that was a ten
movies, 2010

#23: touch of evil (orson welles, 1958)

(This is the 28th of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

There are films that exist in multiple versions, and then there is Touch of Evil. Welles showed his rough cut (we’ll call it version A) and went off to work on another movie. The studio didn’t like what he’d left behind, shot some new footage, and re-cut the film (version B). Welles saw that version and sent off an infamous 58-page memo explaining what he thought the new version needed. The studio released a 93-minute version … we’ll call that version B-1, although it is also Release Version 1. More than 15 years later, a 108-minute print was discovered and released; apparently it was created between the Welles memo and Release Version 1, so I’ll just call it version C, Release Version 2. Finally, in 1998, the film was carefully reconstructed using the now-dead Welles’ memo as a guide. This one, version D, was released at 112 minutes (Release Version 3), and is now considered the standard version.

That’s an awful lot of trouble for a film that was originally dumped on the back end of a double-feature (the A picture was some Hedy Lamarr vehicle). Why have people been so dedicated to the film over the years? Well, it was the last American film Welles ever made, and Orson Welles is merely one of the greatest directors the United States has ever produced. Despite its lack of success in the U.S. during its initial run, it was popular in Europe, and was a major influence on the French New Wave, particularly Godard and Truffaut. And, most important, in every version, it is a great film, arguably second only to Citizen Kane amongst the works of Orson Welles.

Why is it on my list of favorites? I’ve loved it since the first time I saw the truncated version a few decades ago. Orson Welles is a bit of an anomaly for me. I tend to dismiss films that fall under the general heading of “style over substance” (Run Lola Run notwithstanding), regularly complaining about movies, some quite highly regarded, that I think spend too much time showing off. Yet Orson Welles, as a director, as an actor, as one of the greats of radio, Orson Welles built a career (or tried to, anyway) out of showing off. In his case, I go back to what I said about Run Lola Run: yes, Welles is a show-off, but in a kid-in-a-candy-store way. He is infatuated with his toys, and he wants desperately to share that infatuation with an audience. (That his post-Kane work was fucked with so badly by the studios, making it hard for him to find that audience, is one of cinema’s greatest tragedies.)


This one inspired several interesting comments. Everyone who commented loved the movie; there was some disagreement about the music (or lack of same) in the opening sequence, and someone said they thought Charlton Heston kinda sucked. But mostly, there was agreement.


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