DIRECTOR Orson Welles WRITER Orson Welles; Franklin Coen; Paul Monash; Whit Masterson (novel “Badge of Evil”) STARS Charlton Heston; Orson Welles; Janet Leigh BLU-RAY Now
If ever a film received a rough deal from Hollywood, it was Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. A notorious perfectionist, Welles had been working with little success in Europe for a decade. When offered a pile of potential projects by producer Albert Zugsmith, he chose a pulp script then called Badge of Evil, convinced he could turn bad writing into a good film and get his foot back into Hollywood.
The resulting picture was a hard-edged, densely plotted and violent film noir, with Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Welles himself as leads. Support came from Dennis Weaver, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joseph Cotten and even Marlene Dietrich, all of whom worked at union rates for the opportunity to collaborate with Welles. The film wrapped on time and under budget, and Welles was convinced his career was back on track. The problem was Touch of Evil was so far ahead of anything else in production, Universal had no idea what to do with it. They hacked 30 minutes out, reshot scenes, and despite Welles’ protests, released a 93-minute version on the lower half of B-movie double bills. The film slipped into obscurity, and yet another black mark was placed on the career of one of the most groundbreaking and influential artists cinema had ever seen.
Touch of Evil is a B-movie, but it’s also just about the best B-movie ever made. Heston, in one of his best performances, is Mexican DEA agent Mike Vargas, who finds himself embroiled in a web of deceit and corruption that centres around police captain Hank Quinlan (Welles), whom Vargas suspects of planting evidence. As he delves deeper Quinlan fires back, kidnapping Vargas’ girlfriend Susie (Leigh), drugging her and killing a man who has been pestering her — who also happens to be related to the leader of a gang Vargas is investigating. Quinlan attempts to set Susie up for the murder, but Vargas isn’t without his own set of dirty tricks, setting up a final act that finds one double-cross following another.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Touch of Evil was buried upon its minor release. Its themes of racism, sexuality and morality are strong even today; in the late 50s they were revolutionary. The term ‘masterpiece’ is often thrown around, but here it has never been more apt. From the opening to perhaps one of the best final scenes of all time, the genius of Welles is never in doubt. A screenplay that builds layer upon layer of mystery without once insulting the intelligence. Tension built with fluid camerawork and sharp editing. A perfect balance of action and dialogue. Beautiful cinematography and score. A huge influence, elements of the film can be seen in the work of Scorsese, De Palma, Argento and Tarantino, as well as having a tremendous impact on the French new wave, with Francois Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Melville claiming it to be the best film ever made. There’s a certain irony in their approval, as Welles struggled for years to have his work accepted in Europe. That Touch of Evil was his final studio picture is a disgrace.
Eureka’s brilliant new Blu-ray release is as worthwhile for the additional features as it is the film itself (which looks and sounds wonderful in high-definition). The set includes five variations of the film, including the rerelease from 1998 by editor Walter Murch, coming in at 112 minutes and meticulously based on a 28-page memo written by Welles in 1958, and the closest version available of his original vision. Also included are four audio commentaries, one of which is from Heston and Leigh, that add great depth and history to the film. There are several pieces of restored lost footage, trailers, interviews with Welles, an extensively researched book and technical data on the film’s aspect ratios and versions. This is the best retail release of the year, and an essential purchase.