BOOKS & THE CULTURE Orson’s La Frontera A Return to the Border with Orson Welles BY MICHAEL KING TOUCH OF EVIL. Directed by Orson Welles. October Films. ou know border towns always bring out the worst in any country.” That’s how the newlywed Mexican hus band attempts to placate his young American wife after she’s been nearly killed by a car bomb, accosted by street toughs, bullied by a gangster, and finally harassed in their unspeakable hotel room by a peeping tom. You might find yourself wondering why the poor girl doesn’t just ask him, “So why did you bring me here on our honeymoon?” That’s just one of the loopier moments of Touch of Evil, the 1957 Orson Welles film newly restored and re-issued last month to much media hoopla, and now in general release. Only heightening the absurdity is that the Mexican husband, Miguel “Mike” Vargas, is played by a heavily darkened and elegantly mustachioed Charlton Heston \(fresh from his cinematic triumph as the Aryan Moses of Opposite Heston, as his beleaguered bride, Susan, is the perkily blonde and formidably knockered Janet Leigh, who in this early scene has barely begun her baroque descent into a series of increasingly melodramatic and eroticized perils of Pauline. Yet what sounds ridiculous in summation almost always works well in action, as Heston and Leigh come to embody the chiaroscuro aesthetic of Welles’ absurd yet absurdly engaging film. Touch of Evil is ostentatiously about life on “the border”: literally the U.S.-Mexican border, but figuratively and emotionally the borders of race, law, sex, night and day. The visible passion between negro Heston and blanca Leigh physically embodies the crossing of all these frontiers. It is delightful to have this film back on big screens, although its bannered restoration, like everything associated with 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER Orson Welks as Hank Quinlan Welles, seems as much legend as reality. The press releases and even the new precredits describe the discovery of Welles’ “58-page” memo denouncing the Universal studio re-cut of his original edit, and according to new editor Walter Murch, the new version follows Welles’ still unpublished notes for a nearly exact reconstruction of the unreleased edit. It’s true that Universal originally released a more conventional, somewhat streamlined version, but the print currently available on video is quite similar to what you’ll see here on the screen. \(Murch describes some fifty changes, but most are not readily noticeable without a scene-by-scene compariversion the opening single-shot, border Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences crossing sequence has been cleared \(as the trivializing Henry Mancini pop-jazz score in the same sequence has been replaced as well, by what is supposed to be realistic street noise and club music although why on earth the restorers decided on Chicago blues instead of, say, nortelio music for this Mexican street scene, is a mystery. Maybe Welles thought, even on the border, the music of noir is blues. But if the restoration hype served to get the film back into the theaters, it’s all to the good. For a film generation raised on Quentin Tarantino’s refried beans, Touch of Evil, with its garish plot and self-conscious cross-cutting, will be both familiar and fresh. As is customary with Welles’ NOVEMBER 6, 1998
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