Touch Of Evil begins with one of the most brilliant sequences in the history of cinema, and ends with one of its most debated and controversial final scenes. In between, a story unfurls whose moral, sexual, racial, and aesthetic attitudes were absolutely radical in 1950s, segregated America.
Charlton Heston portrays Mike Vargas, a Mexican chief of narcotics who sets out to uncover the facts surrounding a car bomb that has killed a wealthy American businessman on the US side of the border.
As Vargas investigates, his new wife, Susie (Janet Leigh), is kidnapped by a gang out to exact vengeance for the prosecution of the brother of their leader (Akim Tamiroff). Meanwhile, Vargas’ enquiries become progressively blocked by an American cop, Hank Quinlan (Welles)—an incarnation of corruption who alternately conspires with Susie’s captors and seeks solace in the brothel of a Gypsy madame (Marlene Dietrich).
For those who know how spotty Wells’ acting could be, Touch Of Evil gives us not only a glimpse of what Wells was capable of, but one of his most imposing and unforgettable screen appearances. Heston, too, puts in a powerful performance, despite his terrible Mexican accent and the uncomfortable use of blackface.
If Touch Of Evil has a hero, then the well-dressed, well-spoken Vargas, fulfils that role. While Wells, as the American Quinlan, is the sort of lazy, corrupt character that was so often the default Mexican stereotype in films of the period.
Wells was a lifelong liberal and anti-segregationist—and Touch Of Evil was intended to highlight racism, particularly in US-Mexican relations. The problem is that the messaging is not just clumsy, it’s undermined by the realities of a film in which the only good Mexican, Vargas, is played by an American in gross blackface. The only Mexican actors play criminals and drug dealers. And, while there’s no doubt at all that Quinlan is an evil racist, he’s such a monstrous caricature that it’s unlikely viewers of the period would see past that to their own racism.
Despite, or maybe because of its daring cinematography and labyrinthine plot, Touch Of Evil suffered more than its share of studio meddling before release. Wells’ intended for every shot, every camera angle to have meaning—the images adding links and subtle commentary between the characters. Some of that was lost when the studio made a series of cuts and reshoots—hacking almost 13 minutes from the film. These were later restored, but it wasn’t until 1998 that a version approximating Wells’ original vision was released. So it’s fantastic to see that the new Masters of Cinema Series release includes all three versions for the viewer to compare and contrast. The HD is crisp and clear, and the extras are, as ever, well-constructed and informed.
Touch Of Evil was Welles’ final studio-system picture and the one that would secure his status as a filmmaker. This is a film that’s rich in Shakespearean drama, layers of meaning, and superlative acting. But, for modern viewers, it’s not without its problems.
Included in this UK Ultra HD blu-ray debut are the following extras:
- Hard case featuring artwork by Tony Stella.
- 4K (2160p) UHD Blu-ray presentations of all three versions, presented in Dolby Vision HDR: the Theatrical version (95 mins), the Preview version (109 mins), and the 1998 Reconstruction (110 mins).
- Four audio commentaries, featuring: restoration producer Rick Schmidlin (reconstructed version); actors Charlton Heston & Janet Leigh, with Schmidlin (reconstructed version); critic F. X. Feeney (theatrical version); and Welles scholars James Naremore & Jonathan Rosenbaum (preview version).
- New video interview with critic, broadcaster and cultural historian Matthew Sweet.
- New video interview with critic Tim Robey.
- New video interview with author and critic Kim Newman.
- Bringing Evil to Life + Evil Lost and Found – two video pieces, featuring interviews with cast and crew, as well as critics and admirers.
- Original theatrical trailer.