The last act of Orson Welles’ life is a very strange, sad epitaph; reduced to peddling mid-grade plonk in commercial endorsements for Paul Masson’s winery, recording a prologue for the television series, Moonlighting, and becoming the frequent brunt of Johnny Carson’s glib monologues on The Tonight Show. Welles not only observed as his reputation as the cinema’s enfant terrible eroded into something of a laughing stock; he also, to some extent, contributed to the malaise. In his prime, Welles had been a man of varying bombast; a perfectionist with a penchant for morose excesses in food, drink and late night carousing. He was bitter and self-loathing; an artist, arguably deprived of his first love – directing – but given the opportunity to perform before the cameras in projects of varying quality – the system exploiting his obvious talents to their own purposes. If only his movies had acquired a healthier respect, Welles might have risen through the ranks to become a legend in his own time. As it stands, he remains something of a legend untapped; a visual artist who gave us, arguably, the greatest movie of all time – Citizen Kane – before becoming a disappearing shadow of his former self.
Before this implosion, however, Welles was given one last opportunity to direct. Based on Robert Wade and William Miller’s Badge of Evil, Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) has long since acquired a reputation as a classic film noir. In its day, however, the movie was misperceived by executives at Universal Studios as little more than a gritty little melodrama, unceremoniously dumped on the market as the bottom half of a double bill and all but ignored by audiences. Viewing the studio’s cut it’s easy to see why. In the editing process, conducted after Welles had already been removed from the project, Touch of Evil was ruthlessly butchered, given a score by Henry Mancini (which Welles abhorred) and a linear narrative that, curiously, complicated the story rather than drawing out its clarity.
Disgusted with their meddling, Welles rattled off a memo to Universal – an in-depth step-by-step critique with suggestions on how to improve the movie before its general release. Welles’ ideas were ignored. For decades, Touch of Evil remained a grand disappointment to Welles who, in the intervening decades, made several valiant attempts to convince Universal to reinstate his original vision and re-release the film. Sadly, it was not until after Welles’ death in 1985 that a more concerted effort came around to honor his wishes. But by then the damage seemed permanent. Universal had saved none of the outtakes, edits or trims; all of this extemporaneous material junked a long time ago. Miraculously, however, all was not lost.
There are two theories as to how Welles came to direct Touch of Evil. Co-star Charlton Heston has claimed after learning Welles would be in the movie he insisted that if Universal wanted him they would have to agree to Orson as its director. There is some merit to Heston’s claim. By 1958, his reputation was clearly the more respected in Hollywood. His box office cache alone could easily have coaxed Universal into accepting his terms. There is, however, another tale to tell; this one involving producer, Albert Zugsmith; a longtime admirer of Welles’ gifts and who, reportedly gave Welles a stack of scripts to consider; Orson’s wily genius accepting the challenge to make something unique out of the worst in the batch: Badge of Evil.
In Touch of Evil, Welles is barely recognizable, buried under a mountain of prosthetics and body armor to portray the disreputable Capt. Quinlan; a once admirable cop, long since gone to seed. Drawing on a parallel between his character and Ramon Vargas – played by Heston as the forthright officer of the law – Welles’ performance in Touch of Evil remains both tragic and bone-chilling; a sort of self-effacing spiral into oblivion from which neither Quinlan’s reputation in the film, nor Welles’ own in Hollywood, survived. Viewing Touch of Evil today, one is immediately reminded of the caliber of Welles as a performer, utterly wasted long before his emeritus years; Welles – tragically made the workhorse by someone else’s vision of his talents.
As originally intended, Welles opens Touch of Evil with a justly famous and fascinatingly complex three and a half minute dolly shot. A bomb is placed inside the convertible of an American couple driving through a Mexican border town (actually Venice Beach, Ca.). The car passes interracial newlyweds, Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his bride, Susan (Janet Leigh) before bursting into hellish flames. From here, the plot diverges into two parallel (and later, converging) narratives; the first involving Vargas, who is called to assist in the investigation, much to the discontent of Police Chief Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Quinlan’s bigotry and rage are directed at Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff); the head of a local Mexican crime syndicate.
Quinlan’s right hand, Pete Menzies (Joe Calleia) is also a close friend who would do just about anything to ensure Quinlan’s one-time sterling reputation remains intact – even frame the innocent Manelo Sanchez (Victor Millan) for the crime of murder. But Vargas smells a rat. Furthermore, he is not onboard with Quinlan’s theories of the crime and decides to slowly explore the investigation from a different angle. Meanwhile, Susan has been left to her own accord at the remote Mirado Motel, run by its hapless and fearful manager (Dennis Weaver). Using Susan as leverage against Vargas, Uncle Joe sends a posse of delinquent youth, fronted by his nephew, Risto (Lalo Rios) and a lesbian cohort (Mercedes McCambridge) to the Mirado. In a rather shocking (then) and still very potent scene of implied gang rape, forced drug abuse and lesbianism, Susan is taken hostage to conceal the fact Grandi and Quinlan have been working together. She awakens from her stupor in a seedy bordello with Grandi’s corpse lying next to her; the latest victim in Quinlan’s cover-up. This being a noir thriller of a certain period and ilk, Quinlan is eventually found out by Vargas, who isolates and confronts him as per the charges; the whole conversation recorded for posterity by a hidden microphone.
Touch of Evil is a potent melodrama. Yet, at some level it fails to live up to Welles’ reputation as a cinematic genius. The story is compelling – in spots – and Russell Metty’s bold cinematography augments what is, in fact, a very pedestrian crime story with considerable visual panache. But somehow, Touch of Evil remains a fractured masterpiece – if ever a masterpiece, in fact, it was. There is more than one irony at play in the film: Heston’s star on its meteoric ascendance even as Welles’ own is exiting the stratosphere like a supernova; the padded appearance of a slovenly Welles in makeup shockingly foreshadowing his own formidable girth in later years; the film punctuating the end of Welles’ Hollywood career on a decidedly sour and undistinguished note – the visionary reduced to making a standard noir melodrama.
Welles amassed an impressive roster of pop talent and veterans to appear in Touch of Evil; including Zsa Zsa Gabor as the madam of a border-city bordello and Joseph Cotten, playing a good-humored police officer. Undeniably, the outstanding cameo belongs to Marlene Dietrich as Tanya; Quinlan’s one-time lover who now runs a washed-up fortune-telling racket Quinlan frequents to remind him of his bygone youth. Realizing he is about to be caught by Vargas, Quinlan asks Tanya to tell him his future. “You haven’t got any,” she coldly replies, “Your future’s all used up.” Dietrich is at her careworn best in this scene, higher up the proverbial food chain than Welles’ Quinlan, as she cruelly deprives him of his last possible respite from the world and his own incarceration. It is a masterful performance, the one-time vixen having quietly accepted the ever-evolving parade of youth and beauty has passed her by, unlike Quinlan, who is doomed to thirst after his former glory days.
Despite its boundary-pushing exploration of taboo subject matter, Welles’ rough cut of Touch of Evil failed to impress execs at Universal who found the narrative confusing. They opted to excise almost 25 minutes from his final cut; adding and re-shooting several key sequences in an attempt to draw clarity from the story. In response, Welles fired back a fifty-eight page memo that detailed numerous ways to improve the picture while remaining faithful to his vision. Virtually all Welles’ ideas were ignored by the studio. Although Universal’s 98 min. cut did have its admirers in Europe, in America it was immediately dismissed and quietly forgotten. Then, in 1976, Universal discovered it had in its possession a 108 min. preview version of Touch of Evil. Misrepresented as Welles’ definitive version (when, in actuality, the preview cut included footage shot after Welles’ European departure), Universal re-released Touch of Evil theatrically and to good reviews.
Then, in 1998, Touch of Evil was sent back to the editing room once more – this time under the supervision of Walter Murch, who used Welles’ original memo to Universal as his guideline. Since many of the damaging cuts made by Universal in 1958 no longer existed, this latest revision represents only an approximation of what Welles might have hoped for. Nevertheless, it is this cut that best represents Touch of Evil as closely aligned to Orson Welles’ original intent. Touch of Evil was released as a Collector’s Edition by Universal several years ago – disappointingly without any extras and minus all but the 1998 version of the film. Universal then rectified these oversights with Touch of Evil: the 50th Anniversary Edition.
Two years ago, in celebration of its 100th Anniversary, Universal debuted the deluxe 3 versions of Touch of Evil on Blu-ray. Now we get Touch of Evil on the Blu-ray again, minus the snazzy gold embossed packaging and reproduction of Welles’ memo, but incorporating virtually everything else already readily available on home video in hi-def. Personally, I don’t really see the point of this reissue. Like the aforementioned anniversary edition, this Blu-ray contains all three edits of the film, allowing the film enthusiast to judge which cut is best. All three versions are presented in anamorphic widescreen. The theatrical and preview versions contain the overlay of credits and extemporaneous music written by Henry Mancini. But the restored version reinstates Welles’ original concept for the prologue, laying in various organic tracks of music and effects without a main title sequence.
Universal has seamlessly-branched all three versions on a single Blu-ray disc. The bit rate isn’t quite what I had hoped for. Nevertheless, the results are fairly impressive, beginning with the fact there is a discernable amount of more information on the left and top edges of the screen. In Europe, Masters of Cinema (MOC) released a competing Blu-ray of Touch of Evil, Region B locked. The Universal is region free (which all Blu-ray discs ought to be by now). MOC’s edition exhibits more noticeable grain than the Universal, which also appears ever so slightly softer overall by direct comparison. So, which do I prefer? Hmmm.
Universal’s effort is very strong, but contrast appears slightly bumped, especially when compared to the MOC. Blacks are understandably richer/deeper on the Universal. I still think the MOC looks more refined than the Universal – the grain structure more genuine to its film-sourced material; the Universal’s looking a shay too smooth and also less sharp. The MOC edition does not appear to have been edge-enhanced, leading me to suspect Universal’s lower bit rate is responsible for its overall softer appearance. Finally, Universal’s DTS audio is slightly more refined than the MOC edition; very subtle differences in timber and overall spatiality – more noticeable on higher end sound systems.
Universal has ported over virtually all of the extra features from their anniversary edition DVD and previously issued Blu-ray, including commentaries - on the ‘reconstructed version’ from Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, and producer, Rick Schmidlin; the ‘theatrical version’ from writer/filmmaker F.X. Feeney, and the ‘preview version’ featuring Welles’ historians, Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore. Also revived is ‘Bringing Evil to Life’, just over 20 minutes on the ‘making of’ and Evil Lost and Found, a 17-minute featurette about the restoration efforts. Both featurettes are presented in inferior 480i. We lose the booklet featuring Welles’ original memo to the studio. Parting thoughts: I have to admit I’m not entirely sold on Universal’s transfer. It bests the DVD – which is never hard to do – but it still seems to lag behind their efforts Universal has shown when time, care and money have been spent correctly. Low bit rates on a format that can offer so much more is just a waste of Blu-ray’s capabilities.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)