“A tremendous piece of filmmaking” – Walter Murch on “Touch of Evil”

In 1998, while researching the revision of Touch of Evil, I pursued an interview with Walter Murch, then and now arguably the dean of American film sound and image editors. I had only an E-mail address. He responded with this very gracious message:

Dear Sean:

I received your email about Touch of Evil, and here is Rick Schmidlin’s phone number. [Sorry, I’m not making that part of the public record — SAx]. He is the producer of the restoration, and it would be best to get the details from him since I am in Rome now working on another film. I will include an interview I did earlier in the year when I was working on Touch of Evil – hopefully this will give you some information.

What followed was, by all appearances, a promotional interview with an unidentified interviewer leading Murch through general questions on his work on the revision. I reprint the interview, conducted sometime in mid-1998, below.

interrogating Sanchez
Quinlan and Vargas: interrogating Sanchez

What does Touch of Evil mean to you as a filmmaker?

It had a large indirect influence on me because the filmmakers who influenced me directly were the French New Wave – Godard, Resnais, Truffaut and Rohmer. But it turns out that as young men they were all heavily influenced by Orson Welles and particularly by Touch of Evil, which came out in 1958, just as they started making their own film, and was much more warmly received in Europe than it was in the United States.

In addition, when I went to film school in 1965, Touch of Evil was only seven years old and was studied directly by all of us because of Welles’ use of composition, camera angles, sound, and staging. It’s a tremendous piece of filmmaking.

How did you get involved in the re-editing of Touch of Evil?

Rick Schmidlin, the producer of the restoration, called me because he had heard a lecture that I had given in Los Angeles over the summer at the CountyMuseum on film and film sound, specifically on The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, for which I had done the sound design and the sound mix as well as the picture editing. He thought I would be the right person for “Touch of Evil” since Welles’s notes are almost equally divided between picture and sound, and Welles himself was a master of both.

So essentially now you are trying to put Welles’ original vision back into the film?

To a great extent, yes. We’re hampered by the loss of all of the original out-takes and the workprint. The only resources we have left are the film as it was released in 1958, for which we have the original negative; and the print of a preview version of Touch of Evil that was found almost accidentally in the mid 1970s, from which we are making a new negative, which is about 15 minutes longer than the release version. So we can draw from both sources and, together with Welles’ seventy-five pages of memos, we attempted to do as much as possible of what he wanted. Remarkably, we have been able to achieve

90% to 95% of everything in the memos, mainly through structural reconstruction and different uses of sound. Luckily, the other resource we had was the original magnetic mix, which had been separated into three tracks: dialogue, sound effects, and music, which meant that we could slip or eliminate one track relative to the other, as per Welles’s requests.

Are there plans to do a lot of remixing of those elements to conform to his documents?

It depends by what you mean by a lot. Welles called for some radically different placements of music than are in the current film. And we’ve done that.So it may not be a completely new remix, but it is a major reshuffling of sound elements.Plus there is the clarity of the magnetic sound. Audiences have only heard this film in optical track, the way it was released in 1958. Since then, there have been tremendous technological strides in film sound, and this time the film will be released in Universal’s DTS format. It will still be a mono film, the way Welles conceived it, but it will have the clarity and range of the magnetic tracks that were in the original, rather than the restricted frequencies and dynamics of an optical track.

What about the famous opening sequence?

That’s probably the most reworked section as far as sound goes, and is remarkably different now, as per Welles’ wishes. He also didn’t want credits running over the opening shot, which is what they did in 1958. And he didn’t want any but the briefest of opening cues, just a simple fanfare over the Universal logo. So the famous Mancini title music is gone. Welles wanted the opening shot to have a soundtrack made up of a blend of source cues: as the shot weaved its way through the town, he wanted the sound also to move through different pools of sound. At first, some Afro-Cuban music might be blaring out of a nightclub, and then, as the camera moved around the corner, that first music would overlap with and then be replaced by another – rock and roll, this time, from a tourist trap. And so on. Plus all the music that you would hear snaking out of the radios of cars as they pass. So he really wanted to get a sense of the sound-spatial environment of that particular border town to complement what he was doing with the camera. And it comes out remarkably well. You really feel that you’re in a border town teeming with activity. You are placed immediately within the story, within an actual environment. Plus you are able to keep track of the car with the bomb in it, since it now has a musical signature – the music coming from its radio.

listening to the radio broadcasts newly added to the film?
Mike and Susie Vargas: listening to the radio broadcasts newly added to the film?

In the sequence when the Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh characters drive out to the motel, there was some discussion about using different music, source music from the car radios…

Yes, music and radio announcements. The murder of this man, Linnekar, which happens right at the beginning of the film, was being reported simultaneously on the Spanish and American side of the border. There is a chase at this point in the film, where you’re cutting between the Mike and Susan characters [played by Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh] who would be listening to the American radio, and Grandi character [portrayed by Akim Tamiroff] who would be listening to the Mexican radio.

Do you find Welles’ sensibility to sound unusual?

It was very unusual then, and it’s still unusual today. I’m just flabbergasted when I read his memos, thinking that he was writing these ideas forty years ago, because, if I was working on a film now and a director came up with ideas like these, I’d be amazed – pleased but amazed – to realize that someone was thinking that hard about sound – which is all too rare.

Why do think that is?

Human beings are concocted visually, and it takes a different sensibility to think of the world in audio terms. Our eyes face forward and confront the world directly, whereas our ears face sideways and sort of sneak sound in through the side door.We hear within a 360 degree spherical field. So everything around us – on top of us, below us, behind us, in front of us – is coming into our ears, whereas our eyes look only straight ahead. And so they apprehend the world in a more exclusionary, confrontational way than sound. Sound is emotional and inclusionary, whereas vision is more exclusive and analytical. I’m looking at my room right now, and I know there’s a sofa in front of me, but it’s blocked by the desk. So the desk restricts my ability to see the sofa; whereas, if this were sound, the sofa would exist as well as the desk, because sound can overlap in ways that vision can’t.

Do you think that we are culturally trained to have more ability to manipulate the visual for artistic purposes rather than sound?

Not really. If you think about classical music, for example, that’s all about the manipulation of sound for creative purposes. Arguably, the creation of music is on a parallel with, if not even superior to, our abilities to manipulate the visual. It’s when the two are combined that the visual tends to highjack the sound and co-opt it to its own agenda. It’s a fascinating subject to think about. The remarkable thing about Welles’s films is that you can turn off either the picture or the sound, and the films are still understandable. If you listen to just the sound, you’re listening to a radio play – with all of the complexity and overlapping dialogue and overtness of a radio play. On the other hand, when you look at the images, you see what a genius he was at visual storytelling. Usually with directors, it’s one or the other, but not with Welles.

What about the overlapping dialogue technique?

The rule book says don’t overlap dialogue. But in Touch of Evil, there’s sometimes three levels of dialogue going on simultaneously. The result is that you can’t quite catch everything because things are stepping on each other. On the other hand, it gives you the sense that events are really unfolding in front of you, because real life is full of overlaps. When you combine that level of overlapping, as Welles does, with one continuous scene that it is unbroken for five-and-a-half minutes, moving from room to room with actors choreographed in complex staging, you get staggering results. I am referring to the sequence where Hank Quinlan [portrayed by Orson Welles] interrogates Sanchez [portrayed by Victor Millan] at Marcia Linnaker’s [portrayed by Joanna Cook Moore] apartment and then plants the dynamite in the bathroom.

Where are you in the re-editing process?

Well, I’ve been editing the film on an Avid, which also allows me to run eight sound-tracks simultaneously and to mix them all digitally. And so that’s what I’ve done to this point. Those decisions have now been transferred to a hard disk, and that’s been sent to Los Angeles, and they [Universal Studios] will then take what I’ve done on the Avid and will open it up in a ProTools digital workstation. They will then be able to refine what I’ve done even more. I’ve given them a basic landscape to work from. Then we have the final mix and the final print out of the lab. Then we’ll be done!

Is your involvement with the film basically finished at this point?

Almost. I will go down to Los Angeles in a few weeks and take part in the final mix.

Charlton Heston and Orson Welles on the set
Charlton Heston and Orson Welles on the set

It must be fascinating to be re-editing a classic film and interpreting the wishes of a master director who is no longer alive.

The memo that he writes is so clear and articulate and insightful and funny and heartbreaking – you really feel like you’re in Welles’s presence when you read his words, both from the information that he’s giving you and also the insights into his own ways of thinking and working. He never gives specific directions – for example, how many frames to trim a shot – but he always tells you what he hoped to accomplish, what he’s looking at now, what he thinks should be done and the reasons for it. It’s a fascinating document – a

fascinating insight into the mental workings of one of the great filmmakers in history.The irony is that the document wouldn’t have existed unless Welles had been fired. In other words, if he had been left alone and allowed to finish the film, we wouldn’t have any of this material, he would have simply done what he wanted. The fact that he was fired from the film meant that he had to write all this out, articulate all of this, in hopes of persuading the studio to do what he wanted. And the result of that is both good and bad; it’s good because we have his memos; it’s bad because he shouldn’t have had to write them.He should have been able to make the film the way he wanted in the first place.

There was some additional footage that was directed by Harry Keller. How did that cut with Welles footage?

Some of it integrates perfectly, other times it doesn’t. You have to look at it on a item by item basis. Everything that they [Harry Keller] did was shot in one day: that was how Keller worked and that was why he was hired. They wanted it to be done fast, and that’s the reason they didn’t hire Welles, because they felt that Welles would have taken a long time to do it.

What scenes did Keller shoot?

The hotel scene in the lobby where Susie, played by Janet Leigh, explains what happened during her meeting with Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) as well as some of the traveling shots in the car, which were process shots – also a brief meeting between the DA’s assistant and Vargas on the stairs after he’s had a showdown with the Chief of Police and the DA.

Why were these scenes shot?

Universal felt Welles’s cut was too confusing. What you have to take into account is that you’re not only talking about audiences in 1958, you’re talking about audiences for what Universal perceived to be a B picture. Universal at that time made a lot of B pictures and they had rules, and they knew how it should be done, and Welles was too much for them.He was just too powerful a filmmaker and wanted to go off into sophisticated areas where they felt B audiences would lose track of the story. It’s like if somebody ordered a hamburger, and instead they got some fancy French dish. They expected a hamburger, and no matter how good the dish was, they didn’t like it. That was the studio’s point of view, “Let’s just make a hamburger for crying out loud!”

Were you able to meet with the principal crew?

Russell Metty (the cinematographer) is dead but Ernie Nims (the supervising editor) is very much alive at 89. He was the head of post-production at Universal at the time. When the studio pulled the film away from Welles, they gave it to Ernie Nims to supervise. Ernie had edited The Stranger, which Welles had directed twelve years earlier in 1946, and they had a good relationship. On Touch of Evil, Ernie was caught in the middle between the studio that wanted one set of things and a director who wanted something else. He tried to get as much of what Welles wanted in as possible, but he also had to satisfy the studio. The head of the studio, Ed Muhl, is still alive and we talked to him. He’s in his 90’s now, and unrepentant. He didn’t have a very high opinion of Welles, thought that Welles’ films never made money, and that all this discussion about art was irrelevant. This movie elicits a lot of strong feelings even now, 40 years after the event.

How about the actors?

Charlon Heston, Janet Leigh, Dennis Weaver and a number of others are still very much alive, of course. They had a great time on this film. Welles’s problems were with the people who controlled the purse strings, not with the actors or technicians or anybody involved in the actual making of the film. There were hard feelings on both sides. Welles was not able to charm the money people the way he was able to charm the actors – I guess because he felt threatened by them and as a result was combative toward them. From my

conversations with Heston, I gathered that Heston had told Welles that “…you can charm us, you can make us melt in your hands – well just use that same charm with the studio guys and you’ll get what you want.” But it was very difficult for Welles. Heston and Leigh both came to a recent screening of this new version and were full of approval for the direction it is going.

Earlier you noted that Welles had influenced the New Wave Filmmakers. Rick Schmidlin mentioned that Welles, in turn, had been influenced on Touch of Evil by De Sica and the Italian Neo-Realists?

Yes, I think primarily in his use of real locations. The amount of grit that you’re looking at in Touch of Evil is reminiscent of some of the Neo-Realist films of the late 40’s and early 50’s. On the other hand, the acting is sometimes very broad, and the camera angles are stylized, and almost by definition you would never have a fully choreographed six-minute shot in a Neo-Realist film. So the actors hitting their marks and all that kind of stuff is definitely more cooked, I guess you could say. Neo-realism has a pretense of giving you reality in the raw with real actors and real locations.

When you think of a Welles film, you almost automatically think of long continuous takes with choreographed action within the frame…

He does both. That’s another wonderful thing about Touch of Evil. There are three remarkably-staged long takes with complicated action by the camera, the actors, the extras, the lighting,  movable sets – very impressive shots. On the other hand, if you study the cutting style in the final reel where Vargas is pursuing Quinlan and Menzies [portrayed by Joseph Calleia] with a listening device, it is so beautifully cut, I just can’t stand it.  It is cut with the absolute understanding of where the audience is looking and the motion within the frame, and just exactly how long he should stay on any one shot. Welles was able in the same film to create these long continuous complicated shots, but also to create the most amazing editorial constructions. Usually directors are good at one but not the other. Welles was good at both.  And he knew when  to be good at each. He knew when a sequence needed to be shot in one continuous scene for dramatic reasons, as well as when a sequence needed to be constructed editorially in a dynamic way.

And he was right.