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Touch of Evil (1958) (Blu-ray)

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Genre: Crime & Thriller / Suitable for 12 years and over / Director: Orson Welles / Actors: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Orson Welles ... / Blu-ray released 2011-11-14 at Eureka Entertainment

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      22.02.2012 10:21
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      Orson Welles's last Hollywood film is given prestige high definition treatment

      This Master of Cinema Blu-ray is currently £14 on amazon.

      Touch of Evil (1958) was the last film Orson Welles directed in America, and the last film he directed that had a decent budget. It's a noirish crime thriller in which the director's virtuosity is very much to the forefront. Famously, as with almost all of Welles' movies, it was re-edited by the studio after it was finished, and over the years several slightly different versions have been released, with different running times and different scenes. The Blu-ray contains three separate versions of the film, and two are presented in two different aspect ratios, resulting in a release with five slightly different versions of the same film.

      Crusading Mexican narcotics investigator Miguel Vargas has just married an American, Susie. He's also just arrested a big dope dealer, Grandi. As they are crossing the border, the Vargases witness a car bomb which kills an American construction magnate. As the bomb was planted on the Mexican side of the border, Vargas becomes involved in the investigation. American cop Hank Quinlan believes he knows who did it, but Vargas catches him planting evidence. Meanwhile, Grandi's brother Joe tries to get to Vargas through his wife, and he and Quinlan find they have a common enemy in Vargas.

      Although the plot is fairly complicated, like a lot of film noir plots, the film has a beautifully coherent mood, so even if you lose track of the details of the story you'll still know more or less what's going on. It's often difficult to keep track of which side of the border characters are on, but it hardly matters - both sides are as bad as each other. This has the feel of a James Ellroy story years before Ellroy started to write, with drugs, larger than life corrupt cops and dodgy antics in shabby motels. It's surprisingly adult and nasty for its age, although it seems to chicken out when presented with the opportunity to get really dark. There's one fairly nasty shot, which probably accounts for the 12 certificate, but otherwise this doesn't show anything too problematic.

      Charlton Heston plays Vargas. It's a bit of a stretch accepting him as a Mexican - he's dyed his hair and put dark coloured makeup on, but is clearly still Charlton Heston. He doesn't try an accent, which is probably just as well. He's good in the part if you can get past the skin colour issue. Janet Leigh is terrific as his wife, feisty and good humoured at first, but slowly broken down by stress and sleep deprivation. It's a shame that in the later stages of the film she slips into rather more passive victim mode, but I guess that's where the story goes.

      But stealing the film is Welles himself, as Quinlan. He's one of the most memorable screen villains of all time, and probably Welles' finest performance. Corpulent, limping and heavily made up, Welles is somehow chilling while staying very human. At first he's just a racist American cop, and you assume that the Mexican drug gang are the main threat; but Quinlan comes to dominate the film, and Welles - perhaps unsurprisingly - gives Quinlan an almost Shakespearean dimension, making him a tragic anti-hero. Although Welles became grossly overweight in later life, he was still fairly svelte when he made this, so most of Quinlan's bulk is padding. He's almost unrecognisable, both facially and vocally.

      The film has an unusually strong supporting cast, drawn by a desire to be directed by Welles. Marlene Dietrich plays a rather unlikely gypsy fortune teller, but she has the film's finest, most moving moment. Joseph Calleia is magnificent as Quinlan's adoring deputy, forced to realise his hero might have feet of clay after all. Akim Tamiroff is fantastic as the sleazy 'Uncle Joe' Grandi. And Dennis Weaver is exceptional as the night manager at the motel, a twitchier version of Norman Bates two years before Psycho. There are also blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos by Zsa Zsa Gabor and Joseph Cotton.

      As with most Welles films, the way the film is made is arguably the real star. The film begins with a - now legendary - long panning shot which is meticulously choreographed, beginning with the bomb being planted in the car, and ending with it exploding. Pretty much every frame in this film is visually fascinating - the film's one onscreen murder is particularly brilliantly executed. The locations are also superb, from the great oil wells pumping away in the background to the rubbish strewn riverbank where things come to a head.

      The tense, jazzy, Latin inflected score is also superb, adding immensely to the film's unique atmosphere. In short, this is exactly as you'd hope all old crime films would be, and whatever version you see, this is one of Welles' strongest films.

      There are two disks in this. The main attraction is the reconstructed version, which was pieced together in the late 90s from Welles's notes. It's probably as close to the original Welles edit as we're going to get now, and is a few minutes longer than other versions. It's presented in widescreen and 1.37:1 ratios (the latter is more or less 4:3 - old TV screen ratio. The widescreen version is just the TV shaped version with the top and bottom cut off, and surprisingly, the smaller one was the one I liked best (the image seems sharper on the smaller one, too). It's beautifully edited, and you can't tell where bits have been added or snipped from the better known theatrical cut.

      I only glanced at the other two versions. I'm not enough of a Welles geek to care, really. I was happy to watch the one that was closest to the director's intentions. (Contrast this to Dawn of the Dead, where I happily and sat through three separate versions. And, um, Caligula, where I did the same. This says something about me, I daresay).

      The picture quality is generally very good. Sharpness and contrast are high, blacks are very black (it's a dark film) and there's plenty of visible detail. It does seem to have a bit of a digital-looking sheen on it, but that might be my TV, which is a few years old now. One disadvantage of high definition is that Welles' false nose is very obvious in a few shots.

      There's a commentary on each version. Film historians and so on do most of them - I didn't get too far with them. One commentary was better for a while - Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh recorded a commentary together, which had some great reminiscences. Both remember a great deal and obviously enjoy talking about it. The only problem is that they share the commentary with the guy who did the restoration, and he keeps butting in, talking over them and generally making a nuisance of himself.

      There's also a trailer, which is a little deceptive, and two short documentaries (mostly talking heads discussing the film, including Heston and Leigh again). It's really one documentary split into two for no good reason (this seems quite a common tactic - the same thing happens on the Once Upon A Time in the West Blu-ray). The extras were all created for a DVD release (Heston and Leigh have both died since they were made). This Blu-ray package also contains a good booklet featuring reviews of the film and interviews with Welles.

      But I'm not really in this for the extras, impressive though they are. Touch of Evil is a great film from an era when Hollywood was just beginning to approach material in a way we would now consider adult. It's incredibly well made and oozes old-school class. Everyone should see it.

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