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Noir à la Welles

movie-reviews Updated: May 05, 2012 01:35 IST
Karthik Balasubramanian
Karthik Balasubramanian
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

A man plants a bomb in the hood of a car. The car makes slow progress through the streets of a Mexican border town.

The protagonist and his wife, walking on the pavement, repeatedly keep passing dangerously close to the car. This nail-biting sequence goes on for nearly five agonising minutes.

Considered one of the best tracking shots in film history, this scene from Orson Welles’s 1958 film Touch Of Evil has you gnashing your teeth waiting for the inevitable. Mike Vargas (the hero, who narrowly missed being blown apart) is called in to investigate the explosion (he is a drug enforcement official in the Mexican government), setting off a chain reaction of events. Several long and unbroken takes add to the tension. Meanwhile,Welles plays a corrupt sheriff who believes more in getting convictions than proving guilt — he is large, dissipated and menacing, in stark contrast to Charlton Heston’s lean, young Vargas.

A great director can make something memorable out of just about anything at hand. The source material, a forgotten novel with a truly horrible name (Badge of Evil), is transformed, in Welles’ hands, into a classic tale of corruption and hubris.

A Touch of Evil was meant to be Welles’s return to Hollywood, after years of making films in Europe. He chose the worst script among the choices given, boasting he would make a great film out of it. Heston expressed greater interest in starring in the film if Welles were to direct it, instead of just acting in it. Most of the actors charged less than usual, just to work with Welles.

It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that Welles’s original cut no longer exists. Universal Pictures felt his version could be ‘improved upon’, roped in another director, re-shot some of the scenes, and added new ones. Welles protested, but to no avail.

He never directed a film in Holly-wood again.