Restoring Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil"
June 14, 2011 9:56 AM   Subscribe

As time has gone by, though, Touch of Evil has acquired a large cult following, and it now regularly appears on lists of the best films of the century. What is not generally known is that the film never accurately reflected Welles's intentions for it. In July 1957, the studio took over the editing of the film and prevented him from participating in its completion. In an odd turn of events, however, a 58-page memo that Welles wrote in 1957 was recently rediscovered, and a small team on which I was film editor and sound mixer has used that remarkable document to bring Touch of Evil as close as possible to Welles's original concept. - Walter Murch, 1998
posted by Trurl (37 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I've always wanted to shoot a remake of A Touch of Evil, but set in Windsor, Ontario. It would be called A Touch of Evil?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:04 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Murch talks a lot more about this process in The Conversations, which is a must-have book for anyone who has even a passing interest in film.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:07 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

My remake is set in Windsor in the winter. It's called A Toque of Evil.
posted by box at 10:21 AM on June 14, 2011 [4 favorites]

Touch of Evil was the first movie that made me just fall in love with technique. I saw it on Sydney Pollack's Essentials and was just blown away by how a movie with basically nothing going for it (B-movie plot, sensationalist gangbang, Charleston Heston covered in makeup playing a Mexican) completely transcends it's crappy base material with spectacular direction, editing and control of light.
posted by cyphill at 10:21 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure that this is "not generally known," at least not any longer. Most of Welles' career was spent either fighting himself or fighting the studios and their efforts to box him in and tear his films to shreds, and "A Touch of Evil" is only one example (the other major example is "The Magnificent Ambersons," which was butchered by Robert Wise at the behest of RKO's George Schaefer).

Still, the lengthy screed that Welles wrote to Universal-International Pictures, replete with pleas to "please reconsider" this cut and with remonstrances that he "much regrets" that cut, on and on for 58 pages, is poignant.

At the end of the day, Welles' films are genius even when they've been chopped to ribbons.
posted by blucevalo at 10:25 AM on June 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Rather spoilt in youtube resolution - but still great nonetheless - here is the famous opening shot.
posted by rongorongo at 10:40 AM on June 14, 2011

rongorongo, that's the video linked in the post.
posted by shakespeherian at 10:43 AM on June 14, 2011

I just watched the Murch recut about a week ago. I was poking around the net for some info, and I read a claim that Welles said he could make a great film out of the worst possible story and this was his attempt to prove it.

The film is choppy and obviously seriously damaged structurally due to the re-re-edit, but hell, it's worth it just for the long, lingering scenes of Janet Leigh in lingerie.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:43 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've always wanted to shoot a remake of A Touch of Evil, but set in Windsor, Ontario. It would be called A Touch of Evil?

Funny, I have a half-written script for a film set on the New Hampshire/Canada border where a Mountie and his American wife run afoul of a gang smuggling non low-flow toilets into the US.

It's called 'Touch of Ice'
posted by lumpenprole at 10:47 AM on June 14, 2011

You may get some product placement cash if you call it "Toto, Toto, Toto!"
posted by dchase at 10:52 AM on June 14, 2011

"Most of Welles' career was spent either fighting himself...."

My understanding was that after shooting wrapped on Touch of Evil, Welles kinda skipped town and went to the south of france or somewhere, and then complained that the studio ruined the picture- I'm not sure where I read that, but the gist was that after Citizen Kane, he tended to sabotage himself because he felt that he would never be able to best his first movie. So he creates an impossible situation and then casts himself as david against the studio system goliath. I'm sure the studio did tie his hands a bit, but I think he also created his own situation to a certain extent.
posted by kingv at 11:23 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are a number of nice things in this film, but all the nice things have to do with camera moves, blocking and cinematography. Otherwise, it's a very poor movie. The acting is mostly atrocious - especially by Wells himself, who overacts so grotesquely that you wonder if he lost his mind. He was going for noir effects, but it's insanely miscalculated. What you see in Wells, is a classic case of an immense artistic prodigy who declines uniformly with time, and at a precipitous rate - in his case, he drops off a cliff. There are still flashes of brilliance in ToE (centered around technical achievements), but it's a sad, sorry failure that was already badly outdated at the time of release. It doesn't push the genre of noir one millimeter, it's a pathetic parody - and not intentionally so.

It's pretty much a cliche to side with the artist vs the "suits" at studios in any kind of dispute centered around artistic choices - but it's a lazy cliche, and frequently wrong. Sure, you can cut and re-cut now, but that's not the real story. Even if the studio had given Wells everything he wanted on this movie, it would have been an artistic failure. The guy just didn't have it in him anymore.

Wells is a fascinating case, and I have never seen a decent biography that tackles him and his work at the depth that does the subject justice - not even close.
posted by VikingSword at 11:30 AM on June 14, 2011

My understanding was that after shooting wrapped on Touch of Evil, Welles kinda skipped town and went to the south of france or somewhere, and then complained that the studio ruined the picture

Nah, you're thinking of The Magnificent Ambersons, where right when Welles was arguing with RKO over the edit he had to leave to go to Brazil to work on a different project for RKO. After Ambersons Welles never got final cut again, so he was powerless to stop Universal from editing it however they wanted (although he made a good argument, which is what the 58-page memo is).
posted by shakespeherian at 11:50 AM on June 14, 2011

I saw the re-re-edit of Touch of Evil last year (I believe that's the version which Netflix has on DVD).

It's not my favorite Welles film by a long shot, but I don't think it's a poor movie. The opening sequence, the increasing sense of horror in the seedy motel (although nowadays the young gang is almost uncomfortably... not necessarily racist, but it's an uncomfortable portrayal), the parrallel horror as Heston starts to put together the pieces in his investigation.

The scope of the re-re-edit naturally couldn't re-shoot any scenes, and furthermore Welles clearly pared down his comments significantly. I'm not at all sympathetic to his tortured artist persona (filmmaking is, above all, a business), but on the other hand I'm very curious as to what the final version would be if Welles was given the time to make the movie in his head.
posted by muddgirl at 12:08 PM on June 14, 2011

I was at the UK premiere of the Murch re-edit of Touch of Evil at the National Film Theatre. The event was introduced by some film academic or authority who, in the course of his five-minute speech, gave away the ending. I should have walked out--no, I should have shouted something at him and walked out--and I still regret not doing it.

A few years later I learned that while Welles had been working in London in the 1950s, my mother had been his personal assistant. She didn't reveal this until after one of my cousins had finished writing his book on film noir. Plays her cards close to her chest, my mother.
posted by Hogshead at 12:14 PM on June 14, 2011

I saw the re-edit in the theater when it came out in '98, after seeing the original as part of a film class on film noir in college. The re-edit is INHO the only way to see it, and I can't believe that the original even had the reputation (flawed but good film) that it did by comparison.

I think it's a pretty amazing film in a lot of ways - just gross with seediness and stacked to the brim with lots of interesting things to say in its subtext about borders, nationalism, and identity (especially surprising given that the surface text -- with its aforementioned gang and Heston-in-brownface -- can certainly read as uncomfortable if not downright racist these days) -- and one of the rare times that I think people should mess with the original after the director is dead.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:28 PM on June 14, 2011

Indeed, the opening sequence is great - again, great camera work, great exposition, great way to create climate etc. The trouble is in the two most important things in a film: story and acting. Both suck big time. You mention the "racist" aspect of the youth gang - to me the greatest sin in those particular scenes is not the racist aspect, but the sub-reefer madness level of depiction of drugs, drug abuse and druggies. It's not just laugh-out-loud ludicrous, but more importantly, it doesn't treat the subject with any kind of maturity or reality - it's cartoonish in a not even B-grade, but Z-grade bad-hollywood cliche manner. There is no subtlety and no *truth*, and so comes across as utterly fake in the same way we laugh at Reefer Madness (which was made in 1936). But that's just one among so many fakes and failures - this is the case across the board with this movie. When your story fails as badly as it fails here, it's hard to rescue a film out if it. And the other thing that makes a movie - acting... what can one say that doesn't reach for the bottom of the bottom of the barrel. Wells himself, ham-in-chief, while giving a horrible performance is at least not miscast, as are so many - and I generously give Heston a pass, because miscast as he is, at least he gives a workable performance. Marlene Dietrich is an eye-roller here - what was the point of dragging that piece of miscasting here, and to what purpose? And even for those who were merely serviceable, like Leigh, everything fails, because there is no cast chemistry between the players. A great film - or even just a good film - is not simply a collection of performances, but creates a reality between the actors through their interaction. It wasn't there at all in ToE. To me the whole movie is summed up in the pretentious, laughable, fake and faux-profound speechifying over Wells theatrically prostate body - something a high-school student would be embarrassed to write.
posted by VikingSword at 12:40 PM on June 14, 2011

But I thought the point was that the "sub-reefer madness" drug scene was itself all an act. So yes, it looks ludicrous on-screen but it was meant to be ludicrous (in a horrific way) in the context of the movie as well.

Whether or not it succeeded at being convincingly frightening is a legitimate question, if we had an opportunity to witness a nonexistent Welles's final cut.
posted by muddgirl at 12:47 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Actually, it succeeded in nothing as far as I can tell - I honestly don't see how there's a "final cut" that can pull anything out of this that isn't there in the first place. There's an old joke in the film world, "don't worry, we'll fix it in post", and it references the way an inexperienced filmmaker tends to ignore problems in production, hoping that they will be fixed in post, which, of course, is rarely possible when it comes to fundamental problems, such as terrible acting and a hopeless story. It really starts at the script stage, as any director worth his salt knows - if it's not on the page, it won't be on the stage. That's the time to fix problems - on the page. Because by the time you've shot the whole shebang, it's too late to address fundamental problems. The most heroic "final cut" here will amount to no more than making a more pleasing arrangement of the chairs on the sinking Titanic.
posted by VikingSword at 12:57 PM on June 14, 2011

Dennis Weaver plays the night manager, in one of his first film roles.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:01 PM on June 14, 2011

I think we'll just have to agree to disagree. I honestly don't think the acting was any worse than the noir movies from the same period that it was referencing. Certainly not the height of modern method acting but it was serviceable.
posted by muddgirl at 1:01 PM on June 14, 2011

I guess so - agree to disagree. To me, the acting is so bad it actually destroys the movie - as really bad acting can, and sorry to disagree, but it's leagues below the acting in even middling noir movies, which, incidentally, ToE caps, having come out in 58, at the tail end of the whole noir era... bringing nothing to the genre here. It's all the more amazing, because Wells himself, the chief acting offender in ToE, was quite decent in The Third Man.
posted by VikingSword at 1:07 PM on June 14, 2011

I'm just going to put this here.
posted by muddgirl at 1:20 PM on June 14, 2011

Nah, you're thinking of The Magnificent Ambersons

Ahh, so that's the one. Thanks for the correction, Shakespeherian.
posted by kingv at 1:26 PM on June 14, 2011

I was coming here after work to confess that I did not enjoy the movie either, philistine though that might make me. I liked Welles, I admired some of the shots, but most of the acting was stiff or just awful, the pacing was odd, and frankly most of it bored me. I left the theatre with the friend that I had seen it with, and both of us were shaking our heads, wondering why that is considered a classic. Give me The Third Man any day of the week.
posted by X-Himy at 3:16 PM on June 14, 2011

Rather spoilt in youtube resolution - but still great nonetheless - here is the famous opening shot.

Robert Altman paid homage to Welles' classic, as a deeply funny if not-so-subtle dig at the film's subject in the opening scene to The Player.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:41 PM on June 14, 2011

It's a very flawed film, and I agree with much of what VikingSword has said, but it's still very illuminating of Welles's genius. I'm not sure it's on my own Top 100 list, but it wouldn't be that far off. There are some other films of the era that feel just as awkward today, e.g. The Asphalt Jungle, but both show glimpses of the realism and naturalism that was to come to Hollywood.
posted by dhartung at 3:46 PM on June 14, 2011

One of my favourite films. I had no idea there was a recut. It's time to watch it again.
posted by juiceCake at 4:12 PM on June 14, 2011

Give me The Third Man any day of the week.

I like The Third Man too, but this is a weird choice to have to make. Welles had nothing to do with the making of that film aside from being in like two scenes.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:20 PM on June 14, 2011

Well, he did write the cuckoo clock speech, which is one of the most famous bits of dialogue in movie history.
posted by Atom Eyes at 5:10 PM on June 14, 2011

The only reason I brought up The Third Man, is in reference to Wells acting, because the acting is such a big part of the failure of ToE, with Wells performance being atrocious. Yet, he was capable of much better acting performances, as he proved in TTM. Again, this is not to deny the very real merits of some of the staging, camera blocking and cinematography in ToE. That said, The Third Man indeed is a vastly superior movie, but the comparison between them is interesting and quite instructive. The Third Man too featured outstanding B&W cinematography, with camera framing and angles which caused quite a bit of fuss with the critics, to the point where there was a lot of hilarious speculation about the extent of Wells involvement in the direction of the movie (Wells initially implied that he was deeply involved, before admitting that he wasn't). Both movies deal with seedy locales, deeply cynical political arrangements and human exploitation, and so forth. Yet, The Third Man is a masterpiece, whereas ToE is, apart from some technical aspects, artistically an outright failure. And The Third Man was released in 1949 - Touch of Evil, 1958, almost 10 years later. More fun comparisons: The Third Man also had a restoration re-release. The initial release of TTM was sanitized for the U.S. audience, because it was found "too seedy", and some 11 minutes were cut. The original version has since been released on DVDs and that's how it's shown in theaters now.

Also to say that Wells had like only two scenes in the movie, and what's the fuss - well, that completely mischaracterizes the role his character had in the film and Wells performance. He was the central motivational character who propelled the whole film throughout. [WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD] His character is the whole reason why our hero even appears in Vienna, he is the entirety of Cotton's pursuit and the McGuffin of the movie - he is the animating spirit of the film, yet his appearance is withheld for most of the film; when he is finally revealed to be alive and appears on screen, it places a huge weight on Wells as an actor - it's a lot of pressure, and Wells acquits himself admirably. And he certainly has more than just a couple of scenes - both in number, complexity and time. In fact, he actually ad-libbed a very famous line, which has made movie history: The "Swiss cuckoo clock" speech in the famous Ferris wheel scene.
posted by VikingSword at 5:10 PM on June 14, 2011

On preview, Atom Eyes got to the Swiss cuckoo clock speech before me. But yeah, it's movie history, no doubt about it.
posted by VikingSword at 5:11 PM on June 14, 2011

(Well-timed post for those who haven't seen this, FYI: This'll be on TCM in about 24 hours.. Wednesday night -- well, Thursday morning, if you prefer -- at 2:30 AM. Well worth watching. It's no Lady From Shanghai, though.)
posted by Mael Oui at 8:45 PM on June 14, 2011

Loved that little fictional cameo in 'Ed Wood'.
posted by ovvl at 8:48 PM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

The only reason I brought up The Third Man, is in reference to Wells acting, because the acting is such a big part of the failure of ToE, with Wells performance being atrocious. Yet, he was capable of much better acting performances, as he proved in TTM.

This completely boggles me. Welles is over-the-top in Touch of Evil, but he's playing an over-the-top character in a cartoonish movie and I think it works perfectly (whereas Charlton Heston plays his straight man way too straight). He's all sleaze and corruption, as the role dictates. In The Third Man he's way more of a ham; his performance is gimmicky and self-satisfied -- mugging for the camera, stepping all over Joseph Cotten's lines, that business with the indigestion -- and I never felt it bore the weight of the rest of the film like it needs to do.
posted by twirlip at 1:27 AM on June 15, 2011

that completely mischaracterizes the role his character had in the film and Wells performance

I don't think I'm mischaracterizing anything. My point is that saying 'Give me The Third Man' is like saying you'd rather watch Company Man than Annie Hall, because they both have Woody Allen.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:56 AM on June 15, 2011

Anyway I like Touch of Evil. It's flawed, sure, especially in the long middle, but I like it all the same. I don't think it's the catastrophic artistic failure you do. I hope we can still hang out after school.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:43 AM on June 15, 2011

« Older Newspaper publishing via Facebook   |   No they don't Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments