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A Touch of Evil

     Who would have guessed that the refurbished Touch of Evil, the fixed-up version of Orson Welles's 1958 film, would be the major arthouse hit of September? I was there in the long, long line at the Brattle, lucky to secure a ticket for a sold-out performance. In front of me, a married couple were arguing in earnest about which of them knew the definition of "film noir." The husband: "I understand noir because I watched a PBS special about it, while you went to bed." In back of me, a guy was explaining to his friend why Fellini must be seen: "He's funny and sad, and sad and funny."

     Inside, it became obvious that many in the audience had no idea what they were watching. About a dozen people got up from their seats for the toilet, or to buy a Pepsi, during the several-minute opening shot, not realizing that this virtuosic beginning is among the most dazzling in the history of cinema.

     Only a Wellesian expert can catch most of the tiny changes in this print from previous versions. Not I. But I agree with those who find that the new Touch of Evil makes so much more sense, and that a major reason is the cleaned-up soundtrack. You can discern the dialogue, which previously had been a mumbling muddle. (I talked to a woman who saw version 1 when she arrived from Turkey, and she decided, sadly, that she could never understand English.)

     I still prefer the earlier opening, which sported a jaunty, latino Henry Mancini tune, with horns and bongos, and credits over the legendary shot. In 1958, it was radical to run titles simultaneously with a scene of suspense, something taken up on that cool TV show (with Mancini jazz), Peter Gunn. That's not what Welles wanted: ambient sounds have replaced the great Mancini song. Credits have been moved to the end of the film; the tune, alas, has been disappeared,

Boston Phoenix, October, 1998


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