Universal delivers Orson Welles noir masterpiece TOUCH OF EVIL in three versions
Vargas: You framed that boy, Captain. Framed him!
Firstly, Universal Home Entertainment must be greatly commended for finally releasing all three versions of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil on DVD. This is, in itself, a rather historic milestone and one which Criterion helped paved the way for, with it's own groundbreaking three-disc set for Mr. Arkadin. Perhaps now, Warner Home Video will step up to the plate and deliver worthy deluxe editions of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
Ironically, this new 50th Anniversary edition of Touch of Evil was made possible by Beatrice Welles, whose earlier objections stopped much of the material on this new DVD from appearing on the first release in 2000. Even if the extras had appeared on the earlier version, that DVD would not have contained the two earlier versions of the film, which is undoubtedly the most exciting aspect of this new release.
Looking back at Universal's original press release for the 2000 DVD of Touch of Evil, here is what it was supposed to contain:
* Reconstructing Evil: The Making of Touch of Evil - The 57 minute behind the scenes documentary, featuring interviews with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, and noted filmmkakes George Lucas, Robert Wise, Curtis Hanson and Peter Bogdanovich. Featuring in-depth explanation of the re-edits by the restored version's producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch.
* The 58 page memo Orson Welles wrote to Universal Pictures, requesting changes to the 1958 theatrical release.
* An interview with Beatrice Welles (Orson Welles daughter).
* Never before seen outtakes.
Of those features, only the 58-page memo actually ended up on the DVD, apparently due to objections from the Welles estate. However, the new DVD contains most of those extras, along with all three versions of the film. Although, quite ironically, it also contains a newly re-edited version of Reconstructing Evil, which now runs only 38 minutes! So like Touch of Evil itself, the documentary has been cut by nearly 20 minutes. Why this should be is anybody's guess, but it probably has something to due with the absence of the interview with Miss Beatrice Welles.
Of course, I'm sure all of us Welles fans were most eagerly awaiting the interview with Miss Bea, especially since it would have (presumably) explained what her objections was to stopping the re-edit version from appearing in the first place.
Miss Bea reportedly also had objections to the Janet Leigh - Charlton Heston commentary track. Probably a big reason why, are these closing comments from Janet Leigh:
JANET LEIGH: I feel so strongly and so grateful now, that Orson's legacy will be represented in the proper way, as he would have wanted it. My other feeling is that I feel cheated and angry, because had (Touch of Evil) been released properly, and had it been accepted and the deal he had (with Universal) been carried out for four more pictures, I think we may have been robbed of four other masterpieces that we don't have now.
CHARLTON HESTON: And we might have had parts in at least one of them!
JANET LEIGH: Yes, but I just feel the industry has been robbed and I feel that personally.
Considering the abysmal job Miss Bea has done in representing her father's legacy, I've no doubt she was probably furious on hearing Janet Leigh's comments -- don't forget Bea was attempting to stop this film from coming out, claiming it was a disgrace to her father's legacy, and being carried out by people who didn't know what they were doing!
While Bea may have disapproved of the commentary tracks, I'm happy to report that two of the three are quite wonderful. Rick Schmidlin provides details on all the major (and minor) changes he and Walter Murch made to the film, while Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston add many interesting and informative comments that only they would know, having worked very closely with Welles during the shooting.
Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore also provide an excellent commentary for the preview version. Unfortunately, the excellence of the first two tracks does not continue with F. X. Feeney's error-ridden ramblings for the theatrical version. I could only stand listening to 15 minutes of the track, before I switched it off, as it contained such a host of factual errors in so short a time span as to be beyond belief. I won't bother to detail them - listen for yourself and I'm sure you'll catch them, as Feeney's statement's not only contradict what's on the screen while he's talking, but also what Schmidlin tells us on the first track! Ironically, Feeney praises Joe McBride's recent book on Welles and one only wishes Mr. McBride had done the third commentary track in the place of Feeney, who clearly has no idea of what is true or false in Welles career. As a small example, when Feeney spoke at the Welles retrospective in LA, he reported (as if it were accepted fact), the ridiculous rumor that Welles was going to direct a Batman movie! Maybe he even repeats that story on his commentary.
Returning to the plus side, Universal includes Welles's 58-page memo in printed form, which appears to duplicate the format of the original exactly as Welles sent it to studio head Edward Muhl. What is curious, is that Welles memo should end up running exactly 58 pages... considering the many "superstitious" quirks Welles had (I don't doubt that numerology may have been among them), extending the memo to 58 pages to match the year he wrote it may have been seen by Welles as being a "lucky charm."
It's also significant, since pages 18 and 19 are combined into one, so it's not actually 58 pages long. The memo also appears to have been written in two parts, with Welles breaking off at page 42, which apparently explains this short note from Welles (not included), explaining that the rest of the memo would be following, the next day:
ORSON WELLES: Unhappily, my illness has slowed me up somewhat, and an unexpected shortage in secretarial help finds me, at the end of a long day, without a fair copy of the remainder of these notes to put into your hands. I shall go on working through the night, however, and with typists getting an early start tomorrow; it's safe to promise you the complete memo sometime before the end of the morning.
What would have been an extra special treat is if Universal had also included Whit Masterson's novel, Badge of Evil as a bonus in the set, using the original cover art from the 1958 Batnam movie tie-in paperback, as Criterion did when they included Welles's ghost-written novel along with their Mr. Arkadin set.
Still, what we do get is absolutely marvelous. Universal has finally delivered one of Orson Welles's greatest masterpieces to the public, "restored to his original vision." As such, it is easily the best DVD release of the year.