A Touch of Evil

We just finished watching Orson Welles’ A Touch Of Evil. It was his final American movie, and (I believe) his penultimate movie as a director.

Back in 1958 when the film was made, the studio executives were so disturbed by his unorthodox camerawork and soundtrack that they took back the movie and edited it themselves. Fortunately, when Welles saw a rough cut he was so horrified that he wrote a 58 page memo to the studio, begging them to make a number of changes to bring the movie closer to his original conception.

Fortunately for us all, someone filed the memo somewhere other than the round filing cabinet, and so in 1998 the studio was able to go back and undo most of its hack work.

The conventional view of Orson Welles is that he lived his life backwards: that in his timeline, he started out doing advertisements for frozen peas, worked as an actor for a decade or so, made a movie or two in Europe to get a reputation, moved to Hollywood, worked his way through the studio system, and finally produced his most dazzling achievement, Citizen Kane.

The re-edit of A Touch Of Evil may cause this view to be re-evaluated. Perhaps I can see more clearly for not having seen the butchered studio edit, because to my fresh eyes A Touch Of Evil is a better movie than Citizen Kane. Sure, Kane is a great movie, but A Touch Of Evil is just staggering. The famous opening sequence is incredible, but it’s a minor detail compared to what follows. Every shot is a masterpiece of composition, often achieving almost a split-screen effect through compositional techniques alone. The only other movie I’ve seen which comes close is Fritz Lang’s M. There’s not a single wasted scene, every shot counts, every detail is exacting and relevant. Even the ending has unusual twists for film noir.