Friday, December 12, 2008

Orson Welles "Touch of Evil"

If you are a fan of one of the best shows on TV, House, M.D., with Hugh Laurie, you have probably seen the poster for the Orson Welles film, Touch of Evil, hanging in the office of Dr. Gregory House's best friend, oncologist James Wilson. If you haven't seen House, then you should, and you can either rent or buy the series to watch it from the beginning (recommended) or jump in now and watch a recent episode here at Why the poster of Touch of Evil? Perhaps it's just a classic film that the writers thought would give Wilson depth. Or maybe there is an implied comparison between House, a curmudgeonly cynic who walks with a cane, and Orson Welles' cane-using Hank Quinlan? But Welles' captain Quinlan has moved beyond cynicism into taking law and life into his own hands. (Well, one could argue that Gregory House has done that too, but he has so far not framed anyone for his own murders.) In any case, if you haven't yet watched the film, this too is a classic you should not miss.

Directed by Welles, Touch of Evil, 1958, is one of the most popular masterpieces of film noir. The movie stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, as well as Welles, and features appearances by Joseph Cotten, Dennis Weaver, Mercedes McCambridge, Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor. The opening scene, an uninterrupted 3 1/2 minute long single-cut shot from a crane depicting a border crossing that literally ends with a bang, is a classic Wellesian cinematographic accomplishment.

Like many of Welles' films, such as the difficult The Magnificent Ambersons, the work was drastically cut by the studio without his consent before its release. But Welles did write a long memo to Universal regarding his intentions for the production. This memo survived, and, in 1998, after a legal battle with his estate, a restoration based on archival material was printed which remains as faithful as possible to his intentions with the surviving footage. The film does seem to shift abruptly at some points, but there is much less confusion than in Welles' other continuity-challenged film noir masterpiece, The Lady From Shanghai. Rent or buy the 1998 'director's cut' today.

Here is the famous opening seen from YouTube:

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