Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles, Paul Monash (additional scenes – original theatrical release) & Franklin Coen (contributing writer for reshoots)
Based on a novel by: Whit Masterson
Starring: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff
Producers: Albert Zugsmith, Rick Schmidlin (1998 restoration)
Running Time: 96/109/111 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
In watching this latest Blu-Ray release of Touch of Evil, it was only the second viewing of the film for me, my first only being around a year ago. I loved it the first time, but now it’s sailed right into my all time favourites.
Orson Welles’ final Hollywood film is one with a troubled past. As is often the case with Welles’ work, the studio behind it meddled with the final cut. Whilst the director was off in Mexico working on the ill-fated Don Quixote, Universal’s production head Ed Muhl brought in a new editor and Harry Keller to direct additional scenes with Welles barred from set. When a rough cut was finally screened for Welles, he wrote a furious 58 page memo to Muhl detailing a host of changes to be made to the film. A new 109 minute version of the film (known as the “Preview Version”, officially released after being discovered in the 70’s) was produced with a few of these tweaks made, but the film remained untrue to Welles’ vision. Worse than this, when the film was released theatrically in 1958, it was a hacked up again into a 96 minute version. However, in 1998, Rick Schmidlin approached Universal with the idea of taking Welles’ memo and re-editing the film to follow his instructions, using footage available from the Preview Version and other sources. Unfortunately not all of the raw takes were available to follow the memo exactly and of course Welles wasn’t on hand to supervise, so there’s still no definitive director’s cut of the film. To most cinephiles though, this 1998 version is as close as you’ll get. This is the version I watched fully for the purposes of this review although I watched the Preview Version with a commentary over and I’m not sure which version I saw previously.
Touch of Evil begins with an audacious, epically long and complicated tracking shot beginning with a bomb getting planted in a car, following this down the road before shifting focus to newly-weds Mike and Susie Vargas (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh), with the doomed car drifting in and out of the scene until it reaches it’s fiery demise. The plot seems to concern the perpetrator and reason behind this murderous sabotage, with Vargas and Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles himself) both trying to solve the case, and I believe the original novel takes this route. Gradually however, we realise that Welles isn’t interested in this story. The film begins to draw much more from the separating of the two Vargas’ as Mike gets embroiled in the case and his wife gets targeted by local kingpin “Uncle” Joe Grande (Akim Tamiroff), then ultimately becomes a tale of Quinlan’s downfall, which drives the film to it’s climax.
Touch of Evil is, to me, the final word in ‘noir’. Welles takes a trashy piece of pulp fiction and turns it into a raw diamond. He creates a sleazy, seedy world like no other, filling the streets with litter and vice, with jazz music blaring out of every door. He uses characters that are larger than life, even literally in Quinlan’s case as his bulked up figure visually dominates every frame he’s in as well as figuratively. Shovelling chocolate bars into his mouth, leering at women that cross his path and mumbling his lines, he’s a disgusting creation that you can’t tear your eyes away from. Heston on the other hand is a very odd choice to play a Mexican and comes across as pretty bland and wooden, but on second viewing I see this as purposeful. Setting him against the grotesques that surround him suggests that Heston is merely an exaggerated version of the dull, overly righteous hero (until things get personal towards the end of course). As for his poor portrayal of a Mexican, Welles himself pokes fun of this in the film through a line aimed at Susie Vargas, when he says “she doesn’t look Mexican either”.
Touch of Evil usually plays second fiddle to Welles’ debut Citizen Kane, but to be honest, I’m beginning to prefer his later work. Granted, Evil has it’s flaws whereas Kane is pretty much perfect, but perfection is boring. Touch of Evil, with it’s twenty-four hour spanning narrative feels much tighter and more exciting. Also, as groundbreaking and staggeringly well constructed as the cinematic techniques are in Kane, I get the feeling that much of this is a young Welles merely grandstanding. Yes there can be meaning found behind every angle and effect, but I find that the still-present mastery of mis-en-scene in Evil seems more unified and fervently set to drive the core mood and atmosphere of the film. Welles’ incredible eye (and ear) for cinematic construction is used to wrench every drop of grime and claustrophobia from the setting and place his characters in exactly the standing he wants them to be in. A great example is in his framing of Quinlan. Throughout the film he is shot from low angles making him look huge, that is until he takes his first drink in years and he weakens, prompting the camera to crane upwards, diminishing his stature. The same happens again in the film’s final moments as the once lowly Sergeant Menzes stands up against Quinlan for the first time. It’s small yet crucial details like this that show how much of a master craftsman Welles was.
I don’t know, maybe standing it above Citizen Kane is a little much and is just me trying to rile up the comments section, but it does strike more of a chord with me. I love film noir which helps and genre films with a strong sense of atmosphere and mood always get me salivating. Better than Kane or not though, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a work of a true legend of the craft of film making.
Touch of Evil is out now on Blu-Ray, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema range. It’s an incredible package. Most importantly it brings all five known available versions of the film together – the 1958 Theatrical Version in both 1.37:1 and 1.85:1 (it’s not clear which ratio was preferred by Welles), the 1958 Preview Version in 1.85:1, and the 1998 Reconstructed Version in 1.37:1 and 1.85:1. All versions have been restored with the utmost care with very little sign of age in the prints. The black and white photography looks gorgeous on Blu-Ray and the soundtracks are clean as a whistle too.
Extras-wise the main selling point for me was the inclusion of a grand total of four audio commentaries. These feature restoration producer Rick Schmidlin, actors Charlton Heston & Janet Leigh with Schmidlin, critic F. X. Feeney and Welles scholars James Naremore & Jonathan Rosenbaum. The final pair’s track was voted ‘commentary of the year’ by DVD Beaver back in 2008 and it’s easy to see why. They obviously both have an extensive knowledge and passion for the film which comes across well, but they also have an energy and friendly interplay that keeps their chatter engaging throughout. I must admit I didn’t listen to the other three commentaries in their entirety, but what I heard of them seemed strong.
Added to the commentaries we get two featurettes. Bringing Evil to Life is a star-studded affair that gives the usual behind the scenes anecdotes and backslapping. It’s solid but nothing special. I was amused by the fact that Janet Leigh’s arm was actually broken during the shoot but they managed to hide it! Evil Then and Now however, though shorter, is very interesting. It looks at the 1998 reconstruction of the film and the differences between the versions. This acts as a fascinating look into the importance of editing and shows how seemingly minor changes can make dramatic shifts in tone and meaning. It’s also interesting to hear from George Lucas how the overlapping diegetic sound and music in the opening sequence (not actually introduced until the 1998 cut) would have predated the similar effect he used in American Graffiti 15 years later.
You also get the usual theatrical trailer and an excellent as always booklet. This contains a number of essays from critics such as Francois Truffaut and Andre Bazin as well as an interview with Welles himself and an explanation of the different versions and aspect ratios. Truffaut’s review of the film in particular is a gem and he puts to paper the reasons why Touch of Evil is a true masterwork in much finer words than I could ever wish to.
All in all it’s difficult to see how this Blu-Ray could possibly be improved upon. Maybe a longer, more insightful documentary would be nice, but there are so many bases covered with the commentaries and shorter featurettes, there’s not really any point. I urge anyone who loves the film, Welles’ work or cinema in general to pick this up as soon as possible.