At the Movies

Michael Wood

In a memo about Touch of Evil, Orson Welles asked Universal Studios to pay attention to the ‘brief visual pattern’ he had drawn, suggesting improvements for the film. This was probably the last sort of help they needed. They wanted a beefy blockbuster and here he was talking about a sliver of art. The studio had added scenes to his work, re-edited others. He was no longer working for them, but he was allowed to see a cut, and the 58-page memo was his response – you can read it among the bonus materials on the DVD issued by Universal.

The word ‘pattern’ recurs in the document, and the idea of design was important to Welles, as much in sound as in sight. But he wasn’t making a work of art as opposed to a thriller, and the memo contains a very interesting definition of the word ‘commercial’. ‘When photography falls sharply below a particular standard, cameramen say that the scene shot is not “commercial”. They do not, of course, mean that it is too “artistic” for the commercial market but that the physical quality of the film is not up to the ordinary minimum standards required for exhibition.’ This is an analogy: Welles isn’t at this point talking about the physical quality of a film scene, only about what makes for effective psychology and suspense rather than movie stereotypes. The whole memo, in fact, is an exercise in patient, practical thought, and a genuine attempt to get a better film out of the material he himself could no longer touch.

Welles’s comments were largely ignored and the film was released in 1958 as the lower half of a bill including The Female Animal, starring Hedy Lamarr. It didn’t do well in America, but was picked up in France, celebrated by Truffaut and Godard, and gradually became a classic. In 1976 Universal produced a longer version, but this was based on a preview print using more of Welles’s original material, and also more of the material newly shot or re-shot by Harry Keller for the first release. In 1998, Walter Murch, using the Welles memo, re-edited all the material he could find into a work coming closer to what he saw as the director’s intentions, and it is this version that the BFI is now making available again.

Over time Touch of Evil has become for many of us an anthology of its greatest moments: the long, unbroken first take memorably discussed in The Player and imitated all over the place; Marlene Dietrich’s presence as the sour, weary owner of a nightclub and ultimately the conscience of the film; Dennis Weaver’s incarnation of the crazy night man at the desert motel, a prefiguration of Anthony Perkins in Psycho and every other damaged person who ever had to look after a register and hand out keys (Welles writes in the memo of the ‘neurotic, scrabbling’ way Weaver walks, and says of the later part of his performance that it ‘is one of the most perfectly brilliant things of its kind I’ve ever been privileged to have in a picture’). There are also remarkable lines, as when Dietrich says of the jangling pianola that haunts the film and makes it feel like a cousin of The Third Man, that ‘it’s so old it’s new.’ She’s proud too of the modern touches she’s added in recent years. ‘We got the television. We run movies.’ It’s hard to forget Welles’s claim, as the vast growling police detective whose intuition is never wrong but who has framed nearly every criminal he has caught, that he has planted evidence on ‘no one’. He pauses. ‘Nobody that wasn’t guilty’.

The effect of these memories is to make you think you know the film better than you do, and wonder what it’s like actually to sit down and watch it. I’ve done that quite often but the memories still tend to take over. The beginning of the movie is a good place to start if you want them to hold off for a bit. Visually the openings of the first and latest versions are much the same as far as film content goes, but the initial release had credit titles and the marvellous music of Henry Mancini, a fast mambo. Welles loved Mancini, but that wasn’t what he wanted here, and the later version takes out the credits and the unified music and substitutes the blaring local sounds from a series of clubs in the town. What happens, you’ll remember (or if you’re lucky you’ll find out for the first time), is that we see two hands setting the timing of a primitive-looking bomb, and placing it in the boot of a car. The camera pulls back to show the bomber running off, the owner of the car and his girlfriend returning, getting into it and driving off. Still without a cut, the camera tracks over a rooftop or two and descends to a street scene at the Mexican-American border. We catch sight of our heroes, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, a Mexican narcotics investigator and his new American wife, walking back into the US, as the car with the bomb pulls up to the border patrol booth. The girl in the car says she hears a ticking noise, but the camera is now more interested in Heston and Leigh pausing to kiss, and closes in on them. As they kiss the car explodes off screen, and the long take is over. The next shot shows us the car turning into a flaming cloud.

The 1998 version is very effective, the casual different musics make a rich and intriguing sound picture, and I can see that the older version seems more conventional, less Wellesian. I find it hard to choose between the two, though, if only because the ticking bomb and the beat of the music are so beautifully synchronised in the old version, and the blare of the trombones evokes a world of romance and danger. The result is less realistic and less atmospheric in terms of locality. But it is in its way scarier: the soundtrack is not against the violence, it is part of it.

Another difference between the two versions, and the chief source of the greater length, is the ampler cross-cutting between Heston’s situation and Leigh’s. He is following out the investigation of the bomber, she is parked in a motel that belongs to the chief local gangster and is soon infested by a bunch of hoodlums whose job it is to make her look like a drug addict – this will discredit the husband in his job, and limit his influence on the American side of the border. Even in the longer version, the alternation is rather clunky, and we would be bored if Dennis Weaver’s antics – the shot of him clinging to a bending tree is amazing, a portrait of panic – didn’t keep us mesmerised. And the cross-cutting device above all doesn’t do – perhaps never did – what Welles wanted it to, namely point up what he calls the ‘basic theme’ of the film, the husband diverted by what he takes to be duty from the danger his wife is in. Welles calls this duty ‘abstract’, and it helps us to see that he wants the good guy to be as guilty as the bad guy in his way; just cleaner and luckier.

What both investigators do, Heston and Welles, is convert their jobs into missions and idealise them. Heston has the right language about the rule of law (‘A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state’) so he thinks he has to be right, whatever the human cost. Welles always catches the crook, so his dodgy methods are merely professional. Welles insists in his memo that he is not seeking revisions that enlarge his own role, but he could scarcely enlarge it, and I recall Heston’s dangerous rigidity because it isn’t easy to forget it.

The film ends not only on its amazing famous dialogue but with two or three amazing shots. Welles has been set up by his old companion, who now knows about all the framing and knows that the great detective has committed a murder. The companion – memorably played by Joseph Calleia – is wearing a mike, and Heston is listening in from a short distance. They cross a bridge. Welles confesses, discovers the trick, gets angry, draws a gun on Calleia and shoots him. He is about to shoot Heston when Calleia, in a last gasp before he dies, kills his old friend. Welles falls into the edge of the river, and lies there like a bloated human whale, surrounded by bits of urban litter and the sheer gleaming blackness of the water.

Dietrich arrives and along with the assistant district attorney takes care of the obsequies. Asked if she liked the dead man, she says: ‘The cop did. The one who killed him. He loved him’. The lawyer says: ‘Hank was a great detective all right.’ Dietrich says: ‘And a lousy cop.’ The lawyer wonders if this is her final comment on the man she used to know so well. She says: ‘He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?’ The last thing we see in the movie is her turning briefly to look back before she walks off into the night.

What hangs in my mind now, though, is not dialogue and old memories, but the next to last piece of the visual pattern: the body among the debris. That’s where detectives are supposed to live in tough old movies. They don’t usually die there.