Judge Clark Douglas needs to lay off the candy bars.
Our reviews of Touch Of Evil (published October 19th, 2000), Touch Of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition (published October 7th, 2008), and Touch of Evil (Blu-ray) (Region B) (published November 7th, 2011) are also available.
The overwhelming drama of a strange vengeance.
"He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?"
Facts of the Case
Our story begins with a car bomb, which was placed in the trunk of a car in Mexico and exploded just after the car crossed the border into the United States. This makes the investigation a bit complicated, forcing Mexican government official Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes) to join forces with American police captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles, Citizen Kane). Unfortunately, Quinlan and Vargas have very different ideas about how to go about conducting the investigation and which methods are acceptable. The tension between the two builds over time, and before long Vargas begins to suspect that Quinlan is corrupt and dangerous. Meanwhile, Vargas' wife Susie (Janet Leigh, Psycho) quickly begins to realize that her own life may well be in danger.
Orson Welles wasn't supposed to direct Touch of Evil. He was hired to play the villain in the film, but he had helmed too many commercial failures to be permitted to step into the director's chair again. Fortunately, Charlton Heston suggested that Universal might want to consider letting Welles direct, and the studio agreed in order to keep their prized star happy. Welles eagerly accepted the opportunity (despite the fact that the studio told him they would only pay his acting fee), re-writing the script and turning a standard studio thriller into something unique. Alas, the actor/writer/director didn't stick around for all of the post-production process, wandering off to Mexico while the studio re-shot certain sequences and put together a clumsily-edited version of the movie. After seeing the cut, Welles sent the studio a legendary 58-page memo detailing the changes which should be made. The studio had no interest in going to the trouble.
In the mid-1970s, the studio discovered a 108-minute version of the movie in its archives and assumed that it was the "complete" version of the film. However, this version actually featured an even greater amount of the studio reshoots and made the plot even more muddled and confusing than it was to begin with. In 1998, the closest approximation of Welles' vision was finally realized when Walter Murch was tasked with restoring the film based on Welles' notes. The result is a fascinating, rewarding crime thriller which is easily superior to the earlier cuts and makes a strong argument for the idea that Welles really had created something great.
Heston and Leigh are ostensibly the film's leads, but it doesn't take long to realize that Captain Quinlan really forms the heart of the movie. Though Welles was getting a bit heavy at the time, he wasn't nearly as overweight as he appears in the film—he gave himself prosthetic jowls and a great deal of padding in order to make himself look incredibly obese. Though Quinlan is a grubby, unsympathetic character in many ways, there's nonetheless a considerable amount of pathos in seeing the once-dashing Welles playing this gigantic wreck of a man. Welles is completely riveting every moment he's onscreen, grunting and huffing his way through cynical monologues with theatrical precision. Heston and Leigh are both good, but Welles is operating on a whole different level. The only performer in the film to match him is Marlene Dietrich, who makes a big impression in a handful of key scenes as Welles' old flame.
Welles reportedly disliked directors who attempting to show off, but his work is certainly on the dynamic, flashy side. Aside from the famed opening tracking shot (which is a brilliant piece of filmmaking), Welles employs striking camera angles and makes terrific use of shadows on a regular basis. A fight scene involving Welles and a doomed supporting player battling it out while Janet Leigh sleeps on a nearby bed is a masterful piece of tense, dynamic action. Henry Mancini's score is cleverly utilized throughout the film, often appearing on radios or player pianos rather than simply being used as underscore. More often than note, the characters are hearing their own theme music as they wander through the plot (which is certainly a bit complicated, but not incomprehensible).
Touch of Evil (Blu-ray) sports a solid 1080p/1.85:1 transfer which looks terrific under the circumstances. All three cuts of the film have been included, and certain portions of the two later cuts feature a few scenes which suffer from some prominent damage—these were evidently beyond repair. Even so, the damage isn't significant enough to really distract from the film, and the rest of the scenes look terrific: sharp, deep and crisp. The DTS HD 2.0 Mono track is solid on all three versions, though Henry Mancini's score plays a less prominent role in the reconstructed version (and is more effective in that context, honestly) than it does in the other two. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout.
Bonus features from the previous DVD release are recycled here. You get no less than four audio commentaries: one with Heston, Leigh and producer Rick Schmidlin on the reconstructed version, one solo track from Schmidlin on the same version, one with historian F.X. Sweeney on the theatrical version and one with critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore on the '70s version. On top of that, you get two worthwhile featurettes ("Bringing Evil to Life" and "Evil Lost and Found"), a theatrical trailer and a booklet featuring a reprint of the 58-page memo Welles sent the studio. The only frustrating thing: if you want to watch the special features, you have to access them from the pop-up menu, as the main menu only permits you to select the version of the film you want to watch.
Touch of Evil is a riveting flick from a great director keen to prove he could still deliver a slick Hollywood production. As with so many of Welles' post-Citizen Kane flicks, it's a bit messy and the true "director's cut" is forever lost, but the reconstructed version feels more or less complete and satisfying. The Blu-ray is exceptional, too. Highly recommended.
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