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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: "Huh?" Dietrich: "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 for Hollywood.

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 of Evil."

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 redemption.

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 deal.

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 human degradation.

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 ignored.

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 the job.

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 flexibility.

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 first place.

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.

Universal's decision 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 Graves.

© 1998 The New York Times Company

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