Saturday, June 28, 2008

My Year of Orson Welles - Cultural Archaeology

When it comes to Orson Welles, I am an enthusiast but not an expert. I started this project as an excuse to delve into the man's life and legacy. Mostly, I wanted to see Welles' impact on film for myself. It was also my hope that I might encourage others to discover his works. Though I don't necessarily envy anyone approaching Welles' films for the first time. Despite having left behind a filmography that is celebrated by critics and historians, the preservation and availability of his works leaves much to be desired.

A significant number of Welles' films are currently unavailable on DVD in North America. This is due in part because of Welles' later European period, in which some of his films were shot sporadically when he could find willing investors. The other significant factor comes in the form of Welles' daughter Beatrice. Beatrice Welles is notoriously protective of her late father's works. So much so that she has prevented the restoration and release of a number of his films.

Also, it must be noted that with the exception of Citizen Kane, the majority of Welles' films were altered by the studios that released them. One such film is the subject of this post, 1958's Touch of Evil, starring Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh.

Touch of Evil is essentially a film noir. A sparsely lit crime film with a dubious moral code. The story goes that Welles was originally hired only to play the main antagonist in the film, the iconic Police Captain Hank Quinlan. It was reportedly Heston who urged the studio to allow Welles to direct the film as well. At this point in Welles' career, the studios were not eager to have him behind the camera. There was concern that Welles would not be able to complete the film on time and on budget.

It should therefore come as little surprise that the final cut of the film was taken away from Welles not long after he had completed principal photography. Having seen Welles' original cut, the studio (Universal International) hired another director to re-shoot and re-cut parts of the film. After seeing the studio cut of the film, Welles wrote a 58 page memo to Universal detailing how he felt the film should be edited and released. Universal did not take Welles' suggestions into consideration while editing the film. The studio cut would be the version of the film that was given a theatrical release in 1958, with a run time of approximately 98 minutes.

In the mid 1970s, Universal discovered that they had another version of the film in their vaults. This version, running approximately 108 minutes, still contained elements that had been re-shot after control of the film had been taken away from Welles. And despite being released on video as the "complete uncut version," it would be another two decades before a definitive version of the film was released.

In 1998, the film was re-edited in accordance with the 58 page memo. This version, running 111 minutes, removes all sequences that were re-shot by the studio. This restored version is the only version of the film currently available on DVD. And while it remains the closest approximation of Welles' vision for the film, it must be noted that there are no copies in existence of Welles' original cut.

The film itself is celebrated for its opening sequence, a lengthy tracking shot of a bomb in the trunk of a car as it makes its way across the US/Mexico border. Easily one of the best scenes ever crafted by Welles, it is a masterpiece of choreography and camera work.

It's also interesting to note that while the film initially focuses on Heston's character, it eventually shifts towards Welles' character. Welles' performance as the Machiavellian Hank Quinlan is quite possibly one of his best. Welles' naturalistic acting style is not unlike the method acting of Marlon Brando during his peak years. And while it is difficult to take Charlton Heston serious as a Mexican, it is refreshing to see him portray a character that is somewhat subdued. Also in the film is Marlene Dietrich as Welles' gypsy confidante and a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo from Zsa Zsa Gabor.

Perhaps one of the oddest aspects of the film is Welles' appearance. The character of Hank Quinlan is an obese man, having taken up junk food as a substitute for alcohol. To achieve this look, Welles' wore a substantial amount of padding and prosthetic makeup. It is somewhat ironic, considering his appearance in the film mirrors his appearance later in real life. In his later years, Welles weighed as much as 350 pounds.

The restored cut of Touch of Evil is available on DVD through Universal Studios.

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