Touch of Evil in 4K Ultra

Orson Welles’ last Hollywood feature was one of the great film noirs. It begins with a brilliant sequence done in one shot without cutting, but with considerable camera movement. Welles has already shown you that a timebomb will soon explode. It’s entirely set at and near the American/Mexican border.

Come next Tuesday, Kino Lorber will release Touch of Evil in a pack of three 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. Each disc contains a different version of the film, with commentaries and extras. But I wish it had it a conventional Blu-ray of the film, as well.

The bomb’s explosion brings two very different police detectives together into a duel between straight and crooked cops. Charlton Heston plays Mike Vargas, the good cop – a famous Mexican gumshoe. Writer/director Welles plays Hank Quinlan, an American police captain, who also has a reputation, but it’s built on lies. Once Quinlan guesses who’s guilty, and that’s usually a Mexican, he places fake evidence.

Yes, Heston plays the hero in brownface. That was acceptable in 1958. Besides, if it weren’t for Heston, Touch of Evil would never have been a film by Orson Welles. Heston’s clout got Orson the chance to rewrite the screenplay and direct the film. In her commentary track, Sara Smith suggests that Ricardo Montalban would have been a better choice.

Two years before Psycho, Janet Leigh’s character finds herself in a desolate motel off the well-trodden path. She’s newly wed, it’s a mixed-race marriage, and they’ve already been separated. Her next 24 or so hours will be a horrible honeymoon.

The cast contains several members of Welles’ Mercury Theater, including Akim Tamiroff, Ray Collins, and, of course, Joseph Cotton. A young Dennis Weaver does a very funny, over-the-top performance as the motel’s night watchman. Mercedes McCambridge does a short bit as a cruel lesbian. And Marlene Dietrich has a brilliant performance in a short, soulful, and yet complex performance.

Three versions, three discs

Orson Welles had some bad habits, including angering studio heads and walking away during the editing. That leaves us with three different cuts of Touch of Evil, and none of them can be called a director’s cut.

The package contains three different discs, each with a different cut. And yet not even one that will work on a regular Blu-ray player. Every other 4K disc I own has a conventional Blu-ray in the package.

Here are the versions:

  • Reconstructed Version: 110 minutes. In 1998, Walter Murch recut the movie based on a 58-page memo that Welles sent to Universal and which the studio ignored. This version is now considered the definitive cut. You can easily tell this version because it’s the only one without opening credits.
  • Theatrical Version: 95 minutes. The missing 15 minutes make the film more difficult to follow. Universal also put credits and normal movie music over the brilliant opening shot.
  • Preview Version: 109 minutes. Aside from the credits messing up the opening shot, it’s very similar to the Reconstructed Version.

By the way, Universal’s credit sequence in the Theatrical and Preview versions are very good, but not as good as in the Reconstructed version.

How It Looks

This is my first Ultra HD Blu-ray of a black and white film, and it’s exceptional. Much of the film looks as sharp as a razor. It’s not perfect; some scenes are heavily scratched.

The film is shown in the original 1.85×1 aspect ratio. On a regular HDTV, you’ll see very thin black lines at the top and bottom of the screen.

This is an exceptionally well-shot film. Of course, Much of that is the work of cinematographer Russell Metty.

How It Sounds

Like most low-budget films in the 1950s, Touch of Evil was recorded and mixed in mono. Kino recreates it in DTS-HD Master Audio 2-channel mono. I had no problems.

And the Extras

Between the three discs you’ll find five different commentaries. If you watch all five of them, you’re going to be listening to the same information repeatedly. All or most of them talk about the long shots, the connection between this movie and Psycho, filming dialog in a moving car, the original novel, the racism of Heston’s brownface, and that Welles’ wasn’t anywhere near as fat as he looks in the film, thanks to padding and makeup.

The most enjoyable commentary, on the Reconstruction disc, features Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Reconstruction Producer Rick Schmidlin. I also enjoyed the commentary on the Preview disc with Orson Welles Historians Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore.

Here are the few other extras:

  • Evil Lost and Found: Reconstruction disc; 17 minutes. Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Peter Bogdanovich, and George Lucas talk about the movie. It ends with Curtis Hanson giving us a tour of locations in Venice, California.
  • Theatrical Trailer: Theatrical disc; 2 minutes. What’s mostly interesting about this bit of advertising is that there’s no mention of Welles as the writer/director.
  • Bringing Evil to Life: 21 minutes. Very similar to Evil Lost and Found above, but with some other new tidbits as well. Worth watching.