DVD Review: Touch of Evil (50th Anniversary Edition)

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In many respects, Orson Welles’ 1958 crime-noir melodrama Touch of Evil could be considered the Blade Runner of its day, the only difference being that, unlike Ridley Scott, Welles never got the opportunity to rework the picture to his original version himself. What he did do was write a famous 58-page memo after seeing a preview screening suggesting how Universal could “fix” the picture they’d for some reason taken away from him. The studio, going against all his wishes, released an even more stripped-down (and nonsensical) 96-minute cut of the picture to theaters instead.

Like Scott’s sci-fi opus, even in a bastardized form Touch of Evil hinted at brilliance. In 1998, restoration producer Rick Schmidlin and Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch were able to bring said brilliance to the forefront by reworking the film according to Welles’ memo. While no one will ever know if the talented and iconoclastic auteur would have approved of this “final” version, what is undeniable is that this cut is a definitive improvement, elevating an entertaining B-picture into a true classic of the genre many have tried to emulate with little-to-no success.

For my part, I always thought Touch of Evil was a gloriously dirty and beautifully acidic crime melodrama full of wonderful shots and spectacular performances. This is a film that has held up beyond beautifully over the years, but when I saw this “final” cut of the picture back in 1998 it was almost as if I was seeing it for the very first time. At the University of Washington at the time, I remember going back to the Varsity Theater four different times to watch the picture, each viewing a revelation.

Universal’s 50th anniversary DVD release brings back all the joy and excitement of those screenings and makes it mine to own. For scholars and cineastes of all shapes and sizes this release is an absolute must. All versions of Touch of Evil are here including the original 1958 release, the 1998 final version and the preview version, which really makes this one special.

To go along with the release, Universal has included a reproduction of Welles’ 58-page memo with their anniversary package, and for the film’s lovers and admirers getting the opportunity to watch it with Welles’ thoughts in-hand is absolutely extraordinary. You can read right along with the filmmaker, dissect and study the studio’s editing of it just as he was doing 50-plus years ago. It is a fascinating journey inside the man’s mind and thought-process, and no matter how personal or how exhaustive books and documentaries on Welles over the years have been I can imagine no more intimate discussion of him then by doing this.

I have yet to mention the plot, and for good reason. While I realize for a review this is probably an absolute no-no to go so long without doing so, the plot – as fascinating and as multilayered as it is – is absolutely secondary to this film’s success. What is important is the complexity of the characters and ingeniousness of the photography and editing. Like with Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil shows Welles’ once again elevating the entire medium in ways no one had ever seen before.

The legendary opening tracking shot (bastardized originally by Universal by throwing the opening titles on top of it) is the obvious one but there are a whole slew of others, not the least of which is the brilliance of the editing. Long before Scorsese, decades ahead of Tarantino, Welles intercuts his overlapping stories with dynamic precision and skill, jolting audiences wide-awake with his passionate eye for nuance and detail.

There is so much more I want to say about this film – much more – but I feel that would require one of this site’s Cinematic Revival pieces and not a simple DVD review. But, I can’t finish without talking mentioning just how surprisingly good Charlton Heston is in this. How much Janet Leigh’s hotel room face-off with a gang of thugs makes me squirm and shake almost uncontrollably. How affecting Marlene Dietrich is as the chili-cooking bordello gypsy who poignantly understands Captain Quinlin’s self-destructive pain. Above all these though is the man himself, Welles delivering the finest, most intimate and most marvelously tragic performance of his life. It is a career-defining portrait that eerily mirrors the filmmaker’s own complicated and sadly tragic time making movies in Hollywood (Citizen Kane is the only picture in the man’s entire career that was not taken away from), and it is almost impossible to watch him in the film without at least subliminally noticing the parallels.

There is more, but I think it’s best for viewers to discover each for themselves. Each version of the film here comes with commentary tracks, all of which are full of details and information making them all well worth a listen. The two documentaries are also quite fascinating, both granting insights to the film’s production, editing, original release and subsequent restoration in marvelous detail.

One of the tidbits revealed in the commentary track on the restored version featuring Schmidlin, Heston and Leigh is that Touch of Evil surprisingly won Best Picture at the 1958 Belgium World’s Fair. “Who ever from Universal that sent it there must have gotten fired,” Welles’ said in a subsequent interview afterwards. I don’t know why, but I find both the fact it won this insignificant prize ironic, and for a film as marginalized as this one originally was to see it now recognized as a masterpiece is fitting justice indeed.

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