Restoring the Touch Of Genius to a Classic
By Walter Murch
Walter Murch, who won editing and sound-mix Oscars for "The
English Patient," has worked on such other prominent films as "American
Graffiti," 'The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now."
The New York Times, September 6, 1998 page II 1
Orson Welles (as Hank
Quinlan, drunk): "Read my future." Marlene
Dietrich (as Tana): "You haven't got any." Welles:
"Your future's all used up. Why don't you go home?" -- A scene
from "Touch of Evil"
FORTY years ago, in the spring of 1958, Orson
Welles's "Touch of Evil" was released by Universal
as a B picture, the second half of a double bill. (The A picture was "Female
Animal," a now-forgotten vehicle for
Hedy Lamarr.) Neither picture
attracted much attention, although some reviewers were intrigued by Welles's
first studio work in 10 years. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a commercial
and critical disappointment, and Welles
-- only 43 at the time -- returned to Europe and never made another feature
Thus a chapter in Welles's
life that had opened in 1941 with perhaps the biggest bang in cinema history,
"Citizen Kane," ended nearly 20 years later with Marlene
Dietrich's whispered "Adios," the final word in "Touch
As time has gone by, though, "Touch of Evil" has acquired
a large cult following, and it now regularly appears on lists of the best
films of the century. What is not generally known is that the film never
accurately reflected Welles's
intentions for it. In July 1957, the studio took over the editing of the
film and prevented him from participating in its completion.
In an odd turn of events, however, a 58-page memo that Welles
wrote in 1957 was recently rediscovered, and a small team on which I was
film editor and sound mixer has used that remarkable document to bring
"Touch of Evil" as close as possible to Welles's
original concept. This new version, which will appear in theaters on Friday,
is a revival in the truest sense of the word: a revivification of a film
that has lain partly embalmed for 40 years, awaiting a kind of cinematic
In 1957, playing the madam of a brothel in Los Robles, a trashy town
on the Mexican border (the screenplay called her Tanya, but in the film
it's Tana), Dietrich
forecast a bleak future for her friend. But Welles's
own future was, in fact, beginning to open up after a decade-long dry spell.
He had spent most of those years in Europe, wandering in a wilderness of
luxury hotels trying to raise money for his projects, and had succeeded
in completing only two films, "Othello" (1952) and "Mr.
Arkadin" (1955). The executives at Universal,
however, were very happy indeed with his rewrite of a mediocre screenplay,
"Badge of Evil." It told the story of a cross-border battle of
wills between an aging, corrupt but charismatic police captain, Hank Quinlan,
who is haunted by the death of his wife 30 years earlier, and a young,
idealistic police official in the Mexican Government, Mike Vargas (played
by Charlton Heston), who is
newly married to a Philadelphia girl, Susan (Janet Leigh). Once production
got under way, the executives were ecstatic after Welles
managed to film 10 percent of the script in the first two days; they celebrated
by proposing that "Touch of Evil" be the first movie in a five-picture
Trouble began during editing, which was not an unusual situation
for Welles. ("The only
picture I've ever been allowed to complete to my satisfaction was 'Citizen
Kane,' " he once said.) As far as the people at Universal
were concerned, he was taking too long to put the film together, and when
by some subterfuge they sneaked a look at his work -- while Welles
was in New York, appearing on "The Steve Allen Show" -- they
were horrified. The film committed perhaps the worst sin in the Hollywood
book: it was a decade or so ahead of its time. Somehow, despite all evidence
to the contrary, the executives had been expecting a conventional B picture,
and they were upset and confused by the film's innovative editing and camerawork,
its use of real locations, its unorthodox use of sound and, thematically,
the boldness of its reversals of stereotypes and routine acceptance of
Harsh words were spoken on both sides. Welles,
his feelings hurt, distanced himself from the film, a tactical mistake
that gratified the studio, and in the remaining six months before the film
was completed, he was not allowed back into the editing room. As it turned
out, he was permitted to attend only one screening, after four new scenes
had been added to address what the studio perceived as issues of clarity.
The night after that screening, Welles
wrote the 58-page memo to the head of the studio, Ed Muhl. It is a discursive,
insightful, diplomatic, funny, heartfelt and heartbreaking document. Although
a few of the ideas in the memo were sneaked into the film -- Ernest Nims,
who was Universal's
head of post-production at the time, was a friend of Welles's
-- the majority of the notes, and certainly the most important ones, were
Welles, who died in
1985, claimed never to have seen the film again, which is perhaps a good
thing, since an additional 15 minutes were cut after an unsuccessful preview
screening. Consequently, the 58 pages of notes were virtually forgotten,
then believed to be lost.
Meanwhile, in spite of -- and perhaps also because of -- its commercial
failure, "Touch of Evil" quickly gathered defenders: most notably
Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, young French film critics who were
judges at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair Film Festival, in which "Touch
of Evil" was shown. The film proved to be a perfect demonstration
of a corollary to Truffaut's auteur theory -- it showed how American studios
failed to understand the geniuses they had working for them -- and was
voted best film of the fair. ("And probably got the executive who
submitted it fired from his job," Welles
noted later in an interview.)
STYLISTICALLY, "Touch of Evil" went on to have a considerable
influence on Godard, Truffaut and other filmmakers of the French New Wave.
Their work, in turn, influenced a whole generation of film students in
the 1960's, who were at the same time influenced directly by Welles.
In fact, the impact, direct and indirect, of "Touch of Evil"
continues: its fertile stylistic innovations and its themes of corruption
and the crossing of actual and metaphoric borders, are reinterpreted every
five years or so -- the most recent examples being Curtis Hanson's "L.A.
Confidential" and John Sayles's "Lone Star."
Because I happened to be one of those film students mentioned earlier,
I should say that much of my own work in its formative years was stylistically
indebted to Welles, and specifically
to "Touch of Evil": the use of the illicitly tape-recorded conversation
in "The Conversation" (written and directed by Francis Coppola
in 1974) is similar in many ways to the final reel of "Touch of Evil";
and the use of source music to score "American Graffiti" (written
and directed by George Lucas in 1973) is similar to Welles's
copious use of source music in "Touch of Evil" (even, as I learned
from his memo, down to the specific methods used in recording).
So I was intrigued by Jonathan Rosenbaum's article in Film Quarterly
in 1992 in which fragments of Welles's
memo were published. But other than wondering about the injustice of it
all, I thought no more about it. The producer Rick Schmidlin, however,
had a different and more productive reaction to the same article: track
down the complete memo and use it to re-edit "Touch of Evil"
the way Welles had wanted
it to be.
Coincidentally, Rick, whom I did not know at the time, happened to
attend a lecture I gave at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on the
sound and picture editing of "The Conversation," and got in touch
with me shortly thereafter, wondering if I was interested in taking on
Rick explained that Universal,
which still controlled the rights to "Touch of Evil," had discovered
that the negative for the 1958 version was in good shape, although everything
else (the outtakes) had been destroyed long ago; that there was a preview
print, found in the mid-1970's, that had the missing 15 minutes in it,
and that the original magnetic mix of the film had been found, conveniently
split into three channels (one for dialogue, one for music, one for sound
effects), which would give whoever took on the project a crucial degree
Of course, I accepted.
My work on the film started in January of this year, and it proved
to be one of the most unusual, artistically successful and emotionally
gratifying undertakings I have ever been involved with. The laboratory
team, led by Bob O'Neil, was able to repair, digitally, some scratched
and torn shots in an otherwise superb master negative, and to make a superior
negative off the print with the missing footage and integrate it into the
body of the film. The sound team, led by Bill Varney, was able to use digital
processing to bring the 40-year-old soundtracks to a new level of clarity.
On the creative level, the film now has different structuring (particularly
in the beginning), with some deletions (notably one of the explanatory
scenes added by the studio); different uses of music, and many trims and
repositionings that serve to emphasize and clarify the story.
The 50 changes that were made did not transform the film into something
completely different: we did not find the equivalent of the missing last
reel of Welles's "Magnificent
Ambersons," for instance. This "Touch of Evil" is simply
a better version of the same film, which is to say, more in line with the
director's vision, more self-consistent, more resonant, more confidently
modulated, clearer. In other words, more as it should have been in the
Whether the film is now the way Welles
would have wanted it had he been given a free hand, we will never know.
This version follows the memo scrupulously, but the memo itself deftly
acknowledges the studio's hammerlock. "The purpose of this memo,"
he wrote, "is not to discuss every change I think should be made in
the final version. I am passing on to you a reaction based not on my conviction
as to what my picture ought to be, but only what here strikes me as significantly
mistaken in your picture."
Whether that last phrase should be taken at face value or read as
an astute political gesture, I don't know for sure. It certainly indicates
how deeply Welles's pride
was hurt. When the entire memo is published, there will no doubt be opinions
on both sides.
As it turns out, one of the changes with the biggest impact occurs
in the film's famous opening shot, a 3-minute-20-second tour de force that
has become a kind of Rosetta stone for film students over the last 40 years.
(When I told a friend what I intended to do, there was a shocked silence
at the other end of the telephone line, then a wavering voice: "That's
like hearing God just phoned and wants changes in the Bible.")
I should assure the nervous that the length of the famous shot has
not been changed by a single frame. It still begins with a close-up of
the setting of a time bomb, the bomb's insertion into the trunk of a car,
the introduction of the two visiting honeymooners (Heston
and Leigh) walking blithely beside the car as it winds its way in and out
of frame, and the final explosion of the time bomb at exactly the moment
that was predicted at the beginning of the shot (3 minutes 20 seconds).
What has been removed are the titles the studio had superimposed
-- the shot now plays as a straight piece of dramatic action. And Henry
Mancini's well-known title music has been replaced, according to Welles's
intention, by a complex montage of source music. "The plan,"
he wrote in the memo, "was to feature a succession of different and
contrasting Latin-American music numbers. Loudspeakers are over the entrance
of every joint, large or small, each blasting out its own tune. The fact
that the streets of these border towns are invariably loud with this music
was planned as a basic device throughout the picture."
In the course of peeling away Mancini's
music, a hidden layer of sound effects that had been suppressed during
the original mix was revealed: a complete sound-effects track for the opening
shot. It has been restored to its original balance in the film, allowing
the audience to hear the town, the footsteps of the pedestrians, their
voices, the laughter of the crowds, the sirens -- even the bleating of
a pack of goats stuck in the middle of the road.
As a result, viewers are immediately engaged with the film's story
line and plunged into its particular atmosphere and are finally able to
see the opening shot without any superimposed text getting in the way and
able to hear a sound track that counterpoints the visual. In addition,
the sound now emphasizes an important story point: the car with the bomb
has a tune playing on its radio, serving as a reminder that this is the
car with the bomb.
Filmmakers spend a disproportionate amount of time getting the beginnings
of their films right, primarily because two things have to be accomplished
simultaneously: the story has to be started in an interesting way, and
operating instructions have to be given, implicitly, on how to understand
the film as a whole. If a mistake is made in these instructions, it can
cast a long and baleful shadow over everything that follows.
to run titles and title music over the opening shot of "Touch of Evil"
-- trying to save time -- hurt the film as a whole. The titles kept viewers
at a distance from the action, and the title music told them that this
was a certain kind of detective story. Around the same time, Mancini
used an almost identical theme for "Peter Gunn," a television
show starring Peter Graves as a debonaire detective. "Touch of Evil"
was actually a kind of anti-"Gunn": Welles's
Quinlan is the opposite of debonaire, eventually plunging to an ignominious
death in a trash-choked open sewer.
All this is in retrospect, of course. There was nothing wrong in
itself with the use of superimposed titles: it was a conventional and adequate
solution, as was Mancini's
music. But in comparison with Welles's
original intentions, now that we can see them realized, the studio's approach
started things off on the wrong foot.
Of all the notes that he gave in his memo, the one to which Welles
dedicated the most space (8 of the 58 pages), was his plea to restore the
intercutting of the stories of the separated honeymooners, Susie (Leigh)
and Mike Vargas (Heston):
"No point concerning anything in the picture is made with such urgency
and confidence as this. Do please -- please give it a fair try."
The studio had flattened out Welles's
original pattern of editing, believing that an audience for a B picture
could not maintain two story lines simultaneously. Consequently, when the
newlyweds are separated right after the bomb goes off, the studio's version
stayed with Vargas for the entire sequence at the site of the explosion.
Only later do we return to Susie's story and learn that she was picked
up in the street and menaced by the crime boss Grandi (Akim Tamiroff).
What Welles had intended
instead was to cut back and forth between the two stories: "What's
vital is that both stories be kept equally and continuously alive; each
scene should play at roughly equal lengths until the lovers meet again
at the hotel. We should never stay away from either story long enough to
lose their separate but relating threads of interest."
This argument did not hold water with the studio at the time, but
now that we can see what Welles
had in mind, his solution is obviously superior. The whole film is about
the separation of the newlyweds, who are briefly reunited only to be separated
again, and again, not finally coming together until the end. By intercutting
the two stories from the beginning, the film lets the viewer know that
the stories are equally important, and that their interrelationships are
as important as the stories themselves. Since the Vargas story is told
first in the studio version, the audience is encouraged to believe that
his story, not Susie's, is the significant one.
Specifically where these scenes were to be intercut was not indicated
in Welles's memo: he gives
several options, some of them slightly contradictory, so it is clear that
this was an area not fully worked out before he was dismissed. Much of
the memo, in fact, has a certain ambiguity to it; there are few editorial
instructions that do not require a degree of interpretation. That extra
amount of responsibility made the work exciting for me, but I should say
that the tone of the memo is so pungent with Welles's
presence and thought processes that you can pick up what he would have
preferred almost by osmosis. There were several times during the editing
when I felt that he had given me these notes shortly before going into
the next room to take a nap, and that I was trying to finish them all to
his satisfaction before he woke up.
One of the smaller changes we made, but one with the largest repercussions,
was the removal of a close-up of Menzies (Joseph Callea), Quinlan's sidekick.
It is particularly interesting that Welles,
in asking for this change, phrased his request in technical terms -- he
wanted the shot removed, he wrote, "because of a mistaken use of the
wide angle lens which distorts Menzies's face grotesquely." "There
is no use upsetting the audience this way," he continued. "The
scene played all right without this weird close-up."
At first, this note appeared to me to be somewhat out of character
for Welles, because there
are many other "weird close-ups" in the film that use the same
lens, and he never anywhere else talks in such solicitous terms about upsetting
the audience. But I did what he asked, and it was only when viewing the
film as a whole that I saw the real reason for the note, which he carefully
avoided telling the studio.
The close-up occurs in a scene between Vargas and Menzies, at a crucial
point in which Vargas has confronted Menzies with evidence of Quinlan's
duplicity. Menzies, who has been standing, collapses and his agony is revealed
in this close-up. Almost instantly, he jumps back to his feet and defends
his boss, but the damage has been done: Vargas has seen him acknowledge
the truth, and more to the point Menzies has seen Vargas see this.
As a result, everything that Menzies does in the film's last half-hour
is done under duress: not authentically, because the character believes
it to be best, but because he must, having revealed his weakness to Vargas.
Menzies has a metaphorical leash around his neck.
By cutting this close-up, we also cut the leash. He never collapses
in the scene with Vargas, continuing to defend his boss to the end. But
we -- not Vargas -- see the doubt and anguish on his face at the end (Vargas
does not see it because of the staging of the scene).
AS a result, everything that Menzies does from that moment on --
and he plays a crucial role in the undoing of his boss -- is done authentically:
he chooses to do it, rather than being coerced. This increases the standing
of Menzies's character in the film, raising it to a level of equality with
Vargas and Quinlan. Welles
described "Touch of Evil" as a story of love and betrayal between
two men, Menzies and his boss, Quinlan. The removal of Menzies's close-up
plays a significant part in realizing this vision for the film.
There are frequently moments like these in the making of films, where
huge issues of character and story are decided by the inclusion -- or not
-- of a single shot that will reverberate throughout the film. By dismissing
Welles, the studio prevented
him from having a hand in this fine-tuning of his own work, insuring a
certain level of dissonance in the finished product, a dissonance that
has now been eased away.
I have described just three of the changes we made in the film. The
other 47 are not all equally significant, of course, but each contributes
to the removal of those hazy dissonances, and of course they have a powerful
cumulative effect. The plan at this point is to publish the memo early
next year, with cross-indexing from the memo to the film so that all the
changes can be examined.
It is both wonderful and sad that Welles's
memo exists. Wonderful because it gives us insights into the mind of one
of the greatest filmmakers of the century. And wonderful also because its
rediscovery has allowed us to finally complete the work on a film of great
historical importance. Sad because, clearly, the memo should not have had
to have been written in the first place. Whatever the disagreements, Welles
should have been allowed to finish his film, and of course had he finished
it to his satisfaction, he never would have had to write the memo. But
life frequently offers up these ambiguous bargains.
I hope that when Orson
wakes from his nap, he will be happy with what he sees.
CORRECTION-DATE: September 13, 1998, Sunday
CORRECTION: An article on Sept. 6 about a re-edited version of Orson
Welles's film "Touch of Evil" misidentified the star of the
television show "Peter Gunn." He was Craig Stevens, not Peter
© 1998 The New York Times Company