Touch of Evil Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 1 release of Touch of Evil. This DVD of Welles’s masterpiece, re-edited according to its writer/director’s specifications, has as good a picture and sound as you could expect. As a package, however, it’s something of a missed opportunity.

Citizen Kane has an all-but-unassailable place as the greatest film ever made. Considering its enormous influence as well as its quality, I’m not about to argue with that. But if you were to ask people which Welles film they most enjoyed, you would get votes for The Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai possibly – and a lot for Touch of Evil.

Although he was steadily employed as an actor, Welles had not directed a film in Hollywood for ten years. His return to the helm was brought about by Charlton Heston, who persuaded producer Albert Zugsmith to let Welles direct Touch of Evil as well as playing a key role. The film is nominally based on a novel, Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson, but this is one case where the film surpasses the novel to the point of obliteration. In any case, Welles rewrote the story considerably.

Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican cop, is on honeymoon with his American wife Susan (Janet Leigh) in a small border town. An American businessman and his mistress are killed by a car bomb. The local police chief, Hank Quinlan (Welles) accuses a young Mexican of the crime, but Vargas is sure that Quinlan has planted evidence. As Vargas investigates, Susan stays in a motel owned by local drug-dealer Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) and is terrorised by a gang of juvenile hoodlums.

This mixture of sleaze (the plotline) and high art (the remarkable use of visuals and sound) was too rich a brew for the studio, who took the film away from Welles and re-edited it, including material shot by other hands, and cutting it down to 95 minutes. This version was released on the second half of a double bill, and was the one shown in the UK, albeit with some BBFC cuts. Ignored in the USA, it was immediately recognised as a masterpiece in Europe. A 108-minute version which was much closer to Welles’s intentions came to light in the 1970s and since then has been the only one shown in the UK. In 1998, editor/sound designer Walter Murch produced the present version, following a 58-page memo Welles had written after seeing a showing of the studio cut.

Touch of Evil has one of the great opening shots ever committed to celluloid. It begins with a closeup of a bomb’s timer being set, then cranes away as the bomb is placed in the boot of the American businessman’s car. Then, for three minutes without a cut, the shot introduces locale, the principal characters and sets up the plot – only cutting away when the bomb explodes. The most notable change in the Murch version is to this shot: gone are Henry Mancini’s main theme and the opening credits. As the camera travels past open doors, different music can be heard from each one. The other notable change is to restore the cross-cutting between Vargas’s investigating and Susan’s altercation with Grandi. Ultimately, there is little to choose between the 108-minute and 111-minute versions. The latter is actually slightly shorter, the extra running time due to the credits being placed at the end, plus a rolling caption at the start.

Even as an actor, Welles dominates Touch of Evil. Quinlan, along with Kane and The Third Man’s Harry Lime, is another in his studies of great men with feet of clay. Bloated with self-disgust (not to mention candy bars), Quinlan is a man who does wrong for the right reasons: he’s a great detective but one who is quite willing to plant evidence to secure his convictions. Welles was able to persuade many of his friends to take part, hence the extraordinary supporting cast. Russell Metty was a great cameraman (having worked with Welles before on The Stranger) and his noirish black-and-white camerawork is remarkable. Henry Mancini’s jazz score is also memorable.

Touch of Evil was filmed open-matte, which has caused some people to mistakenly think its intended aspect ratio is 4:3. Universal’s DVD has an anamorphic transfer correctly framed at 1.85:1. The picture looks remarkably good, being sharp with solid blacks. It’s possibly lacking in shadow detail, but that’s a feature of the original. The sound is mono, but clearly recorded, showcasing Welles’s complex use of sound as well as contemporary recording equipment could.

The main extra is Welles’s memo, presented as a straightforward back-and-forth navigation. To my mind it could have been subdivided into chapters: although it’s invaluable for Welles scholars and fans of this film, reading all of it at once is a slog. The trailer (running 2:08) makes the film look even more lurid than it actually is: “The story of a border-town trap that turned into an international crisis!”

The production notes give details of Murch’s restoration, and there are biofilmographies of Heston, Leigh, Welles, Calleia, Tamiroff, Dietrich and Gabor, rather fuller than the usual brief paragraph plus IMDB filmography. The second page of the “cast and filmmakers” are basic film credits, nothing that couldn’t be found on the back of the box let alone the film itself. There are eighteen chapter stops.

Rather more disposable are a list of recommendations (five Hitchcock DVDs) and a page giving details of the Universal DVD Newsletter. Tiresomely, the film is preceded by forced trailers (unlike the feature, in colour and Dolby Surround), though you can skip these by going to chapter 1 via the menu. Incidentally, although the DVD packaging says “not rated”, the film ends with a MPAA rating.

This DVD is fine as far as it goes, but considering Touch of Evil‘s stature, I can’t help feeling it’s a missed opportunity. A Criterion-style edition would certainly include the 95-minute cut (which I haven’t seen) and if not the whole of the 108-minute cut at least its versions of the changed scenes. The BBC showed a documentary on the restoration recently, so perhaps that should be included as well, as well as a commentary. But for most other films, this DVD would be more than adequate, and it will certainly do to be going on with.


Updated: Feb 27, 1999

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
Touch of Evil Review | The Digital Fix