With the success of ''Touch of Evil,'' a slew of special editions are due out this fall, including ''Rear Window'' and ''The Wizard of Oz''

When Orson Welles outkicks Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker at the box office, something’s screwy.

Yet that’s what happened — sort of — when the critically ballyhooed new version of 1958’s Touch of Evil went up against Rush Hour on the weekend of Sept. 18, 1998. Okay, so Rush grossed $33 million, and Evil attracted less than $200,000, but check out those per-screen averages. Showing in 12 big-city locations, Evil raked in $14,505 per screen versus $12,510 for Rush Hour. Pretty hefty for an unpleasant black-and-white noir thriller starring director Welles as a corrupt, beyond zaftig police chief, Charlton Heston as a Mexican narcotics official, and Janet Leigh as a bride on the honeymoon from hell.

What makes this relative pittance big news in Hollywood? The town loves one kind of money better than any other: found money (something Fox discovered lots of with the Star Wars re-release last spring). Says Rick Schmidlin, a sometime Doors archivist and music-video producer who spearheaded the reissue of Touch of Evil for Universal: ”This was a re-release no one knew how to market. Even refurbished it’s still a dirty, ugly, baroque, neo-Shakespearean hodgepodge by a former boy genius…We thought revamping it would just wind up being a sort of good deed.”

For Universal it’s more than that, since Evil cost only $300,000 to retouch and is on its way to a potential gross of $2.5 million in theaters. The secret of its success? Added value. After locating (with the help of former Universal honcho Lew Wasserman) a 58-page memo by Welles specifying how the movie should be reconfigured, Schmidlin and Academy Award-winning editor Walter Murch (The English Patient) helped Welles redirect the picture from beyond the grave. Working from Welles’ memo — written by the appalled director after Universal took the film away from him and recut it — Murch has made approximately 50 editorial changes. Scenes have been juggled, credits have been removed from Welles’ virtuoso opening crane shot, and the soundtrack altered per Welles’ wishes.

Evil isn’t the only late- ’50s chestnut meeting a surprisingly strong response in theaters. A sparkling new print of Nights of Cabiria, Federico Fellini’s whimsical fable about a down-and-out prostitute (Giulietta Masina), was released in July with a reinserted five-minute scene and started tricking like never before. In two months, Cabiria has pulled in more than $700,000 — extraordinary for a subtitled, minimally promoted, black-and-white movie. Meanwhile, New Line’s spruced-up Gone With the Wind (borrowed from parent company Warner) blew into theaters last June and waltzed off with $6.4 million.

Not surprisingly, you can expect a whole new crop of special editions, director’s cuts, and plain reruns due later this fall and into the new century. Among them:

THE BIG CHILL It’s the 15th anniversary of writer-director Lawrence Kasdan’s ode to yuppiedom, starring Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, William Hurt, and Meg Tilly, but this reissue, due Nov. 6, 1998, is no special edition; that fabled eight-minute flashback scene with then unknown Kevin Costner, who’s seen only as a corpse under the opening credits, has not been reinstated. Says Kasdan: ”The studio would’ve liked that. They thought it was a good selling point…But I did not want to change the movie. I’m actually not a great believer in that.” Portions of the Costner outtake may show up in a DVD edition next year.

Touch of Evil
  • Movie
  • 96 minutes