Directed by Orson Welles, Touch of Evil is a film noir masterpiece whose Hollywood backstory is as unforgettable as the movie itself. Starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Welles himself, this dark portrait of corruption and morally compromised obsessions tells the story of a crooked police chief who frames a Mexican youth as part of an intricate criminal plot.
When talking about Orson Welles' noir masterpiece 'Touch of Evil,' its production history is nearly as fascinating as the film itself. To make a long story short, the tale behind the movie is another unfortunate case of studio interference, but miraculously, not the sort of meddling that would ultimately ruin its appreciation and quality. Demonstrating Welles's genius as a filmmaker, the crime thriller set in a sleepy town on the U.S.-Mexico border remains a beautifully stylized and beloved classic. The 96-minute theatrical release was the result of heavy editing and a good number of reshoots. When Welles screened a version of this, he infamously wrote a detailed 58-page memo to head of production Edward Muhl, requesting that he respect his and his crew's efforts and intentions.
Two decades later, a preview version of the film, which still retained much of the original footage in the order Welles wanted, was discovered in the Universal vaults. But it wouldn't be until another twenty years that an effort was made to reedit and reconstruct this deliciously dark portrait of police corruption to the legendary director's original vision, as described in his letter to the studio. Today, this new 112-minute cut of the story based on the novel by Whit Masterson (the pseudonym of authors Robert Allison Wade and H. Bill Miller) is the one celebrated by fans and stands as the definitive version. Indeed, compared to the previous cuts, the film is a darker portrayal of a town in moral decay, a dreary, somber depiction of human wickedness guided by selfish pride.
Arguably, 'Touch of Evil' is probably best known for having one of the most amazing and distinguished openings in the history of cinema. The famous three and half minute long take is not only a fantastic display of timing and staging, but it's also a remarkable display of masterly direction, editing and sound design. Welles commences with a simple close-up of a ticking bomb placed in the trunk of a car, and a crane shot follows it into the lively, bustling streets. At the same time, Charlton Heston as Ramon Miguel Vargas and Janet Leigh as his new bride Susan appear on screen while the vehicle slowly approaches the border. Anticipating the eventual explosion, the entire sequence establishes a thick air of apprehension and suspense as the newlyweds often come terrifyingly close to the car. By making it one continuous shot, Welles keeps us from looking away, refusing to cut even for a moment until the vehicle finally erupts into a ball of flames.
On the surface of it, the plot, which was adapted by Welles, is a standard crime thriller that follows the police exploits of Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles in superb form) and longtime partner, blind-devotee Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia). Because the bomb was planted on Mexican soil, Heston's Vargas joins Quinlan's murder investigation as an observer, but quickly learns the highly-respected cop will do whatever it takes to make an arrest and pretty much anything to cover his tracks. Welles, however, transforms simplicity into a darkly stylized, deliciously complex vision of immorality. Working closely with cinematographer Russell Metty ('Spartacus'), Welles imagines a quiet small town as the battleground for good versus evil, an abstract notion which apparently resides in the hearts and actions of people, not a question of metaphysics or theologians.
Complicating matters is a subplot involving local businessman Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), who's attempting to scare Vargas with threats to Susan. Everything eventually leads back to people capable of doing anything for self-preservation while Vargas's idealistic pursuit of justice only succeeds in shedding light on this very fact. Welles's direction and Metty's visual design is a constant game of shadows and light while Henry Mancini's jazz score electrifies the screen with frantic, unruly rhythm that splendidly complements the camera's unconventional angles and the film's offbeat editing. 'Touch of Evil' is a remarkable motion picture with one stroke of genius after another, from the stunning opening and the arrest of the terrified Sanchez in his apartment to the confrontation between Quinlan and Grandi and the final showdown with Vargas at the very end. It's a brilliant piece of work with an interesting backstory to match.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Touch of Evil' to Blu-ray as a single-disc limited edition release that features a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy and most importantly a reprint of the 58-page memo written by Welles. The Region Free, BD50 disc comes inside a blue, eco-elite case with an attractive, slightly-embossed slipcover. At startup, viewers are asked to choose between the three versions of the film — the 96-minute theatrical cut, the 109-minute preview version or the 112-minute reconstructed edition. Afterwards, owners are taken straight to the movie, and menu options are available when pressing the remote's menu button.
Restored and remastered from the original 35mm elements used for the reconstructed version of the film, 'Touch of Evil' corrupts Blu-ray with a beautiful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that easily trumps previous home video editions. However, the picture quality is comparable to the Masters of Cinema UK release and for all intents and purpose appears to be identical.
The major difference is that viewers are not given the choice to watch the classic film in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, which is how Russell Metty originally shot it, or in the 1.85:1 frame, as it was shown during its theatrical run. Which of the two is the correct aspect ratio has generated quite the controversy over the years, and it's somewhat disappointing Universal doesn't allow fans the choice.
Nevertheless, the noir classic displays a well-balanced contrast with clean, crisp whites throughout. With excellent clarity and resolution, viewers can plainly see into the far distance the individual lines of buildings and lettering on billboards. The high-def video is faithful to Metty's deep-focus photography with an often stunning depth of field that will have fans in awe. Except for a few moments, badly-aged moments, overall definition is quite sharp and detailed, revealing lifelike textures in the faces of actors and costumes. Black levels are inky rich with shadows that penetrate deep into the screen, showing splendid gradations between the various shades.
Although not as exciting or striking as the video, the DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack is nonetheless quite strong and generally satisfying. The film's sound design plays a crucial role in the story, so for the most part, the lossless mix does well in delivering every aspect of the background activity with terrific clarity and detail. Listeners can hear the tiniest noise and commotion in the distance, generating a pleasing and somewhat wide image with an excellent sense of presence. Bass is also adequate and appropriate to the action while providing the score with appreciable weight.
Yet, the elements used for this high-rez codec come with a few minor drawbacks worth mentioning. Most apparent are the vocals sometimes sounding canned and hollow in several spots, creating a lifeless, empty feeling during certain conversations. Dynamic range is also a tad on the flat side, lacking some warmth and largely feeling uniform and narrow. Still, the track, on the whole, gets the job done and will satisfy fans.
Special features are ported over from the 50th Anniversary DVD.
Orson Welles' 'Touch of Evil' is a genuinely remarkable motion picture that displays one stroke of cinematic genius after another, a brilliant piece of work with an interesting backstory to match. Starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, and Orson Welles, the crime thriller is a deliciously lurid tale of corruption, murder, and the morally compromised, which still stands as a stunning, stylized noir masterpiece. The Blu-ray arrives with spectacular picture, strong audio, and satisfying bonus features. All in all, this is a classic masterpiece that rightly belongs in any respectable cinephile's collection.