Touch of Evil (1958) set pic

‘Touch of Evil’ Is the Perfect Starting Spot for Those Curious About Orson Welles

For cinephiles unlucky enough to be out of range of the 2018 film festival circuit, Netflix’s Friday release of Orson Welles’ last film The Other Side of the Wind and its accompanying documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead is the movie event of the fall. Another slice of filmmaking experimentation from perhaps the most inventive filmmaker in history has film obsessives salivating.

Yet, if you’re not a film buff, this Friday’s double release probably means next to nothing. You probably only know Orson Welles as the Citizen Kane guy, if you have any idea of him at all. That doesn’t mean that this Welles’ final film isn’t something to get excited about. You just have to ease yourself into Orson Welles, a fun chore that begins and ends with a viewing of the 1958 classic, Touch of Evil.

Even 60 years after its release, the noir thriller hasn’t lost a step. It remains as shocking and exciting as it was during its initial theatrical run. Sure it was shot during the 1950s, but you’d hardly know it.

Touch of Evil follows Mexican drug enforcement agent Ramon Vargas (played by — sigh — Charlton Heston) as he investigates the circumstances of a border-town bombing. His investigation brings him toe-to-toe with a corrupt American police captain named Quinlan (Welles, in one of his most stirring performances) who navigates with his own moral compass. Even as their battle of wills explodes into violence, the film remains a taut exploration of ways perspective can warp our ethical sense the world around us.

Now, all that said, here are some tips for getting the most from your first viewing of Touch of Evil.

First, Make Sure You’re Watching the 1998 Director’s Cut

Orson Welles’ films have a reputation for being fiddled with between Welles’ filming and the studio release. Touch of Evil was no different. Universal Studios went over Welles’ work, re-edited the film and even re-shot scenes without Welles’ permission or participation. The director famously responded by issuing a 58-page memo of specific changes he felt should be made to the final cut. Universal completely ignored him.

Ignored him, that is, until 40 years later when the studio went through and recut the film with scrupulous attention to Welles’ notes. That’s the version you need to watch.

Don’t Be Afraid of Black and White

Though The Other Side of the Wind is in color, most of Orson Welles filmography was shot in black and white. Some of his older stuff has been colorized, but a large portion of it remains in its original state. Try not to think of the color scheme as an indicator of ensuing boredom (it’s okay, we all do it). As a director, Welles makes incredible use of black and white. Sure, Orson Welles’ films are in greyscale, but they’re so vibrant you won’t miss the color.

A Quick Note About Chuck Heston as a Mexican

When the film was shot, Heston was already set to star as a Mexican agent in Touch of Evil. Heston convinced Universal Pictures to hire Welles. Welles hoped Touch of Evil would be a Hollywood comeback of sorts, so he (uncharacteristically) remained amenable to the studio’s initial suggestions. And, to his credit, Heston doesn’t play Vargas as a stereotype (he doesn’t even use a cheesy accent). Vargas is a straightforward barrel-chested hero type, an upright man in a scummy world.

Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh in ‘Touch of Evil’. Courtesy, Universal Pictures.

All that equivocation aside, if Charlton Heston in brownface is a dealbreaker for you, that is 100 percent understandable. Rationalizing the decision by saying it was a different time or that it was a studio choice rather than Welles’ doesn’t make the makeup any less jarring. It’s there, and there’s no excuse for it.

You Can Get to ‘Citizen Kane’ Later

When talking about Orson Welles, everyone always goes straight to the Kane well. Yes, Citizen Kane is friggin’ brilliant (and a damn good watch), but Touch of Evil remains Welles’ most straightforward crowd-pleasers. Every Orson Welles film wears its artistry on its sleeve, but even among the director’s great movies, Touch of Evil is unique.

Where Welles’ other productions feature a tug-of-war between narrative and technical skill, Touch of Evil is one of the directors’ more story-focused features. If you’re the kind of viewer who doesn’t care for dissecting a camera’s movement across a room, it’s still entirely possible to enjoy Touch of Evil.

That’s not to say that Welles’ other films aren’t enjoyable from a narrative perspective; simply that Touch of Evil lets new Welles fans ease into the filmmaker’s technical brilliance one toe at a time.

The Real Secret of ‘Touch of Evil’

For new fans of Welles, what’s important about Touch of Evil, in fact, is that it’s not Citizen Kane. You can watch the movie as a movie, not a staggering work of art. You need no preconceived notions about Welles, you just need to sit back and enjoy yourself. And maybe do what you can to overlook that whole glaringly racist casting decision thing.

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