by William C. Martell
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
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.
"It's so old it's new," cigar smoking saloon owner Marlene
Dietrich in TOUCH OF EVIL.
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'
"She doesn't look Mexican," Welles describing Leigh in TOUCH
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.
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.
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
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
"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.
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
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
"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
"Hold her legs!" Valentin De Vargas organizes a gang bang in
TOUCH OF EVIL.
"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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