Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil generally represents the close of the “classic” film noir period that began in the 1940s. Neo-noir continued of course, but Welles delivered the last true masterpiece of the original era. It’s bled over into popular culture in bits and pieces – the lengthy opening shot, the off-screen tussles, the widely mocked (and apparently studio-mandated) decision to cast Charlton Heston as a Mexican – but the actual film is so much more than such cultural flotsam and jetsam. It’s another dark look at the endurance of human wickedness, and how right and wrong can become so blurred as to be indistinguishable. A pity that Universal treated it so poorly for this Blu-ray release. Hit the jump for my Touch of Evil Blu-ray review.
Welles and his cohorts pioneered the techniques that serve noir so well as far back as Citizen Kane, with vibrant black-and-white cinematography and a fascination with the dark side of the street. Touch of Evil starts off with a literal bang, as we track a bomb placed in a car trunk in a particularly sleazy Mexican border town. The town belongs to Hank Quinlan (Welles), a crooked cop with a long history of bribery, blackmail and brutality to keep his oily kingdom in line. The blast soon leads him to an obvious suspect, whom he collars for the crime without so much as a “due process my flabby white ass.” The bombing, however, was witnessed by a Mexican drug enforcement officer (Heston) and his new American bride (Janet Leigh). He’s not interested in leaving the mystery up to this bloated parasite, but taking action may cost him a lot more than his standing.
Quinlan’s underhanded efforts to destroy his stalwart rival are quite shocking for the time: pushing the limits of the Hays Code and full of implications that can still unsettle us today. But that intensity doesn’t overcome the remarkable richness of the characters, who certainly show more depth than one would expect from such a lurid melodrama. Quinlan betrays shades of a better man, lost in self-pity and booze that act as a shield from the compromises of life. We watch him commit compromise after compromise in the name of justice until the very notion of the word has been irrevocably destroyed. Heston’s character, in contrast, has to walk the same treacherous path, only to treat his ethics as an asset to help him rather than an obstacle to overcome.
Add to that Welles’ typically brilliant (and overlapping) dialogue, strong performances from the likes of Marlene Dietrich, and a script that manages to defy the Hollywood formula at every turn, and it’s no secret why this film is praised as the last great masterpiece of the original noir movement. Yet, like so many of Welles’ projects, it entailed a huge amount of compromise. The auteur constantly clashed with his corporate overlords, which resulted in three different versions of the film. The last rose as late as 1998, a “restored” version based on Welles’ notes in an effort to save as much of his long-gone rough cut as possible. That version is probably the most effective, though even the earlier releases show strengths that countless lesser movies would envy.
The new Blu-ray version preserves that controversy, as well as giving us solid versions of all three cuts of the film. Extra features cover it all in depth, including two great behind-the-scenes docs, a slew of audio commentaries (including one from Heston and Leigh), and a copy of Welles’ 58-page memo that led to the restoration. The audio and video transfer for all three versions look terrific, and if you don’t have a copy of the film yet, there’s no reason not to grab this one with both hands.
The problem, unfortunately, is a typical one for films of this nature. It’s exactly, precisely the same as an earlier DVD version released in 2008. Universal spruced up the image a bit, but otherwise just ported all the material over and called it a day. The 2008 “50th Anniversary Edition” came in a less flimsy box and had the air of a real event to it. This version feels like a terrible case of double dipping, and if you already own the 2008 version, there’s nothing new to entice another purchase out of you. The film deserves better, and it got better six years ago. The new Blu-ray release needs more in its corner if it wants to earn our money.