DVD of the Week – ‘Touch of Evil’ – October 7, 2008

It takes chutzpah to monkey with Orson Welles, even for the best of reasons, and without a doubt this unprecedented revision of Touch Of Evil was undertaken with the best intentions. While I can quibble with a few details, the result is a remarkable success. Forty years after the fact, producer Rick Schmidlin and Oscar winning film and sound editor Walter Murch have given Welles his due and made Touch Of Evil into the film he wanted to make.

Now let’s be clear on one thing: this is not a director’s cut, although it’s as close as we may ever come to one. “(A)n academic example of what Welles intended,” is how revision producer Rick Schmidlin describes it. In fact Welles never completed his own cut. After studio executives viewed Welles’ work in progress in 1957 they assigned a new editor and asked Welles to step aside. To make a long and very complicated story short, Welles viewed the studio’s rough cut months later and wrote a detailed 58-page memo describing the changes he felt needed to be made to save the film. Discovered a few years back by Welles scholar (and subsequent project advisor) Jonathan Rosenbaum, this memo became the primary source in Schmidlin’s innovative project: using Welles’ very specific instructions to reconstruct Touch Of Evil.

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston survey the (planted) evidence

Even in its various compromised versions (between film and video there are no less than three existing cuts of the film), Welles’ baroque border town murder mystery is a wild masterpiece, sleazy, grimy, jittery, and ultimately dazzling work of cinematic magic. Charlton Heston plays straight-arrow Mexican government Mike Vargas agent whose planned honeymoon with his American bride Susie (Janet Leigh) is derailed by a sensationalistic murder. Enter police detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a bloated, blustery grotesque with a doughy face and an ill manner. An instant antagonism develops between the educated Vargas and the misanthropic Quinlan which intensifies to a rabid hatred when Vargas uncovers evidence that Quinlan has framed a suspect.

Fans of the familiar Touch Of Evil will notice the differences in this revision immediately. The famous opening crane shot turns into a riveting dramatic scene with the removal of the credits and the revelation of the Welles’ dense sound design, previously buried by the brassy opening theme. My initial response was a sense of loss – that bongo beat and the growling horns had become a part of the familiar experience, so married to the image it seemed inseparable. But as the camera follows the parallel journeys of the car (carrying a ticking bomb) and the strolling newlywed couple as they weave their way through the bustling Mexican border town, the rediscovered soundtrack (with musical additions by Murch as per Welles’ instructions) gives a specific sense of place of movement with its street sounds competing with car radios and nightclub music weaving in and out of the mix.

With the abrupt explosion Welles’ style becomes more expressionistic – looming low angles, jittery handheld shots, edgy editing – and the new cutting design outlined by Welles serves this style better. The subsequent scenes are tightened up with insistent intercutting between the Vargas/Quinlan confrontations on the American side of the border and Susie’s run-in with racketeer “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) in Mexico, creating a driving pace with a greater sense of urgency and tension. The subsequent changes are less obvious (a trim here, an insert there, a couple of short scenes cut), but the film never looked or sounded better, and Walter Murch draws all of his sources from the original soundtracks. The painstaking restoration of film elements shows in every frame. For my money it’s never worked better either.

Universal’s two-disc set features both the original 93-minute theatrical release and the longer “preview version” discovered in the Universal vaults in mid-seventies along with the revised version, which makes this release the DVD debut of those earlier versions.

All three cuts are included in this two-disc set, along with four commentary tracks spread over the three versions. Rick Schmidlin hosts a track with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh (obviously recorded years before but never heard until now), with Schmidlin commenting on the changes in the “restored version” and drawing production stories and experiences from the stars. Welles historian/consultant Jonathan Rosenbaum and fellow Welles historian James Naremore discuss the “preview version” with a mix of production details and interpretations. Critic F.X. Feeney and Schmidlin also offer solo tracks. Also includes two featurettes (one on the making of the film, one on history of the various versions and the process of reconstructing the new cut) and a reproduction of the original 58-page memo that inspired the entire project.

I review the film in my MSN DVD column here.

Also new on DVD this week is The Visitor, the second directorial effort from The Station Agent director Tom McCarthy:

… a lovely little character piece about a widowed college academic(Richard Jenkins) going through the motions of life until he meets a young foreign couple (who happen to be living in his otherwise empty New York apartment). The connection that Jenkins’ insular Walter makes to Syrian musician Tarik (Haaz Sleiman), an open, generous fellow who teaches Walter to play the djembe (an African drum), feels natural and necessary, as does Walter’s devotion to Tarik when he lands in the labyrinth to Homeland Security. It’s a quiet screenplay of a life suddenly awakened by friendship and music, and film full of sublime moments of intimate observation

I review the film in my MSN DVD here.

Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:

Movies: You Don’t Mess With the Zohan with Adam Sandler, M. Night Shyamalan’s eco-horror The Happening and Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park:

Newcomer Gabe Nevins, who wears his sad, often blank face like a mask, plays an inexpressive skateboarder who puts to paper his jumbled thoughts of his recent past, which unfolds into the story of the accidental killing of a railroad security guard. Van Sant circles around the event, less interested in the narrative than exploring the kid’s oblique emotional life, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle finds an impressionistic shooting style to match the subjective perspective.

TV: The Munsters: The Complete Series, The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Complete First Season and 30 Rock: Season 2:

Fresh off its second Emmy win for Best Comedy comes the second season of the most inspired sitcom on television. Creator Tina Fey plays Liz Lemon, head writer of the fictional “The Girlie Show,” a formerly femme-centric skit comedy show transformed by its blissfully unhinged new star, Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan). Alec Baldwin is pitch-perfect as her boss Jack Donaghy, who makes his play for corporate promotion and grooms Liz to be his successor, only to tangle with an unprincipled rival (guest star Will Arnett), fall into an affair with a (gasp!) Democratic politician (guest star Edia Falco) and take a position with Homeland Security.

Special Releases: Sleeping Beauty: 50th Anniversary Platinum Edition, three Alfred Hitchcock Special Editions and two Criterion editions of Jean-Pierre Melville French gangster classics, Le Doulos and Le Deuxième Souffle:

Jean-Pierre Melville‘s cool, often cruel 1962 classic “Le Doulos” stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as a smiling underworld informer, charming and disarming one minute, cunning and sadistically violent the next. Melville’s skewed morality tale is a ruthless riff on the criminal code and the chaos that erupts whenever it’s betrayed…. Criterion also releases Melville’s much rarer “Le Deuxième Souffle,” a meticulously plotted and crisply executed crime thriller that opens with a prison break and ends on a mission of revenge.

Blu-ray: Ray Harryhausen Collectible DVD Gift Set

Four features from stop motion pioneer and film fantasist Ray Harryhausen make the high-definition leap to Blu-ray in this box set. In It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), submarine commander Kenneth Tobey and scientists Faith Domergue and Donald Curtis battle a monster squid. The tentacled attack of the Golden Gate bridge in one of the great monster movie spectacles of the golden age and a classic example of Ray Harryhausen animation. Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor make first contact in Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), but the American military shoots first and plunges the Earth into an intergalactic war with desperate aliens. The alien lizard on the rampage 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) is a kind of space-age “King Kong”: an innocent creature plucked from his planet escapes from his cage and runs away, hungry and lost in the Italian countryside. All were originally shot in B&W and have been colorized under the direction of Harryhausen, who insists: “I would have shot them in color if I could have afforded it at the time.” The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), a full color costume adventure of a magical odyssey with mythical creatures, is the sole pure fantasy offering of the collection and features one of Harryhausen’s greatest sequences: the sword fight with a skeleton.

The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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