by William C. Martell

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Forty years ago Universal Pictures released Orson Welles' classic TOUCH OF EVIL, which director Paul Schrader called the last authentic film noir. The picture was hailed by critics Francois Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, won the grand prize at the 1958 Brussels World Fair film festival, and made many "year's best" lists. The New York Times review said, "Thanks to Orson Welles, nobody, and we mean nobody, will nap during TOUCH OF EVIL. Just try." Welles, who had been out of the Hollywood loop for almost a decade, saw this film as his ticket back into the studio system and was hoping to put together and five picture deal with Universal.

Then the film flopped.

To quote screenwriter George Axelrod (about THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE), "The film went from being a flop to a classic without passing through success." TOUCH OF EVIL still makes best lists, is the subject of the conversation that opens the movie THE PLAYER, is discussed in GET SHORTY (a scene plays on TV), is the film Welles is making in ED WOOD, and even gets a mention in BASIC INSTINCT. I referenced it in my original script for Mark Lester's THE BASE which opens in a sleazy border town. Director Curtis Hanson (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL) says, "TOUCH OF EVIL has always been my favorite of Orson Welles' films, as much for its inhibited excesses as for its startling brilliance. Lurid, flamboyantly exhibitionist, as palpably nasty as the murky waters of the canal featured in its climax."

But the film we hail as a classic is not the film Orson Welles made. Cut from 111 minutes down to 96 (including additional scenes directed by Harry Keller) with a radically altered sound track, the picture is little more than an echo of the cut Welles delivered to the studio. Diluted Evil.

Welles was no stranger to studio recutting. His follow up to CITIZEN KANE, the epic family saga THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (based on the Booth Tarkington novel) was trimmed from 148 minutes to 88 minutes and released as the bottom half of a double bill with a Lupe Velez "Mexican Spitfire" comedy. After seeing Universal's cut of the TOUCH OF EVIL, he fired off a 58 page memo to studio boss Edward Muhl suggesting improvements and explaining reasons behind decision made in his original version. "He understood the reality of the situation," says editor Walter Murch, "which was that it was the studio's film, not his. In the memo, he did his best to advise them about the content of the film, suggesting ways to improve it. His comments were funny, insightful..." and largely ignored by the studio.

Until now.

"It's so old it's new," cigar smoking saloon owner Marlene Dietrich in TOUCH OF EVIL.

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This week Universal Pictures will release the "director's cut" of TOUCH OF EVIL forty years after the studio's butchered version hit theaters. We can finally see this innovative masterwork in its complete form. A wild, fever dream of a film that not only holds up after all of these years, but continues to push the limits of what film can do. More modern than most of today's films, TOUCH OF EVIL is the kind of film David Lynch wishes he could make. And the story of a corrupt bigoted cop who frames suspects by planting evidence seems even more topical in today's world of Mark Furman and the Rodney King incident.

"What happened was Universal asked me, 'If you could do a special edition laser disk, what would you produce?' and I said I'd like to do TOUCH OF EVIL," re-edit producer Rick Schmidlin explained to me. "I thought the film should be re-examined, with notes and documents and interviews with the surviving cast members about what this film was supposed to be. And I was told very politely that there was no market (for this disk). Every time I would have lunch with the President of Universal Home Video over the course of three years, I would ask 'When are you guys going to greenlight the special edition of TOUCH OF EVIL for me?' About a year ago I brought it up again, and he told me: 'I'm going into a meeting tomorrow about Universal restoration, and I'm going to ask about TOUCH OF EVIL. If you don't hear from me, I don't ever want to hear about this project again." At two O'clock that afternoon the phone rang. TOUCH OF EVIL would be Universal's next restoration project.

A condensed form of Welles' original 58 page memo had been published in the Fall 1992 issue of Film Quarterly, and had been brought to Schmidlin's attention by cinematographer Allen Daviau (E.T.). "I started off with the 58 page memo, I also had a 12 page memo that Welles had written after an August screening, and a 9 page memo about sound design." Schmidlin also had access to the original script, production notes, continuity reports, copies of the editor's script and sound cue sheets.

"We found an original negative of the short version, and a good print of the long version" in Universal's vaults. Using Welles' notes, Schmidlin and Academy Award winning editor Walter Murch made over fifty changes, restoring the film to reflect Welles' original vision.

"She doesn't look Mexican," Welles describing Leigh in TOUCH OF EVIL.

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In 1956 the temperamental Welles had been banished from the studio system and was making independent films before there was such a thing. His current production DON QUIXOTE had just run out of money, so he went to Hollywood to find an acting job and was cast as a corrupt cop opposite Charlton Heston in the low budget film version of Whit (WARNING SHOT) Masterson's novel BADGE OF EVIL. Heston, suddenly hot off THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, reminded the studio that Welles was a pretty good director, and suggested they hire him to helm the film. B movie producer Albert Zugsmith (HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, TEACHER WAS A SEXPOT) took the star's advice and signed Welles to direct.

"Orson never did anything ordinary," Janet Leigh told me, "he only did things extraordinary."

The first extraordinary thing Welles did was to rewrite the standard L.A. cop drama into an edgy, sexy and dangerous border town thriller. The American detective lead role was changed to a Mexican narcotics investigator with a blonde American wife. "In the original script, which Welles rewrote entirely, the Attorney was American," Heston says. Two other racially mixed couples were added to the script. The weird, expressionistic story now takes place in a nightmare world: dark, evil, corrupt... so strong you can smell the raw sewage in the canal behind the shanty town filled with hookers and low level mobsters.

"I want to see all the strip teasers in the joint," Orson Welles in TOUCH OF EVIL.

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Welles other major contribution to the script was to push sexuality on film far past the boundaries permissible in the 1950s... in fact, the film plays as hot as any of today's more racy soap operas. Heston and Leigh are on their honeymoon when they witness the murder of a wealthy contractor and his stripper girlfriend. Instead of spending the weekend in bed (as they had clearly planned) the murder investigation separates the hot young couple. Though censors at the time forbid showing married couples in the same bed, Welles gets around this by showing a sexy lingerie clad Janet Leigh laying in bed having 'phone sex' with Heston. To add to the perverseness of the scene, Heston is on a store's public phone with a blind woman only a few feet away listening to his every word and smiling. Kinky.

The murder victim's daughter is shacking up with a Mexican gigolo who admits to only sleeping with her for the money, Welles' corrupt cop once had a long term affair with the madam at a whore house, there is a bull-dyke girl played by Mercedes McCambridge (THE EXORCIST) who wants to stay and watch a gang-bang, and of course the above mentioned strip teasers who seem to spend as much time walking around the club in lingerie as dancing.

The film was shot on a budget of only $829,000 on location in Venice, California and a motel up by Lancaster, California, brought in on time and on budget.

"Your future is all used up," Dietrich to Orson Welles in TOUCH OF EVIL.

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1950s America was probably unprepared for this much in-your-face sexuality. They were definitely unprepared for the dark, twisted tone of the film. The voice over on the original 1958 trailer for the film warns, "Only the offbeat, creative, original creative powers of Orson Welles could bring you so different a drama."

It's hard to blame Universal for re-editing the film and then dumping it on the market with little fanfare. "It really didn't get any release, it didn't get any press coverage, they didn't push it," Heston said. Expecting to get a standard B movie cop drama, they ended up with something entirely different. "TOUCH OF EVIL smacks of brilliance but ultimately flounders in it," Variety said in their original review. "The Universal release falls in no category - it's not a 'big' picture nor is it in the exploitation class."

"Welles wanted to make a movie that would attract teenagers and cinephiles alike," Schmidlin said. "He wanted the couple with the pick up truck going to the Drive In in Texas and he wanted Jean Luc Godard and Francios Truffaut. He wanted to make a film that was going to please everybody, and I think that's what really hurt him ultimately is that it did not please the powers that be at Universal.

Orson Welles never directed another Hollywood film. His five picture deal was over before it began.

"I didn't recognize you... you ought to lay off those candy bars," Dietrich to Welles in TOUCH OF EVIL.

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The re-cut version may be fifteen minutes longer, but none of it is fat. One of the major changes the studio made in the short version was to remove the film's cross-cutting between parallel stories, creating LONGER scenes and slowing down the pace of the film.

From Welles' memo: "The scene between Grandi and Susan is a thousand percent more effect played as it was first arraigned, in two parts, with a cut away to the (concurrent action) scene of the explosion between the two parts."

"There were about 50 changes between sound and visual," Schmidlin explained to me. The most startling difference in the rec-cut version is the legendary three minute opening tracking shot. In the 96 minute version, the studio obscured the images by using it as a title sequence.

"We had a textless opening that I had heard existed," Schmidlin says. "The reason the textless opening existed was because Universal in the 1950s released films to Europe, and would change the opening titles to French, Italian, or German. The opening shot was crucial because we had to remove not only the credits but the Henry Mancini sound track," Schmidlin explains.

From Welles' memo: "As the camera moves through the streets of the Mexican border town, our plan was to feature a succession of different and contrasting Latin-American musical numbers the effect of passing from one cabaret orchestra to the next, each blasting it's own come-on for the tourists."

The re-cut version removes Mancini's score from this three minute shot to make room four source music. Another interesting change in the new version is the use of more realistic sound. Welles noted in his memo that music from the speakers in the motel "should sound as bad as it would in real life" instead of the crisp, clean, studio recording. This concept in sound design, called Worldizing by its creator Walter Murch, was twenty years ahead of its time. "I thought I'd done it first," said Murch, "but Orson Welles had thought of it years before!" Ironic that Murch had been chosen as editor and sound designer for the re-cut version.

"Hold her legs!" Valentin De Vargas organizes a gang bang in TOUCH OF EVIL.

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"How can a B picture be made with Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Dennis Weaver, Joseph Calleia, shot by Russell Metty who went on to do SPARTICUS, Foley actually did the foley on this picture, written and directed by Orson Welles?" Schmidlin asks. "The studio didn't know what they had. They thought they had a B picture... it was NOT a B picture. Orson Welles was ahead of his time."

Editor Walter Murch says, "The film now moves more smoothly, forcefully and clearly in the direction it was originally headed before the studio intervened."

"It not only plays beautifully, but looks and sounds the way the master himself wanted," Schmidlin concludes, "which is what people really want - to see Orson Welles' work as he'd planned it. It's an historic event."

Pure evil has finally been restored.


TOUCH OF EVIL - my review for Independent Film Channel Magazine.

My Gary Graver (Welles DP) Obit


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