Retouching Evil

Using detailed instructions left by Orson Welles, top film editor Walter Murch has remade "the best B-movie" ever, Welles' Touch of Evil

According to Leigh, the script "changed and grew and blossomed" during rehearsals. As a performer, she found the role of a spunky gal in a racially mixed marriage tantalizing. But what supercharged the production was Welles' adventurous attitude toward the whole filmmaking process.

The most famous and influential traveling shot in motion picture history opens the movie: The camera starts at waist level as a shadowy figure puts a bomb in the trunk of a car; it pulls up into an overhead view of the border town of Los Robles and follows the car down a couple of city blocks; then it picks up Mr. and Mrs. Vargas as they prepare to cross from his country to hers on foot. They reach the checkpoint just as a millionaire and a blonde in the car do--and the blonde complains, "I've got this ticking noise in my head."

The Vargases kiss. Welles cuts and--kaboom!--nails down the mood, setting, plot, even racial friction in one seductive, three-minute and 20-second camera move. (In the Murch re-edit you really get to see it--without opening credits and with a tawdry, ominous aural backdrop, including a car radio in the doomed vehicle that operates like a tracer in the viewer's mind.)

The one fine-grained account of the making of Touch of Evil appears in Heston's The Actor's Life: Journals 1956-1976. It corroborates Welles' own tales about freely changing locations, dialogue and camera plans, writing Dietrich into the movie at the last minute, and firing his first editor. Welles loved to work nocturnally. ("That gave Orson control," Leigh observes, shrewdly. "When you're shooting at night, the brass can't see your footage until you've done another night's shooting.") At one point Heston notes, "The company is tiring a little now, after fifteen straight nights, but they still work well and cheerfully, full of the hope of a good film."

Sadly, the glee that pervades Heston's log during the shoot dissipates during the editing. After filming was completed, Heston left for three months of shooting on William Wyler's The Big Country; he returned to see a cut of Touch of Evil and found it "uneven in tempo and unclear in the opening sequences," though full of "marvelous things" and Orson's "enormous talent." And after attending a sneak he wrote, "I'm afraid it's simply not a good picture. . . . It doesn't hold together as a story."

Heston now chuckles good-naturedly at that estimation. On the phone from his Beverly Hills home, he says he now rates the film as he did in his 1995 autobiography In the Arena: "that's where I say that I agree with Cahiers du Cinema. This movie is not Citizen Kane--or The Bridge on the River Kwai or The Grapes of Wrath--but it's unquestionably the best B-movie ever made. It's marvelously entertaining and consistently surprising. I don't know if Orson was the best director, writer, or actor that I worked with. But he was the most talented man I worked with, if talent means the capacity to get the most out of words and performances and concepts and make something worthwhile. I think these feats of legerdemain were so easy for him that he got bored."

To Welles, the issue wasn't his own ennui but rather the studio's hostility toward him and its lack of enthusiasm for the movie. In an interview with director and film buff Peter Bogdanovich, he said he wanted to finish the picture more than anything, but his initial cut so upset Universal that he was barred from the lot. He referred to it, poignantly, as "the only trouble I've ever had that I can't begin to fathom." However, even the most sympathetic biographers agree with Heston: When Welles absented himself from the studio during the inevitable postproduction give-and-take, roaming to New York for an appearance on TV's The Steve Allen Show and to Mexico to prepare for a never completed film of Don Quixote, he lost control of the movie.

Murch feels Welles must have understood the power-mad psyches of studio moguls--after all, he specialized in playing devious big shots and master manipulators like Kane, Cardinal Wolsey (A Man for All Seasons), and, of course, Quinlan. That Welles wouldn't train his seductive wiles on his bosses still bewilders Heston, who remains proud that Welles credited him with providing the opportunity to make Touch of Evil. The actor remembers the two of them sharing a bottle of champagne at a ham-and-egg joint right after the film's nocturnal wrap.

"You made one mistake," Heston told Welles. "You wrote two or three short scenes to remind the audience that I'm the hero of the film, when it's really about the fall of Captain Quinlan." Welles replied, with mock-relief, "Then I won't have to worry about the cutting."

Murch says that of the directors he's worked with in the flesh, Coppola is "temperamentally the closest to Welles, not only as a human being with all the ups and downs that they both went through, and as a polymath, but also as a filmmaker interested in synesthesia." Indeed, Coppola says, "I viewed the Orson Welles kind of theater as Western kabuki, in that every element was potentially the most important collaborating element--sometime sound, sometime lighting, sometime the actors. I brought that experience of going from area to area with me when I went from the theater into movies. And Walter encouraged and reinforced my ideas and brought them to a higher degree of sophistication."

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