Briefly: The troubled history of Orson Welles in Hollywood came to an end during post-production on Touch of Evil. After shooting completed and Welles left town, Universal ordered re-shoots, without the director’s participation, to help make his strange, disturbing vision more salable. Welles sat in on a screening of the rough cut. Sensing that the movie was being taken away from him, he sent a 58-page memo to Universal requesting changes to editing, dubbing, and sound design. The studio then shut him out of the process altogether, cutting nearly fifteen minutes out of the film, releasing it as a B movie, and leaving it for dead. Over the years, critics and film students carried the torch for Welles’s accomplishment. Finally, in 1998, the team of producer Rick Schmidlin, editor Walter Murch, and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum compiled a new cut of the film from all surviving footage, using the memo as a guide. A posthumous director’s cut of sorts, this would become known as the definitive version, leading to a mass reappraisal of Touch of Evil as one of Welles’s, and therefore Hollywood’s, greatest films.
What first struck me watching the theatrical version (henceforth “the 1958 cut”) and the reconstructed film (henceforth “the 1998 cut”) back-to-back was how many elements stay the same, and how subtle some of the changes are. The studio hadn’t ignored Welles’s requests altogether. The 1958 cut was clearly influenced by his memo — it’s just that, instead of taking the trouble to make the specific improvements in some cases, Universal simply slashed the offending passages en route to the 95-minute running time. Some of the differences in pacing between the 1958 and 1998 cuts are almost subliminal, and entire scenes play out identically. At the risk of sounding like a philistine, I must admit my experience with both versions in the last few days leaves me unconvinced that the 1998 cut is altogether superior.
There are three types of alterations in the 1998 cut: additions and omissions, rearranged shots, and changes to the sound design. The second two categories are pretty much unimpeachable, albeit not always significant in their effects. The first category, though, is a mixed bag. The omissions from the 1958 cut tend to clear away redundancies in storytelling, but oddly enough, some of the added scenes contribute new redundancies of their own. The biggest revelation for me from the 1958 cut was the (perhaps unintentional) patience in character development. The last line spoken by police captain Hank Quinlan (Welles), speaking to his partner, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), is, “That’s the second bullet I stopped for you.” Menzies’ intense devotion to Quinlan is never verbally explained before this moment. But the 1998 cut includes an earlier scene in which Menzies tells the story of the first bullet to Susie Vargas (Janet Leigh), a character who never interacts with Quinlan at all. The dialogue is purely expository. That same sequence shows Menzies driving Mrs. Vargas to a motel. Along the way, he arrests the local crime boss “Uncle” Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), who’d been tailing them in order to harass Mrs. Vargas. Menzies then takes his man to Quinlan and explains everything that happened, so that even with the whole previous sequence chopped off, the information is conveyed. It’s been argued that the shorter film gets confusing, but I found the plot legible enough without these repetitions.
Some of the additions that really do work simply contribute extra moments to scenes that were already there, adding to the atmosphere and giving some of the great actors in this film, including Calleia, Marlene Dietrich, and Dennis Weaver, a chance to fill out their performances. The scenes with Weaver’s character, the “night man” working at Susie’s motel, are particularly crucial, although Weaver cracks me up in either version. The scene in which Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) arrives to inquire after his wife, not knowing she’s been abducted by the Grandi gang, plays out with greater urgency when played from start to finish, unlike the truncated 1958 version. A later shot of Quinlan standing beside a mounted bull’s head is another welcome addition to the 1998 cut, purely for its symbolism.
In the second category, the most notable shuffling of shots happens early in the film. After the explosion that kicks off the story, Mike and Susie are separated. He is confronted for the first time by Quinlan at the crime scene, she by Uncle Joe in town. In the 1958 cut, these scenes play one after the other. Welles specifically requested that they be cross-cut back and forth, giving equal weight to each scene and establishing that the separation of husband and wife will be a central plot element. The cross-cutting in the 1998 version also sets up a nice parallelism between the story’s two villains, and just keeps the audience engaged and thinking about two things at once. A couple sequences toward the end are also improved, however marginally. When Quinlan gets up to leave the bordello run by Tana (Dietrich) for the last time, the 1958 cut has them making eye contact. In the later version, the moment is narrowly missed, which quietly adds a note of failed resolution to these characters’ long, sad history. Finally, the moment of Quinlan’s death is edited with a greater punch in the 1998 cut, incorporating the all-important recording device into the fallen cop’s demise.
The third and final category covers the most famous alteration made to the film. In the 1958 cut, the brilliant opening shot, following a bomb placed in the trunk of a car as the car is driven across the U.S.-Mexico border, is accompanied by the opening credits and a non-diegetic score from Henry Mancini. Welles wanted diegetic music for this scene, with different styles blaring from the nightclubs the car passes, and the car radio itself, creating a tapestry of sounds. He also wanted the credits to be saved for later. With these changes executed for the 1998 cut, it’s easier to see the strategy behind the ostentatious tracking shot. The opening creatively lays out the world of the film in addition to conjuring up suspense. As I’ve explained before, I don’t consider the credits or the music to be deal-breakers, by any stretch, but it’s hard not to see the new version as an improvement. The only other distinctly memorable change to the sound comes during an offscreen interrogation of the suspected bomber. Intriguingly, Quinlan punches the young man in the 1998 cut, a sound not heard in the original.
Maybe my only real problem is that I saw the same movie twice in quick succession. As I discovered during my Studio Ghibli retrospective, the second viewing tends to be more subdued regardless of my affection for the film. It would also be prudent to concede that Schmidlin, Murch, and Rosenbaum — not to mention Heston and Leigh, both of whom approved of the changes — know a little more about making movies than I do. Even so, I take a “live and let live” approach at present. The film’s greatest moments are intact in either version, from the opening shot, to the long-take scenes at the suspect’s house, to the marvelous editing sequence as Vargas follows Quinlan and Menzies with the recording device. There’s a reason this film was respected enough to merit such an unprecedented retrofitting in the first place. Touch of Evil contains some of the most awesome images in the noir pantheon and is filled with dense characterization and themes about police corruption and North American politics that have aged exceptionally well.
Reading about the production of this film is heartbreaking. What seemed like a great experience for everyone involved suddenly turns to disappointment, the last attempt to make Welles a commercially successful filmmaker coming to naught. What I never could have expected was that, in this story of a masterful artist tormented by commercial interests, I’d find myself leaning away from Welles a little bit. He might have been a little less combative with studio bosses, and his tendency to leave before editing was completed encouraged others to take over for him. (In an irony too delicious for words, while Touch of Evil was being edited, Welles went to Mexico to try and get his never-completed film of Don Quixote off the ground.) His ideas for the film were innovative, exciting, and personal. He totally elevated what could have been a mediocre film. But the folks at Universal got the movie finished, and even if they didn’t quite know what they were doing, it all turned out great anyway.