Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil is a tale of two cities, or at least two opposite towns sharing the same border. Coming from one side is priggish, by-the-book Mexican drug enforcement official Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), who finds himself taking on brilliant, highly respected American cop Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), who plants evidence to bring the guilty to justice.

The film starts with an astonishing tracking shot of technical mastery, artistry, and acrobatics as the camera weaves, floats, bobs, and swoops over several blocks of cross-border territory from Mexico to the United States, sometimes following a vehicle with a bomb in the boot, sometimes the newlywed couple at the center of the story. A kiss between Vargas and bride, Susie (Janet Leigh), is interrupted by an explosion, the consummation of their marriage endlessly marred by the evolving, complicated film noir case. Thereafter, we are constantly crossing borders between good and evil as much as between countries.

Baroque, in-depth compositions, often shot from below, follow, conveying the changing power balance between characters. Sequences and story are perfectly played out as when, on the Mexican side of the border, Quinlan grabs gangster Grande trying to escape through an arched, backlit window and carries him across the room while fervent salsa plays. In the following scene in the U.S., Vargas grabs hold of Grande, the gangster who helped kidnap his wife, and carries him down to the bar to smash him into an arch-lighted juke playing rock ‘n’ roll. Like Quinlan, he takes the law into his own hands, crossing over the Mexican/American border and the border between lawman and avenger. was bewildered by Welles’ shooting style and cut Touch of Evil as best they could, throwing out parts, reshooting some scenes, and re-editing sequences all in the hope of making things simpler to follow. On seeing the preview version, Welles wrote a 58-page memo suggesting changes, which the studio promptly ignored. The disc includes three versions of the film: the 108-minute Preview, the de-sordid 97-minute 1958 Theatrical Version, and a 1998 Reconstructed Version cut by Walter Murch to create what Welles wanted.

The black-and-white picture has great clarity, making visible strands of Leigh’s hair, glistening pearls, and individual stubble on Hank’s chin. Desert scrub, bricks, and roof tiles are all well individuated. Some shots have softness, and sometimes whites turn gray, but generally, there are deep, dark shadows, inky blacks, and a wide range of beautiful grays. There’s sufficient grain to maintain a film-like quality without compromising the resolution.

The most striking change the Reconstructed Version brings is to the endless opening shot. The credits have been removed, allowing you to focus on the brilliance of the filmmaking. The Henry Mancini theme is gone, replaced by street sounds, a jarring, disorienting confusion that sets up the nightmarish qualities of the story to come. It works brilliantly, but I still miss Mancini’s music, which sets up a relentlessly driving mood. The stories of Vargas and his wife are also intercut more in the back and forth across the border, giving greater coherence, logic, and shape, as Welles intended.

A commentary on the Reconstructed Version has Heston and Leigh providing memories of the shoot. Another by producer Rick Schmidlin goes deeper into specifics of the changes the film went through. The Theatrical Version has obsessed author/director F.X. Feeney investigating visual aspects of the film, especially in the Theatrical Version, while on the Preview Version, Welles historians focus on the films’ themes.

Two well-made featurettes cover the history of the various versions and the reconstruction and Welles’ filmmaking and production. Welles’ famous memo is also included. “Goodbye.” “Adios.”

Studio: Universal, 1958
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio Format: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Length: 110/95/109 mins.
MPAA Rating: PG-13/NR
Director: Orson Welles
Starring: Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh

utopianemo's picture

I saw this in a local art-house theater about 10 years ago with a bunch of other 20-somethings. Three things stood out to me: 1)The opening shot, which is amazing. 2)Charlton Heston's hamfisted acting, of which no amount of brown face makeup or thin mustache hair could change the distinct reality that he is not even the slightest bit Mexican. 3)The dated worldview. The funniest example of this last bit was the scene in which Leigh's character was locked in the hotel room, the seedy Mexican hoodlums terrorizing her through the door with this line(as I remember it): "Hey girl. You ever hear of.......MARIJUANA?"