It’s hard to imagine a greater tribute to a movie than Universal now offers with Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” a film frequently called the greatest B-picture. In addition to three crisply transferred incarnations of the pic on two DVDs, this 50th-anni set includes four commentaries, two featurettes and a reprint of the complete 58-page memo Welles sent Universal in 1957, in which he suggested changes to the pic that were implemented only after his death.
Where to begin is the hard part. Only Welles nuts will likely watch everything, but even non-completists should sample the differences among “Evil’s” three iterations, all of which, to a greater or lesser extent, also incorporate studio-mandated reshoots helmed by an uncredited Harry Keller.
Viewers seeking a director’s cut will have to settle for the “restored” version — effected in 1998 by Rick Schmidlin and Walter Murch, who used Welles’ memo as a template — because U never afforded the director the chance to right some of its wrongs.
One key difference between what Welles preferred and the studio demanded comes at the beginning of “Evil,” in Russell Metty’s famous opening tracking shot. The so-called preview and theatrical versions offer a credit sequence and Henry Mancini’s memorable theme music, whereas Welles wanted the three-and-a-half-minute scene with dialogue, ambient music and no credits to distract — just how the restored version gives it to us.
All four commentaries add something to our understanding of this pic’s messy history. (For example, who knew Janet Leigh had a cleverly concealed broken arm during shooting?) But the one most viewers will watch complements the restored version, with Schmidlin moderating reminiscences by stars Charlton Heston (who suggested Welles direct the pic) and Leigh. Schmidlin also lands a solo commentary accompanying that version, while Welles experts Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore share commentary credit on the preview version, and F.X. Feeney valiantly roots in show-off style for the now-discredited original studio (i.e., theatrical) release.
Featurette “Bringing ‘Evil’ to Life” could benefit from having scenes from the movie illustrate the points made by Heston, Leigh, Dennis Weaver and Peter Bogdanovich, but the anecdotes are primo. And “‘Evil’ Lost & Found,” with George Lucas and Curtis Hanson cameos, recounts how U mangled the film and details its restoration. With this much supplemental material, there’s bound to be repetition, but it hardly matters with such an endlessly fascinating pic.
Yet the biggest prize here is that vital memo rendered as facsimile. Leafing through it and marveling at its perceptions constitutes a virtual conversation with Welles.