Touch Of Evil (Orson Welles 1958) on bumper edition Blu-ray
Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil, one of the greatest films ever made – certainly the greatest to exist in six separate versions! – is released on Blu-ray by Masters Of Cinema next week. It’s a stonkingly good set, collating three cuts in both 1:33 and 1:78 aspect ratios (why? Because Welles knew films look different depending on the shape of the screen, so he framed his shots to work both ways).
The review below is of the 1998 recut, based on notes left by Welles and generally regarded as definitive, but I have a sneaking preference for the original 1958 studio release and Henry Mancini’s amazing sleazy-jazz title score. But the beauty of the Masters Of Cinema Blu-ray is that you can now have it all!
Touch of Evil
(Orson Welles, US, 1958)
Welles’ pitiless vision of the America border – a film itself on the threshold between studio panache and art-house experimentation
Orson Welles’ Faustian Pact with Hollywood begat one gleaming, never-bettered masterpiece in Citizen Kane – but he spent the rest of his career paying off the debt, as studios recut and refilmed his subsequent films and eventually exiled him to a nomadic existence in Europe. In his wake, Welles left perhaps the most famous of ‘lost’ movies (the full version of The Magnificent Ambersons), several abortive, unfinished comebacks – and then the curious case of Touch of Evil.
Already a classic-after-the-fact as new generations came to appreciate what Universal hadn’t spotted on first release, the discovery in the 1990s of an extensive memo by Welles advising on how to improve the studio cut meant that, at last, one of his flawed masterpieces could be redeemed. What’s remarkable on viewing the restoration version, though, isn’t how much better it is, but how little has changed. Those small adjustments and reconfigurations generally improve on the ‘original,’ but what we had before was pretty marvellous.
The biggest change is to heighten what a shock to the system Welles’ film is, a pulp noir itching at a wound until it is raw. For all the streamlined majesty of its famous opening shot (more of which later), this is a jittery film, whose experimental editing and stroboscopic lighting break the continuity on-screen into nightmarish distortions of faces and landscape. By the end, it’s only the soundtrack holding things together as Welles fits together shards of oppressively-angled images – law and order has come unstuck, and needs a recorded confession to repair the damage. In other words, it’s an art film made on a Hollywood budget, and Welles takes full advantage of rare resources without respecting the codes by which they are ordinarily used. In theme and tone, it’s downright dirty compared to most films of its vintage.
And that’s deliberate; this is a portrait of a society beleaguered by corruption and sin. The novel on which the film is based was called ‘Badge of Evil’ – a fine title for a study of Hank Quinlan, the amoral cop at the story’s heart played on-screen by Welles himself. But the rechristening as Touch of Evil adds a new dimension: everything is tainted now. From the unimaginative ‘yes men’ who never question Quinlan’s methods, to the tragic vigil of Marlene Dietrich, gazing forlornly at her Tarot cards because she knows the future’s all washed up, this is an unusually cruel and violent vision, one that goes beyond most film noirs. Stick in an innocent into the mix, and she’s liable to be assaulted and doped-up… and, not for the last time, Janet Leigh is caught checking into the wrong motel.
Another element of the restoration that surprises – thanks chiefly to enhanced intercutting between Vargas and Susie’s stories – is how the film hinges on a massive coincidence. Without the bomb, Vargas’ intimidation by the Grandees might have received a sympathetic ear from Quinlan… but because he’s poking his nose into an affair that is, technically out of his jurisdiction, he inflames the locals on both sides of the law until the hero becomes everybody’s enemy. And that’s Welles’ point: it takes that initial moment of rupture to reveal the full extent of the decay.
Which is why the opening shot isn’t just a marvel of technique, but a pointed use of camerawork to establish the film’s narrative and themes. Life goes on, the Linnekar and the Vargas families meet briefly, then go their separate ways… until the bomb brings them back together in the most violent cut in cinema history. The long take is mapped out with forensic precision, a little dance that allows the audience to see each element separately, then in combination – as well as sustaining tension in a manner that would be beyond even Hitchcock’s nous. And, of course, it’s also beautifully judged aesthetically, a marvel of stage management that conspires to add as much complexity as possible. From the opening sweep over the rooftop, to the appearance of sheep – sheep! – it’s the kind of richly, immersive image-building nobody would bother bankrolling now.
The film itself, though, couldn’t be more current. The only elements that don’t play in the revised cut (the biker gang with its rock and roll, ‘mary jane’ and bequiffed dykes) never really worked anyway, too rooted into the 1950s setting. The rest (the best) of Touch of Evil remains pretty timeless, a film about racial tension on an open border, and the accountability of those paid to preserve the peace. Given recent events in Arizona, it isn’t too hard to believe that there are many, many more Hank Quinlans out there who would condemn a man for being born on the wrong side of an arbitrary line. But if this film has any kind of moral, it’s that we’re only one explosion away from having to lie in the same gutter, so let’s try and get along now.