In the spring of 1958, Orson Welles' 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' 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.
My work on the film started in January of 1998 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.
"a better version of the same film"
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' 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.'')
"the length of the famous shot has not been changed by
a single frame"
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' 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
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
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.
"Welles' Quinlan is the opposite of debonaire"
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' 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' 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' 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's vital is that both stories be kept equally and
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
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' 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' 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' 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
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
Welles described ''Touch of Evil'' as a story of love and
betrayal between two men
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.
This is an extract of Walter Murch’s article in The New York Times.
NOTE: The re-edit of Touch of Evil was produced by Rick Scmidlin.