Another Orson Welles masterpiece comes to 4K UHD, and Kino Lorber puts much more than a touch of class on Touch of Evil. Three dazzling, brand-new Dolby Vision/HDR10 transfers bring all the grit and grime of all three versions of Welles' electrifying film noir to brilliant life while heightening the tension and impact of this disturbing tale of racism, police corruption, organized crime, and murder in a Mexican border town. The plot may be difficult to follow, but with so much breathtaking style on display, it's easy to watch Touch of Evil multiple times to connect all the dots, savor the nuances, and appreciate the performances of Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, and a top-flight cast of character actors. Solid audio and a hefty supplemental package enhance this exciting release that deserves a prominent spot in every cinephile's collection. Must Own.
No director in cinema history faced more adversity, fought more bitterly with Hollywood moguls, or had his work butchered with more shameless disregard for its artistry than Orson Welles. The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, and The Lady from Shanghai all suffered from the serial studio interference that plagued Welles throughout his career. Executives more concerned with turning a quick profit than producing elegant, enduring motion pictures often ordered massive cuts to Welles' works, resulting in choppy, sometimes incoherent movies that exhibited only flashes of brilliance and flopped at the box office. If only these ignorant boobs had left him alone, trusted his genius, and put faith in his vision, Welles would be even more revered than he is today.
Touch of Evil is one of those mangled movies, yet despite all the studio meddling that ultimately altered the finished product, this blistering Film Noir stands as one of Welles' defining works. Moody, tense, eerie, and bursting with Welles' patented mix of bold innovation and brash, beautiful artistry, Touch of Evil is a searing indictment of bigotry and police corruption set in a seedy Mexican-American border town. Close attention is required to follow the intricate plot, but it pays big rewards as the slow-burn film builds to a shattering climax that resonates long after the closing credits roll. Quirky characters abound, peppering the already spicy brew and heightening the sense of unease, and a gallery of fine performances, including several high-profile cameos, complement the style and swagger that keep us riveted throughout.
Welles also wrote the literate script and stars alongside Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh as the unscrupulous, obese, unshaven police captain Hank Quinlan, a 30-year veteran of the force who's nabbed countless criminals in the sleazy town of Los Robles along the Mexican border. After a local business magnate and his stripper girlfriend get blown up by a bomb that was planted in the trunk of their convertible, Quinlan and his deputy, Sgt. Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), begin investigating, but they quickly lock horns with Mexican native Mike Vargas (Heston), the chairman of the Pan-American Narcotics Commission, who gets attached to the case because of a possible link to the Grandi family, which runs a small-time drug ring that Vargas helped expose.
Vargas reviles Quinlan's corrupt tactics and accuses him of framing the dead man's Mexican son-in-law (Victor Millan) for his murder. The outraged Quinlan can't stomach the assault on his reputation and vows revenge. He enters into a nefarious pact with Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), who hopes to intimidate Vargas and keep him from testifying against his brother at his impending trial by siccing a gang of teenage thugs on Vargas' American wife Susie (Leigh), who's holed up at a rundown motel. Both men's hatred of Vargas spirals out of control, and their reprehensible behavior results in more mayhem, ugliness, and death.
That's just the barest synopsis of a labyrinthine plot that brims with intrigue, violence, dirty secrets, vicious vendettas, and stunning revelations. Touch of Evil is tough to follow the first time through, but there's so much to absorb visually, emotionally, narratively, and thematically, soaking it all up with repeat viewings is a treat. Welles' muscular technique and arresting camera angles keep the film fresh, and with the help of master cinematographer Russell Metty, he crafts an array of beautifully disturbing images. The movie's iconic opening, an ambitious, continuous three-and-a-half-minute boom and tracking shot that immerses us in the seedy, seething atmosphere of Los Robles, sets the tone, but Welles' invention continues throughout the movie, with an even longer continuous shot (running more than six minutes), some pioneering hand-held camera work, and reportedly the first-ever dialogue scene photographed in a moving car on an actual city street without any processed rear projection work.
Like most Welles films, there's plenty of substance to complement the style. The themes of racial prejudice, police malfeasance, border tensions, drug use, gang violence, and rampant organized crime remain sadly relevant today, and though Welles takes some of them to the nth degree, they all pack a punch.
So do the performances. Heston doesn't adopt a Mexican accent but believably portrays a Latino. Strong, stalwart, and honorable, Heston is the movie's moral compass and holds his own with the scene-stealing Welles, who reportedly put on prosthetics and 60 pounds of padding to play the blubbery Quinlan. Like Marlon Brando, Welles often mumbles and slurs his lines, making some of his dialogue unintelligible, but he's a magnetic presence who commands the screen. It's hard to imagine he was just 42 - and much thinner - at the time of shooting, and strange to think he would later physically resemble the character he plays.
Leigh is equally good, filing a feisty performance that doesn't get lost amid all the raging testosterone. Seeing her character check into a ramshackle motel in a remote area where she's the only guest and must interact with a repressed, lanky, woman-shy, oh-so-weird desk clerk (Dennis Weaver) before being terrorized of course calls to mind the doomed Marion Crane in Psycho, who Leigh would famously portray two years later. The striking similarities can't be ignored, and it's surprising Leigh deigned to revisit a motel set ever again, let alone so soon after enduring such horrors in Touch of Evil.
Tamiroff and especially Calleia contribute unforgettable turns that rank among their best work and infuse Touch of Evil with an authenticity that helps temper the more outrageous aspects of its plot. Weaver is kooky, creepy, and deliciously off the rails in a change-of-pace part; Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons alum Ray Collins impresses as the oily district attorney; and cameos by Welles favorite Joseph Cotten, Zsa Zsa Gabor (the camera also pans by sister Eva sitting at a bar), and his good friend Mercedes McCambridge (almost unrecognizable as the teenage gang's butch leader [not surprising, considering she was 41 at the time!]) spice up the already piquant proceedings.
All of them and Marlene Dietrich, too! As the sultry proprietor of a decaying brothel and Quinlan's old flame, the 55-year-old Dietrich almost steals the show, looking as seductive as ever and delivering a smoldering, cynical performance that encapsulates the film's essence. Her penultimate line "What does it matter what you say about people?" ranks as one her finest screen moments (and that's saying something!) and perfectly caps off this psychedelic odyssey.
Sadly, a film that's now considered a classic was deemed problematic by Universal during post-production, leading the studio to recut Touch of Evil and shoot additional scenes after Welles departed to work on another project (the never completed Don Quixote). Once Welles finally viewed Universal's handiwork, the devastated writer-director rifled off a 58-page memo outlining his vision of the film and advocating for it to be presented as he intended. Shockingly, his passion moved Universal to incorporate many of his suggestions, but after a disastrous preview, the studio slashed 12 minutes of footage, presumably to make the movie more coherent and less objectionable, and quietly released Touch of Evil without much fanfare.
Contemporary critics largely dismissed the film, which bombed at the box office, but Touch of Evil gained favor in Europe, winning the top prize at a festival at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, much to Universal's chagrin. Forty years later, editor Walter Murch and producer Rick Schmidlin reassembled the film using Welles' memo as a guide and the resulting restoration now stands as the definitive edition of this controversial movie. Though some viewers still prefer the theatrical cut (listen to F.X. Feeney's audio commentary on that disc to find out why), it's easy to recognize the merits of the reconstruction. More character beats, better flow and cohesion, and the inclusion of essential bits of backstory combine to create a more satisfying experience. The reconstruction also removes the credits from the lengthy single-shot opening, per Welles' memo, so we can better appreciate the sequence's intricacy, scope, and how it instantly immerses us in the cheap, sleazy atmosphere of Los Robles.
The theatrical version feels choppy and rushed by comparison, with characters popping up in various locales without any connective threads, almost as if they teleported there. The shorter cut still impresses on many levels and stands on its own as a complete work, but once you've seen the reconstruction, it's tough to watch the theatrical version without bemoaning its deletions.
This Kino edition includes all three cuts on separate discs, so you can judge for yourself which one reigns supreme. Any way you slice it, though (pardon the pun), Touch of Evil stands as one of Welles' most notable cinematic achievements. It's an endlessly fascinating, impeccably crafted, substantive, literate, quirky, edgy, beautifully shot, and well-acted film that just gets better every time you see it. In short, Touch of Evil is as big, bold, brash, and blustery as its larger-than-life creator, and we wouldn't want it any other way.
(For another fine take on Touch of Evil, check out my colleague M. Enois Duarte's review of the 2014 Blu-ray by clicking here.)
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra-HD Blu-ray
Touch of Evil arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard case inside an o-card slipcase. Three versions of the movie are presented on three individual 4K UHD discs: the original 96-minute theatrical cut, a 109-minute preview version of the film that pre-dates the theatrical cut and incorporates some of Welles' requests (Universal rediscovered this version in 1976), and a 1998 reconstruction of the film produced from Welles' detailed 58-page memo to the studio that most closely represents his original vision.
The packaging of those three discs, however, isn't ideal. Two of them are stacked on top of each other on the left side of the case, while the third sits on its own on the right side. The copy I received had the reconstructed version buried beneath the theatrical version, a placement I found strange, because the reconstructed version would seem to be the preferred version for most viewers. Having to remove the theatrical cut and find somewhere to put it while I removed the reconstructed version was cumbersome and forced me to handle the discs more than I would have liked.
Video codec for all three versions is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with Dolby Vision/HDR10 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the discs are inserted into the player, the static menus with music immediately pop up; no previews or promos precede them.
With rich blacks, stark lighting, moody close-ups, and an abundance of shadows, film noirs adapt especially well to the heightened definition of 4K UHD, and Touch of Evil is Exhibit A. All three versions receive brand new Dolby Vision HDR masters and the resulting 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfers maximize the impact of every scene, with astonishing clarity, marvelous contrast, and beautifully varied grays producing an eye-popping, film-like image packed with detail and depth. The reconstructed and preview cuts must incorporate and finesse multiple sources encompassing a wide quality spectrum, but despite some noticeable print damage (white streaks, frayed edges, and mild speckling) that flag the reinserted scenes, the presentation remains surprisingly cohesive throughout. Like the 2014 Universal Blu-ray, this release does not offer the option of viewing Touch of Evil in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. (All three versions are presented in 1.85:1 here.) A decades-long debate over the film's intended ratio still rages, and because Welles, cinematographer Russell Metty, and many others who worked on the film are no longer with us, it's difficult - perhaps impossible - to make a definitive determination.
That said, Kino's 1.85:1 presentation of Touch of Evil leaves very little to be desired. Grain is evident and fluctuates to varying degrees depending on the source and light levels, but it's well resolved most of the time and incisively accents the story's gritty, dusty atmosphere and pervasive narrative skullduggery. Dense, inky black levels distinguish Metty's exceptional night photography, while harsh lighting heightens the contrast in those sequences. Whites are crisp and resist blooming, costume textures are distinct, background details like wallpaper, paintings, and decorative items are easy to discern, reflections in mirrors and windows are razor sharp, and excellent shadow delineation illuminates faint elements and maintains the integrity of even the murkiest scenes.
Close-ups are, quite simply, sublime. The grizzled stubble, oily sweat, crow's feet, chubby cheeks, chapped lips, and glassy, baggy eyes that comprise Welles' face could be examined for hours, and the enhanced definition of UHD only makes us appreciate Bud Westmore's makeup work all the more. Leigh's alabaster skin, Heston's olive complexion, Tamiroff's close-clipped mustache and flimsy toupee, and Calleia's weathered, careworn face are all brilliantly rendered. Dietrich, as usual, looks divine - perfectly lit, her dark makeup and jet-black wig draw attention to her piercing eyes, trademark sunken cheeks, pouty lips, and smoldering pencil-thin brown cigarette.
Any variations between the three transfers are minuscule and escape notice. I don't own a Blu-ray copy of Touch of Evil, so can't compare the picture quality to this 4K UHD release, but this transfer is so immersive, so sharp, so filmic, so balanced, so impressive, and such a pleasure to watch, I can't imagine anyone with the capability to play 4K UHD discs not wanting to add this set to their collection. And if you're a fan of Welles and/or Touch of Evil, this is an essential upgrade.
Kino recycles the same DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track included on the 2014 Universal Blu-ray. Here's what my HDD colleague M. Enois Duarte wrote about it in his review:
"Although not as exciting or striking as the video, the DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack is nonetheless quite strong and generally satisfying. The film's sound design plays a crucial role in the story, so for the most part, the lossless mix does well in delivering every aspect of the background activity with terrific clarity and detail. Listeners can hear the tiniest noise and commotion in the distance, generating a pleasing and somewhat wide image with an excellent sense of presence. Bass is also adequate and appropriate to the action while providing the score with appreciable weight.
Yet, the elements used for this high-rez codec come with a few minor drawbacks worth mentioning. Most apparent are the vocals sometimes sounding canned and hollow in several spots, creating a lifeless, empty feeling during certain conversations. Dynamic range is also a tad on the flat side, lacking some warmth and largely feeling uniform and narrow. Still, the track, on the whole, gets the job done and will satisfy fans."
Both featurettes and three of the four audio commentaries included on Universal's 2014 Blu-ray have been ported over to this 4K UHD release. The solo track by restoration producer Rick Schmidlin has been dropped. Kino adds two new commentaries to the mix, bringing the total up to a whopping five!
Audio Commentaries - If any film deserves five commentary tracks, it's probably Touch of Evil, but only the most ardent Welles aficionados will have the patience to sit through all of them. The three previously released tracks feature author and filmmaker F.X. Feeney voicing his mostly favorable views of the theatrical cut, Welles historians Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore discussing the preview cut, and reconstruction producer Rick Schmidlin and actors Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh talking about the reconstructed cut. Heston and Leigh also share priceless memories of working with Welles and their respective experiences on the film. The two all-new commentaries allow film historian Tim Lucas to tackle the theatrical cut and film historian Imogen Sara Smith to analyze the reconstructed cut. Smith's insights are always interesting, and she seamlessly mixes observations about the film's style and themes with production trivia, background info on the cast and crew, critical assessments, the tragic chronicle of the movie's mishandling by Universal, and its ultimate reconstruction. Lucas provides a more nuts-and-bolts but no less absorbing commentary, detailing the project's background, shooting, plot, locations, and the scenes deleted from the theatrical cut. He also delves into the Touch of Evil source novel, cites the differences between it and the film adaptation, and quotes dialogue from the script that was either cut or altered during production.
Featurette: "Bringing Evil to Life" (HD, 21 minutes) - Interviews with Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh highlight this retrospective piece that includes production anecdotes and trivia, as well as analysis from such esteemed figures as actor Dennis Weaver, director Peter Bogdanovich, director Robert Wise, and actor Valentin de Vargas. A very sweaty Heston rues his lack of a Mexican accent and takes credit for the casting of Weaver; Leigh describes how Welles camouflaged her broken arm during shooting and transformed himself into an obese man with an array of prosthetics; and Bogdanovich addresses the confusing plot, Dietrich's cameo, and Welles' penchant for black-and-white photography. The pioneering use of a handheld camera and how Welles finagled the first dialogue scene in a moving car are also explored in this absorbing 2008 featurette that resides on the preview cut disc.
Featurette: "Evil Lost and Found" (HD, 17 minutes) - Heston, Leigh, and company return for this look at the film's recutting and augmentation prior to its 1958 release and its 1998 reconstruction and restoration. Rick Schmidlin, who spearheaded the restoration, and editor Walter Murch talk about their experiences piecing together Welles' original vision of Touch of Evil using Welles' memo to the studio as a guide. Directors George Lucas and Curtis Hanson, who takes us on a tour of the Venice, California locations where much of the film was shot, also chime in on the reconstruction and praise Welles along with their peers. This featurette is included on the reconstructed cut disc.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview is included on the theatrical cut disc.
There's more than a touch of evil in Orson Welles' masterful, riveting film noir, and Kino brings all the sordid and nefarious deeds into glorious focus with a spectacular 4K UHD presentation with Dolby Vision/HDR10. All three versions of Touch of Evil are included in this definitive set that both honors Welles' artistry and examines Hollywood moviemaking in the 1950s. Timeless themes course through this evocative, stylish film that demands multiple viewings to fully appreciate all its nuances and wonders. Solid audio and a substantive supplemental package that includes five - count 'em, five! - audio commentaries complement the dazzling video transfer that makes this masterwork more vivid and visceral than ever before. Must Own.