Welles Dark Masterpiece "Evil" Comes to the Art Theater

Welles Dark Masterpiece "Evil" Comes to the Art Theater

Blog PhotoIn many ways, it’s something of a cinematic miracle that we have Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil.  The director was hired to simply be in the movie, not make it, and once he finished the film, he was fired and the studio re-edited it making cuts and additions that went against his initial wishes.  However, a misunderstanding, the demands of a major star and a 58-page memo Welles wrote all played a part in the making of the fully-restored version of Evil which is running at the Art Theater this weekend.

An adaptation of a pulp novel called Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson, Welles had been cast in the role of Hank Quinlan, a corrupt police captain in Southern California town, a job he took simply for the money, which he planned to use to make Don Quixote, a film that would become his own personal windmill he continued to tilt at over the years and would never complete.  Despite the fact that Charlton Heston was a major star at the time, this B-movie script came his agent’s way and when the actor heard that Welles was attached to it, he assumed he was directing it and immediately agreed to be in the film.  Obviously, this wasn’t the case and when the brass at Universal Pictures became aware of this mix-up, they approached Welles about helming the movie in order to placate their star.  He reluctantly agreed but under the condition that he be allowed to revise the script and be given free reign on the set. They agreed, and the rest as they say is history.

Ironically, Welles stated that this was the most pleasant filmmaking experience he had ever had as he had a healthy budget ($825,000) and generous shooting schedule (38 Days) at his disposal.  He also received little interference regarding the many changes he made in the script. Welles switched the location of the film to an United States/Mexican border town, changed Heston’s role from a white district attorney to a Mexican narcotics officer, changed Janet Leigh’s character from that of a Mexican to a white woman and created roles that had not existed before, writing a part especially for Dennis Weaver, because he admired his work on the television show Gunsmoke. He also managed to talk Joseph Cotton, Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes McCambridge and Zsa Zsa Gabor (blink and you’ll miss her) into doing cameos.

Blog PhotoWelles said later that his intent with the film was to infuriate and confuse the audience with needless red herrings that he threw into the plot.  Truth be told, the movie is not that difficult to follow, it simply requires that the viewer pay attention to its rapid-fire dialogue.  This mystery, which forces Quinlan to work with Heston’s Mike Vargas because an American contractor is killed in a fiery explosion at the U.S./Mexican border has the requisite numbers of twists and turns that Film Noir exercises of this sort require.  The resolution doesn’t come out of left field, as Welles plays fair along the way, having provided us with all the information we need to put all the pieces together.

No, the mystery isn’t really what makes Evil distinctive, it’s the sense of place that Welles creates that makes the film stand out.  Shot primarily at night so as to dissuade meddlers from Universal from visiting the set, the film is a dark visual exercise that suggests that nothing much happens during the day in Los Robles, that it’s citizens only exist for the dark hours where they can emerge and interact with one another, a sense of shame dictating their movements as they’ve all been corrupted from one extent to another by this sinister environment.  They’ve all made compromises at one point or another, damning their own souls, none more than Quinlan.  Self-loathing underscores Welles’ performance and it’s never more evident than in the scenes he shares with Dietrich, as it’s suggested that at one time they were romantically involved but the professional choices he had made corrupted him to such an extent, that Quinlan is no longer worthy of her love, something he understands as no longer respects himself. 

Blog PhotoAll of this is underscored during the brilliant final scene in which Quinlan’s conscience is literally given voice and he meets an end that he’s fully aware is waiting for him.  Note the camera angles Welles employs and the stark editing rhythm that helps to makes this sequence reflect the character’s fractured and off-kilter perspective of his life and the world around him.

Once the film was finished, the brass at Universal Studios asked Welles to return to shoot some new scenes to help clarify the plot.  By that point, he’d moved on to other things so director Harry Keller was brought in to shoot additional sequences as well as re-do some of the original work.  This was screened for Welles who then composed a 58-page memo with notes and suggestions as to what needed to be left in or excised in order to make the film work.  This missive was ignored and the movie was released in a 93-minute version that was actually more confusing than what the director had intended.  However, the memo was consulted and followed to the letter much later, as Universal re-released the film for its 50th Anniversary, presenting it as Welles had originally intended, the version that will be screened on the big screen at the Art Theater this weekend, in all its dank, black-and-white glory.

Touch of Evil – 4 Stars

The Art Theater – 126 W. Church St. – Champaign, Il.

Friday – 7:30pm – Saturday – 2:30pm & 7:30pm  – Sunday – 11:30am & 5:00 pm


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