus photography so that both foregrounds and backgrounds would stand out, even during his camera movements. His camera works to tell the story just as much as his scripts and actors do. When he wanted us to see a character exert power, Welles got down on the ground and filmed up. When he wanted menace, he used light and shadow as though he were its master.
And then here is that infamous opening shot—a three-minute single take that tracks a ticking car bomb down the busy city streets of the border town. Within those three minutes, I was converted into a full-blooded cinema snob. I remember the moment well—and with good reason....
Recently, the same scene was shown to a very specific target audience: 35 lab mice. Scientists were trying to look at how different neurons light up to help turn our visual experiences into memories. In order to see this in action, they needed a single-take visual that included heavy movement. Their first thought? Those initial three minutes of Touch of Evil. Out of all the tests the scientists ran, the brains of the mice lit up the most at pictures of butterflies and that three minute scene. Even mice can be cinema snobs, it seems.
It makes sense; the visual experience I had with this movie all those years ago cemented itself in my mind. To think that the film was nearly butchered, lost forever like so many of Welles’s other potential projects [oh, to have seen his finished Don Quixote…] is frightening. In the end, I feel lucky that we finally have the version that’s closest to what Welles wanted us to see.
After being fired from his own movie, Welles left behind a 58-page memo on what he had envisioned for the film, and it has since been restored to the closest to that vision it can be. The result is remarkable, if only for the fact that it shows how important a few simple edits can be in making a good film not merely great, but essential.
While the film itself may have signaled the end of film noir in Hollywood, as well as the end of Welles’s career as a studio filmmaker, I can only hope it helps turn a few more people onto that world of great cinema. It certainly did for me, and I know at least 35 other creatures that would agree.
Here are the essays we'll cover this week:
- A look at Orson Welles's career as an actor
- Deeper thought on the film's depictions of race
- Related Review of the newly restored Welles masterpiece Chimes at Midnight
- And more!