“(Universal) told me that although they didn’t know who was going to direct (Touch of Evil), Orson Welles was going to play the heavy. ‘You know, Orson Welles is a pretty good director,’ I said. ‘Did it ever occur to you to have him direct it?’ At the time Orson had not directed a picture in America since Macbeth. They were a bit nonplused, but they got back to me in a couple of days and said ‘Yeah, well that’s a very good idea, a startling idea.’” – Charlton Heston, 1971 interview.
Others have taken credit for bringing Orson Welles to the project that would be his last tango with Hollywood and his final American production. Albert Zugsmith, who produced Man in the Shadow with Welles as the heavy, once claimed that Welles offered to direct the worst script in his possession and Zugsmith handed him Badge of Evil ( the original title of novel and Paul Monash’s adaptation). But history has accepted (as has Welles himself) the Heston version. It was a mid-budget, modest crime thriller and Welles took on directing and rewriting duties with no increase in salary, as if Universal was doing Welles the favor. Perhaps they thought they were, as Welles the director had a reputation in Hollywood for being difficult, profligate and uncommercial. Welles himself saw it less a job than an opportunity, a chance to prove himself to the industry with a commercial film at a bargain price.
As on The Lady From Shanghai, Welles was in the position of making a studio picture out of a pulp thriller, a project not of his choosing but one that he remade in his own image. The resulting picture is a mad, gloriously sleazy and grandiosely bravura B movie opera, a study in corruption and racism in the bordertown netherworld straddling the boundary between Mexico and the good old US of A. Welles’ cherubic face becomes the bloated bulldog mask of bullying police detective Hank Quinlan, perhaps his most grotesque figure in a career of power mad manipulators. [See Robert C. Cumbow’s essay for a marvelous reading of the film]. And once again the film was yanked from his hands, re-edited in his absence and released (as part of a double bill) in a truncated version that made a hash of the story and reinforced the old cliché about Welles: his films didn’t make sense and didn’t make money.
Today, no less than four cuts of the picture exist: the original 93-minute release version, the 108-minute preview version rediscovered in the Universal vaults in 1975 (and which had since supplanted the release version in all theatrical showings), a kind of unholy marriage created for video that cuts footage exclusive to the short version into the preview version, and the 1998 “revision” of the film. This latter project, produced by Rick Schmidlin and edited by Walter Murch with Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum serving as advisor, is being branded as a “restored version,” but that’s a studio marketing move. As the project participants understand, it’s really an unprecedented and still unique attempt to retroactively honor a director by following his directions in repairing an artwork taken out of his hands. For the sake of accuracy, I will be referring the 1998 cut as the “revised version” or the “1998 revision.”
The grandiosity of the title of my modest piece aside, this is neither my attempt at a definitive chronicle of the making of the film nor a comprehensive study of the 1998 revision. There are plenty of both in books and articles, many of them readily available on the Internet. The original production and Welles’ working methods are well documented in the books Orson Welles at Workby Jean-Pierre Berthome and Francois Thomas (an essential work for any fan of the Welles) and Despite the System: Orson Welles Versus the Hollywood Studios by Clinton Heylin, as well as in the biographies by Frank Brady and Barbara Leaming. For Welles’ own words, you can’t do better than the interview book This Is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich and edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum (whose historical timeline at the end of the book contains much invaluable data). Walter Murch wrote about the project of the 1998 revision for the New York Times (“Restoring the Touch of Genius to a Classic,” New York Times, September 6, 1998), and Lawrence French documents the specific editing changes made to the 1998 revision on Wellesnet (a great resource for all things Welles – visit the homepage here). For my own part, I offer first person accounts of the original production by stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh and of the 1998 revision and the research behind it from editor Walter Murch, revision producer Rick Schmidlin and Universal Studio’s head of preservation and restoration, Bob O’Neil. All but the Murch interview were conducted by me in 1998.
Orson Welles was a magnificent contradiction as an artist and a man and Touch of Evil captures those contradictions in a way different than all of his other productions. Not better or worse, mind you, but with a certain clarity that supports both his supporters and his detractors. It all depends on your perspective. In the following pieces, I explore the controversies, contradictions and issues surrounding the original production and the 1998 revision.
Say Goodbye to Hollywood: Orson Welles is his own worst enemy
“A strange and unhappy thing, he could just charm the birds out of the bloody trees and… actors and crewmen just thought he was great, but he almost deliberately seemed to go to lengths to ignore or even insult studio executives.” – Charlton Heston, 1998 interview
The conventional wisdom is that, as a director in Hollywood, Orson Welles sabotaged himself, whether by design or be nature. Yet on Touch of Evil, he, by all accounts, got on well with the studio and with producer Albert Zugsmith. On the first day of shooting, he all but courted the Universal executives on the first day of shooting by showing his unconventional methods could save them money. By the end of the first day, where he shot pages of dialogue in a series of complicated yet elegantly unshowy long takes, he was two days ahead of schedule. He brought in Marlene Dietrich for an unbilled supporting part practically for free (there’s added value for you) as well as appearances by old friends like Ray Collins and Joseph Cotten (more a lark than a cameo) and a brief but burning and utterly androgynous turn by Mercedes McCambridge as a butch leather-jacket tough with a voyeuristic streak. Welles brought the film in, essentially, on time and on budget (according to records, the film was ultimately one day over schedule and $31,000 over its $900,000 budget, well within the norms of the studio system.
Yet he also, by design or merely opportunity, left the supervision of the studio when he extended the location shoot in Venice from ten days or so to practically the entire shoot. And not just for exteriors; he scouted locations to replace the sets for interior scenes and responded to the practical opportunities of his finds with new ideas on the shooting. The studio didn’t catch up to where he was taking this film until late into the shoot. Was it that the executives were unhappy with the corrupt, tawdry atmosphere that was redefining the film, that they resented being kept out of the production loop, or a bit both?
When the studio took the editing away from Welles, he wrote diplomatic suggestions and memos, trying to make his case in the most politic way possible. The most famous of these, the 58-page memo that formed the foundation of the 1998 revision, was his last word on the film, was in places written in the form of a plea – to logic, to commercial clarity, to the better natures of the executives. Some of the suggestion were made, most were not, and Welles’ involvement with the film ended there. But the suggestions and directions in his famous 58-page memo weren’t about complicating an already confusing nightmare noir. They were designed to clarify the story and to untangle a complex narrative, and by the evidence of the 1998 revision, they accomplished their mission. Welles wanted back in Hollywood and wanted the film to be a hit to prove he could play their game. He just forgot that every time he makes up his own rules, the studio execs get tired of playing and take their toys back.
Say Goodbye to Hollywood: Orson Welles is a victim of bad luck and studio politics
“I was so heartbroken when it turned out I couldn’t go on with it.. I was so sure I was going to go on making a lot of pictures at Universal, when suddenly I was fired from the lot. A terribly traumatic experience. Because I was so sure…. It’s the only trouble I’ve ever had that I can’t begin to fathom.” – Orson Welles to Peter Bogdanovich in the interview book This is Orson Welles
The “Welles as victim” argument is just as incomplete. Welles did suffer bad luck, but he had a tendency to put himself there. The goodwill that Welles engendered with his smooth shooting and initial charm was lost when they saw what he had turned their little cop film into a baroque, bizarre thriller with hopheads and sexual predators and a completely unhinged Dennis Weaver freaking out at all the perversions he imagines going on in his motel. Their simple little thriller turned into a sleazy border drama thick with sex and corruption and racial overtones, not mention a strange gallery of grotesques and eccentrics. “The picture was just too dark and black and strange for them.”
The rapid shooting pace that so impressed the studio slowed when it came to cutting the film. Welles fired the film’s first editor, studio head Eddie Muhl replaced the second editor with his own man (working without Welles in the editing room but receiving suggestions via notes and memos) and then assigned a fourth to “fix” the film after another screening. “He had seen a screening in August and basically thought that the same thing that happened to The Magnificent Ambersons had happened to Touch Of Evil and he was greatly distressed and basically just threw up his hands and thought that was it,” explains Rick Schmidlin. In my interview with Charlton Heston, he described the situation thusly: Welles “had done his first cut so he went to Mexico to see if he could raise money for Don Quixote, which he couldn’t do. But then when he came back the studio was just furious, and they were right to do so. You can’t do that. It was a huge mistake on his part.”
Welles didn’t go about trying to freak out the studio with his film, but he had already played the Hollywood game and delivered essentially a “work for hire” job on The Stranger – sticking to the script and the editing plan and playing in the margins of the production – and neither his “good behavior” nor the film’s success did do a thing to make him any more bankable in Hollywood. The portrait of Welles as a young theater director that Simon Callow creates in the first volume of his biography, of a creative force that thrives on challenges, on pressure, on the sheer energy of spontaneous inspiration in the face of deadlines, may be a viable insight to the Welles the mature director. He’s calmer, to be sure, more reasonable and politic, but every report of his work on Touch of Evil while on location in Venice reveals an artist who responds to every possibility offered by a location or a performer, and who shifts his plans in the face of adversity with an inspired solution or simply a practical schedule shift. A night shoot rained out becomes an opportunity to shoot what was to be a studio interior in the lobby of a local hotel, for example. Carried away by inspiration, Welles created a thrilling film that conservative studio executives deemed (rightly or wrongly) commercially unviable, and then (likely inadvertently) made even more uncommercial with their haphazard “fixes” on the film.
I offer you Touch of Evil as exhibit A in the argument for the impossibility of Welles working within the Hollywood system. Not because of his ego or his arrogance or his bad behavior or whatever had been blamed on his previous bad experiences on The Magnificent Ambersons and The Lady From Shanghai. The problem wasn’t that Welles was hard to deal with. It was, quite simply, that Hollywood did not want Welles’ kinds of movies. “There is a stirring of unrest at out Universal about the way Orson’s going about the film,” wrote Heston in his journal (published in The Actor‘s Life: Journals 1959-1976) during the preproduction phase. “They seem to fear what I hope: that he’ll make an offbeat film out of what they’d planned as a predictable little programmer.” Even before it was finished, Heston could sense the studio’s resistance to what Welles was creating. They found Touch of Evil too complicated, too tawdry, too dark. Welles liked to challenge and provoke audiences. This just wasn’t the kind of film the studio executives felt comfortable with.
Print the Legend
“I read the novel after the picture was made…. I think I didn’t even know it was a book then.” – Orson Welles to Peter Bogdanovich in the interview book This is Orson Welles
It’s always been Welles’ contention that his rewrite was based entirely on the screenplay by Paul Monash. Scholars beg to differ, finding too many lines that Welles added to the screenplay that came directly from the novel. Maybe it was hyperbole on Welles’ part, that he may have take look but never actually sat down and read the whole thing. And maybe it just makes a good story that, told so many times, becomes the reality.
History versus Art: What is the meaning of a “director’s cut” and what constitutes a definitive version in the era of film revisions?
“Properly speaking, no director’s cut of Touch of Evil can ever exist, because Welles was never allowed to complete his own edit; the latest version… is simply the belated execution of patch-up work requested by Welles 40 years ago after he saw the studio’s rough cut.” – Jonathan Rosenbaum, 1999, Chicago Reader
We’ve seen reconstructions and revisions and debated director’s cuts before. Back in the eighties, deleted scenes from the 1956 A Star Is Born were patched in via still photos and recovered soundtrack reels to suggest otherwise lost sequences. Censored scenes from Spartacus and A Streetcar Named Desire were belatedly “restored” to the films. In 1989, when Robert Harris and James Katz collaborated with director David Lean to restore over a half hour of footage removed from the original negative of Lawrence of Arabia, Lean took the opportunity to fine tune scenes he was never quite satisfied with, creating a director’s cut decades after it’s debut. Ridley Scott promises that his 2007 revision of Blade Runner, which (among other changes) includes newly-shot footage to replace glaringly bad stunt work, will be his last word on a film that he’s been revising for almost 20 years. These aren’t restorations, they are second chances (and in the case of Scott, third and fourth chances) to complete a vision that they couldn’t finish, for whatever reason, the first time around.
The 1998 revision of Touch of Evil is something different altogether: a revision in the name of the artist without the physical participation of the artist himself. No less than three cuts of the picture existed before this project: the original 93 minute release version, the 108 minute preview version rediscovered in the Universal vaults in 1975 (and which has since supplanted the release version in all theatrical showings), and a kind of unholy marriage created for video that cuts footage exclusive to the short version into the preview version. The 1998 revision is more than just another version, it’s an attempt at artistic reclamation by proxy. “(A)n academic example of what Welles intended,” is how revision producer Rick Schmidlin described it in 1998. “There can be no such thing as a restored version,” reminds Bob O’Neil, the head of preservation and restoration at Universal, “because in order for there to be a restored version, there needs to be a version to restore and there never was a Welles version.”
Given the realities of the studio system, the production machine that Thomas Katz celebrated as “genius” in his provocative book, what Schmidlin and Murch and company did was as legitimate an approach as you could find. The assembly-line production routine encouraged directors to hand their films over to the editors, with instructions and notes, and then check in on the work in progress. Kicked out of the editing room, Welles’ only recourse was to follow suit and send his notes to the studio and hope they would see the logic of his suggestions. And a few of his suggestions were used, but ultimately the studio cut some 15 minutes out the picture, confusing the story by deleting important exposition. You could call the 1998 revision a “what if?” version of the film: what if they actually followed all of his suggestions? Murch and company didn’t have the material to meet all of Welles’ requests – they couldn’t restore excised footage that had been long ago discarded, for example, and they couldn’t begin to guess at the soundtrack Welles heard in his mind’s ear – and sometimes had to make a guess at what exactly his notes referred to (and informed, reasoned, well-researched guess, but a guess nonetheless) because their reference print (the “preview version”) was not the same rough cut that Welles saw when he made the notes. But otherwise, their work is as honest an attempt as could be made to finish the film as it could have been, not a director’s cut in fact or in intention, but Orson Welles’ best compromise at making his kind film in the studio system. The project was embarked upon with the best of intentions and the result was a revelation: Welles was right. His cut is (was? would have been?) better.
What that means in terms of film history is a little less clear. For the last ten years, the 1998 revision completely supplanted all previous versions on film and on home video, yet the versions previously available were equally dubious in terms of the historical record. The long preview version had long ago supplanted the original theatrical release for theatrical showings, while the home video version was a revision of its own, a hybrid of the two existing versions combined without any consideration of artistic intent or narrative consistency. The new Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition sets the historical record straight by including the theatrical release and the preview version along with the 1998 revision. Most people could care less; they just want to see the best version out there. This disc should satisfy everyone by doing justice to both Welles and to film history.
Everyone but Beatrice Welles-Smith (formerly Beatrice Welles), that is, if her past actions are any indication. She effectively shut down the planned World Premiere screening of the revised version at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival* and, through her lawyers, claimed that the 58-page memo (and other Welles documents that guided the 1998 revision) was rightly the property of the Welles Estate. In 1999, the Hollywood Reporter reported that Beatrice Welles filed a $1 million suit against Universal in Los Angeles Superior Court, charging that the revised Touch of Evil does not reflect “his original vision and editing” and that “Universal retained people to work on the film who are untrustworthy and otherwise unqualified to edit a motion picture under any Welles memoranda.” I’m not sure what happened to the case, but it wasn’t the first or the last suit filed by Beatrice Welles on behalf of the Welles Estate ostensibly to protect her father’s legacy… at least until she gets her cut.
* The explanation given me by Mary Ledding at the Universal Legal Department in 1998 was: “Ms. Welles hired a French lawyer who wrote a letter to the Cannes Film Festival indicating that… his client believed that her moral rights were being violated by this edited version of the film and that they would hold the Cannes Film Festival accountable for any violation of the moral rights issue.”
Revelation and Regret: The Opening Shot
“If you can just take a look at the main title scene before and after and see it the way it originally was and the way it is now, that is an eye-opener of all eye-openers…. But the thing to remember… is that the original version, with the titles over the background, with the Mancini score, isn’t bad. When you look at it, there’s nothing wrong with it. I want to stress that: I would never criticize, artistically, what the studio did with it because when you look at it, it looks okay. It’s just not what Welles wanted, that’s all.” – Bob O’Neil, 1998 interview
I’d seen Touch of Evil over a half a dozen times before the revised version came out. Part of the charge of the film was in the dynamic opening credits: the close-up of the ticking bomb, the sound of the clock segueing into the beat of bongos as the camera pulls back, the growling horns and funky saxes taking over the soundtrack as the camera floats above the street and watches the progress of the car as it weaves through the lazy trajectory of a couple winding through a Mexican border, a couple that will soon command the focus of the film, all while the credits play out over the scene.
It was thrilling to find a whole new experience behind those titles and that brassy, sassy, just a little tawdry opening theme, one that was there the whole time, merely unfinished. When Bob O’Neil and Walter Murch examined the original sound elements, they found, buried under the Mancini score, a dense soundscape of street sounds, of people and cars and the lazy bustle of a small town at night. It’s a whole new scene, the famed long take no longer dazzling backdrop or bookend but a dynamic sequences that pulls the viewer past the surface and into the stories playing out within the frame, and creates a far greater sense of tension and suspense over the ticking bomb. With the eye no longer distracted by titles, it becomes more attuned to the passing of time and traversing of space. And where the score added another layer between viewer and the characters in the street, giving it an impersonal sense of observation (like the “ants” that Harry Lime sees as he looks over Vienna from a Ferris wheel?), the soundscape connects us to the street, giving dimension to the characters and focusing our attention from an overview of general activity to the details of specific figures as make their one a very specific trajectory.
Yet ten years later I still feel like something is missing. It’s not Welles, mind you. It’s me. And Universal, and years of seeing the original credits sequence. It’s not just a matter a familiarity, it’s the dynamism of what is usually an obligatory bookend, the ritual of the prologue as you settle in to the film, the joy of that Mancini theme. The fact is, I hear the score’s absence in my mind’s ear whenever I see the revised version. I miss the experience, even as I marvel at the new experience in its place.
As the new set includes the previous versions of the film, I can now experience that old charge whenever I want. But I still feel that sense of loss, and I feel a little guilty that there’s a part of me that privileges the studio’s tampering over the purity of Welles’ vision. Not because I think that the studio’s version is better, but because it satisfies a purely ritualistic place in the movie-watching experience.
Framing issues: another aspect
“…the sentiment of the group seems to be that we all want to vent about the Touch of Evil 50th anniversary edition, with its highly controversial 1.85 aspect ratio. There’s clearly no cut and dried answer here, in the absence of any documentary evidence, but my eye tells me that it’s too tight.” – Dave Kehr on his blog
For decades, Touch of Evil has been presented, theatrically and on home video, in the Academy Ratio, the squarish 1.33:1 frame of pre-widescreen movies and TV sets. Upon researching the archival elements in Universal’s film vaults, Bob O’Neil, the head of preservation and restoration for Universal, discovered notations on the elements themselves that showed they were intended to be projected at 1.85:1, which was standard for the era. “That was one of the frustrations over all the years. It was shot for 1.85 but shown in 1.33, and it makes all the difference in the world. Where you had medium shots now you have close-ups.” And yes, it does make all the difference in the world. Whether it’s for better or worse is a matter for debate.
“There’s clearly no cut and dried answer here, in the absence of any documentary evidence, but my eye tells me that [the highly controversial 1.85 aspect ratio] is too tight,” writes Dave Kehr. I respect Kehr’s eye as I do his insight, but watching the revised cut in 1.85 for the first time was a revelation to me. Compositions became more dramatic, framed more tightly around Welles’ groupings. The long-takes in Sanchez’s apartment feel more claustrophobic, without so much of the expanse of the blank ceiling open above their heads. The characters dominate the mise-en-scene with more presence. Welles traditionally shot in 1.33, but watching the framing of the 1998 revision tells me that Welles took to the wider framing with a gusto. But that’s just my opinion, based on my feeling of the visual experience. Is it that Kehr is so used to the old compositions that the new framing feels wrong? Is it that I am so dazzled by the visual clarity and more modern compositions of the 1998 revision that I’m ascribing authorial intention where it doesn’t exist?
While the evidence clearly shows that Russell Metty had framed his shots for 1.85, there is no way to definitively establish Welles’ intentions. Yes, he wrote about his preference for Academy ration in print, but never actually addressed Touch of Evil specifically. With Touch of Evil, Welles was attempting to show he could conform to the Hollywood studio system. Would widescreen be a part of that conformity? But when it comes to scholarship, the fact that Walter Murch and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum, following the trail of evidence gathered by producer Rick Schmidlin and Universal archivist and preservationist Bob O’Neil, stand by the 1.85 framing is, whether or not you “like it,” a substantial argument in the widescreen camp. Craig Keller doesn’t like it, as his “Open Letter to Rick Schmidlin” on Cinemasparagus makes clear: “The solution here, to make everyone happy, would be to include two presentation versions on the same release…: one version in 1.85, which would appease any functionaries who seek any excuse to release the thing in ‘widescreen’, and one version in open-matte 1.33 (not the current 1.85:1 image cropped further down to 1.33), which would make the compositions consistent with the core aesthetics of Welles’s oeuvre…” His argument takes the position that the 1.33 is version that Welles intended and offers the dual-version as a compromise to the widescreen camp, but it does bring up another aspect in trying to be true to the historical record: whether it was meant to be widescreen or not, the earlier versions of the film were, at least in the past few decades, all presented full screen, even in retrospective and revival showings. To best of my knowledge, that was the way it was originally shown when it was finally released (dumped might be more accurate) as the second half of a double bill in 1958.
But the issue of aspect ratio responsibility is complicated by the frustrating practice of too many studio DVD producers to “round off” both 1.66:1 and 1.85:1 films to the TV widescreen standard of 16:9, or 1.77/1.78:1. For all the precise attention paid to the smallest details of the restoration of the elements and the revision of the editing, it seems sloppy at best and irresponsible at worst to let such details as framing slip into a lazy compromise.
[As a purely technical note, Keller’s letter may be addressed to the wrong correspondent. In my interview with Schmidlin ten years ago, he explained that Universal would not allow him to produce the DVD: “they told me I can’t produce my own project.” According to a comment by Jonathan Rosenbaum on Dave Kehr’s blog, Universal held to their decision and Schmidlin’s involvement in the disc didn’t extend beyond his participation in the commentary tracks and the documentary. The technical choices were, apparently, made within Universal without the consultation of Schmidlin or Rosenbaum.]
There is no question that Charlton Heston was Orson Welles’ great ally in the making of Touch of Evil. He suggested Welles in the first place and he seemed to thrive on Welles’ creative approach and ideas. They talked about teaming up on subsequent projects (which never came to fruition). When the studio scheduled retakes with Harry Keller, Heston resisted at the not insubstantial cost of covering a lost day of shooting (about $11,000, according his recollection). “I spent the weekend mulling this over and finally called the studio on Sunday to say I couldn’t in good conscience report for the shooting call the next morning,” he wrote his autobiography, In The Arena. By Tuesday, he relented because the studio had not and he had a contract. He didn’t have a choice. But he stood up to the studio for Welles in a way no other collaborator had since Citizen Kane, when RKO studio president George Schaefer stood up to the board and the collective heads of the Hollywood’s more powerful studios to protect Welles’ vision (Schaefer was fired around the same time that Welles and the Mercury company was kicked off the RKO lot, surely no coincidence).
Yet for all his affection for Welles, I always got the feeling that Heston seemed a little cold toward the film. “Not a great movie but a good movie,” he remarked to an interviewer in the documentary Orson Welles: Stories From a Life on Film, and in his introductory speech in the AFI 1973 tribute to Orson Welles he described it as a “minor masterpiece,” as if he somehow had to qualify the compliment. In a letter to the LA Times in 1998, Heston weighed in again: “In the end, Cahier du Cinema‘s early judgment may be the best. ‘Touch of Evil‘ is not a great film,’ they said. ‘It is undoubtedly the best B movie ever made.’ I’ll settle for that.” Perhaps it was the compromised release version that Heston was initially referring to, but even as the longer preview version was rediscovered and revived in 1975, and the revision was released in 1998, he continued to repeat that mantra: “not a great movie, but a good movie.” He never budged, even as the 1998 revision started a whole new chorus of praises throughout the critical world. Was it the disreputable genre or the grimy atmosphere that made him resistant to the film? The labyrinthine editing and unconventional style? Maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Regardless, I respect his opinion – he’s earned it, not simply for his career but for his advocacy of Welles during the production of the film – and I respectfully disagree. There is no qualifier needed when you call Touch of Evil a masterpiece.
© 2008 Sean Axmaker