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Rick Schmidlin

Review: Touch of Evil

[Originally written for Seattle Weekly, 1998]

Set the wayback machine to 1998. Parallax View presents reviews of films released 20 years ago, written by our contributors for various papers and websites. Most of these have not been available for years.

It takes chutzpah to monkey with Orson Welles, even for the best of reasons, and without a doubt this unprecedented revision of Touch of Evil was undertaken with the best intentions. While I can quibble with a few details, the result is a remarkable success. Forty years after the fact, producer Rick Schmidlin and Oscar winning film and sound editor Walter Murch have given Welles his due and made Touch of Evil into the film he wanted to make.

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Videophiled Essential: ‘Touch of Evil’ on Blu-ray

TouchEvilBDTouch of Evil (Universal, Blu-ray) – Orson Welles’ baroque border town murder mystery is a wild masterpiece, a sleazy, grimy, jittery, and ultimately dazzling work of cinematic magic. It’s considered the last great film noir and the bookend to the true noir era. It was also Welles’s last attempt at a career in Hollywood before he packed up to make movies in Europe.

Charlton Heston is a stiff, straight-arrow Mexican government agent Mike Vargas whose planned honeymoon with his American bride Susie (Janet Leigh) is derailed by a sensationalistic murder and police detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a bloated, blustery grotesque with a doughy face and an ill manner who has a habit of creating evidence to speed the process of justice. It features Akin Tamiroff as a Mexican border town Little Caesar with a cheap toupee and a wise-guy patter, Dennis Weaver as a sex-obsessed motel clerk on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a guest appearance by Marlene Dietrich and cameos by Welles regulars Ray Collins and Joseph Cotten.

After studio executives viewed Welles’ work in progress in 1957, the film was taken from Welles and recut into a 109-minute version that was previewed for audiences. Welles viewed the studio’s rough cut and wrote a detailed 58 page memo describing the changes he felt needed to be made to save the film. Some of those suggestions were incorporated in the final cut, most were not, and it was subsequently edited down to the 96-minute version that was released in 1958. The “preview version” was discovered in 1976 and supplanted the release version, but while it feature more footage directed by Welles, it was not his cut of the film.

Jonathan Rosenbaum discovered Welles’ memo in the files of Universal Studios and published it in the 1990s and in 1998 he became an advisor to producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch as they took on an unprecedented project: reconstructing the version that Welles described. Though referred to as the “restored version,” it’s in fact an entirely new version: “(A)n academic example of what Welles intended,” is how Schmidlin described it.

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston

The differences in this revision are apparent in the first seconds of the film. The studio threw credits over the famous opening crane shot and set it to a brassy theme song from composer Henry Mancini but Welles (ever the pioneer) meant the scene to open the film as a dramatic sequence. By removing the credits and revealing Welles’ dense sound design, previously buried by the music, we find a riveting scene with a completely different sensibility and dynamic. Anyone who grew up on the earlier versions still feel a gang of loss; that bongo beat and the growling horns had become a part of the familiar experience, so married to the image it seemed inseparable. But as the camera follows the parallel journeys of the car (carrying a ticking bomb) and the strolling newlywed couple (Heston and Leigh) as they weave their way through the bustling Mexican border town, the rediscovered soundtrack (with musical additions by Murch as per Welles’ instructions) gives a specific sense of place of movement with its street sounds competing with car radios and nightclub music weaving in and out of the mix.

With the abrupt explosion, Welles’ style becomes more expressionistic—looming low angles, jittery handheld shots, edgy editing—and the new cutting design outlined by Welles serves this style better. The subsequent scenes are tightened up with insistent intercutting between the Vargas/Quinlan confrontations on the American side of the border and Susie’s run-in with racketeer “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Tamiroff) in Mexico. It creates a driving pace with a greater sense of urgency and tension, but it also weaves their stories together more insistently. The subsequent changes are less obvious (a trim here, an insert there, a couple of short scenes cut) but this cut also restores another, less obvious element to the original intentions.

Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan

For decades Touch of Evil was shown in theaters and on home video in the Academy ratio of 1.33:1, the boxy format of old Hollywood and old TV, but it was shot and framed to be screened at 1:85:1, the standard format by the late 1950s. The 1998 theatrical release and subsequent disc editions restored the film to its correct ratio (rounded down to 16×9 for disc). 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 frame with more presence. Despite the documentation in the production records and the film elements itself that verify this change, it’s become a controversy among fans and historians, perhaps because of years of familiarity with the old format, perhaps because they prefer the open-frame roominess, a la Citizen Kane. I’m on the widescreen camp: the framing serves this film better and the visual schemes were taken up in Welles’ next widescreen film, The Trial. In Britain, both the Academy and widescreen versions were include on the DVD and Blu-ray editions. Here it’s just the widescreen.

Universal releases all three existing cuts of the film in a special edition for its Blu-ray debut, just like it did for the DVD special edition. It is a package worthy of Criterion. It’s been remastered from original 35mm elements for Blu-ray and looks amazing, and it features the four commentary tracks spread over the three versions recorded for the DVD set. Project producer Rick Schmidlin hosts a track with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, with Schmidlin commenting on the changes in the “restored version” and drawing production stories and experiences from the stars, and he also contributes a solo track, both for the reconstructed version. Welles historian / project consultant Jonathan Rosenbaum and fellow Welles historian James Naremore discuss the “preview version” with a mix of production details and interpretations, and film critic F.X. Feeney offers a solo track on the shorter theatrical release. Also includes the featurettes “Bringing Evil to Life” (one on the making of the film) and “Evil Lost and Found” (on the history of the various versions and the process of reconstructing the new cut) and a reproduction of the original 58-page memo that inspired the entire project. Also features an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.

For more, see my essay “The Making, Unmaking and Reclamation of Touch of Evil.

Universal debuts another film noir masterpiece on Blu-ray: Double Indemnity (Universal, Blu-ray), the 1944 classic that codified the moral depravity and sexual charge of film noir at its most cynical. Billy Wilder shocked audiences and tweaked the morality watchdogs with this ruthless adaptation of James M. Cain’s notorious novel, creating one of the touchstone films noir in process.

Barbara Stanwyck is perfectly heartless as the icy adulteress who plants the seeds of murder in the mind of Fred MacMurray’s conniving insurance agent. He plots the cold-blooded murder of her rich husband, only to discover that sharing a murder does not necessarily bring lovers closer together. Edward G. Robinson’s persistent investigator Keys brings the only real warmth to this chilly film noir; his relationship to MacMurray is the closest this film comes to real love. The rest is simply fatal attraction. The masterpiece of film noir double dealing was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (co-written by Wilder with Raymond Chandler), Best Actress (Stanwyck), and Best Cinematography (for John Seitz’s cool, crisp, shadowy imagery), but it was just a little too cynical and sour to win anything in that era.

This is also newly remastered and includes the supplements from the earlier DVD special edition: two commentary tracks (on by film historian Richard Schickel, one by film historian / screenwriter Lem Dobbs and film historian Nick Redman), the featurette “Shadows of Suspense,” an introduction by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, and the 1973 TV-movie remake starring Richard Crenna in the MacMurray role, Samantha Eggar as the seductive Phyllis, and Lee J. Cobb as the insurance boss Keys. Also features an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.

The Making, Unmaking and Reclamation of “Touch of Evil”

“(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.

"You're future's all used up" - Marlene Dietrich as Tanya
"You're future's all used up" - Marlene Dietrich as Tanya

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.

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“Let’s give them something to really work with” – Rick Schmidlin on revising “Touch of Evil”

My research into the unprecendented work done on Touch of Evil in 1998 began here, with a lengthy phone interview with Rick Schmidlin in August of 1998, a month before I’d even had a chance to see the new cut. The man who proposed the radical idea of creating a new version of the film by following the instructions that Welles sent Universal executives in the famous 58-page memo (which had been discovered a few years earlier) began in the music business. He developed from a lighting director for live concerts rock shows to a producer of music videos and long-form music projects, as well as expanding into other areas of documentary filmmaking as both producer and director. But his revision of Touch of Evil became the buzz event of 1998 long before its unveiling at Telluride and Toronto. (It was set to debut at Cannes but the screening was cancelled in deference to the protest lodged by Beatrice Welles-Smith, who claimed that her “moral rights” were being violated by the revision of her father’s work ironic given the dedication of the creative team to honoring Welles’ direct requests and that controversy only gave the film more attention). Schmidlin was passionate about this project but insistent that it not me mistaken for a director’s cut, as no such cut ever existed in life. In his own words, “It’s an academic example utilizing two of the finest people in their field one as a scholar of the critical medium, one as an educated scholar of commercial editorial and sound medium and taking Welles documentation and translating them to the screen.” The bulk of the interview was conducted over the phone on August 4, 1998, with a follow-up conversation on August 24.

Since his work on Touch of Evil, Schmidlin helped produce the restoration of Thomas Edison’s first sound film experiment (again working with Walter Murch) and a reconstruction of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, utilizing stills and explanatory cards to fill in for the hours is excised and missing footage.

Poster for the 1998 revision
Poster for the 1998 revision

When did the Touch of Evil project begin? With the discovery of the memo?

Basically what I originally wanted to do was a laserdisc and just document on the laserdisc for Universal the project so I could get the most amount of living beings involved and be able to get the most documents put together so there was a good documentation of this film and explore what elements may exist within the vaults. But over the years the laserdisc kept on getting passed and I talked to a friend of mine, Louis Feola, who was then the president of Universal Home Video, and Louis eventually approached Chris McGurk, who at that point was vice president and COO, and he brought it over to Jim Waters and they sparked an interest in it. So they let me investigate it with Bob ONeil and basically what we did was I was able to investigate what film elements existed in the can relating to the film. At that same time I did more research within the libraries and eventually Jim Waters asked Lou Wasserman, though research I had found through Jonathan Rosenbaum, which I will get into in a second, and basically Jim Waters asked Wasserman if a memo existed and Wasserman produced it through his contact, the 58-page memo. The reason I knew about the memo was that Allen Daviau had alerted me while I was involved in the laserdisc project that there was an excerpted memo that appeared in Film Quarterly in 1992 from Orson Welles from the book This Is Orson Welles that was not published. And basically he told me that there was a memo that Welles had written. Detailed editorial notes. Thats how I became aware of the memo itself. It was basically based on all this that we wound up with a green light to recut the film theatrically the way Welles had requested that the final cut be done.

So this project actually began long before you found the memo.

In thought. It was developed as wanted to do a laserdisc and basically it was a film that needed to be more seriously addressed than previously had been done with it.

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