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Touch of Evil 4K

by Glenn Erickson Jun 28, 2022

One of Orson Welles’ best has arrived in 4K!  Kino Lorber has revived Universal’s 3-version study of the bordertown crime & corruption drama, that knocks us out with Welles’ colorful, weird characters, intricate scene blocking and infinitely creative camera work. Almost all of the extras from the earlier DVD and Blu-ray editions are here, with added expert commentary (the tally of tracks is now five). The performances are superb — Welles won’t lay off the candy bars, Janet Leigh wisely avoids the motel shower and Charlton Heston is actually fine as a ‘pretty unlikely’ Mexican. We’ve seen this show ten times — it’s so dense that each viewing brings new revelations.


Touch of Evil 4K
4K Ultra HD
KL Studio Classics
1958-1998 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 96, 109, 111 min. / Street Date March 15, 2022 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, Ray Collins, Joanna Moore, Dennis Weaver, Valentin de Vargas, Mort Mills, Marlene Dietrich, Joseph Cotten.
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Directors: Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen
Costumes: Bill Thomas
Special Makeup for Orson Welles: Maurice Seiderman (uncredited)
Film Editors: Aaron Stell, Virgil W. Vogel
Original Music: Henry Mancini
Written by Orson Welles from the book Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson
Produced by Albert Zugsmith
Directed by
Orson Welles

It’s been eight years since Orson Welles’ noir masterpiece Touch of Evil made a splash in Blu-ray, through Universal. It’s returned in 4K Ultra HD, something guaranteed to grab the attention of many a film fan. As that was three months ago, this review falls under the heading of old news. But I thought I had a pretty good handle on the mini-controversies around the three versions prepared, first for DVD in 2008 and then in 2014 on BD.

Which is the ‘best’ version of this Albert Zugsmith production?  Which is closest to Orson Welles’ ‘original intentions?’  Does the 1998 reconstruction/re-edit/revision deliver a definitive version?

Orson Welles’ major studio directing career lasted only seventeen years. His final studio film was a work-for-hire job obtained through the intervention of actor Charlton Heston. Welles directed Touch of Evil brilliantly, applying more sheer cinematic excitement than in any of his movies since his Citizen Kane. But he lost control of the movie in the editorial stage. Universal saw little value in Touch of Evil, and tossed it away in release, where it often played on the bottom of double bill bookings.

 

Yet the show was eventually hailed as one of the director’s top masterpieces. It has survived in three distinct versions. The theatrical version (96 min.) is what premiered on May 7, 1958, as part of a double bill of ‘Bold! Frank! Startling!’ adult dramas. The longer preview version (109 min.) was only ‘discovered’ in 1972, when Bob Epstein of UCLA screened the show in our film class and found that even Universal didn’t know they had sent a rare alternate cut. Epstein told us that it had never been seen outside the studio, that it wasn’t even ‘on the books.’ Universal didn’t officially acknowledge the preview version until 1976.

The third cut of Touch of Evil is the well-publicized 1998 reconstructed version (111 min). When he was thrown off the movie, Welles wrote a painfully worded 58-page memo in an attempt to be allowed to continue working. Welles pleads for the studio to not butcher his labor of love: “I must ask that you open your mind for a moment to this opinion from the man who, after all, made the picture.” Producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch used that memo as their bible when attempting to return the film to a form closer to Orson Welles’ intentions.

Orson Welles had plenty of previous experience losing creative control of his film work. All of his Hollywood pictures after Citizen Kane suffered serious studio interference. Most fans know about the wholesale trashing of The Magnificent Ambersons, which by all accounts may have been an even greater achievement than Kane. Welles’ The Stranger lost a lengthy prologue showing O.S.S. agents tracking a Nazi zealot through South America. The ambitious noir thriller The Lady from Shanghai underwent a major reworking. Columbia nixed the director’s interesting soundtrack ideas and dictated re-shoots. It now seems insane that any film studio would interfere with any of these films. The quality common to of all of them is directorial brilliance.

 

Touch of Evil is a pulp thriller adapted from a lower-case crime novel about a Rogue Cop with an emphasis on racial tension. The examination of a seedy border town gives us a parade of lurid scenes suggesting drug use, potential rape and numerous craven vices. A bomb blows up the convertible of American construction millionaire Rudy Linnekar (Jeffrey Green) and his girlfriend Zita (Joi Lansing). Mexican vice detective Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) is a witness, and is forced to investigate. American police chief Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) proceeds to frame the most likely suspect — his frequent modus operandi. Meanwhile, Miguel’s new bride Susie (Janet Leigh) is terrorized by the Mexican Grandi mob. Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) hopes to frighten Vargas into calling off an investigation into his family’s criminal activities. Quinlan and Grandi have come to an understanding based on mutual interest: both are threatened by the Mexican cop Vargas.

The first wave of film noir criticism tagged Touch of Evil as the final film in the first, original noir cycle. Its mix of menace and disillusion fits right in with the most rigorous noir definition. Never settling for half measures, Orson Welles transcends the noir style with his generous application of expressive visual fireworks: distorting lenses, swooping cranes, eccentric blocking and intricate tracking shots. Half the movie is clipped montage and the other half gliding camera moves.

Three of Welles’ most impressive cinematic set pieces are present. Two long scenes in the apartment of Rudy Linnekar’s daughter Marcia (Joanna Moore) sustain our interest for several minutes without a cut — and without letting our attention wander to thoughts of technique for its own sake. The first scene in the apartment choreographs 19 separate reposition cues for both the actors and the camera. For elegant scene blocking, it’s one of the most praised dramatic scenes ever.

 

Producer Albert Zugsmith, Orson Welles and Jack Arnold got along well enough on Man in the Shadow. Did Universal and Zugsmith perhaps think they could tame the notorious filmmaker?  The creative whirlwind Welles seems to have paid little attention to ‘how things were done’ at Universal in 1958. His casting of Charlton Heston amuses people that think that all Mexicans must look and sound like Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales. Heston plays the incorruptible policia with his dependable gutsy conviction.  He’s definitely wearing brown-face makeup, which is not at all offensive. Seeing Heston try to give Miguel Vargas a stock accent or gestures would have been offensive. Would Ricardo Montalbán have worked as well?  Five years later, Sam Peckinpah slipped an inside joke about this into a dialogue line in his Major Dundee:

 

James Coburn, to Charlton Heston:
“If I were you I’d stay off the streets amigo.
You make an unlikely lookin’ Mexican.”
 

Janet Leigh provides a ‘touch of normalcy’ as the rather naïve Philadelphia wife of a Mexican vice cop. We film students noted Leigh’s trifecta of acknowledged masterpieces: this movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho,  John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate. When Leigh’s Susie Vargas alights at the desert motel and looks around the edge of the building, we almost expect a cutaway to the Bates house, up on a hill.

 

Welles packs his film with a gallery of grotesques — Akim Tamiroff’s literally greasy gangster, Dennis Weaver’s neurotic motel keeper and Mercedes McCambridge’s butch drug pusher. Universal executives must have fainted to see McCambridge’s entrance in the company of several jittery, hopped-up delinquents — it’s unlikely that any scene like that had appeared in a Hollywood picture since the pre-Code days.

The movie again proves Welles’ generosity to his actors. Some of the best material goes to talent seldom given much of a chance elsewhere. Ray Collins is the District Attorney badgered by Welles’ police captain. Akim Tamiroff is both the film’s main menace and its comic relief. Joseph Cotten appears as an unbilled guest star, as does Zsa Zsa Gabor. Joseph Calleia’s doggedly loyal sidekick Menzies is the most affecting character by far, a toady who undergoes a moral reformation. Welles uses him as a Sancho Panza character, but one who must accept that his Quixote is a fraud.

We’d expect Universal to thank its lucky stars to have Orson Welles crafting a masterpiece under their logo, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Welles’ business style won few friends in the studio system. He was considered a showoff, a pain in the neck guaranteed to make any executive look like a fool. Welles ignored production protocol and filming schedules, the life’s blood of the bean counters charged with micromanaging studio oversight.

Others might say that the director’s behavior guaranteed his banishment from ‘hire’ lists. Welles seemed to enjoy throwing wrenches into the works, as when he put Marlene Dietrich in a scene without telling the front office. The studio’s lawyers found out only when her face showed up in dailies. That stunt must have cued an interesting salary negotiation.

 

The opportunity for Universal to fire the maverick genius came when Welles foolishly (suicidally, one would think) absented himself from the studio to raise money for a personal production, Don Quixote. Charlton Heston reports that Welles simply took off and remained unreachable by phone. The studio lost no time ordering re-shoots and a full re-cut. When Welles saw a preview version, he wrote his famous 58-page memo, a pitiful attempt to ‘make nice’ and undo the damage. The memo’s pleading about audio montages and fine points of narrative most likely fell on deaf ears.

It’s unlikely that the longer Preview Version re-discovered at UCLA in 1972 was exactly the cut Welles delivered, before the studio took over. The disc encoding carries a commentary by critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore. Both have written books on Welles, and Rosenbaum served as an advisor on the 1998 restoration. They point out scenes excised for the theatrical cut, and re-shoot material directed by Harry Keller.

The Standard Theatrical Version slashes the film by twelve minutes, obscuring a number of important story points. A commentary by the late F.X. Feeney provides an excellent filmic analysis, making an interesting case for Touch of Evil as a major influence on Psycho. Also present is a new track with the critical insights of Tim Lucas. The author has all but cornered the market in audio commentaries — it seems I hear his voice every couple of weeks now.

The 1998 Reconstructed Version carries two commentaries. Restoration producer Rick Schmidlin guides the comments of the late stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. A new commentary from Imogen Sara Smith is yet another analytical discussion, precise and well organized. Not repeated from the earlier editions is Rick Schmidlin’s very good solo track, relating his years-long effort to re-cut Touch of Evil. This missing track is needed to fully understand Schmidlin and Murch’s reasoned editorial choices. It gives us the benefit of a box of invaluable Welles notes kept by Universal’s head of post-production. Walter Murch was impressed to learn that the ‘perspectivized’ audio re-recording tricks he invented for American Graffiti were also the subject of experiments by Orson Welles on Touch of Evil 14 years before.

 

Did Universal not license the full Schmidlin commentary because its lawyers didn’t like some of the producer’s opinions?  Schmidlin mentions UCLA professor Bob Epstein’s discovery of the preview cut, assigning credit where due. Epstein really should had written of this episode, one of several discoveries he made in the early days of the UCLA Film Archive.

Another essential extra not carried over from the two Universal editions is the text pamphlet with Orson Welles’ uncut 58-page ‘make nice’ memo, the one written to try to regain access to the editing room. A slightly annotated version of the memo can be found at Wellesnet. The notes are incredibly complicated, they tell us that Universal did execute a number of Welles’ suggestions.

The reconstructed version — really a major revision — used the memo document as a blueprint for recutting. Rick Schmidlin had access only to material in the preview and theatrical versions, as all trims and outs had long been destroyed. But some of the most significant changes involved simple trims and scene shuffling. Schmidlin points to a scene transition that, after being restored to Welles’ cutting plan, now results in a much clearer continuity. Schmidlin and Murch almost kept a close-up of Joseph Calleia, that Welles’ notes had asked to be removed. When they took it out, they discovered an improvement in the character tension in the film’s climax.

The most successful part of the Reconstructed Version is its sophisticated audio track. Luckily, discrete audio still existed for the theatrical version, including clean Henry Mancini music tracks. This allowed director-editor-soundtrack specialist Walter Murch to layer a sound design in the spirit of the one described in the famous 58-page memo — with digital technology unheard of in 1958. Welles wrote that he wanted bits of music to be heard only when their source was indicated on screen; car radios, live musicians, phonograph records. The disc set’s commentaries want to convince us that the 1998 version does restore Touch of Evil closer to Orson Welles’ original intentions.

Touch of Evil never received a first-run release, but went directly to double bills in neighborhood houses. Reviewers were mostly positive but most people caught up with it on late-nite TV, and later screenings in repertory houses and on college campuses. It was badly served in the 1995 crime comedy Get Shorty, as an example of an ‘ultra-hip, obscure cult film.’  John Travolta plays Chili Palmer, a cheap hood who is also a chronic film buff stricken with fan affectations that are . . . embarrassing. In Santa Monica’s Aero Theater, Chili rudely rhapsodizes over the conclusion of Touch of Evil, talking out loud to ‘Orson’ in a way that would get him thrown out of most any revival theater. There’s a fine line between film appreciation and criminal obnoxiousness.

 


 

The KL Studio Classics 4K Ultra HD of Touch of Evil 4K is an automatic purchase for Orson Welles fans. The previous Blu-ray put three versions on one disc, but this release gives a separate 4K disc to each version. Two are stacked on a single hub, which isn’t very desirable.

Nothing in the text prefers one version over another. The revised Reconstructed Version looks quite different than the original, its contrast finessed and sometimes purposely harshened. The Theatrical cut may look the best, with an even sharper appearance than the older Blu-rays. The Preview Version may only have been located as a projection print; some of the ‘new’ scenes aren’t as pristine as the material around them. But this is splitting hairs — all three versions look splendid. All are framed at their proper 1:85 screen shape. Universal protected the full frame only for future TV use.

Five full commentary tracks are present. Imogen Sara Smith, F.X. Feeney and Tim Lucas offer complementary academic viewpoint-interpretations. As always, we’re happy that Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston’s comments were recorded — she passed away in 2004, and he in 2008. The two interview docus are also illumnating. Bringing Evil to Life is a making-of piece; Heston and Leigh do their best to explain how Welles lost control of his picture. The second featurette Evil Lost and Found is a study of the 1998 revision. In it director Curtis Hanson takes us on a tour of the film’s locations in Venice, California. Mr. Hanson (L.A. Confidential) passed away in 2016.

 

The Grand Reconstruct.

Walter Murch’s multi-channel remix for the 1998 Reconstructed Version is impressive, even if it sounds nothing like a show from 1958 — even Universal’s six-track stereo soundtrack for the 65mm Spartacus is straightforward, conventional. Murch’s busy soundscape is so dense, some dialogue lines are difficult to hear.

The Reconstructed Version doesn’t so much rebuild the show as impose a newer creative sensibility. The arguments as to how the revisions respect the directions in the 58-page memo don’t fully convince — I’d sooner believe that Welles’ notes were mainly a political tool to influence the Universal suits. The studio did perform some of the director’s suggestions, but not many. Had Welles been allowed to continue cutting, he’d have gone off in three new directions at once, swapping out many of his own written suggestions for entirely new creative inspirations. This isn’t Orson Welles’ vision,  it’s Touch of Evil Redux.

The Reconstructed Version changes the film’s opening one-take master shot, the one that swoops over rootops following the Vargases and Linnekar’s white Chrysler. Henry Mancini’s racy music cue has been replaced with the complex sound montage described in Welles’ notes. The surprise is that the scene works better with Mancini’s music and with the main titles superimposed. Without the titles we instead concentrate on the gymnastics of the camera crane, which now seems more of a showoff stunt. The compositions also seem unfinished — it’s as if Welles and Russell Metty reserved big parts of the frame precisely to receive those main title text blocks. Is this just a subjective problem, of not being able to ‘unsee’ the 1958 original?

Back at UCLA in 1972, Bob Epstein discussed some of Orson Welles’ rumored intentions, from what source I have no idea. He told us that, yes, the opening crane shot was meant to be textless. Welles wanted to break convention and place all the main titles and credits at the end of the film, just as he had done on his first two RKO pictures. Bob pointed to the last shot, a view of Marlene Dietrich walking away after delivering Hank Quinlan’s “He was some kind of a man” epitaph. About 80% of the frame is black sky, a waiting canvas for an acre of credit text, as Dietrich’s image shrinks away in the lower left of frame.

 

The ‘best’ version?

I long ago decided that the Preview Version best represents Orson Welles’ work, even if it may already incorporate some of Universal’s revisions. Many first-time viewers find Touch of Evil difficult to follow, because it’s narrative is so dense. The attractive, dynamic visuals take our attention away from a close read of the dialogue, and some of what really matters — Quinlan’s quiet double-cross of Joe Grandi, for instance — can get lost.

The Preview Version retains material that never should have been dropped. Bob Epstein didn’t know he’d be screening an alternate cut of Touch of Evil. I remember that he told us to watch carefully for a gaping hole in the continuity: at one point a handful of characters are in different cars going different directions, but in the following scene they are suddenly grouped differently. The Preview Version restores the mid-desert scene where two cars meet, characters swap between cars, and Hank Quinlan gets separated from his cane, an important detail. The movie was always such a flurry of movement and dizzying blocking, that casual viewers seldom noticed! *

The foreign-sourced cover art is a big improvement on the earlier disc sets — both of which used an image of Orson Welles’ eyes glaring at us — taken from a completely different movie, Man in the Shadow. The bottom line is that we’re grateful for Touch of Evil in any form. It’s a shame that a creative juggernaut as brilliant as Welles never made his peace with the realities of commercial moviemaking.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Touch of Evil 4K
4K Ultra HD rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Theatrical Version:
Tim Lucas commentary (new)
Commentary by F.X. Feeney
Theatrical Trailer
Preview Version:
Featurette Bringing Evil to Life
Commentary with Jonathan Rosenbaum, James Naremore
Reconstructed Version (1998):
Featurette Evil Lost and Found
Imogen Sara Smith commentary (new)
Commentary with Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Rick Schmidlin
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (features only)
Packaging: Three 4K Ultra HD discs in Keep case
Reviewed:
June 26, 2022
(6752evil)

*  The only other movie I can think of that’s in a similar situation is Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which is presently also split into three conflicting versions — a Theatrical Cut nobody likes, a 1988 work print restoration that’s exponentially better, and a 2006 ‘creative revision’ that has important unique new material, but undoes some of the best elements of the work print version. It’s rumored that a Blu-ray release is on the way, and we wonder how Turner/Warners is going to resolve the issue — they may just reissue the Theatrical version and consider their official duty finished.

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.