The Blu-ray release is essentially a rerun of the October 2008 “50th Anniversary Edition,” complete with director Welles’ pleading and cajoling notes to the studio that took the editing away from him. They’re reproduced here in the same sturdy brown booklet.
The film was the subject of a “festival tribute” at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival, billed thusly: “World premiere restoration reconstructed from the original camera negative and presented in collaboration with Universal Studios.”
While audio and video exhibit some improvements on the Blu-ray, owners of the 2008 edition might be justified in staying with those DVDs. All three versions remain in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. (A British Blu-ray utilized 1.37:1 for the alternate cuts.) The DTS-HD Master Audio is in 2.0, muscular but unremarkable.
For those who care, the Blu-ray set from Universal Studios Home Entertainment includes HD streaming access and a download of the theatrical version.
As for those three versions: Compare, contrast and argue, you can’t go too far wrong in selecting one of these as the best “Touch of Evil.” They’re all great — and they all have their problems.
Here’s the film’s history, in a bit of a rush: Welles never finished postproduction on the 1958 film, leaving for Mexico to begin another project. The studio put together a “preview” version of the film. Audiences didn’t seem impressed, and so the suits released the shorter, slightly dumbed-down theatrical version that older moviegoers grew up with. In the 1970s, a copy of the preview version surfaced, briefly and incorrectly regarded as the director’s cut.
Then came the restoration version: Angered by Universal’s preview cut, Welles had fired off a famed 58-page memo asking for restoration of his original vision. “Resigned as I am to the fact that a great majority of my previous notes and suggestions have been disregarded,” he makes his case on matters big and small. Here’s a sample:
“Where there’s simply a difference of taste between your editing and mine — I have resigned myself to the futility of discussion, and will spare you my comments. … In those cases where the improvement is not apparent, and where I cannot fathom the reasons for alteration, I’m registering, as I do here, my objections.”
Lobbying for construction of one scene, he says:
No point concerning anything in the picture is made with such urgency and such confidence as this. Do please — please give it a fair try.”
No one paid much attention to these notes until the late ’90s, when producer Rick Schmidlin talked Universal into funding a re-creation based on Welles’ directions in the memo.
The restoration version, released to fanfare and debate in 1998, was released to DVD in late 2000. (The theatrical cut had been out only on VHS and laserdisc.) Of course, Welles never saw this version and may well have hated it, too. It’s the best of the three versions.
The most dramatic change in the restored version is the removal of the titles and Henry Mancini’s hep music in the opening scene, the one with the amazing crane work. I actually think the studio’s version of this scene has more punch (but then again I liked the voice-over version of “Blade Runner”). The beauty is, you can have it either way in the “Touch Of Evil” Blu-ray set.
Extras are plentiful and mostly well done. All three versions have commentaries; the restoration rates two. These are all worth your time, especially the preview version’s discussion by Welles historians Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore.
The historians note that the tale of a corrupt border-town cop and a Mexican drug agent was “an epitaph” for film noir — over the top stylistically, with its sweeping and swooning camera movements, and set in a cesspool of a town. “It goes beyond film noir, it’s such a blasted-out landscape,” they note.
In the famously unnerving motel scene in which Janet Leigh’s character appears to be gang-raped by a Mexican gang, the historians note: “It’s just astonishing that this could be happening in a film that’s in favor of racial intolerance.” The jarring contrast is part of Welles’ parade of low-rent realities, they conclude.
The Welles scholars point out that audiences of the time found a lot of the lines and scenes quite campy, although modern viewers take them straight up. They explain to listeners what a “mixed party” meant back then in social terms, nice detail work.
Star Charlton Heston and Leigh participated in the two documentaries about the film (“Bringing Evil to Life” and “Evil Lost and Found”). They joined the restoration producer in a commentary on that version, with all three taped in conversation. The producer also gets a second, solo track on his creation. (These two commentaries and the on-camera interviews all seem a decade and a half old, contemporary to the restoration’s theatrical release.)
Heston, who somehow does his best acting work in brown-face (for the Mexican agent role), recommended Welles for the directing job, seeing as the “Citizen Kane” creator already was working the movie as an actor.
Heston says the studio treatment of Welles “was a very sad event,” one that led to the director never making another U.S. film. “He was blackballed,” Heston insists. Under contract, Heston had no choice but to participate in studio reshoots for scenes that were stuck into the movie, he says.
Leigh points out that Welles actually looked pretty good in those days, although now people assume he was simply obese. Welles wore a fat suit and fake jowls to play the corrupt old cop. Leigh talks about hanging out on the set with Marlene Dietrich, who plays a gypsy.
The official Welles pal, Peter Bogdanovich, shows up in the docus with some good stories, some you’ve probably heard before.
Of the studio execs, Bogdanovich says: “When they saw (the movie) put together, it offended them somehow. …
“One woman at a screening berated an exec over its disgusting content, apparently inspiring more changes.
“Welles felt the (studio theatrical version) was more confusing than his — it was a sloppy job.”
He says Welles later took some cheer in the growing reputation of “Touch of Evil”: “There’s this terrible consolation of being 40 years ahead of your time,” Bogdanovich says.
The critic F.X. Feeney handles the commentary for the theatrical version.
The Blu-ray comes with a suitably lurid theatrical trailer.
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