Home Video Review: Touch of Evil on 4K UHD
Following The Criterion Collection’s release of Citizen Kane last year, Kino Lorber brings another entry in Orson Welles’ filmography to 4K UHD for the first time, presenting 1958’s Touch of Evil on the format with a new Dolby Vision HDR grade on all three existing cuts of the film: the 96 minute theatrical cut, the preceding 109 minute “preview” cut, and the — widely considered definitive — 111 minute “reconstructed” cut.
The release history of Touch of Evil is extensive and legendary. Long story short, Universal — unhappy with Welles’ rough cut of the film — meddled extensively, re-editing and re-shooting without Welles’ participation. After being shown the studio’s cut (the preview version), Welles wrote a 58-page memo detailing desired changes to the film to bridge the gap between what the studio had and Welles’ vision. These alterations were not implemented, and after a negative reaction at a preview screening Universal panicked and slashed another 20-plus minutes from the film before putting it in theaters. Despite all this, the film garnered significant critical acclaim (both contemporaneously and in subsequent years), but later interest peaked at two key moments. First, in the early-mid 1970s, a print of the preview cut was discovered and released theatrically. Two decades later, in 1998, the existence of that print made possible what is now known as the reconstructed version: working from the various available prints, producer and preservationist Rick Schmidlin oversaw famed editor Walter Murch in re-editing Touch of Evil to implement all the changes requested by Welles in his memo.
The film itself remains a striking piece of noir, one that reminds us of Welles’ virtuosic skill as a director. Adapted from pulp novel Badge of Evil, Welles’ script shifts the action to the Mexico-American border, intentionally politicizing a sleazy tale of crime and corruption. When a bomb goes off in the trunk of a car (the tension of which is built through a deservedly famous opening tracking shot), two different lawmen take an interest in the murder: Mexican Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and American Hank Quinlan (Welles). As the investigation unfolds, Vargas’ suspicions about the unrepentantly racist and seemingly corrupt Quinlan lead to a dramatic and explosive finale.
From a technical perspective, Touch of Evil is sublime. Shot in gorgeous black and white by Russell Metty, the film presents a masterclass in framing, lighting, and camera movement. Frequent close-ups stoke anxiety and claustrophobia, contrasting with the sweltering open landscapes of the border towns in which the story takes place — on the Mount Rushmore of “films where you can feel the sweat,” Touch of Evil sits right next to Do the Right Thing. The crackerjack narrative and the craft on display bring the film close to masterpiece status, though the elephant in the room of course remains the decision to have protagonist Vargas be played by Heston in glaringly obvious brownface. As with all films that make use of makeup to alter ethnicity, it’s a jarring and unpleasant reminder of how pervasive casual and not-so-casual racism has been throughout the history of movies (even in cases where, such as here, intentions may have been slightly better than usual, given the rewriting of the story to foreground a Mexican character as the unabashedly heroic protagonist, uncommon for Hollywood at the time — I’d recommend this NPR piece as a starting point for some more nuanced discussion of the film’s place in history).
The Kino Lorber set is available in two different versions: one with three 4K UHD discs and one with three standard Blu-Ray discs — there is no option to receive both the 4K and standard Blu-Rays in the same package, and as such we’ve only reviewed the 4K version as provided to us by Kino Lorber. Each of the three discs contains one version of the film, each restored in 4K resolution and 1.85:1 aspect ratio with a Dolby Vision and HDR10 grade. Audio for each version is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track.
It’s hard to imagine Touch of Evil ever looking much better than this on home video, though both the reconstructed and preview cuts suffer from somewhat inconsistent quality that can be chalked up to the condition of the prints from which the non-theatrical footage was drawn. Certain scenes in these cuts feature significantly more scratching, banding, and apparent damage, as well as a softer image — in these sequences, you can see the bitrate dip to anywhere between 20-50 Mbps. However, this is a fairly small quibble (that, again, can’t really be blamed on the restoration work), especially when you consider just how fantastic the image looks during the majority of the film’s duration. For a movie that alternatively lives in shadow and sunlight, the new HDR grade (particularly the Dolby Vision version) offers stunning contrast, illuminating detail work in a manner I expect most haven’t seen in the film prior. The increased resolution greatly benefits the film’s many close-ups, the fluidity of the tracking shots is excellent, and the significant film grain is — for the most part — pleasant and naturalistic. Outside of the sequences mentioned above, the bitrate lies in the 80-90 Mbps range the majority of the time. While not quite as impressive as the video, the DTS-HD audio track does its job perfectly well: though there are some lapses in quality and resonance, they’re fairly clearly the result of the source material — as a general matter, the track is well-mixed, the dialogue is clear, and the music (both diegetic and score) fill the space nicely without overpowering.
The main draw of course is access to all three versions of the film, but Kino Lorber includes a smattering of special features as well, spread across the three discs. The theatrical cut includes the original theatrical trailer and each of the other cuts include a short, previously released featurette — the one included with the reconstructed cut (“Evil Lost and Found”) is particularly interesting, if not too in-depth, given that it features Murch’s insight into his re-editing process. The package also includes five separate commentary tracks: three previously released (F.X. Feeney on the theatrical cut; Heston, Janet Leigh, and Schmidlin on the reconstructed cut; and Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore on the preview cut) and two newly recorded (film historians Tim Lucas and Imogen Sara Smith on the theatrical and reconstructed cuts, respectively).
Overall, if you have any interest in Touch of Evil as a film or as a piece of film history and craft, this likely stands as the definitive presentation available for the foreseeable future and is recommended as such.