Director: Orson Welles
Screenplay: Orson Welles
Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor
Country: United States
Running Time: 95/109/110 minutes
Year: 1958
BBFC Certificate: 12

Previously reviewed for Blueprint here: Touch of Evil: Limited Edition

Film productions are a mess of compromises between show and business, with no small amount of luck getting them onto the screen, but when Orson Welles set out to adapt Whit Masterson’s novel Badge of Evil, he couldn’t have anticipated this big a mess. It was his first Hollywood production after a decade in Europe, clawing his way back up the food chain through TV. It would be his last American film.

Set in a border town, with good, evil and everything in-between, Touch of Evil features a Mexican drug enforcement agent (Charlton Heston) on Honeymoon with his American bride Susie (Janet Leigh) when a car bomb explodes in one of cinema’s most brilliant and audacious set-pieces. Heston tries to investigate by-the-book, but is frustrated by the embittered and racist Quinlan (Orson Welles), who seeks justice at any cost.

Horrified by what they saw in an early cut of Touch of Evil, the studio shut Orson out of a hasty re-edit and Welles’ Hollywood death-rattle was a 58-page memo, pleading with studio executives to honour his original intention. It was ignored.

In trying to wrestle the footage into something more conventional, the studio inadvertently continued the theme. The film they released in 1958 remains a masterpiece, undeniably the work of Orson Welles. While the astonishing 1998 restoration is superior and a fine tribute to the director’s intentions, even the butchered versions remain complicit in the film’s moral and visual ambiguity. Touch of Evil is a monumental work, one of the most important American films ever made and, in an excellent release from Eureka!, you can try all three flavours in UHD.

It’s a muscular film, more twisted than any noir I can recall. Janet Leigh finds herself trapped in a hotel room in a ruthless sequence which clearly inspired Psycho. Despite the films sharing motel production designer Robert Clatworthy and camera operator John l. Russell, Leigh said in an interview with Mark Cousins that Hitchcock never spoke of a link, but it’s there. Leigh is marvellous in Touch of Evil and while we’d rightly question Charlton Heston’s casting today, his dignified performance as Vargas is one of his finest, more understated roles. And we speak about Orson Welles the director, but not enough about Orson Welles the actor. He fully inhabits the role of Quinlan, bringing physical and Shakespearean weight to a horrifying individual, albeit one with his own fears. “Your future is all used up”, says medium Marlene Dietrich.

The scrappy nature of the releases, although they rightfully dismayed Welles, nevertheless compliment his chosen aesthetic; broken, dying, a world that seems unaware of any other, and timeless. There’s a Venn diagram somewhere between Touch of Evil and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and it’s almost a circle; both directors seemed to regard time as a physical entity, and extended that to their direction. A lot is said about the incredible unbroken tracking shot that opens the film, but a later scene in a suspect’s house is equally impressive. A series of uninterrupted takes, completed within a day, complementing the ferocious pace of the film and an exhausting experience for the audience.

A feeling of unease, regret even, is emphasised throughout Touch of Evil and we never really forget we’re watching a film, a mode Italian Realism would embrace at its most sophisticated, but one that Welles’ develops seemingly spontaneously. It’s a tragedy that he wasn’t allowed the freedom to create almost any of his post-Citizen Kane work unhindered. The possibilities were endless.


All three cuts are given the Dolby Vision UHD treatment, but Touch of Evil poses an interesting prospect for 4K. It’s not always about crisp, smoothly detailed images, but more reproducing the original intention. And nothing about this film is supposed to be comfortable, Welles’ is manipulating the viewer’s perception in every frame. Extreme wide angles and an extraordinary depth of field create a disorienting effect, especially coupled with a narrative that denies you a pause.

UHD accentuates this effect even further and all three 4K transfers are fantastic, giving the overall film a tangible, unpredictable texture and depth. Out-of-focus shots, frequently centred, are particularly jarring, as are the contrasts between challenging periods of light (much of the film takes place overnight, into dawn, and back again). When the film allows it, the detail can be pin-sharp, especially on Quinlan, an intentionally ugly character. His sweaty bulk fills the frame and the textures in the cheap ill-fitting suit are remarkable. More questionable would be Charlton Heston’s makeup to make him look Mexican, instead of more appropriate casting.

In a marvellous video essay included on the disc, Matthew Sweet posits that the odd make-up, amongst other things, is knowingly part of the film’s sly, unsettling charm. Your mileage may vary, but this is a superb example of what UHD can achieve.


This set from Eureka is as close to definitive as any film fan could hope for. A tribute to an incredible film, presented at its questionable finest, and a record of a fascinating period in Hollywood. The Limited Edition (3000 copies) features new artwork from Tony Stella and a 100-page book featuring interviews and essays -as well as the famed memo- by Orson Welles and François Truffaut among many others. Much of the material demonstrates how appreciated the original release was. Truffaut was passionate about its importance, even seemingly without knowing it was compromised.

  • Four audio commentaries with restoration producer Rick Schmidlin, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh (whose frustration with the edited version was still present when she recorded this), F. X. Feeney (critic) and Orson Welles experts James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
  • New video interviews with critics Matthew Sweet, Tim Robey and Kim Newman.
  • Bringing Evil to Life and Evil Lost and Found interviews with cast and critics.

Touch of Evil UHD: Limited Edition
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