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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Touch Of Evil - 50th Anniversary Edition
Touch Of Evil - 50th Anniversary Edition
Universal // Unrated // October 7, 2008
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by DVD Savant | posted September 16, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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By Glenn Erickson

Utilizing a moving camera to record long scenes in one cut began way before Orson Welles, but few directors have used the technique to such good effect. Touch of Evil begins with a lengthy crane shot that covers three blocks of action in a Mexican border town. An unseen assailant puts a bomb in the back of a convertible, and as the car makes its way through the customs gates to the American side, we wonder when it will explode. It's the kind of bravura suspense scene we'd expect in a Hitchcock film, but Welles also uses it to establish his unique setting and to introduce his main players, a newlywed pair. Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) is a Mexican Federal Vice detective, and his bride is Suzie (Janet Leigh), a blonde from Philadelphia. When the bomb goes off, Touch of Evil launches into one of the best film noir thrillers ever.

But for Orson Welles the movie was a disaster. Invited to direct on the recommendation of Charlton Heston, Welles filmed a brilliant movie but ignored studio protocol. He rewrote the script, layering the basic premise with issues of corruption and ethnic prejudice. Universal was the home of cheap program filler and the occasional glossy Douglas Sirk melodrama, and despite the quality of what was being filmed the studio blanched at scenes alluding to drug use and implied rape. Welles made his corrupt police chief Hank Quinlan into an obese, unpleasant monster.

By refusing to play the studio game and deliver the expected ordinary movie, Welles alienated the studio from the top down. He was kept on as director until the middle of editing. Welles disappeared to work on a personal production, and Universal took over the post-production and finished the movie as they saw fit. They removed several scenes and re-shot some material in an effort to make the movie "less confusing." Welles pleaded to retain authorship and got nowhere. Touch of Evil came out in 1958 and quickly disappeared. The general critical reaction was reasonably positive: another interesting Orson Welles film with a difficult-to-follow story. Viewers still gasp at their first glimpse of Marlene Dietrich; she was simply slipped into the movie at the last minute. Universal's executives were shocked to see her face show up in dailies!

Touch of Evil was eventually recognized as a classic, and as Welles biographers unearthed the story of its mangling at the hands of Universal, it became known as yet another of the director's masterpieces compromised by an unfeeling Hollywood.

Universal's new 50th Anniversary Edition DVD set contains three separate versions of Touch of Evil. Although the packaging text and some of the disc's disclaimer cards get the facts wrong, the excellent extras tell the story of the film's production and restoration in good, accurate detail. In 1998, producer Rick Schmidlin was given the green light to return Welles' film to as close to the director's intentions as was possible. Schmidlin recruited director-editor and audio expert Walter Murch to edit the revised cut, and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum consulted to insure that the new version stayed true to Welles' intentions. Welles had stated his editing preferences in a now-famous 58-page memo. He objected to Universal's re-ordering of scenes, to individual shot choices and to the fact that titles and music had been placed over his fantastic opening crane shot.

Schmidlin and Murch had limited resources, as all the outs and trims had been destroyed. But they did have two versions of the film to work with. One of these had split audio, enabling Walter Murch to fashion a layered soundtrack in accordance with Welles' wishes. They also had a textless opening sequence, which conveniently allowed the famous crane shot to be played without titles and credits popping up.

The restored cut is not a director's cut; Welles was never able to finish his film. But it does undo much of the damage inflicted by Universal's hasty re-cutting. Reshuffling scenes back to Welles' desired order improves both the pace and the story logic. Murch and Schmidlin discovered that Welles' memo (along with a box of editing notes providentially retained by a retired Universal staffer) pointed them to a number of surprises about the movie. Welles' instruction to remove a close-up of the important character played by Joseph Calleia improves the dramatic suspense in the movie's climactic confrontation. All in all, the 1998 restoration is a highly commendable accomplishment that indeed returns Touch of Evil much closer to the form Orson Welles intended.

Universal's 2-disc 50th Anniversary Edition Touch of Evil DVD set contains three separate versions of this superb noir thriller, and enough interview and commentary input to place them in perspective. The longer preview version (109 min.) was rediscovered in 1972 when associate professor Bob Epstein asked Universal for a copy to screen at UCLA. As it turns out, this reviewer was in Epstein's class and was one of the first to see it - although I had no idea of its importance.

For many years the preview version was presumed to be Orson Welles' director's cut. In reality, it's the butchered version Universal put together when the director was ousted from the editing room. The DVD set reproduces Welles' memo pleading for editorial justice for his work. Reading the lengthy memo is almost traumatic; the director is forced to politely explain why the studio changes are stupid, without offending anyone.

The second cut is the standard theatrical version (96 min.), the one that ultimately was released. Universal followed only a couple of Welles"suggestions and let their wholesale chop-job stand.

The third cut of Touch of Evil is the 1998 restored version (111 min) examined above. All three cuts are in fine physical shape, with good mono sound. Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin show good judgment by not remixing their restoration in multi-track audio.

The set has four separate commentaries. Critic F.X. Feeney gives the standard theatrical version a solid analytical assessment, while the preview version carries a track by Welles authors and authorities Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore. Restoration producer Rick Schmidlin provides two commentaries for his restored version, one by himself and another with actors Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, both of whom are no longer with us. Schmidlin is a good raconteur and gives solid arguments for all of his and Walter Murch's editorial decisions. He gets a little carried away with the excitement of meeting celebrities and such, but that's a producer's prerogative.

Also included are a trailer and two short featurettes produced by Laurent Bouzereau on the movie and the restoration. In one of the shows director Curtis Hanson takes us on a quick tour of the film's locations in Venice, California.

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