In a 1992 edition of Film Quarterly, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum published excerpts from a 58-page memorandum Orson Welles had written in 1957 in response to Universal Pictures’ preview cut of what would prove to be his final studio film, Touch of Evil. Relations between Welles and the studio had soured, and he had been thrown off the project, but in the memo, he detailed how he thought the studio’s cut should be altered. Most of his suggestions were ignored, and Universal subsequently whittled the film down to 96 minutes for its theatrical release. Rosenbaum’s article generated a lot of excitement among Welles fans, and filmmaker Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch spent the next several years working with the critic to reconstruct Touch of Evil according to Welles’ memo. Using all the available elements, they assembled a 111-minute cut that was released to widespread acclaim in 1998.
Watching the reconstructed cut on this new DVD, one can see Touch of Evil for what it is: a masterpiece on par with Citizen Kane and Chimes at Midnight. Though the ideas at the core of Touch of Evil are often somber, the visual style is energetic and muscular, filled with elaborate tracking shots that use wide-angled lenses to give a constant sense of dynamic movement. The film gave Welles the opportunity to reunite with Russell Metty, ASC, his cinematographer for The Stranger. Metty opted for high-contrast monochrome and made the most of unconventional angles and complicated long takes. The film is known for its famous opening shot, but there is equally impressive, subtler work throughout.
Fans who were disappointed by the dearth of extras on the prior DVD of Touch of Evil have been rewarded for their patience with this new edition, which includes the 109-minute preview version Welles addressed in his memo, the 96-minute theatrical release, and the 111-minute 1998 reconstruction. The transfer of the preview cut has occasional jitters in the frame, but the other two versions could not look or sound better; the anamorphic transfers perfectly capture the depth, contrast and clarity of Metty’s images, and Welles’ intricate sound design is equally well presented. The DVD also includes an insert of the entire Welles memo, allowing viewers to judge the various incarnations of the film against his own words and intentions.
The DVD contains four commentary tracks. The preview version features Rosenbaum and Indiana University’s James Naremore, author of The Magic World of Orson Welles; the theatrical cut features film critic F.X. Feeney; and the reconstructed cut features two commentaries, one by Schmidlin, the other by Schmidlin and actors Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. (The DVD packaging erroneously lists the latter track as part of the preview version.) Schmidlin’s solo narration offers a terrific explanation of the reconstruction, and his commentary with the actors, which was recorded in 1998 but never included on a DVD until now, adds further perspective on the film’s production.
The disc also includes the 20-minute “Bringing Evil to Life” and the 17-minute “Evil Lost and Found.” Both documentaries include interviews with many of the participants featured on the commentary tracks, along with additional insights from Allen Daviau, ASC; George Lucas; and Peter Bogdanovich, among others. A theatrical trailer rounds out this indispensable DVD set.