A recently unearthed 58-page memo from Orson Welles, describing changes the director wished (uselessly, at the time) that Universal would make to Touch of Evil, was the blueprint for this splendid, definitive reedit of the film noir great, now made greater. Never mind why the studio chopped and ”smoothed” Welles’ 1958 adaptation of Whit Masterson’s pulp novel Badge of Evil in ways that diluted the filmmaker’s singular vision; what matters is that this Ur-version, produced by film scholar Rick Schmidlin and finely edited by Walter Murch (an Oscar winner for The English Patient), unspools with all the complex, unnerving menace and nihilistic subtext its writer-director had in mind all along.
Indeed, just to see and hear the extraordinary 3 minute and 20 second opening sequence — a fluid tour de force tracking shot — without impediment of opening credits and street-sound-masking movie score is accomplishment enough. But countless other small (and not so small) adjustments deepen the story of once-great, morally bankrupt American police chief Hank Quinlan (Welles) and the upstanding Mexican drug enforcer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston, strikingly cast against type) who hastens Quinlan’s terrible, pathetic downfall as the two pursue a murder case. Now, the sexually charged parallel plot involving the kidnapping of Vargas’ wife (Janet Leigh) gets its sinister due. And as for Marlene Dietrich as Quinlan’s seen-it-all friend and madam — mmmm, she was some kind of woman. A