fb-pixel Skip to main content

When Orson Welles doesn’t make the cut

That the only streaming version available of his ‘Touch of Evil’ is a studio reedit is a cinematic sin

Janet Leigh in "Touch of Evil."
Janet Leigh in "Touch of Evil."Getty Images

You can stream all 242 minutes of “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” directly to your TV. There are three versions each of “Apocalypse Now,” “Blade Runner,” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” available on demand on Amazon. Director’s cuts for at least a dozen movie classics, new and old, can be had at the touch of a remote.

So why is one of the greatest of all film noirs — one of the greatest movies, period — available for streaming only in the worst possible version when superior cuts already exist?

Let’s backtrack. Last week I gave a Zoom talk on “Touch of Evil,” the 1958 Orson Welles film that was the storied filmmaker’s last gasp as a studio director. The film, a baroque black-and-white thriller that takes place on the US-Mexican border, was famously taken away from Welles by executives at Universal Pictures. They locked him out of the editing room, brought in a contract director to film new scenes, and shoved a butchered 95-minute cut into the marketplace on the bottom half of a double-bill with the Hedy Lamarr suspense drama “The Female Animal.” Welles’s crime? Delivering a shadowy, oddball masterpiece instead of the formulaic B-movie the studio wanted.

Orson Welles with singer Juliette Gréco at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, a year after the release of "Touch of Evil."
Orson Welles with singer Juliette Gréco at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival, a year after the release of "Touch of Evil."-/AFP via Getty Images

Compromised or not, “Touch of Evil” rose in critical esteem over the following decades, and in the early 1970s, a 108-minute version — a longer edit of the studio cut that had been used for premiere showings — was found in a vault and theatrically released. But it still wasn’t Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil.” That had to wait until the Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch put together a 111-minute restored version by working from a detailed 58-page memo the aggrieved director had sent to the front office in 1957. That cut was released in 1998 to great acclaim and critical awards. It wasn’t Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” either — but it’s the closest we’ll ever get.


I have the restored edition on a 2004 DVD release, and that’s what I rewatched prior to the Zoom presentation. But as the conversation unfolded, I realized that all the other participants had streamed the film on Amazon Prime Video, where the only version available — on Amazon or on any VOD platform — was the botched 95-minute studio cut. So they missed seeing the film’s justifiably famous and much-imitated opening sequence, a nearly four-minute tracking shot following a car with a bomb in its trunk, the way Welles intended, minus the titles and Henry Mancini’s (excellent) score. They didn’t see the scenes where Welles mixed in ahead-of-its-time black comedy. And the original editing, which cross-cut between the Mexican detective hero played by Charlton Heston (in brownface makeup that’s the only cringingly dated aspect of the film) and his jeopardized wife (Janet Leigh), was replaced by a more traditional editing style that a number of people in the Zoom session found “boring.”


So: Unless you own the DVD, or a Blu-ray edition that packages all three cuts together, the only version of “Touch of Evil” available to you is the lousiest one. Thanks, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment! Ironically, Welles has been notably well-served by other parties in recent years. His never-seen final film, “The Other Side of the Wind,” was reassembled and shepherded into a 2018 release by a consortium of Friends of Orson bankrolled by Netflix. And just recently came the news that Turner Classic Movies is backing filmmaker Joshua Greenberg on his 25-year odyssey to locate the Holy Grail of director’s cuts: the long-lost original version of 1942′s “The Magnificent Ambersons.”


That follow-up to “Citizen Kane” was deemed by Welles to be even better than his landmark debut, but RKO studio heads took it away, cut 43 minutes, tacked on a happy ending, and destroyed all copies of the original. Greenberg is working on a documentary about the fate of “Ambersons” and is heading to Brazil on TCM’s dime for a print rumored to be stashed in an archive or an attic somewhere.

Which makes it doubly ironic — and downright tragic for Wellesians and lovers of great, weird old movies — that “Touch of Evil” can only be seen in a bastardized form unless you actually own a hard copy of the restored version. Right there is the cautionary tale as millions of consumers throw out their DVD collections with the trash because “we can stream everything now.” The truth is that you can stream a lot of things but not close to everything. Moreover, what you do get is subject to the whims of gatekeepers that these days are telecoms and corporations that call movies “content” and don’t care much which version is the best. (That’s why savvy old movie fans snapped up DVDs from the Warner Archive Collection’s online store before parent company AT&T shut it down on April 1 and moved everything over to Amazon.)


If you don’t own it, in other words, you can’t count on it. All those Universal classics that the new Peacock streaming platform was loaded with when it launched? They quietly disappeared from the service within months.

A scene from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" — not the Giorgio Moroder colorized version.
A scene from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" — not the Giorgio Moroder colorized version.Eureka Entertainment

More recent blockbusters get better treatment online. As mentioned, there are multiple versions of “Apocalypse Now,” “Blade Runner,” and “Close Encounters” available on Amazon Prime. You can find “The Exorcist: The Director’s Cut,” “Once Upon a Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut,” “Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut,” “Aliens: Special Edition,” and “Dances with Wolves: Extended Version.” There’s even “The Complete ‘Metropolis’,” a restored 149-minute edition of the groundbreaking 1927 science fiction epic. And if you head over to the Kanopy streaming service you can find the infamous 1984 Giorgio Moroder version of “Metropolis” that scored a whittled-down, color-tinted cut of the Fritz Lang classic to ′80s cheese-rock hits by Pat Benatar, Billy Squier, Loverboy, and others.

If the Internet can do right by Giorgio Moroder, surely it can do better by Orson Welles.

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.