Touch Of Evil (1958) – Film Review


Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Janet Leigh
Certificate: 12A

By Sarah Morgan

Sometimes it’s hard to know how to start a film review. Not in the case of those you dislike – the flow of vitriol is occasionally difficult to stem. But, rather for those you love.

That’s certainly the case for me and Touch of Evil, the Orson Welles-directed film noir originally released in 1958. So, I’ll just wade straight in.

I’m a great lover of the genre, and this is among its finest entries, one of those rare times when the stars aligned, allowing everything to come together perfectly – although there will no doubt be some who don’t agree with the idea of Charlton Heston donning brown face to play a Mexican.

Touch-Of-Evil-(1958)-Film-ReviewIt’s not the kind of thing that would happen today. But it was relatively common in the period in which the film was made; if you decide not to watch it because of that, you’re really going to miss something special.

“A bit of a pariah”

At the time, Welles was, as so often seemed to be the case, strapped for cash and a bit of a pariah around Hollywood. He was originally meant to be merely an actor for hire on the project, until Heston, then a big star who had already signed up to play the lead role, suggested Welles should direct it too.

Unfortunately, once filming was over, the studio took it out of Welles’s hands, recut it against his wishes, and sent it out into the world. That version is still brilliant, but the 1998 re-edit, which was constructed using notes Welles himself had made, is even better. Both are available in this box set, which also includes another earlier version used during the movie’s pre-release previews.

The story in all three does, of course, remain the same. Heston plays Mike Vargas, the Mexican authorities’ narcotics tsar who becomes caught up in an investigation into the murder of a wealthy American businessman just over the US border.

While he’s distracted by that, his new American wife Susie (Janet Leigh) is kidnapped by a drugs gang who want revenge for the part played by Vargas in the prosecution of their leader.


“Terrifyingly believable”

Complicating matters is Hank Quinlan, a dodgy US detective who always finds somebody to take the blame for a crime, whether they committed it or not. Welles – under numerous layers of make-up and padding – takes this role himself, delivering a terrifyingly believable performance oozing with sleaze.

Also featured in the cast are Marlene Dietrich as Quinlan’s old flame, Akim Tamaroff as the gang leader’s brother, and Zsa Zsa Gabor, who has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo early in the film.

Touch of Evil is dark, its tone is bleak and downbeat, and it covers some topics – interracial marriage, drug-taking and rape – that would have been both controversial and groundbreaking at the time. They still pack a punch today, while Welles’ superb direction delivers some unforgettable moments, from the bravura opening tracking shot to the gut-punch ending.

Incredibly, this was Welles’ last film to be made within the Hollywood studio system. Executives should have been lining up to work with him, just as critics appear to have lined up to take part in the special features included on the discs. The likes of Matthew Sweet, Kim Newman and others all wax lyrical about the film, and there are archive interviews with cast and crew members to enjoy too, offering viewers valuable insights into a production that was voted the 26th greatest movie of all time in Sight & Sound magazine’s most recent poll. Impressive as that ranking is, I’d argue it should be even higher.

  • Limited Edition Box Set - 3000 Copies
  • Limited Edition hardcase featuring artwork by Tony Stella
  • 4K (2160p) UHD Blu-ray presentations of all three versions, presented in Dolby Vision HDR: the Theatrical version (95 mins), the Preview version (109 mins), and the 1998 Reconstruction (110 mins), across 2 UHD Discs.
  • A LIMITED EDITION 100-PAGE BOOK featuring writings by Orson Welles, François Truffaut, André Bazin, and Terry Comito; interview excerpts with Welles; a timeline of the film’s history; two new essays by critic Richard Combs; and rare stills and imagery
  • Four audio commentaries, featuring: restoration producer Rick Schmidlin (reconstructed version); actors Charlton Heston & Janet Leigh, with Schmidlin (reconstructed version); critic F. X. Feeney (theatrical version); and Welles scholars James Naremore & Jonathan Rosenbaum (preview version)
  • New video interview with critic, broadcaster and cultural historian Matthew Sweet
  • New video interview with critic Tim Robey
  • New video interview with author and critic Kim Newman
  • Bringing Evil to Life + Evil Lost and Found – two video pieces, featuring interviews with cast and crew, as well as critics and admirers
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Optional English SDH subtitles
Touch of Evil is released on 4K Ultra HD (Blu-ray) by Eureka

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