Review: Touch Of Evil (1958)

Composer: Henry Mancini

Label: Varese Sarabande

Catalogue Nr.: VSD-5414

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The 1958's Orson Welles film Touch Of Evil was the last classic film noir starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich and the deep-voiced director himself. It is a story about murder, vengeance and deception in a small Mexican town at the American border: The high ranking Mexican narcotics officer Mike Vargas and his young American wife Susan are enjoying their honeymoon until they witness the assassination of a rich U.S. developer. When they accuse a local Mexican of the crime, Vargas wants to investigate the case against the will of the strange American police captain Hank Quinlan who seems to have his very own way to enforce the law. The film's opening became legendary as one of the longest and most complicated ongoing shot in film history and the entire movie was quickly heralded by critics even though the film was a box office failure in the tradition of Welle's other projects. The final movie was actually far away from Welle's original concept due to heavy re-cuts by Universal after a malicious test screening. A director's cut based on a 58-page memo made by director Welles was finally released in 1998 to correct the injustice... thirteen years after his passing.

The score:

Orson Welles obviously felt from the very first minute that the realism of the film would benefit from a very careful use of music which lead to a very unusual approach. The majority of the music in Touch Of Evil consists of jazz and rock 'n' roll source cues played by visible sound sources like radio, jukebox or pianola while the amount of the actual underscore was very limited. Therefore, Henry Mancini seemed to be a natural choice as the film's composer due to his popular use of jazz music for films like The Glenn Miller Story (1953) or TV series like Peter Gunn (1958). Especially the use of contemporary rock 'n' roll music in a film was still pretty daring at the time. All that easily makes this first score by Henry Mancini for a major motion picture one of his best works.

For the few passages with conventional underscore like the lengthy "Main Title" opening shot, Mancini composed magnificent but somewhat grim and low-toned jazz music for a big band playing against exotic percussion which is not only representative for the border town location but cleverly foreshadows the conflict between U.S. cop Quinlan and Mexican narcotics investigator Vargas. Other cues from the score, including "Borderline Montuna", "Flashing Nuisance", "The Boss", "Pidgeon Caged" or "Background For Murder" all benefit from this very unique band arrangement while special note should be given to "Background for Murder" since it cleverly functions as both underscore and source music at the same time. The cue accompanies the crucial murder scene during the last third of the film by starting out as a reprise of the main title that seems to come from a nearby bar but then suddenly goes into a weird sequence of free jazz as the victim is getting strangled. It is probably the most clever usage of source music in the history of film music to this date and a very ingeniously unusual musical approach to a murder scene.

The score is falling only very briefly into film noir music clichés with cues like "Something For Susan" which adds a depressive tone with soprano sax or "The Chase" which has the typical strange and dark sax clusters to add drama and suspense. The rest of the score consists of source cues featuring a potpourri of styles from rock 'n' roll in "Orson Around", "The Big Drag", "Ku Ku", "Son Of Raunchy", "Lease Breaker" and "Bar Room Rock" over smoky New Orleans jazz in "Reflection" to honky tonk in "Blue Pianola" to lounge music in "Susan" and back to blues in "Strollin' Blues" which has a sax line that could come right from his TV music for Peter Gunn (1958). Especially the cues that carry a stronger rock 'n' roll sound are of note because they are played on the radio of a gang of youngsters threatening Varga's wife Susan (an historic evident that rock 'n' roll was associated with young bullies back in the 50's).

Another cue of note is "Tana's Theme" which is a melody for a pianola playing in the house of Marlene Dietrich's character Tanya. The lovely tune is playing an important role in the relationship between Quinlan and Tanya as the echo of better times for both and is reprised as underscore at the end of the film when Tanya delivers the final words to end the story.

 

RATING:

Score as heard in the film: 94%

Score as heard on CD: 78%

TOTAL: 86%

 

The presentation:

Various CD releases exist of this classic score which all share almost the same content and running time. However, this review is based on the Varese Sarabande edition which features one additional track called "Something For Susan" and runs 50 minutes. The sound quality is surprisingly good for a late 50's recording even though it appears to be a little flat at times. Only the cover art of the disk seems to be a little bit lacklustre compared to the artwork of the Movie Sound Records release from 1993.

Presentation by the Label: 67%

 

Summary:

Henry Mancini's score for Orson Welle's Touch Of Evil is a landmark score when it comes to the effective usage of source music and whoever thinks that source cues are the bastard child of film scores should listen to this CD. Almost every cue makes perfect sense espcially in the context of the film and some even function as underscore and source music at the same time. It is therefore highly recommended to watch the film for a better understanding why these jazz and rock 'n' roll source pieces have been so crucial for the world of film music. Furthermore, the score contains one of the best main title compositions ever. If you haven't seen the film it might appear like a mere collection of very good contemporary music from the decade with occasional pieces of underscore thrown in but it is really much more. However you put it, Mancini's first major score was and still is a classic from the very first note and should not be missed in any film music collection.

Review by Andreas Creutzburg

 

                             Tracklisting:

01.  Main Title (03:28)
02.  Borderline Montuna (02:00)
03.  Strollin' Blues (02:38)
04.  Orson Around (02:44)
05.  Reflection (02:59)
06.  Tana's Theme (02:23)
07.  Flashing Nuisance (01:35)
08.  The Boss (01:05)
09.  Pidgeon Caged (00:55)
10.  Rock Me To Sleep (02:39)
11.  The Big Drag (02:19)
12.  Ku Ku (02:41)
13.  Susan (02:19)
14.  Son Of Raunchy (03:01)
15.  Lease Breaker (02:45)
16.  Background To Murder (07:20)
17.  Bar Room Rock (01:14)
18.  Blue Pianola (03:13)
19.  Something For Susan (01:38)
20.  The Chase (01:00)

 

 

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