On DVD: Touch of Evil - 50th Anniversary Edition

In the 1995 crime comedy Get Shorty, John Travolta plays Chili Palmer, a slick mobster with a secret life as a chronic film buff. We see him sitting in Santa Monica's Aero Theater, rhapsodizing over the conclusion of Touch of Evil. Judging by Chili's ecstatic reaction to the noir classic, you would never think that for its director, Touch of Evil was a major career disaster.

Orson Welles' American directing career lasted only seventeen years. His final film for a Hollywood studio was a work-for-hire job obtained through the intervention of actor Charlton Heston. Welles directed brilliantly but lost control of his production in the editorial stage, and film historians have been studying the results ever since. Universal's new two-disc Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition DVD set, which hits the mean streets October 7, contains three separate versions of this superb noir thriller. We can read Welles' notes, compare them to the studio's cuts and debate the restoration decisions made by the Hollywood experts.

Although Universal practically threw it away, Touch of Evil was soon hailed as one of the director's masterpieces. The new disc set unravels the mystery of its three distinct versions. The theatrical version (96 minutes) is what played a few weeks on a double bill in 1958. The longer preview version (109 min.) was for many years presumed to be Orson Welles' preferred cut. When associate professor Bob Epstein screened this version for us at UCLA in 1972, he told us that it had never been seen outside the studio.

The third cut of Touch of Evil is the well-publicized 1998 restored version (111 min.) edited by Walter Murch, which attempts to return the film to a form closer to Welles' intentions. The DVD reprints the director's painfully worded 58-page memo, in which he pleads for the studio to limit their butchering of his labor of love: "I must ask that you open your mind for a moment to this opinion from the man who, after all, made the picture."

All of Welles' Hollywood pictures after Citizen Kane suffered serious studio interference. Most fans know about the wholesale trashing of The Magnificent Ambersons, which by all accounts may have been an even greater achievement than Kane. Welles'The Stranger lost a long prologue about O.S.S. agents tracking a Nazi zealot through South America. The ambitious thriller The Lady from Shanghai was given the whole treatment. Columbia dictated re-shoots and nixed the director's interesting soundtrack ideas. The quality common to of all of these films is directorial brilliance; it now seems insane that any film studio would interfere with any of them.

Universal Studios' 'Touch of Evil'

Touch of Evil is an examination of corruption in a seedy border town. A bomb blows up an American millionaire, forcing Mexican vice detective Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) to investigate. American police chief Hank Quinlan (Welles himself) proceeds to frame the most likely suspect. Meanwhile, Miguel's new bride Susie (Janet Leigh) is terrorized by the Mexican Grandi mob. Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) hopes to frighten Vargas into calling off an investigation into his family's criminal activities.

Coming at the tail end of the classic noir era, Touch of Evil transcends the film noir style with a generous use of distorting lenses, swooping cranes, eccentric blocking and intricate tracking shots. Half the movie is clipped montage and the other half gliding camera moves. The film contains three of Welles' most impressive cinematic set pieces. The long scene in Joanna Moore's apartment sustains our interest for several minutes without a cut -- and without letting our attention wander to thoughts of technique for its own sake.

Welles packs his film with a gallery of grotesques -- Tamiroff's literally greasy gangster, Dennis Weaver's nervous motel-keeper, Mercedes McCambridge's butch drug pusher. Janet Leigh provides a "touch of normalcy" as the rather naïve Philadelphia wife of a Mexican vice cop. Charlton Heston's unusual casting has never been accepted by people who think that all Mexicans must look and sound like Gonzales-Gonzales.

Janet Leigh in 'Touch of Evil'

Welles often chose classical adaptations for his personal projects, but genre thrillers account for some of his most interesting work. For this adaptation of a lower-case crime novel he plays up racial tensions and carries the Bad Cop theme to new heights. Quinlan's habit of framing suspects isn't excused by the fact that his hunches are almost invariably correct, and Vargas makes a good distinction between the Rule of Law and a Police State.

The movie also belies the notion of Welles as an egoist. Most of the quality material goes to a cast of fine actors seldom given much of a chance elsewhere. Ray Collins is a District Attorney badgered by Welles' police captain. Joseph Calleia's doggedly loyal sidekick Menzies is the most affecting character in the movie. Akim Tamiroff is both the film's main menace and its comic relief. Joseph Cotten appears as an unbilled guest star, as does Zsa Zsa Gabor.

But Welles' personal style won few friends in the studio system. Universal's top executive considered the director a showoff and a pain in the neck. Welles didn't get along with staff editors and tended to ignore production schedules. The studio discovered that Marlene Dietrich had been added to the cast only when her face showed up in dailies! Universal's opportunity to separate the maverick genius from the production came when the director foolishly (suicidally, one would think) absented himself from the studio to raise money for a personal production, Don Quixote. Charlton Heston reports that Welles simply took off and remained unreachable by phone. The studio lost no time ordering re-shoots and a full re-cut. When Welles saw the preview version, he wrote his famous 58-page memo, a pitiful attempt to undo the damage. The memo's pleading about audio montages and fine points of narrative most likely fell on deaf ears. Studio politics, then as now, placed executive control above creative considerations.

The preview version begins with a misleading title saying that it has been modified from the theatrical version, when the reverse is true. It carries a commentary by critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore. Both have written books on Welles, and Rosenbaum served as an advisor on the 1998 restoration. They point out scenes excised for the theatrical cut, as well as reshot material directed by Harry Keller.

The standard theatrical cut honors a few of the suggestions in Welles' famous memo, but slashes the film by twelve minutes, obscuring a number of important story points. On the DVD, F.X. Feeney's commentary for this cut provides an excellent filmic analysis, making an interesting case for Touch of Evil as a major influence on Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.

The 1998 restored version carries two commentaries. Restoration producer Rich Schmidlin shares a commentary with the late stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, and returns on a solo track to tell the story of his years-long effort to re-cut Touch of Evil. Schmidlin makes a good case for editorial choices applied to the 1998 revision. He has a producer's tendency to name-drop, but convinces us that he did his homework. He mentions UCLA professor Bob Epstein's discovery of the preview cut, assigning credit where due. Schmidlin also did some expert snooping, locating a box of invaluable Welles notes kept by Universal's head of post-production. Walter Murch was impressed to learn that the perspectivized audio re-recording tricks he invented for American Graffiti were in use by Orson Welles 14 years before on Touch of Evil.

The restored version's mission was to follow as many of Welles' memo requests as possible without doing damage to the great director's legacy. Rick Schmidlin had access only to material in the preview and theatrical versions, as all trims and outs had long been destroyed. But many of the most important changes involved relatively simple trims and scene shuffling. Schmidlin points to a scene juncture that, after being restored to Welles' cutting plan, now results in a much clearer continuity. Schmidlin and Murch almost kept a single close-up of Joseph Calleia that Welles had asked to be removed. When they took it out, they discovered an improvement in the character tension in the film's climax.

Universal scored the picture with cues by Henry Mancini. Luckily, split audio tracks still existed for the theatrical version, allowing director-editor-soundtrack specialist Walter Murch to layer a sound design along the lines of the one described in the famous memo. Welles had wanted a picture in which bits of music would be heard only when their source was indicated on screen; car radios, live musicians, phonograph records. The disc set's commentaries convince us that the 1998 version does restore Touch of Evil closer to Orson Welles' original intentions.

Universal's DVD set 'Touch of Evil - 50th Anniversary'

All three cuts on Universal's Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition appear in crisp enhanced black-and-white transfers at the original and correct matted 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. More than one of the experts on the commentaries verify this; Schmidlin reminds fans that Universal protected the full frame only for future TV use.

I can imagine Fall semester film students across the country being assigned the task of studying the four commentary tracks (I certainly enjoyed them) but less dedicated types may prefer the disc set's two interview featurette docus -- a making-of piece for the original film and a study of the 1998 revision. Stars Heston and Leigh explain how Orson lost control of the picture, and director Curtis Hanson takes us on a tour of Touch of Evil locations in Venice, California.

The now-famous Orson Welles notes are printed on both sides of a sheaf of papers held together with only one staple. It's not the most elegant arrangement but it does convey the humble nature of the director's desperate attempt to minimize the gutting of his movie. It's a shame that a creative juggernaut as brilliant as Welles was hobbled by the realities of commercial filmmaking.