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Touch of Evil

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
Film Noir
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Orson Welles
Charlton Heston
Janet Leigh
Orson Welles
Joseph Calleia
Akim Tamiroff
Bottom Line: 
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Masters of Cinema present the ultimate edition of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil” in a two-disc Blu-ray set, featuring stunning HD transfers of all three extant versions of the film with a choice of preferred aspect ratio and commentaries for each one, the whole caboodle accompanied by a fantastic 56 page booklet of in-depth essays and film criticism. From its audacious, attention-grabbing three-and-a-half minute-long opening sequence – built from a magnificent crane shot that starts on a close-up of the timer being set on a bomb and then pulls above the teeming streets and arcades of a chiaroscuro lit, night-time Mexican-American border-town to follow Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh among the multitudes as they journey on foot along the thoroughfare of a busy crossing, all captured in a single take (a mind boggling feat of choreography) which tracks, glides and dollies and doesn’t cut away until the moment the bomb we saw planted three-and-a-half minutes previously finally goes off at the exact moment they kiss -- “Touch of Evil” reveals the touch of a master, the touch of a genius.

This is unambiguously and demonstrably in every way an Orson Welles movie: padded and puffed out from bestriding the screen with a bulbous prosthetic nose, Welles’ shabbily attired, brooding figure dominates the landscape of the film with his role as the grizzled, limping, spiritually corrupt Southern cop Hank Quinlan; and in his role as director Welles’ kaleidoscopic wide-angle lenses and edgy, low-slung deep focus camera angles; his fluid tracking shots and the looming high contrast shadows that flicker across the film’s dream-like mise en scène, equally reveal his distinctive vision active behind the lens in almost every shot. Yet, of course, Welles’ hand isn’t actually quite behind ‘every’ shot of “Touch of Evil”, at least as it has come down to us through Universal Pictures.

Released in 1958 without a proper press screening and as the bottom half of a double-bill with something called “The Female Animal”, “Touch of Evil” was originally to have been nothing but another acting gig for Orson Welles; a role in a low budget Albert Zugsmith potboiler after ten years of self-imposed exile from the Hollywood machine in the wake of studio interference in his last film production of “Macbeth”. During those ten years away, he’d spent his time starring in and directing a small number of films in Europe. The film’s lead, Charlton Heston, suggested Welles be allowed to direct as well as star in the movie, and the auteur agreed to forgo any fee but his acting salary, so long as he was allowed to completely rewrite the script as well as direct.

Originally based on a passable but unremarkable novel called ‘Badge of Evil’ by Whit Masterson (the pen-name of writing partners Robert Allison “Bob” Wade and H Bill Miller) , “Touch of Evil” (the title was decided later by the studio, after Welles had left the project) became the first major Hollywood production that the director had been involved in since “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947) for Columbia Pictures, reuniting him with many of the actors and technicians he’d worked with in the 1940s, such as cameraman Russell Metty. Joseph Cotton appears for Welles again in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo playing a police doctor, and Marlene Dietrich’s turn as a German-accented Mexican bordello Madam even took the studio by surprise: they didn’t even know she was in the film until they saw the rushes, since Dietrich was originally appearing unpaid only as a favour to Welles, whom she’d worked with in a magic show during the war. The producers raised a fee for her just so that her involvement could be advertised. Zsa Zsa Gabor also turns up in a walk-on walk-off role at one point, apparently at the request of the producer Zugsmith.

Although he made the Universal studio executives nervous on the first day of shooting by not rolling the cameras until late in the afternoon and spending the rest of the day rehearsing, Welles quickly got the production three days ahead of schedule by shooting one long and complicated scene in a single take without stopping and repositioning the camera once. It’s probably even more technically impressive than the opening crane shot, but doesn’t call attention to itself in the same way. But in any case, it initially placated the studio, which was twitchy about letting Welles onto a Hollywood set again at all. The trouble came later, when principle photography had been completed and the film was to be edited.

Welles considered directing a film to be as much about the process of editing the material as it was about actually physically shooting the images in the first place, but Hollywood’s usual practice was to hand over approval of the final edit to the production head. In the case of “Touch of Evil”, Welles completed his own rough cut after three months of work (which was in no way his final vision for the film) and left to start work on his version of “Don Quixote” in Mexico, during which time production head Edward Muhl re-edited the whole thing, eliminating Welles’ complicated cross-cutting in the earlier part of the film because he thought it made things too confusing by requiring audiences to follow two different plots simultaneously. Although unusual at the time, such practice is of course now entirely normal, posing no problem for modern audiences whatsoever.

To add insult to injury, Harry Keller (the director of “The Female Animal” -- the ‘A’ film in the subsequent double bill), a Hollywood contract director, was employed by Universal to shoot a series of retakes to further clarify the plot. Neither Heston nor Leigh wanted to take part in them without Welles being present, but in the end were compelled to. After seeing the resulting cut, Welles later famously issued a 58 page memo requesting a compromise between his original vision and the studio’s rough cut; one that fully took into account the extra material (some of Keller’s work is even praised by Welles and credited with solving technical problems he had originally failed to) but also deliberating on how many sequences could still be extensively improved.

Welles was barred from the editing room, as he was from attending the reshoots. His memo was, consequently, extremely detailed and intended to allow Universal’s staff editors to make the changes he requested without his having to be present. However, the 96 minute cut of the film that Universal subsequently released to theatres only implemented a fraction of the changes Welles recommended in the memo, yet was, for the next fifteen years, the only known version in existence.

Until that is, in 1973, when (with Welles still very much alive) Universal discovered a previously unknown 109 minute preview version in the vaults, which featured several previously unseen scenes shot by Welles. It was released to theatres and later to video and laserdisc, where it was mistakenly identified as a ‘restored’ ‘full’ version of the film. In fact, though it did contain scenes by Welles that had been removed by the studio, this version also featured more material shot by Harry Keller, although no-one seems to know why Universal had this material edited out of the final version after going to so much trouble to have it shot in the first place.

Both the theatrical version and the preview cut appear on disc 2 of this set, the theatrical version included twice, in both its originally intended 1.85:1 ratio and in Orson Welles’ preferred 1.37:1 Academy ratio (the preview version has only ever been seen in its 1.85:1 ratio). The film works well in either one since Welles shot it open matt with later television screenings always in mind. This was during a period when the widescreen format was in the process of being imposed on filmmakers by the studios – then eager to find a way of competing with television. Although required to comply with this new format, Welles was known to prefer the original ‘square-shaped’ ratio, and had clearly worked to create as equally satisfying a viewing experience for home viewers watching the open matt TV version as he had for cinema audiences viewing the film projected with a theatrical widescreen composition. There’s never any sense of empty unused space at the top and bottom of the screen in this film when you watch it in 1.37:1, for instance – it simply has a different, more classical feel to it in that format. Since there is no one correct aspect ratio (just as there is no one definitive director’s cut of the film) Master of Cinema have included both, and left it up to the viewer to decide which he or she prefers.

It is disc one that almost all viewers will agree features the most satisfying cut of the film now in existence, though. And this is the one that clarifies “Touch of Evil” as worthy of being considered among the director’s most enduring cinematic masterpieces. In 1998, archivist and film restorer Rick Schmidlin embarked, with the full approval of Universal, on a special project in partnership with Wellesian scholar and film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and editing genius Walter Murch, to re-edit “Touch of Evil” according to the detailed notes included in Welles’ original 58 page memo to Universal production head Edward Muhl, penned in 1957. The result of their work still can’t be considered the definitive director’s cut (it still features many of Harry Keller’s revised scenes and it has no newly discovered material shot by Welles) but it is the closest thing we have to what Welles intended: the cross cutting technique the director envisioned has been restored according to his notes, as has the unique sound design Welles had thought up for the opening three minute single-take crane sequence, which was originally to have been accompanied by a collage of multi-racial source music -- a mix of mamba and rock n’ roll issuing from the multitude of bustling bars and arcades of the Mexican border town, and fading in and out as Heston and Leigh’s characters pass them by on their way to the American side of the border.

In the theatrical version, this detailed sound collage was replaced by Henry Mancini’s blaring score, with the film’s titles and credits crudely running superimposed across the whole sequence. Schmidlin and his team were able to gain access to a detailed ‘sound memo’ Welles had drawn up, explaining how his plan for the sound design of this section was to be achieved. This allowed them to finally bring Welles’ original intentions to life in a way that undoubtedly adds palpable extra atmosphere to the sequence. The credits have also been removed completely, and the mesmerising opening now plays unadorned, as originally intended.

These are just a few of the often barely perceptible ‘improving’ tweaks which have been implemented, but always only according to what Welles had written in his memo.

There’s no way of truly knowing how the film would have looked if Welles has been allowed to complete the editing process himself; in a letter to Charlton Heston he claimed that his proposed changes represented only ‘the barest minimum’ needed in order to make the film anything like how he wanted it to be. Perhaps this version should be called the ‘memo version’ rather than Welles’ definitive cut. Nevertheless, this is the cut that rightfully now takes pride of place on disc one, and is also made available in both widescreen and Academy aspect ratios.

What that famous opening scene now emphasises even more than it did before, thanks to its newly designed opening sound montage of mingling rhythms from different cultures existing side by side, is just how completely Welles was able to transform what had once been merely a traditional crime melodrama in its original incarnation, into a film that’s entirely about borders -- moral, racial, ethical and psychological as well as geographical -- which appeared just at a moment in history when integration and civil rights had become hot topics for the United States. The film’s events take place on the eerie crumbling streets of a fictional town situated smack on the border between Mexico and the United States (and filmed in Venice, California), and moves between either side of the divide as US-educated Mexican drug enforcement official Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) plans on spending some quiet time honeymooning with his blonde bombshell American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh) when the sudden devastation wrought by the car bomb -- planted on Mexican soil but detonating on the American side of the border -- draws him into the investigations of one Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and his adoring partner and sidekick Pete Menzies (a widely acknowledged career best performance from Joseph Calleia).

Vargas is in the process of prosecuting a drug baron, the head of a Mexican trafficking ring that’s smuggling narcotics across the border and whose remaining cartel members, led by his brother and second-in-command, ‘Uncle’ Joe Grandi (Welles regular, Akim Tamiroff), are intent on getting to the enforcer before he can put away their boss for good -- either by using violence to shut him up (one of Grandi’s adolescent leather jacketed gang members tries to mutilate Vargas by hurling a jar of acid at his face) or by using more psychological methods, targeting his feisty American wife, Susan, and subtly harassing her while Vargas is away trailing the district attorney and the police chief who are both escorting Quinlan as the lawman’s investigation begins to homs in on his chief suspect – the Mexican boyfriend (Victor Millan) of the daughter of the construction magnate who was the bomb’s main victim.

The story of Susan’s rapidly escalating nightmare ordeal in a cheap Mexican border hotel (that turns out to be owned by Grandi) in the middle of an arid, deserted no-man’s-land of a landscape runs parallel to Vargas’ realisation that the domineering detective Quinlan’s reputation has been made on the back of fabricated evidence and strong-arm tactics used to obtain his suspects’ confessions. Vargas realises that the apparent evidence - two sticks of dynamite in a shoebox - found in the boyfriend Manolo Sanchez’s apartment, has been planted. Quinlan is given to having ‘hunches’ he just knows by intuition to be correct (ludicrously but believably, he claims his old wound in the disabled leg that took a bullet years earlier for his partner Menzies, sends him a twinge every time he’s on the right track with his investigation!) and, vowing to never let a guilty man go free again after he was unable to find evidence to convict the man – a ‘half-breed’ – who long ago strangled his wife, the bloated, limping police captain will stop at nothing to fulfil that promise.

The morally upright Vargas goes head-to-head in trying to bring down the righteously corrupt Quinlan (‘a lawman’s job is only easy in a police state’); enlisting the help of District Attorney's Assistant Al Schwartz (Mort Mills), he starts to go through the records of Quinlan’s previous police convictions, putting together the case against the veteran and trying to get Quinlan’s disbelieving partner to accept the truth. But Quinlan strikes back the only way he knows how: joining forces with Grandi, he gets a now-isolated Susan embroiled in a drugs charge and murder rap in order to discredit Vargas’ testimony.

A wonderfully choreographed and deliriously visually composed film, shot entirely with wide-angle lenses that make every figure loom from the shadows like grotesques from a nightmare, “Touch of Evil” is best summed up as being a gritty Shakespearian noir. Quinlan, as brilliantly portrayed by Welles, is a larger-than-life antihero turned villain -- slurring his way through a shadowy landscape that has one foot in a future that’s ‘all used up’ and another in a past that won’t go away. The details of the bomb plot and the subsequent framing are almost beside the point: the documentation of Quinlan’s descent from morally pugnacious cop to a hardened monster who is prepared to commit an act of cold-bloodied murder in order to cover his tracks, resorting to the same method as that which was apparently used to dispatch his deceased wife, has the aura of one of the Bard’s bloodier tragedies swirling around it. The sequence near the climax when the detective’s bulky frame is shot from above, stooping to try and wash the blood of a life-long friend from his hands in a filthy sewage dump, is both pitiful and chilling. Yet, this being Welles’ own script adaptation (hurriedly written in a mere eight days) the actor-director cannot resist making the old dog just a little sympathetic, primarily in his scenes with the iconic Marlene Dietrich, whose gipsy fortune-telling brothel Madam, Tana (the actress is made up to recall the exotic glamour of her Josef von Sternberg days: shot in soft focus amid swirls of tobacco smoke), retains an obvious affection for the great man the detective must have once been. Quinlan is haunted throughout the film by a pianola leitmotif that recalls better days long gone as he trawls the seedy alleyways and rubbish strewn arcades of the borderland between his dwindling past and a conquered future. The prospect of betrayal begins to loom as Joseph Calleia’s beleaguered partner Menzies begins to reluctantly contemplate the truth of his beloved friend’s fall.

Shakespearean in intensity it may be, but there is nothing stagey or static about Welles’ direction, which burst with life and vigour in every shot (making some of the inserted Harry Keller material all the more obvious): hand-held cameras track Quinlan in his investigation, with energetic enthusiasm. One famous scene sees cameraman Russell Metty following actors Ray Collins and Harry Shannon into a cramped lift. Charlton Heston’s character, Vargas, is accompanying them but can’t squeeze in, so he tells them he’ll take the stairs and meet them on the next floor. The whole scene in the lift is shot in one unbroken take, which means that Heston really did have to race up a flight of stairs to be able to greet the two actors when the lift door opened at the next floor in order to continue the scene!

Imbued with the implicit stylishness and atmosphere of classic Hollywood gangster pictures and film noir, “Touch of Evil” is, nevertheless, rooted in a twilight visualisation of the very pertinent racial and social issues of its era, exploited by Welles in an amusingly overwrought illustration of what must have been a white, 1950’s conservative audience’s real and present fear about the prospect of miscegenation. The liberal mixed marriage of the Mexican Vargas and the blonde white American Susie would still have been an ’issue’ in 1958, and Quinlan is depicted as an inveterate racist, assuming Vargas is just ‘sticking with his own type’ when he vows to defend Sanchez. But Welles quite happily plays on racial stereotypes to create a WD Griffith-like exaggeration of a racist conservative’s worst nightmare in which whiter-than-white Janet Leigh is subjected to the threat of gang rape at the hands of not only a bunch of swarthy, Mexican rock n’ roll bikers but a leering leather chick lesbian who wants to get her addicted to heroin, to boot!

Mercedes McCambridge is bizarrely terrifying and is a memorable presence indeed in the film, despite appearing only briefly in a handful of scenes as the butch female leader who heads the gang of Leigh’s tormentors. The sequence in which a vulnerable Janet Leigh, clad only in a flimsy white nightgown, is seen cowering in the shadows of her bedroom as the invaders lurch in, one by one, for who knows what purpose, still feels queasy even today. Welles populates the film with larger than life grotesques who often appear cartoonish and deliberately play up to stereotypes, none more so than Dennis Weaver in the role of the night-man at the deserted hotel where Leigh’s Susie is the only guest. It’s another nod to the form of Shakespearian tragedy -- with Weaver’s character nothing but a twitchy, galumphing fool, who plays no real part in the plot but provides an essential humorous counterpoint to the potentially grim goings-on in Susie Vargas’ room.

All this talk of Janet Leigh and uninhabited hotels in the middle of nowhere that are run by thin, nervy uptight young men inevitably brings to mind a certain film by Mr Alfred Hitchcock. The association is quite legitimate, for apparently Hitch was greatly influenced by “Touch of Evil”, and Leigh (who was disguising a broken arm throughout the whole shoot) must surely have been cast as a deliberate nod to Welles’ film. The fact that her ordeal in “Touch of Evil” is blithely skated over in the final seconds, would have only helped make her brutal dispatch in “Psycho” all the more shocking to audiences in 1960 -- for they’d be already primed to believe Mrs Lee must surely always come through in the end, just as she did in Welles’ equally atmospheric film.

The prospect of all three versions of the film in HD in both aspect ratios is enticing enough, and, indeed, the transfers used here are simply stunning: thick, strong inky blacks surround the frequently beautiful image detail that emerges through Metty’s use of high contrast photography and wide-angle lenses, making this one of the very best HD treatments of a classic film I’ve yet seen. This would be recommendation enough but the Masters of Cinema double disc-edition is loaded with a varied and detailed selection of extras that, between them, cover just about every aspect of the saga that surrounded Welles’ participation in the project. First up, ported over from a previous Universal release from some years ago is the 21 minute making-of documentary “Bringing Evil to Life”, featuring contributions from fans such as filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich and the film’s two stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. This deals with the production itself, but a second featurette, “Evil Lost and Found”, runs for a further 18 minutes and focuses on Welles’ battle to get the film’s editing changed, and the project to belatedly fulfil the director’s wishes that was later instigated by producer Rick Schmidlin with the help of Walter Murch – the editing genius behind Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation”. This concludes with a tour of the location in Venice, California, where the majority of the film was shot. It still looks pretty much the same today as it did in the late fifties.

These two documentary features cover all the basic ground, but this release is a cineaste’s wet dream, featuring not just one, not two or even three, but a whopping four commentaries from a host of Welles scholars and “Touch of Evil” aficionados. First up is Rick Schmidlin, who supplies a commentary (recorded in 2008) for the widescreen print of his 1998 edit, and goes into blow by blow detail about the changes made and the reasons (Welles’ original reasons) for them. This is probably the driest of the commentary tracks across the discs, but if you want to know exactly what’s different about this newest version, then this is the track to turn to. Some of those changes are so subtle they’d hardly even occur to the most attentive of viewers: In one note left by Welles in his 1957 memo, he expresses the wish that Quinlan had been looking up during one brief shot, instead of down. Sure enough, Schmidlin and his team of wizards have actually digitally altered Welles’ eye-line so that he is now looking up, just as the director had wanted!

In the second commentary, which plays with the 1998 edit in Academy ratio, Schmidlin is joined by Charlton ‘call me Chuck’ Heston and Janet Leigh for a track that is inevitably mostly about the two stars recollections of the actual shoot, providing plenty of fascinating anecdotes about Welles’ direction and attitude on set day-to-day. The third commentary (which can be viewed watching the theatrical cut in either its widescreen or 1.37:1 versions) is by FX Feeney and is the first of two critical analysis of the film, both of which are very erudite and engrossing; the fourth and last comes with the extended preview cut and is inevitably a more conversational (but no less fascinating) track since it features scholars and critics James Naremore and Jonathan Rossenbaum in what is probably my favourite of the four commentaries. I always like commentary tracks where two knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans of the film in question get together to chew the fat, swap facts and compare theories. This is one such commentary, and you come away from it with a considerably more advanced and enriched appreciation of Welles’ genius in general and for this rather special film in particular.

But it doesn’t stop there. Packaged along with the two discs is an excellent 56-page booklet that is choc-full of excellent stuff. There’s a punchy 1958 film review by the young François Truffaut; an essay on the film by renowned French theorist André Bazin, who makes the case that Quinlan isn’t a villain at all but ‘a great man’ surrounded by rule-following mediocrities; and a 1971 essay by Terry Comito which talks about the film’s evocative dreamlike geography of film ‘Labyrinths’. There’s a discrete section on Welles’ own thoughts on the film, brought together from various sources in print over the years. Subjects include: Welles’ method for going about the adaptation of the novel; the advantages of working with Hollywood’s heightened level of technical prowess; the importance of editing style; and the moral ambiguity of the Hank Quinlan character (in which Welles disputes the Bazin ‘great man’ thesis). Welles also dwells on the importance of Shakespeare as an influence in his approach to screenwriting and there’s a brief section on his thoughts on film criticism.

Next up there’s a reprint of Welles’ 1958 essay “Ribbon of Dreams” in which he makes a stand for the Academy ratio over the encroachment of the new widescreen format. One memorable quote stands out from it: ‘It can happen to us to dream in colors and sometimes in black and white, but never in CinemaScope. We never wake from a nightmare shrieking because it has been in VistaVision.’

The booklet then features a section on the history and timeline of the various different edits of the film and some notes on why the film has been included in two ratios for this release.

This has to be one of the stand-out releases of the year: a gorgeous, respectful presentation of a film that still feels fresh over fifty years after it was made, despite never quite appearing in the exact form its principle creator intended for it. But this is without a doubt an essential purchase.

Read more from Black Gloves at his new blog, Nothing but the Night!

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