Judge Paul Pritchard prefers a touch of cinnamon.
"Your future's all used up."
The story behind Touch Of Evil is well documented, so I'll keep it brief. Following his dissatisfaction with the version of the film Universal planned to release to theaters, director Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) penned a fifty-eight-page memo to the studio requesting a number of changes to his film. His request fell on deaf ears.
Fast-forward to 1976, and fans of the film were offered the chance to see the "complete, uncut" version of the film when the 1958 preview version of the film was found in the studio vaults. However, this was not Welles's intended cut of Touch Of Evil. In fact, it would be another twenty-two years before anything resembling a complete version of Touch Of Evil would be released. Thanks to producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch, the film was re-edited in accordance with Welles's memo, leading to the 1998 Reconstruction Cut being released.
Despite there being three cuts of the film, none stands as the definite (or "directors") cut, meaning fans of the movie are going to want each available version. Thanks, then, to Eureka. Not only does the latest entry in their "Masters Of Cinema" line contain all three cuts, they've only gone and delivered each cut (with a choice of aspect ratios) in high-definition on Touch Of Evil (Blu-ray) (Region B).
Facts of the Case
Manuel "Mike" Vargas (Charlton Heston, The Omega Man), a drug enforcement officer working for the Mexican government, finds himself clashing with Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) when he is witness to a car bombing on the U.S./Mexican border that kills the occupants, a wealthy U.S. citizen and his female escort.
Quinlan's reputation goes before him, and he immediately pins the murder on Manelo Sanchez (Victor Millan), the young Mexican man who had recently married the daughter of the victim. It looks to be an open-and-shut case, especially when dynamite—stolen from the yard Sanchez was recently fired from—is found in his apartment by Quinlan's right-hand man, Sergeant Peter Menzies (Joseph Calleia). However, Vargas smells a rat, and begins investigating Quinlan himself, suspecting the legendary law enforcer of corruption. Quinlan won't go down without a fight; he allies himself (albeit loosely) with "Uncle" Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), the acting head of a local crime family who Vargas has been working to take down. Knowing that Vargas is beyond reasoning, Grandi and Quinlan target Vargas's new wife, Susan (Janet Leigh, Psycho), as a means to destroy him.
It's hard to discuss Touch Of Evil and not immediately laud Orson Welles' direction. Right from the off, Welles is at the very top of his game with the rightly celebrated tracking shot that opens the movie. Clocking in at 3 minutes and 20 seconds, the shot follows a car we know to have a bomb planted in it through the busy streets, and across the border into the United States. It's not just the technical aspect of the shot that so impresses, though. It is also the way in which the sequence introduces us to Heston's Mike Vargas and his wife Susie. As attention grabbing as this scene is, it is only one of many that capture one's attention throughout the picture's running time. Perhaps what is most impressive about Touch Of Evil is the way that each scene is important, and every single shot utilized to further the story or develop characters. One of the best examples of this comes during a seemingly incidental scene where Vargas enters a local store to call his wife. Setting Heston against the large store window, our attention is drawn to a fracas in the street that gradually becomes the focus of the scene and leads to an interrogation that proves pivotal to the entire film. It is this subtle, rather than flashy, approach that makes Touch Of Evil such a joy to behold.
Elevating the film further is the cast who, to a man (and woman), are note-perfect in their respective roles. Rightly taking the top plaudits are Charlton Heston and Orson Welles. Every time these two lock horns, which is a regular occurrence, Touch Of Evil sizzles. The two men, each coming from opposite sides of the U.S./Mexican border, also allow the film to further explore the racial tensions that simmer, barely beneath the surface, and serve to inform the actions of several characters—particularly Welles's bigoted Quinlan. From his memorable entrance and right through to his fitting finale, Welles' Quinlan proves a provocative, yet irresistible monster who rides roughshod over everyone in his path. Taking the brunt of Quinlan's bluster, and worthy of extra praise, is Joseph Calleia as Sergeant Peter Menzies, whose loyalty to his superior is severely tested when allegations of corruption are leveled at Quinlan, leading directly to the film's memorable, tension-filled finale.
In truth, Touch Of Evil revolves around a fairly standard film noir plot, but thanks to Welles's interpretation goes to some unexpected places that raise the film above most of its genre siblings. The depths that Quinlan is prepared to go to are shocking, particularly for a star-studded picture from 1958. The way Quinlan exploits Vargas's wife to gain the upper hand on his adversary is especially dark, and only emphasized further by Janet Leigh's strong performance. Such work also helps cover the narrative loops the film finds itself trapped in on several occasions (notably during the theatrical cut), and, coupled with Welles' vision and the excellent performances of the cast, marks out Touch Of Evil as one of the rare occasions where enjoyment of the story is not a prerequisite to enjoying the film as a whole.
As already discussed, Welles' displeasure at the theatrical cut of Touch Of Evil has led to three versions of the film being available, and each is included on this two-disc Blu-ray release:
• The Theatrical Version, presented in either the original 1.85:1 or alternative 1.37:1 aspect ratio (which the viewer can choose from the main menu), clocks in at 95 minutes. This version comes with the option of a commentary track courtesy of F.X. Feeney.
• Next up is the 1958 Preview version, presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This version, which comes in at 108 minutes, has a commentary track courtesy of James Naremore and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
• Finally, the viewer has the option of the 1998 Reconstruction (both in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, or alternative 1.37:1), which has the longest running time, clocking in at 110 minutes. A separate commentary track is included for both versions of the Reconstruction. The 1.37:1 version features Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, while Rick Schmidin, who produced this particular edit of the film based on the famous fifty-eight-note memo Welles penned to Universal, headlines both tracks.
The 1998 Reconstruction would appear to come closest to Welles's original intentions for Touch Of Evil, which is notable from the off where Henry Mancini's fabulous score is jettisoned (as are the opening credits) in favor of a more natural soundtrack, which utilizes the sounds of the busy streets to introduce the viewer to the border town where the story takes place. The 1998 Reconstruction provides a far more cohesive film, with a narrative that is easier to follow. In contrast, the theatrical cut offers tighter pacing, but at the expense of both the story's accessibility and the film's natural flow, which the 1998 Reconstruction remedies, thanks to much smoother editing.
The "Bringing Evil To Life" featurette (21 minutes) has cast and crew (which includes leads Heston and Leigh) discussing the film, and Welles's innovative techniques. This short piece also talks about the film's numerous cuts. One of the best contributions comes from Peter Bogdanovitch, who confesses to not understanding the movie.
"Evil Lost And Found" (18 minutes) is really an expansion on the previous featurette, but focusing more on the 1998 Reconstruction.
Regardless of the version the viewer chooses, the transfer is excellent. Considering much of the film takes place at night, detail levels are exceptionally high, with rich black levels allied to a sharp picture. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is equally impressive, with crisp dialogue.
Essentially a hi-def update of the 50th Anniversary Edition already available on Region 1 DVD, Eureka's Blu-ray release of Touch Of Evil currently stands as the definitive release of this classic. It's highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eureka Entertainment
• Alternate Cuts
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