Friday, March 11, 2011

Links: Touch of Evil

It's a little surprising to see that the New York Times, in the form of Howard Thompson raved about Touch of Evil back on its premiere in 1958, but only because the film has such a reputation as the film who's financial failure finally drove director Orson Welles out of Hollywood for good.  It's nice to see that even the gray lady was able to recognize its charms:

"Any other competent director might have culled a pretty good, well-acted melodrama from such material, with the suspense dwindling as justice begins to triumph (as happens here). Mr. Welles' is an obvious but brilliant bag of tricks. Using a superlative camera (manned by Russell Metty) like a black-snake whip, he lashes the action right into the spectator's eye."

Tom Charity has a nice overview of the film at Moving Image Source, including a timeline of the film's production, from the initial idea through all its various release versions.

"Touch of Evil was not the sort of thing that appealed to the tastes of the Academy, or indeed many of the critics, once they had paid to see it.

"The flashy interplay of queer character defeats itself in the end. Far from clear speech and pretentious lighting and photographic effects add to the confusion….Utterly incoherent and unpleasantly smelling of evil, the film will give most men, let alone women, the willies," warned the reviewer at Kine Weekly. In Reporter, Gerald Weales said it was “often laughably bad…pure Orson Welles and impure balderdash.”

Such reviews seem bizarre in light of the film’s critical rehabilitation over the years—championed by the Cahiers crowd, it developed a cult following over the 1960s and ranked 15th in the 2002 Sight & Sound critics’ poll after its reemergence in a re-edited version in 1998."

Next we have a long essay from critic Jonathan Rosenbaum on the nature of director's cuts, including his own work on the restored version of Touch of Evil:

"Commodification of artworks ultimately affects not only their definitions and catalog descriptions but also to some extent their distribution. As astonishing as this may sound, all original invitations from foreign film festivals to show the re-edited Touch of Evil were rejected by the woman in charge of foreign sales at Universal because, according to Rick Schmidlin, she was convinced that no one outside the United States had the least bit of interest in Orson Welles. Once she changed her mind, the film was of course shown all over the world, but arriving at this stage took some time."

Welles's original 58 page memo to Universal Studios, describing his preferred changes to their cut of his film, which formed the basis for the version we're showing this week, is available at Wellesnet, along with some background info on the film.

"I assume that the music now backing the opening sequence of the picture is temporary...

As the camera roves through the streets of the Mexican bordertown, the plan was to feature a succession of different and contrasting Latin American musical numbers - the effect, that is, of our passing one cabaret orchestra after another. In honky-tonk districts on the border, loudspeakers are over the entrance of every joint, large or small, each blasting out it's own tune by way of a "come-on" or "pitch" for the tourists. The fact that the streets are invariably loud with this music was planned as a basic device throughout the entire picture. The special use of contrasting "mambo-type" rhythm numbers with rock 'n' roll will be developed in some detail at the end of this memo, when I'll take up details of the "beat" and also specifics of musical color and instrumentation on a scene-by-scene and transition-by-transition basis."

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