Posted in: Interviews

“A once in a lifetime project” – Bob O’Neil on restoring and revising “Touch of Evil”

Bob O’Neil was the head of film preservation and restoration at Universal in 1988. His job was to evaluate to all the materials Universal held in its film library and oversee the repair and restoration of elements for new prints and home video releases, everything from Hitchcock classics to Abbot and Costello movies to film noir classics to B-movie rediscoveries. He was the point man on finding, repairing and restoring the surviving elements of Touch of Evil for the unprecedented revision undertaken by project producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch. This interview gets into the technical and physical details of true film preservation and restoration, working with original film materials on a celluloid and photo-chemical level rather than the digital work of to create the best possible master elements for theatrical prints and home video, as well as digital repair and restoration in the early days of the technology.

Mr. O’Neil spoke by phone for over an hour back in August of 1998, answering questions about Touch of Evil in particular and film preservation and restoration in general and the discussion ranged all over the Universal catalogue and various projects was involved in, both present and past. This interview has been edited to focus specifically on Touch of Evil and related topics. Again, the interview was conducted before I had a chance to see the new cut, which had yet to have its public World Premiere at Telluride in the first week of September, 1998.

One final note: Note the way he refers to the film as “the show” that’s old school, baby.

The baroque glory of "Touch of Evil"
The baroque glory of "Touch of Evil"

There were effectively two different versions of Touch of Evil on film and then a third composite version prepared for home video.

That’s right.

What’s the history of the film versions? The 92-minute version is the one that was theatrically released. Did you still have the original negative for that?

Yes. To go back to the beginning, what happened was that, after the studio got through cutting the show, they had that preview version, the long version. When they previewed it, there was a print struck for that screening. I don’t know if there was one or two of them, all I know is that in the long run, for us today, we are fortunate in that one long version print survived and that long version print is basically what you have probably seen if you’ve gone to, for instance, the Library of Congress with their film registry tour, they were showing the long version there. There’s been various festivals, over the years, where they have shown the long version. All of those prints that you’re looking at came from dupe negatives that were struck from that long version print, so that long version print was the only element in existence that we could use for material that was going to come from that version. Now the other source material that we had was from the short version, which was the original negative, we had the original dub masters, on the dubbing stage when they did their final mix, we have all that material, and we also had extra fine grains and dupe negatives that we could have used if we needed to. So what happened, technically, was that we were fortunate that we started out with the original negative for the body of the show. We took that original negative, went back and repaired it as well as we could, because there were still spots on there where, from printing on it over the years, the negative had been damaged here and there. So we were able to go back and take original negative, answer print the original negative, then make a brand new composite fine grain from it, and then our dupe negative that we were going to use for the show. Now that, the trick them came into, that’s on the short version. Now all the long version material that was going to be used could only come from that one single source black and white print. Now a black and white print looks totally different than what the material looks like coming from the original negative. There’s issues as far as quality goes and as far as contrast goes. What ends up happening is that we’re going to end up intercutting between the two versions, pieces of the dupe negative from the long version and pieces from the short version. So the pieces from the long version had to be tested and found proper printing methods to create as seamless an internegative as we could that would cut in with the dupe negative from the original. And then after it was all cut together, the next step was to step back and say, ‘Okay, now that we’ve done this, what do we need to do digitally to fix the damaged elements that ended up in the show, in the final cut?’ That was the final piece of it that we just finished up, actually we just finished up this week [August 14, 2008] on it.

So your talking about making repair corrections almost up until the last minute.

Yes, yes. And the corrections we were doing, there were several different types of corrections. First of all, the obvious ones would be that, if there were pieces of the original negative that had been damaged that we were still going to use, repairing those pieces where the negative had been torn. There were pieces that we were using from the long version that Actually, we really lucked out because the long version, this sole source print that I’m talking about on the long version, was really dirty. Over the years of projecting it, there was a lot of oil on it, there was embedded dirt, it was really pretty Well, it was a print, it was projected, so over the years it had normal handling to it. So we went through and hand cleaned it, over and over again, and finally we printed it liquid gate and it came out wonderful. It looked absolutely gorgeous. We were all shocked at what the lab was able to do with it, ICM lab, they were the company that had done all this. So in the long version, when it’s all said and done, there’s on shot in there where, in cleaning it, it was still absolutely filthy, a lot of out of focus black dirt flying through, so that was a piece that we digitally cleaned up. The kind of unusual one was that, when we got through re-editing the show, it turned out that the normal, you know the change-over cues that you see at the end of all the reels? Well, we ended up with change-over cues in the middle of every reel. So we digitally went back and removed all the change-over cues. And then there was one piece that the contrast, evidently going way, way, way, way back, that one of the pieces of the original negative had been damaged and they had made a dupe negative off of a fine grain and the contrast level on it was just awful so we digitally went back and fixed the contrast.

Opening titles on the release version
Opening titles on the release version

The most famous shot, really, is the main title, the opening scene, where the titles were playing over the opening scene. Luckily, we had textless material on it, we had a dupe negative of that background without the titles on it, so we married that piece of negative together with the second half of the shot and digitally put the two of them together, and what added a little bit of trickiness to that was that dupe negative we were working from, the textless dupe negative, had been damaged. About a foot and a half of it was just loaded with embedded dirt and scratches and was really in bad shape and we were able to go back and digitally clean up all of that, so that’s how we ended up getting rid of the titles that were on the opening.

What was your involvement in the reediting and sound mixing of the revised version?

Mainly, from a conscience side more than anything else. As far as an artistic side, it was pretty much Walter’s show. He was the one that cut it all together and designed the sound and did all that part of it. As far as from an artistic side, all I was there for was just to make sure that, from my standpoint, we were staying as close to all documents that we could find, the memos and all of Welles’ notes, just to make sure that we were not overstepping our bounds and that we were trying to keep it as pure a restoration as we possibly could. So it was mainly, for me, a lot of talking with Walter, a lot of talking with Rick, that we would end up with areas where there were questions where you could go maybe in this direction or you could maybe go in that direction, from a subjective standpoint, depending on what you want to do. And just making sure that we kept going on the straight and narrow.

Since the long cut of Touch of Evil was part of the recent Universal film noir series (a series of 10 films that played in repertory houses and cinemateques in 1998), did you prepare that new print for that series?

No. For that series, all they did was, off of that single source print, many, many moons ago, and I’m not exactly sure when because I never pulled out the dupe negative to look at it, but the studio had manufactured a dupe negative off of that print back in, I would sway sometime in the sixties, I would think, and that dupe negative that was made off of the long version, was just what they had struck their print off of for the film noir series. Now, what is neat about the film series, and unfortunately you can’t see it now because I don’t think they’re going to be showing it anymore because the new version is out there, but if you could see that print and look at the amount of dirt and damage that is going through, and I honestly don’t think a lot of people would notice it, you’d have to really sit there and pay attention to it, but you’d see, where they’re driving through the desert, the exterior stuff, the amount of dirt that was flying over the horizon in the day scenes, that was just built in to the dupe negative because it had come from that print. But all they had done up until that point is they had just taken that and reprinted it. Now, we have also, because they just reprinted that dupe negative, since we did this restoration and we saw how clean the dupe negative can be from that long version print, we are going back on that preview version and actually making another full dupe negative and a full protection of that version, cleaned and reprinted with today’s standards. So we’re going to end up with three versions of this thing that are restored to the best of our ability.

So you mean the original theatrical release as well?


I don’t think that short version has been seen in decades, not since 1975, when the long version was rediscovered.

No, and you know what? I’m fortunate and I hope, and I don’t think it will happen because of the expense and I don’t know whether they would think it was marketable or not, but if the studio could make a package of all three versions on DVD, it would be a hoot. Because you go back and, my life with Touch of Evil had been looking at the long version and I had seen this think maybe a half a dozen times over the last eight years and when I finally got an opportunity to sit down and look at the short version, I was shocked. And the reason I was shocked was because the long version is kind of this rambling thing, it’s okay but it could have been better and obviously it was better by the time we got through with it, but when you look at the short version as compared to the long version, there are big plot holes in there. You’re sitting there going, Wait a minute, what happened to this? What happened to that? Somebody had decided, for whatever reason, This is how we’re going to cut this thing down, and when they did it some important pieces ended up on the cutting room floor. So it would be, like I say, if you could be familiar with the traditional preview version and see what that was like and see what the short version looks like, you’d really chuckle. You really would.

Rick Schmidlin said that he was hoping that Universal would put together a “Gift Pack” set with all three versions of it. [It took ten years for all three versions to be released on DVD SAx]

I don’t what they’re going to do with DVD because it’s not my call, but 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.

That’s the part I’m most excited to see.

I’ve got videotape copies of both versions at home and I’ve had people over to the house that I’ve it to, and there had not been one person who has not been absolutely in awe of the differences between them. But the thing to remember, that I go back on, 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.

I still have my laserdisc of it. But that’s yet another version. For home video, they combined the two existing versions for a hybrid version. Were you involved in that in any way?

No, no. In fact, I had, when I first got into preservation, they had already done that, and I had had a couple of people come to me and talk to me about it. I don’t understand well, I understand what they did, basically, was they just tried to take as much footage as they possibly could, put it in and make as long a version as they possibly could. And they created a “studio restored version.” But what’s interesting on this title is there can be no such thing as a restored version, 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. Think of it. He was removed from the show halfway through. He came back and saw the preview version. He made his notes off the preview version. The studio took those notes and made what changes that they felt that they wanted to, and they released the final version, the short version, the release version. That was not a Welles version either. I don’t think Welles really ever had a cut on the show that was finally his. And when you read about him, you can start understanding. I think for him to finish a project, his mind was so busy that in order for him to really put something away and cut it and can it up and say, That’s it, that’s as good as it gets, I think that’s pretty tough for him to do. And on this show, he never had that opportunity, so what we’ve got here isn’t a restored version. We are trying to take what we think Welles wanted by reading all of his notes and trying to put a version together that we think is close to what he wanted, but he never signed off on it. And it’s also, what was important is, what he wanted in 1957-1958. That is the important key thing. Not what he would have wanted in 1964 or 1978 or somewhere downstream when he was sitting back and talking to somebody about it and saying, I would have loved to have done this or that with it. The idea is trying to make the movie the way the author wanted it at the time when he was making the movie. That’s a real important point, right there, because a director who does a movie when he is 30 years old and he goes back and looks at that movie 30 years later, and if you want to do something with it, it’s a whole different person, it’s a different society, it would come out as totally different just because the person has changed.

Charlton Heston and Orson Welles (with Quinlan padding) on the set of "Touch of Evil"
Charlton Heston and Orson Welles (sans Quinlan padding) on the set of "Touch of Evil"

That was something I talked to Gary Graver about. There was an Orson Welles Film Festival in Seattle a couple of months back and Gary Graver was in town with it and he said that Orson would never want to watch his movies because all he could do was say, ‘I shouldn’t have done that. What I should have done was

Yeah. In reading about what he went through on this thing and what the studio went through, and also going back, I was talking to Rick about this, Rick is still going through research because I guess he’s writing a book about it with Jonathan. He’s talking to people, he just found the assistant director, a guy named Phil Bowles, who was the A.D. on the show, and Rick just talked to him the other day and Bowles was talking about how hard it was to pin Welles down. Picture from a studio standpoint, that you’ve got this guy who comes in, who is almost like a mad dog. The idea is, come in in a timely manner, make a movie, can it up, release it and go on to the next show. I don’t think Orson Welles ever really settled down, his mind was always thinking about what he should have done and second guessing himself, and perhaps coming up with better ideas, maybe not better ideas, who knows, but he’d never really let it rest. Maybe that’s why he was such a genius. But from a studio standpoint back then, here are these guys back in the fifties that were used to, I guess you’d call it a cookie-cutter mentality, as far as how they’re making movies, and somebody comes along like that, that’s quite a challenge to the system. Quite a challenge.

I’ve always seen the film shown Academy Ratio, 1.33. I believe you discovered that it as it shot in the 1.85:1 aspect ration.

Yes it was and 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.

You were basically responsible for find the best materials for the work. For the opening credits, the theme music was removed and a new soundtrack featured. I understand that nothing new was created for that scene. Where did it come from?

What’s neat, in that whole movie, everything that you hear in that movie is original source material except for two places. One of them is a very, very subtle one, and that is now have you seen the new version?

No, it has not been screened here yet.

In the new version, when you watch it, in reel one, Susie goes off with Pancho to meet with Grandi in Grandi’s office there, and he’s in there, putting his tie on and putting his coat on and checking to see if his gun’s got bullets and all that. Well, she says something to Grandi and really pisses him off and he turns and he starts giving her the riot act and you see Janet Leigh, all of a sudden, look over, for some reason, over at where Pancho is standing. In the memo, it mentions that he wanted to have Pancho do something to cause her to look over there and what is was supposed to be was Pancho going, ‘Sh-sh-sh!’ Pancho is saying that to Grandi to tell him to shut up, that he’s starting to get carried away. That was a new piece and they actually got the guy that played Pancho, Valentin De Vargas. He’s still alive, he lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and they called him and they got him to go down to the local radio station and he did a couple of ‘Sh-sh-sh’ over a microphone, they recorded it on a DAT, they sent to us and we laid it in on the show.

That’s amazing.

Yeah. Very small and, the one thing I’ll say is when they did the mix on it, they kept it real subtle and unless you’re really paying attention you’re probably not going to catch it. So that was one new piece of sound. The other new piece of sound was that, there was a spot where Welles wanted to have radio narration. Where they’re driving in the car, he wanted to have a news broadcast, and we put in that piece of added narration. Outside of that, everything that you hear is from the original. And where we really lucked out was, we had two different sound sources. We had the original, the short version, the final release where we had the full dub masters, which means we had the dialogue, music and effects tracks, all separate. And then we had the long version, and the sound for the long version was for the composite track, so anything that we used from the long version, we were stuck. If you had music playing in the background and Welles didn’t want the music, we kept the music in there, there was no way to get it out of there. But on most of the show, for example the main title, we were able to take and remove the Mancini score and take all that sound that was underneath. You hear the goats baying in the middle of the street, you hear the car starting, you hear all the street noises. None of that was new, foley or anything like that, it was all original sound. And it was pretty damn good shape.

Where was it, if it was all recorded and preserved in these masters. Was it under the music all this time?

Yes, yes. And all we had to do was just take and remix it.

What about when the camera passes by the cantina and you hear the cantina music?

We added that cantina music. All that music, we added. Walter designed that whole thing. And Walter also, I would imagine, as far as the street sounds and everything, he probably slid some of those sounds to get them to happen in the right place with the new mix, he probably had to do a little bit of maneuvering there. But generally speaking, that music, the music that he used, was all Mancini music or score music that was from other parts of the show, so there wasn’t anything new added to it.

But all those streets sounds and car sounds and everything, it was always there, buried under the music?

Yes. And where we really lucked out was did you do any work on Vertigo, did you write any articles on that?

I didn’t write on it but I did do some research.

Vertigo was actually Paramount and the Hitchcock Estate, and when we ended up with it, somebody at the Hitchcock Estate, somewhere up the line, destroyed all of those dub masters that we’re talking about. So on Vertigo, the only thing that they had to deal with, as far as sound goes, was a composite print dialogue, music, effects, all on the same track, all composite. So they had to go through and what they ended up doing was electronically going through and removing all of the dialogue and then doing new foley, putting the dialogue back, all for the stereo music, it was all for the stereo music that they had to do that. A real expensive process and that’s where we were real fortunate, that we had all the dialogue, all the music and all the effects except for the spots that came from the long version. So Walter, when he’s cutting this thing, you know you think about it. Go back into the old days. Say that, for instance, on the show, if you were going to cut that conventionally on a Moviola, you’d have your long version print, you’d have your short version print, and then you’d have your three separate tracks, your dialogue, music and effects that came from the dub master, that you’d have to play with and you’d have to put them on that machine and thread them up and run them back and forth. Now, when you’ve got it electronic, it was all done on the Avid. You can edit all that stuff just about on the fly. So because of the new technology and being able to cut it on Avid, you were able to really do stuff You couldn’t touch this film, technically, the way we did if you had done it with old technology. The Avid really made it just so much easier and it gave Walter all the tools to make it happen.

One of the serious problems with Vertigo was that by re-foleying all the sound effects, it no longer sounded like Hitchcock’s film.

Maybe I’m lucky on that because I wasn’t that familiar with Vertigo. I’d seen it on TV as a kid but as far as knowing what it really sounded like, I never knew. I know that, when it came out, the sound on Vertigo was very, very, very controversial and the general public, heard it, loved everything about it and they thought it was the greatest thing around. The purists had a tough time because, and you talk to James Katz and Robert Harris about what they did with it and it’s amazing, the spin that they have on this stuff, as far as what they did and why they did it and all that. But nonetheless, you can put all the spin you want on it but unfortunately, it ended up becoming controversial.

For Touch of Evil, except for those two minor additions, you have all original material to work with.

Yes, yes. Now you can take the original sound and change the levels, which is what we did, and you can take and do some things to move around the sound. One of the tricks, and I know they ran into it on Vertigo and we ran into it on this, is that when you go back to those old sound elements, Welles was not a fan of production sound. Welles liked to take the whole movie and go back and loop it on the looping stage, do ADR with it. And because of that, his artistic concentration wasn’t really on sound. And you can go back and there are spots where the track is really crappy, it really is. So what you try to do is when you’re in there and you’re working with it, you try to find clever ways of trying to hide some of the inherent problems that are in there. There’s a certain artistic side to it also, that you want to try to blend it and make it as seamless as you can, but you also want to, if you can do it subtly and invisibly, improve on something that nobody’s even going to catch. So there’s a little bit of that that goes on. But that’s part of the game I guess.

Touch of Evil is a once in a lifetime project, in that you’ve got a title that is a classic, it’s a title that’s got controversy because of the different versions, controversy because of the way Welles exited the show, coming in after the fact trying to do something. We were lucky in that we had the film to do. The film was here, the sound elements were here, it was all available to do this. And probably the most important thing is that we had Welles. Welles was here with us on it, Welles was here with the 58-page memo, and in the production notes, going back and finding all this stuff. So, hey, once in a lifetime for all of us. For all of us. So enjoy the ride, I guess.