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Touch of Evil: Collector's Edition

Universal Home Video

Starring Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, and Janet Leigh

Written and directed by Orson Welles

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

If you want to find out almost anything about Orson Welles, it's easy. There are no less than five major biographies of the director all filled with information, though some of it is contradictory. There is even a sprawling, indulgent book-length interview with Welles, conducted by Peter Bogdanovich. From all these texts, you can learn what he was like as a kid, how he got into the theater, then radio, then movies, what he did in Ireland in his youth, how many wives he had, his political views, his sexuality, his weight. And Welles, like Hitchcock, is also one of those directors whose individual films are so important they have inspired books. There is a volume each on the making of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons so far. There's an abundance of information out there, but the only thing you won't find is the movies themselves — the films fully as Welles envisioned them.

Well, perhaps that's not completely true. Kane is more or less as Welles conceived it, and it enjoys a good presentation on Laserdisc (as of this writing it hasn't appeared on DVD in the U.S.). And Welles' adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Trial, baring budgetary constrictions, is probably what Welles wanted. And certain jobs of work, such as The Stranger, probably represent what Welles needed to do at a certain juncture in his career. But the rest? Forget it. Re-edited, re-shot, abandoned, footage buried or lost, films miserably released — the directorial record of arguably America's greatest film director is a trail of ruins.

In a gesture toward making amends, Universal Home Video has released the re-edited (or reconstructed) version of Touch of Evil on DVD, a follow up to the film's national release in 1998. It's a re-edit, but in a good way, or at least a well-meaning way. Like most of Welles' films, the post-production and release history is enormously complicated. Universal management took Touch of Evil away from Welles, as it didn't test well, and studio chiefs thought that the narrative was unclear. They reshot or added some scenes (Henry Keller was the director) and trimmed the length, added credits over the famous opening shot, and made Henry Mancini's musical score non-diegetic, among other things. In response to the studio-cut of the film, Welles wrote a 58-page memo that outlined, with exacting attention to detail, how the film should be cut to his specfications. He pled with the producers to follow his instructions, but they refused. What Universal released in 1958 was a 95-minute version, shown as the second half of a double-bill. In 1975, a 108-minute version was discovered, but it proved not quite to be Welles' version, though it was closer. Finally, in the 1990s, producer Rick Schmidlin read a reference to the Welles memo in Film Quarterly. Collaborating with sound and film editor Walter Murch, they altered Touch of Evil to conform, as best they could do it, to Welles's notes. This version is 111 minutes, and the whole story is detailed in a documentary called Reconstructing Evil, which for legal reasons Universal was unable to include on their DVD, though they initially planned to do so (interested viewers might catch the documentary on the Independent Film Channel).

In whatever form it comes to us, Touch of Evil is a great work of cinema. Though based on a novel called Badge of Evil, written by Robert Wade and William Miller under the pseudonym Whit Masterson, and though Welles re-wrote an earlier draft by Paul Monash, Touch of Evil is surprisingly consistent with Welles's earlier films. As writers more astute than this one have shown, the movie is really about Hank Quinlan (Charlton Heston, the nominal star, has himself acknowledged as much in interviews). Quinlan (played by Welles) is a police detective in a border town. When a wealthy contractor is blown up in his car, Quinlan investigates, but he clashes with a notable Mexican cop named Vargas (Heston), a newlywed who happened to be a witness to the murder. Vargas's wife Susan (Janet Leigh) also becomes involved in the proceedings, and as the tale grows more complicated and the power struggle between the two men more explosive, Vargas turns his attention from the crime itself to Quinlan's own practices as a cop. From this B-movie material Welles has crafted a complex tale of race and morality that doesn't compromise itself or settle for easy answers, all embedded in a baroque visual style that captures the clashing cultures of border communities. Russell Metty's cinematography is superb, and the film is peppered with cameos by cronies of Welles, including Joseph Cotten. It's also blessed with excellent performances in secondary parts, especially Joseph Calleia in the complex role of Quinlan's partner. Like Citizen Kane and his unfinished The Big Brass Ring, Touch of Evil is something of a male love story, showing the friendship between two men ruined by perceived betrayal.

Touch of Evil: Collector's Edition is a four-star movie on a three-star disc. Universal has done a lot, but they could have done more. Almost universally considered a masterpiece, the film merits a two-disc set, with Reconstructing Evil included, and with both the 95-minute and the 108-minute versions included (at this point, it's unlikely the original will appear on DVD anytime soon). That sort of package would give viewers choices, because frankly, despite all the good work that Schmidlin and Murch have put into it, technically it still isn't Welles's film. Welles is dead, after all, and no matter how closely they followed the memo, they still were interpreting as much as "restoring" something. Also, at a time when most audio commentaries are bogus, here is a film that demands a commentary or two, from Heston and Leigh, and perhaps Peter Bogdanovich, though Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum — an authority on Welles and this film and a consultant to Schmidlin and Murch — would be even better.

Universal offers a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby Digital 2.0 and subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. The black-and-white source print is quite good, with only the occasional white speckles and some graininess. Supplements include the original theatrical trailer, which shows moments no longer in this version. The most important inclusion is the 58-page memo from Welles to Universal studio chief Ed Muhl, in which the director pleas for changes in his film. Also included are some brief production notes, talent files on cast and director, some "if you liked this film" recommendations, and an ad for a Universal DVD newsletter.

— D. K. Holm

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