“Susie, one of the longest borders on earth is right here between your country and mine. An open border. Fourteen hundred miles without a single machine gun in place. Yeah, I suppose that all sounds very corny to you.”
Orson Welles was a huge personality in Hollywood both in his stature and his work. Taking a controversial poke at media giant Randolph Hearst, he struggled against fierce odds to direct a film that is often considered the best, or at least one of the best films ever made. Of course, I’m talking about Citizen Kane. I happen to believe the first two Godfather films are better, but there’s little doubt that Citizen Kane was a masterpiece. Because it was so good and because Welles never functioned well in the Hollywood system of his age, his other films often get overlooked. Touch Of Evil is one of those films, and in many ways it’s just as good or better than Citizen Kane. Like that film and pretty much everything Welles ever did, it came with plenty of controversy and behind-the-scenes drama. But Welles was used to that by 1958, so he should have known better. Still, this is the guy who scared the crap out of this country 20 years earlier with the Mercury Broadcasting presentation of H.G. Wells’ (no relation) War Of The Worlds. His infamy would follow him the rest of his life with one project or another.
Touch Of Evil would end up being Welles last film made in America or for an American studio. It was kind of the last straw for many. You see, Welles wasn’t even scheduled to direct the film. He was just going to star in the film, and that was it. But his friend Charlton Heston intervened with the studio executives and used his own clout to get Welles the directing job, since he was going to be there anyway, reasoned Heston. The shoot got off to a crazy start when Welles decided to shoot some really simple stuff first to show the executives everything would be fine. He got ahead of schedule, which lasted exactly three days. From then on it was all classic Orson Welles, and the picture got behind schedule and over budget. It might have still worked out fine, but Welles made a fatal mistake. After submitting his cut of the film he left the country to scout locations in Mexico for another film. While he was gone his studio bosses looked at the film and decided it wasn’t quite right. They hired another director/editor and shot more footage and re-edited the film with no input from Welles. Charlton Heston tried to use his clout again and refused to participate in the new shoot but was forced to comply because of his contractual obligations. When Welles saw the new cut he went bonkers and fired of a now famous 58-page memo asking for changes in the film’s structure. He didn’t get them until after his death in 1998 when a version of the film was cut using Welles’ original script and that 58-page memo. If you’re counting along at home, that makes three different versions of the film that were released in one form or the other. This Kino release gives us all three versions of the film on three different UHD 4K discs, and I watched all three.
Touch Of Evil was based on Whit Masterson’s novel Badge Of Evil. Obviously Welles decided he didn’t need no stinkin’ badges and changed the title. He was also given a screenplay which he disregarded and wrote the film himself.
There are three versions of the film here. The first ran about 109 minutes ands was used for press and test screenings. This was followed by the studio’s reworked film, which was the one released wide in 1958. It ran shorter at 96 minutes. Finally there was the 1998 film based on Welles’ memo. It ran 111 minutes. Many of the differences can be found in length and different shots. The basic structure remains the same. The attack on Leigh’s character was a bit of a controversy, and the manner in which the two stories played out with each other were the two biggest changes. Welles intended them to be intercut often while the studio opted for longer complete scenes with each. It ended up muddying the narrative, and in the studio version it drastically reduces the suspense with the two stories. I found the reconstructed version to be the best of the three, and so glad all are included in 4K here.
The film begins on what has been lauded as one of the best opening tracking shots ever made. For about three minutes we follow Mexico’s famous detective Mike Vargas (Heston) and his new American wife Susan, played by Janet Leigh, who would follow this film with another groundbreaking film with another often infamous director. Of course I’m talking about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. As they walk toward the border to get some ice cream on the American side, we also watch an unknown perpetrator plant a bomb in the trunk of a car. This car travels side by side with our newlyweds, where at the border the young lady in the passenger seat complains about ticking in her ears. It’s an ominous foreshadow of the explosion just on the other side of the border. Vargas excuses himself from his young bride and heads to the crime scene, worrying that the event could be bad for Mexico. He offers himself as a kind of observer and meets a star detective from the other side of the border.
Enter Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). He takes over the investigation while Vargas tags along. Meanwhile his wife has been approached by a youth she calls Poncho (de Vargas). It’s kind of a Vargas-on-Vargas type of situation. She’s told someone has something to give her for her husband, and she’s taken to the store of “Uncle” Joe Grandi, played by Akim Tamiroff. Mike is investigating his brother who sits in jail. The message, of course, is one of intimidation, and just as Mike makes his way back to tell her he’s going to be busy awhile, an acid attack nearly gets the cop. This really begins a story that happens at the same time as the investigation, and we’ll go back and forth. Mrs. Vargas ends up at a hotel owned by Uncle Joe, and she’s attacked in a rather disturbing scene while her husband is busy getting on the wrong side of Captain Quinlan.
Quinlan is a dirty cop who frames a suspect for the bombing. Vargas knows he’s lying and ends up a target of Quinlan’s when he insists on repeating that knowledge. The stories collide when his wife is drugged and assaulted in order to make it look like she was an addict and possibly a hooker. The only way out is for Vargas to prove his accusation, and he attempts to get one of Quinlan’s own men to get that proof. It all leads to a suspenseful climax where Vargas is trying to get recorded evidence on the corrupt cop.
There are some interesting things going on in this film. The location was slightly changed when Welles could not get the studio to spring for actual Mexican location shoots. It’s also the first time that a driving scene was shot inside an actual moving car. We take that for granted today, but up until this film the interior shots of conversations in cars were always shot on a soundstage with a rolling background projected against the car. That process is still rather dominant today but was exclusive until Touch Of Evil and Orson Welles. It was also the first film to be predominantly shot with the new at that time use of handheld cameras. Today it would be a huge PC violation to have an American play a Mexican character as Charlton Heston does here. He doesn’t try to use an accent, and the makeup does a fair job of selling it. Heston was said he wished he had used an accent, but I don’t believe his performance suffers one bit here. Another milestone concerns a difference between the studio and Welles’ vision and was intended to be another first. In those days and really through much of the 1970’s, film credits were primarily in the front of a film. Very little was in the back. Jaws had less than 30 seconds of end credits. But the various craft guilds got into the game, and the number of people who were credited in a film grew massively. Welles thought his wonderful tracking shot was spoiled by having credits occur during that time. He asked that the credits be moved to the end of the film. It was a bold idea, too bold at the time, so the theatrical film had them in the opening shot. Another example of Orson Welles being ahead of his time.
The film saw one career just starting and another coming to an end. Zsa Zsa Gabor has a cameo as a strip club owner here, and silent classic star Marlene Dietrich would only appear twice more. She had a meatier part as a psychic madam and old friend of Quinlan’s who tells him he has no future when he asks her to read his. Dennis Weaver was a regular on Gunsmoke when he was cast here by Welles himself, who was a fan of his Chester character. He plays the hotel manager where Leigh is attacked.
Touch Of Evil is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 70 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm so is native 4K. There has also been extensive restoration here, and it shows. Contrast is essential for a black & white film, and it’s done to perfection here. There’s still some age here, and it shows, but not to the point of distraction. You won’t find age or digital artifact here. Most small flaws are the result of what was shot: A soft focus here, a little lighting issue there. The film retains wonderful atmosphere, and a ton of detail comes out in the climax and particularly during the disturbing attack. I suspect you’ll find that there’s nice shadow definition in the black levels, and white levels balance better than the film did pre-restoration on Blu-ray.
The DTS-HD 2 channel mono does what it needs to do. Anything more would ruin the atmosphere of the original film. It would be a mistake to try to expand the audio field. The dialog and the wonderful Henry Mancini score come through just fine. There’s no distortion, and a clean audio presentation is all I’m looking for here.
The extras are found one on each disc with various compiled audio commentaries.
Evil Lost & Found: (17:05) This 2008 feature talks mostly about the memo and the reconstructed version of the film.
Bringing Evil To Life: (20:59) This feature is more an historical look behind the scenes and also touches on the reconstructed film.
This is a standout quality release from Kino here. When you look at this and films like Some Like It Hot, you’ll see that Kino is trying to bring some wonderful classic films to the 4K level of home video. They also went the extra two miles here and gave us all three versions in 4K on separate discs. Most studios would have relegated the other versions to Blu-ray or stuffed them all on one disc, thus reducing the bandwidth and image quality. I hope you go out there and support this kind of effort, because I want to see it continue. There are many ways to get your entertainment these days. “The customers go for it – it’s so old, it’s new. We got the television too. We run movies. What can I offer you?”