Universal // 1958 // 111 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // October 7th, 2008
He was some kind of a man.
Like Don Quixote and the complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil was another "lost" Orson Welles masterpiece, a film edging on greatness that was destroyed by interference from a studio -- in this case, Universal.
What existed were two studio-produced cuts -- a 108-minute "preview" version and a 96-minute theatrical release -- and a 58-page memo Director Welles had written to the studio asking for changes in their cut of the film.
Restoration Producer Rick Schmidlin became aware of this in the 1990s and, working with editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), set out to reconstruct the film to better reflect Welles' vision, as outlined in the memo. The restored Touch of Evil played theatrically to great acclaim in 1998 and was released on DVD in 2000. That DVD was supposed to include some interviews and featurettes, but ended up with just an onscreen text reproduction of Welles' memo as a supplement.
Now, Touch of Evil is getting an outrageously good re-release: Two discs, all three versions of the film, four commentaries, two featurettes -- and a print version of the infamous memo, so you don't have to squint at your screen to read it.
A car crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. blows up, killing the driver, a wealthy older man, and his passenger, a blonde stripper. Witnessing this are Mexican narcotics investigator Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes) and his American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh, Pete Kelly's Blues). Soon, the "legendary" local police captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles, F for Fake), arrives on the scene and commences the investigation.
Vargas has been running an investigation of his own, bringing down the Grandi family, drug-dealing gangsters headed up by Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff, Anastasia). The trial of Joe's brother is about to start, and the Grandis want Vargas to call it off. One of the younger Grandis tries to make the point by throwing acid in Vargas' face (he misses, burning instead a wall poster of Zita, the murdered stripper). Uncle Joe has a better idea of how to persuade Vargas, and it involves terrorizing Susie. When she goes to an out-of-the-way motel to wait for her husband, the Grandis get their chance.
Meanwhile, Vargas is tagging along on the murder investigation. Quinlan's fabled instincts tell him that the killer is the Mexican boyfriend of the dead man's daughter. During an interrogation at the man's home, some incriminating evidence turns up in a shoebox -- but Vargas had seen the shoebox before, and it was empty.
Now, Vargas realizes that Quinlan is corrupt and that his "legend" has been built from planting evidence and framing possibly innocent suspects. But Vargas has bigger problems: the police found his wife passed out and reeking of drugs in a strange hotel room -- with a dead man.
Citizen Kane might have been Orson Welles' masterpiece, but in terms of purely audacious entertainment, it can't hold a candle to its beautiful guttersnipe cousin, Touch of Evil. Fifty years after its premiere, this paean to perversion has lost none of its ability to shock, haunt, repel, disquiet, and impress. It is as perfectly rendered a piece of schlock as art (or art as schlock) as has ever been made.
Welles' directorial touches -- the odd camera angles and off-beat framing, expressionistic lighting and extravagant use of shadow, jarring zooms, deep focus photography -- look like nothing that was being done at the time, certainly not on low-budget thrillers. Most famous is the opening, complex, breathtakingly choreographed three-minute and 20-second continuous tracking shot (timed with the detonator on a bomb). This sequence has been parodied and homaged in films like The Player and Boogie Nights, but it has never been equaled.
What stands out most here is the energy. There's a sense that Welles was having a blast working his magic in this pulpy milieu, which seems to fit his style more naturally than the comparatively elegant Kane or Ambersons. Certainly, Touch of Evil is more accessible than those classics, infused with immediacy and a passionate creativity.
For as hard edged as this film is, it's also remarkably sentimental. Cut away the sleaze, and you're left with a story of missed loves and lost heroes. Welles' Quinlan is a grotesque creature, bloated and blighted beyond recognition, but we can see the man he was through the eyes of two other characters: his deputy, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia, Gilda), who hero-worships him, and Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), a gypsy with whom Quinlan shares a past.
Calleia's Menzies is the heart of the film, a character as pure and trusting as was Brandon de Wilde in Shane -- and ultimately as innocent. Menzies' realization that Quinlan is corrupt and had used him to unwittingly plant evidence is one of the all-time great screen betrayals, absolutely heartbreaking.
If Menzies is the heart of Touch of Evil, then Tanya is its soul. Like their onscreen counterparts, Dietrich and Welles had a history, and they bring this to their characters, who share a weary and long-gone intimacy. Scored by an old player piano, the two banter about chili and candy bars, but really, this is where Quinlan has come to die, and the gypsy knows it. She gives nothing but resignation; she has nothing else to offer save for a hoary Tarot reading and a makeshift eulogy.
Dietrich is billed as a "special guest star," as is Zsa Zsa Gabor (in a far less integral cameo that does remind us how traffic stoppingly beautiful she was). Joseph Cotten appears unbilled as a coroner early in the film, and Mercedes McCambridge, also uncredited, makes a lasting impression with her few seconds of screen time as a Mexican gang member.
Welles was in his early 40s when he made Touch of Evil, but his character is around 20 years older. Already overweight, Welles is tricked out in a fat suit and putty nose, his Quinlan looking so gross on the outside, it's as though his moral degeneration has taken on a physical form. Quinlan should be a villain, and in many ways he is, but Welles imbues him with enough stubborn dignity to make him tragic -- something confirmed by a coda at the end that attests to the cop's instincts.
In Ed Wood, one of the jokes involves a meeting between Wood (the worst director of all time) and Welles, with Welles complaining, "I'm supposed to do a thriller at Universal, but they want Charlton Heston to play a Mexican." A funny line (and a not-unexpected knock at Heston, whose conservative views made him a Hollywood joke by the 1990s), but it's common knowledge that it was Heston who got Welles the job directing Touch of Evil. Even though the idea of a non-Hispanic actor lathering on bronzer and playing a Mexican seems ridiculous, Heston acquits himself nicely. Eschewing a put-on Mexican accent (a decision he later regretted, though I think it's better this way), he brings considerable star power to the role of Vargas. Nominally the hero, the character is so stalwart that he ends up kind of boring; were it not for Heston's charisma and movie-star looks, Vargas might have faded into the background altogether.
As Heston's wife, Janet Leigh starts out a bit obnoxiously perky. She's an overconfident and somewhat foolish American girl at the border, where the rules are different than what she understands. When she is later terrorized by the Grandis, the scene is horrifying -- and yet, there's a little piece of us that registers maybe, in some sick way, she brought this on herself, maybe if she hadn't been traipsing back and forth over the border, mouthing off at people and hiding behind her husband's reputation, if, instead, she'd gone somewhere safe as she'd been advised, this wouldn't be happening. We certainly don't want to see her assaulted (and, thanks to the Production Code, we do get an explanation as to what really happens), but it is a testament to the perverse power of this film that we are more interested in her fate than sympathetic to it. We can't take our eyes off it; like McCambridge's character, we "want to watch."
Touch of Evil was the last film Welles directed in the United States. Never popular with the studios to begin with, he left during post-production to try to raise funds for what he wanted to be his next project, Don Quixote. Universal then took the project away from him, ordered some reshoots, and then edited the whole thing together. When they showed this version to Welles, he wrote the famous 58-page memo to express his concerns.
Welles' issues with Universal had less to with artistry than with practicalities. The studio cut made the story confusing and hard to follow. Transitional scenes and bits of dialogue were removed, making a faster paced film with a murky narrative. For the Restored version -- which is only three minutes longer than the Preview version -- much of the re-editing helps clarify the story.
Universal might not have done right by Welles 50 years ago, but boy, are they making up for it now. This is a great set, a terrific tribute to the film and its creator.
On this double-disc 50th Anniversary Edition, we get all three versions of Touch of Evil. There's the 108-minute Preview version, Universal's first cut, presented here with a commentary track by Welles historians Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore. On the same disc is the Theatrical release version. According to legend, when the first cut was previewed for an audience, a woman walked out of the screening and whacked a Universal exec with her handbag, complaining that the film was disgusting and horrible. The studio then trimmed 12 minutes and released a 96-minute cut.
The Theatrical release version has its admirers, including writer F.X. Feeney (Frankenstein Unbound) who makes a good case in a lively commentary track. I have to admit, when I (repeatedly) saw this on TV as a kid (and later, when I watched it -- repeatedly -- on VHS), I always liked the way Henry Mancini's score worked over the famous opening shot. For the Restored version, as per Welles' memo, Mancini's score is dropped in favor of a soundtrack that comes from car radios, restaurants, and people on the street. When I read about the restoration, I felt a little bad about the Mancini music being moved to the end of the film. I can certainly see the wisdom in it -- the opening is much more dynamic presented as Welles intended -- but it was heartening to hear Feeney also speak in defense of the Mancini score at the top of the film.
The Restored version, which had the 1998 theatrical release, looks great. The film is presented in its original aspect ration of 1.85:1 (the commentaries address the misconception that this was originally shot full frame). The print for this black-and-white film features excellent contrast and deep blacks. The soundtrack is the original mono, and it's terrific. While it might not sound as dynamic as it could have with an upgrade, it's as close as possible to the track Welles created.
For the Restored version, we get two commentaries, one with Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, and Rick Schmidlin, and the other with Schmidlin alone. Both are excellent. The one with Heston and Leigh is full of wonderful anecdotes and insights; obviously recorded for the 2000 DVD release, it's also quite touching to listen to the last two surviving members of the cast, both of whom have since passed away.
Schmidlin's solo track seems to have been recorded more recently, and he gives us the story of the journey of the restoration. Schmidlin is generous with details and with his admiration for film and those who worked with him on the restoration.
"Bringing Evil to Life" is a "making of" feature, with interviews with Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Dennis Weaver, Robert Wise, and Peter Bogdanovitch, among others, discussing remembrances of the film as well as its influence. The stories here are wonderful; here and there, there's a bit of overlap with the commentary, but not enough to make it a wash.
"Evil Lost and Found" goes more in depth with the restoration, and we get to hear from Schmidlin, Walter Murch, and directors like George Lucas and Curtis Hanson, admirers of the film. This featurette ends with a visit to the Venice, CA, street that served as the bordertown in the film.
Rounding out the set are the original theatrical trailer and a print (rather than onscreen) version of the now notorious Welles memo.
Not a lot of complaints here. Just picky: the case incorrectly lists the Heston-Leigh-Schmidlin commentary as being on the Preview version. It's not, it's on the Restored version. For all the work that went into this set, couldn't Universal have hired someone to proofread the DVD case?
Touch of Evil isn't just an exciting movie, it's exciting movie-making. Ingenious, inventive, and surprisingly deeply felt, after sampling the extensive extras here, you might be inclined to see Welles' final American film as more passion play than drive-in Pietà.
This is a great release of a great film. Highly recommended.
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Review content copyright © 2008 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Films: #79
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Restored Version Commentary: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Rick Schmidlin
* Restored Version Commentary: Rick Schmidlin
* Preview Version Commentary: Welles Historians Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore
* Theatrical Version Commentary: Writer/Filmmaker F.X. Feeney
* "Evil Lost and Found"
* "Bringing Evil to Life"
* Theatrical Trailer
* Print Reproduction of Welles' 58-page memo
* Interview with Charlton Heston (1)
* Interview with Charlton Heston (2)
* Orson Welles Site
* Charlton Heston Site
* Marlene Dietrich Site
* The Welles Memo with Background