The words "director's cut" are treated with such reverence by hardened cinema geeks that they've become a bit of a joke to the rest of us. Restoring a film according to its creator's vision can be an artistic vindication, but almost as often it's simply evidence of egotistical excess. Do we really need to see "missing" footage from "Titanic"?
Orson Welles' 1958 "Touch of Evil" is another matter entirely. In the past four decades, three versions of this watershed film noir have surfaced. To craft a definitive cut, producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch have made some 50 corrections to the film, based on a legendary set of recommendations that Welles sent to Universal International Pictures after viewing an advance screening (he had all but abandoned his work during the editing process).
The story, at least, remains the same. Mexican narcotics agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) enters a nightmare of murder and corruption after witnessing a border-town car-bombing. Vargas' role in the subsequent investigation puts him at odds with Hank Quinlan (Welles), a seedy American cop with a distaste for "foreigners" and a questionable approach to his job. Caught up in their clash is Mike's wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), whose kidnapping makes her the pawn of Mexican crime lords with complicated connections to Quinlan.
Nothing can be done about the film's worst flaw: The casting of the very white Heston as Vargas can only be believable to viewers whose sole touchstone for Hispanic traits is Geraldo Rivera. But the reordering of certain narrative elements helps the plot's logic and imparts an urgency lost in the 1993 home-video retooling (a compilation of the two previous attempts). The visuals appear darker as well, extending the noir atmosphere even to the scenes shot in broad daylight.
The most obvious alteration is the deletion of the opening credits Universal superimposed over the famous first scene. A brilliant tracking shot that follows Mike and Susan through the Mexican streets, it's here laid bare in all its glory, demonstrating why admiring directors have paid it homage in countless of their own works.
The most affecting image, however, is one whose significance few could have foreseen in 1958. Watching the dissipated Quinlan stagger to his downfall in the film's climax is a sad harbinger of the decline Welles himself would soon endure. As Marlene Dietrich's forlorn, fortune-telling madam informs Quinlan earlier in the story, "Your future is all used up." Cut.
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