Cool filming saves the 'Mexican' Heston

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By The Staff

Always wanted to see Charlton Heston play a Mexican? You could have 40 years ago – but in this case, procrastination paid off.

Mesa Public Library’s Free Film Series will present “Touch of Evil” at 6:30 a.m. Thursday in the upstairs rotunda, a 1958 film retouched in the late ’90s in order to bring the movie as closely as possible to director Orson Welles’ vision for it.

After Welles originally presented his film to Universal, the producer made several cuts and even hired another director, Harry Keller, to reshoot some scenes. Despite a 58-page memo from Welles begging the studio to not go forward with the new film – and detailing suggestions for how to make the film work – it took a full 30 years before Universal would listen.

With help from Universal’s Bob O’Neil and sound engineer Bill Varney, editor Walter Murch attempted to restore the film. The result is startling cinematic beauty, even while certain aspects of the film don’t quite meet today’s standards for realism.

I’m speaking here not only of Heston playing a Mexican (Ramon Miguel Vargas), but of many Caucasians playing Mexicans, barely speaking Spanish and causing some confusion, at least for this viewer, over who’s Mexican and who’s American – an important distinction in a plot centered around a murder right at the Mexico/U.S. border.

I think it turns out the American lawmen are the most corrupt – but don’t take my word for it. The other white guys have an unpleasant side as well.

However, it’s film noir. It’s the ’50s. I’m willing to enjoy other aspects of the movie.

The opening scene has been written about and imitated extensively. In one, long shot, it follows a man setting a timer on a bomb and loading it into the trunk of a car, a couple getting into the car and driving off, a pair of pedestrians crossing in front of them and then walking cheerily along the road side, and all four crossing the border at immigration. The car explodes off-screen and the real action begins.

As you watch this scene, imagine credits laid over it. Then give praise that someone finally, as Welles requested, removed them.

In another murder scene (I won’t tell enough to spoil it, since it happens close to the finale), the light, which never reaches actual brightness anywhere in “Touch of Evil,” pulses slowly, almost erotically, as the murderer overcomes his victim.

Guns, narcotics and constant, conspicuous deception stick in humid droplets on every scene. It makes you look at your own face suspiciously in the mirror.

A sharp female lead (played by Janet Leigh) adds a whole lot to the film, too. When Vargas’ new bride gets way up in her Mexican (I think) kidnapper’s sneer to tell him off, you hardly mind Heston’s Illinois accent as he yells “donde esta mi esposa?” across the crowded bar. At least you believe he wants her back.

My rating: three out of five kernels