Touch of Evil goes Blu-ray

Tuesday, 15 November 2011 00:00

“Touch of Evil” is a dark and brooding film noire starring and directed by Orson Welles in 1958. Welles plays Hank Quinlan, an obese, scowling steamroller of a police captain stationed in a town on the Mexican border with Texas. Quinlan has a huge string of successful cases under his belt, but despite his instincts generally being on the nose, it turns out that he sometimes bends the law to ensure the right result.

Enter Mike Vargas and his new bride, Susie (Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh). Vargas is a Mexican narcotics agent who does things by the book, and finds that he and his bride are the target of a drug lord whose brother Vargas is taking to court. When a car bomb kills a wealthy American businessman, Quinlan and Vargas both get drawn into the case; Quinlan takes exception to the Mexican’s involvement, making things increasingly difficult for him until events take a truly sinister and deadly turn for the worse.

Touch of Evil - reconstructed and restored on Blu-rayThe crux of the story concerns the physical separation of Vargas and his wife, her vulnerability in the face of predatory and drug-addled gang members, and the three-way interaction between Vargas, Quinlan and the drug lord Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff – “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, “Anastasia”). Grandi wants Vargas to back off his brother and is very devious and resourceful in trying to achieve his goal.

This special, limited edition release of the movie includes three different versions, combined with two different aspect ratios (1.37:1 and 1.85:1). The primary version focused on by Eureka and the one I watched is the 1998 reconstruction. The film has quite a complex history, but essentially this version is the one that is closest to Welles’ original vision for the movie as opposed to Universal’s.

The picture is a trend setter in so many ways, not least the technical artistry on display and the very strong, seedy subject matter the story delves into. Shot in black and white, the picture has actual and metaphorical darkness seeping from its very pores, and even though much of it is shot at night, the daytime scenes can be equally disturbing and grimy.

The opening shot of the movie lays the furrow that ‘showy’ directors such as Brian De Palma have since ploughed many times; it is a fluid, 3-4 minute uncut tracking shot that introduces the car bomb, the future victims and the Vargas couple, alternately following the car and the Vargases through the town, across the rooftops and settling back down to Earth to listen in on dialog. Camera, vehicles and pedestrians weave between one-another in a complex but sublimely-orchestrated sequence. The mixed soundscape that accompanies it completes the effect, segueing from one sound source to another, including music blaring from car radios and street-level chatter. It is an early signpost that this is one very special movie.

Elsewhere, Welles’ directorial style is masterfully sharp and efficient; every scene bristles with atmosphere and attitude. He sometimes tells two strands of the story in one shot, like 24 without the obvious black dividing line separating the two. In the foreground a discussion might be going on whilst outside on the street, other characters are interacting to set up a future event. The audience is able to follow both without effort. The frame is filled with action and meaning; nothing is wasted.

The cast is top-notch, and as you would expect the acting is impeccable. Welles sports a ‘fat suit’ and makeup to make him look more rotund but until I had seen the extras I had not even realised, such is the power of his performance and the excellence of his costume. Quinlan is a fearsome character, respected by his colleagues for his results but also someone they never risk getting on the wrong side of because of his temper and cantankerousness. Heston’s Vargas by contrast is an upstanding, caring lawman who keeps clear of Quinlan’s fury for as long as he can but ultimately is prepared to take both the bent cop and Grandi on when things become desperate.

Leigh is by turns smart, sexy and a little naïve, sometimes failing to spot danger but also willing to square up to it in the occasionally mistaken belief that no one would dare touch her because of her husband’s position. The only performance that struck me as odd and over the top is from a young Dennis Weaver (“Duel”, Gunsmoke). His motel night manager is a shifty, kooky simpleton who is possibly supposed to offer some comic relief to the otherwise pitch-black tone of the movie, but instead comes across as out of place and unbelievable.

As with “Citizen Kane”, this is a master-class of a movie that absolutely must be seen, especially in its reconstructed form. It is disturbing, tense and feels fresh despite its age. On Blu-ray it looks pixel-perfect and the many shades of grey and lurking shadows are brought to life in wonderful high definition.

Special features included in this two Blu-ray disc Limited Edition include:

  • New high-definition masters of five variants of the film: the 1958 Theatrical Version in both 1.37:1 and 1.85:1, the 1958 Preview Version in 1.85:1, and the 1998 Reconstructed Version in 1.37:1 and 1.85:1
  • 4 x audio commentaries, featuring: restoration producer Rick Schmidlin; actors Charlton Heston & Janet Leigh, with Schmidlin; critic F X Feeney; and Welles scholars James Naremore & Jonathan Rosenbaum
  • The original theatrical trailer, which includes alternate footage
  • ‘Bringing Evil to Life’ (21 mins)
  • ‘Evil Lost and Found’ (18 mins)
  • Optional English SDH subtitles on all versions of the film
  • A 56-page booklet featuring essays by Orson Welles, François Truffaut, André Bazin, and Terry Comito; interview excerpts with Welles; a timeline of the film’s history; and extensive notes on the film’s versions and ratios.

Aside from the multitude of different versions of the film, the visual extras are mildly disappointing. Of the 40-odd minutes available there is quite a lot of repetition and re-use of material, but on the plus side there are snippets of relatively recent interviews recorded in HD with Heston, Leigh and several famous directors including Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Wise and George Lucas. The four audio commentaries and the smartly presented booklet help to bulk up the material, the latter containing a number of essays on the film and Welles.

“Touch of Evil” (1958) is out now on Blu-ray (2 discs), courtesy of Eureka Video. The running time is 111 minutes appro., certificate ‘12’ and the movie retails for £22.99 on Blu-ray, or less from

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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