Touch Of Evil

Touch Of Evil (1958)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles
Extras: Orson Welles’ Memo, Theatrical Trailer, Production Notes, Cast & Crew Biographies

If there is one film besides "Citizen Kane" that became synonymous with the legacy of ingenious filmmaker Orson Welles, it has to be his 1958 movie "Touch Of Evil." After turning his back on Hollywood in frustration in 1948, Welles traveled to Europe to continue his career there as director, writer and actor for the years to come, where critics and studios seemed to have more appreciation for his work in general. After that time, Welles made only one more film for a Hollywood major studio, and that particular film was "Touch Of Evil."

The tribulations that followed made sure Orson Welles would never even consider making a movie for any American publisher again ever. The reason was a huge controversy over the film that must have infuriated Welles to no end. Before opening theatrically, Universal decided to re-edit "Touch Of Evil" without Welles’ knowledge or approval. The studio did a hatchet-job, butchering the film down by 16 minutes to a 95-minute running length, and destroying Orson Welles’ integral intentions and vision in the course of it. What was left was a violated piece of film that had nothing in common with the original intentions of the director. Now, 42 years later, Universal Home Video tries to rectify the harm that has been done to the movie and is releasing a 111-minute version of the movie on DVD that has been restored according to Orson Welles’ notes. For the first time we get the chance to see the film that way it was intended to be seen.

"Touch Of Evil" is a Film Noir about corruption and obsession and immediately engulfs the viewer in the hauntingly mysterious location of a small American-Mexican border town where the heat is as intolerable as the shady figures roaming the streets. After a car bombing right on the border, Mexican investigator Ramon Vargas (Charlton Heston) is caught up in the investigation during his honeymoon with his lovely wife (Janet Leigh). Vargas is closely following and observing the steps of investigator Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) but isn’t very happy with Quinlan’s shrewd methods. A crooked supremacist, Quinlan is obviously framing people to get "his" version of the stories, tactics that Vargas opposes vehemently. While he has constant run-ins with Quinlan on the subject, his wife is suddenly intimidated by a drug lord and his henchmen. Completely caught up in his fight for justice and righteousness, Vargas doesn’t even realize the danger his wife is in, until she suddenly disappears.

Featuring an all-star cast, "Touch Of Evil" is nothing short of a masterpiece of film art. Superbly cast in every part, the movie creates characters that are tangible and absolutely real. Whether it’s the despicable Quinlan played by Orson Welles himself, the naive wife played by Janet Leigh, the idealistic police officer Ramon Vargas, played by Charlton Heston, or any of the support characters, all the persons we get to meet feel very real and all-too familiar.

Combined with Welles’ masterful direction and Russell Metty’s breathtaking cinematography, "Touch Of Evil" carries the seal of genius all over, just as "Citizen Kane" did. From wicked camera angles, penetrating extreme close-ups, greasy, sweaty and seedy characters, to staggering lighting set-ups, the movie is a textbook example how cinematic movies are done right. From the first frame to the last, "Touch Of Evil" is a hypnotizing piece of art and with Orson Welles’ original vision finally restored, it is outright incomprehensible how anyone would have dared to tamper with it in the first place.

"Touch Of Evil" comes in a <$16x9,16x9 enhanced> <$PS,widescreen> transfer on this DVD in the movie’s original 1.85:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio, and it will blow you away! The image quality on this release is simply fabulous and has been meticulously cleaned up and restored. There is not a speckle visible in the print and not a hint of damage or other blemishes. It appears as if every single frame of the film has been painstakingly restored and cleaned-up to make sure that once and for all we get to see the ultimate rendition of this classic movie. Shot in glorious black and white, the presentation on this DVD reproduces the haunting cinematography of the film in all its beauty. From the deepest shadows to the most glaring highlights, the transfer has very good contrast and impeccable fall-offs, creating a mesmerizing look for the film. The compression is without flaws and not a hint of compression artifacting is evident anywhere in the presentation.

In the sound department you will be just as surprised. Once again, the entire sound track seems to have gone serious restoration as the quality and cleanliness of the mono track is simply staggering. With a wide frequency response, the track has a very good bass extension that is uncommon for such old movies, but adds immensely to the overall experience of the film. The high ends are absolutely clean and clear without sibilance or distortion. This is especially noticeable in the film’s dialogues, which come across as absolutely clean and clear.
Henry Mancini’s soundtrack to the film has also found a great home on this DVD as part of the movie. Clean and with great dynamics, the track has a surprising clarity that you would never expect from such an old film. Instruments sound natural and also without distortion, making "Touch Of Evil" one of the most balanced and natural sounding classic releases I have come across in a long while.

Due to legal implications, Universal Home Video sadly had to remove the documentary from the release that was originally planned to be part of the disc. But still the most important supplements can still be found on the DVD, a 58-page memo that a disgusted Orson Welles sent to Universal in 1958 after seeing the butchered version of the film for the first time. In meticulous detail, Welles points out where the film differs from his vision and explains in detail how it interferes with the overall intentions he has had. Eloquently written ,but also in very firm tone, Welles pleads Universal to reconsider their position and release the film according to his notes, which never happened until now! An interesting read? You bet, and extremely personal as well.
The DVD also features the movie’s theatrical trailer, cast and crew biographies and production notes.

As I mentioned before, "Touch Of Evil" is a masterpiece of filmmaking and it is a shame that this film had been violated for such a long time. Fortunately we finally get the chance to see Welles’ original vision, but it can hardly compensate for the fact that he never did. Given his temper, I am sure he would have gone out of his way personally to tell everyone to buy this DVD. Well, it seems we have to do that in his stead for now.

Go, get this DVD!