Like every other film Orson Welles made after Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil (1958) manages to be memorably impressive without being particularly good.
Crammed, even more so than his other post-Kane films, with virtuoso visual passages and lively, eccentric performances, it doesn't so much transcend the dime-store crime-melodrama origin of its story as ignore it. As a result, there's a hollowness to its grandeur, a nagging feeling that the stunning crane shots and protracted takes aren't in service of the plot -- they are the plot. One waits, with mounting pleasure, not for the next story revelation but for the next camera setup.
The story itself barely matters. It involves Charlton Heston as a Mexican cop -- in an earnest and effective performance -- who, with his bride (Janet Leigh), becomes involved in a rancid stew of drugs, murder and blackmail in a seedy border town lorded over by a monstrously obese and, of course, corrupt cop played by Welles. The actor-director has made himself as repellent as possible, a grossly dissipated Falstaff, rotting on the inside and running on venomous fumes.
Among the gallery of mutants we meet along the story's way are: the great Akim Tamiroff, as the theatrically uncouth head of the Grandi crime family -- Tamiroff specialized in comically egotistical villains and was the inspiration for "Rocky & Bullwinkle'"s Boris Badunov; Marlene Dietrich in full gypsy regalia, telling Welles he should lay off the candy bars; Dennis Weaver as a hysterical motel night clerk, a truly bizarre performance; and Mercedes McCambridge as a leering leather-dyke, surely the movie's most avant-garde touch.
The version being shown at the DFT is a new one that's been edited in accordance with Welles' production notes -- no added footage but some fresh intercutting of scenes and, most notably, no music or credits during the famous opening sequence. Personally, I miss Henry Mancini's cheesy, ersatz-Latino theme and the way it hipped the audience right off that this ain't King Lear, folks -- it's garish trash, made sumptuous by a sly master.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.