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

Murch's ordeal was comparable to Coppola's on The Godfather: Between the time Murch made the deal and the time he made the movie, Disney had changed hands, and the new executives disliked the dailies, looked askance at Murch's modus operandi, and panicked over any spike in the budget. In a push to speed up the production (at a studio in England), the first assistant director and cinematographer were fired, others hired; and a studio watchdog replaced the original producer. Finally, Disney decided that Murch would be fired, too. But Lucas got wind of the move. And though he was on a publicity tour in Japan for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, he swung into action. As he remembers it, "I called Disney and was told they had shut down the picture. I told them they didn't want to do that--you should never shut down a picture anyway, but if you do, you should do it on a Friday, not a Wednesday. They did continue the picture to the weekend. I flew to London and met with the Disney executive, who was already there, and told him I'd act as an executive producer myself. Things got back on track."

Coppola, Kaufman and others closed ranks behind Murch. Some of Murch's friends theorize that he likes the contained atmosphere of an editing room better than the tumult of a set. But the studio-scarred Coppola, with a subconscious echo of The Conversation's signature line, says, "He was surrounded by detractors, and he didn't have the natural political instincts to kill them before they kill you."

After the sabotage of Touch of Evil, Welles re-entered vagabondage, making movies all over the world while aching to return to Hollywood. After the crucible of Return to Oz, Murch drew sustenance from his family in Bolinas (and from coworkers who were as loyal as family). He met Aggie in England in 1964, and they married in New York in 1965. He and Aggie have raised a son--another Walter!--and a daughter, Beatrice, and two foster children, sisters Carrie and Connie Angland, who became members of the family and went into the movies themselves: Carrie as a makeup artist and Connie as a puppeteer. When they were just about grown, in 1987, Aggie went back to school herself. She had trained as a nurse, and returned to get a bachelor's degree in nursing; but a creative writing class prodded her to become a radio dramatist, host, and author. (Her book, Journey in the Middle of the Road: One Woman's Path Through a Midlife Education was published in 1995.)

Ten years after Murch's father died (at age 60, in 1967), he found a father figure in the director Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity), for whom he edited Julia. (Based on part of Pentimento, Lillian Hellman's autobiographical follow-up to An Unfinished Woman, it won three Academy Awards in 1977.) The documentary that Murch directed and edited in memory of Zinnemann--As I See It, named for Zinnemann's credo, "I try to tell the truth as I see it, and the beauty has to take care of itself"--is, as Aggie says, "A true act of love." In turn, Murch himself has become the mentor for generations of editors and sound experts. He's known for honesty and generosity.

Pat Jackson recalls that when Murch was teaching a class at the San Francisco Art Institute, he asked one of the students, "Why in God's name did you make this movie, and who did you think would want to see it?" Jackson thought that was a bit harsh. But Murch retorted, "No, it's a mass medium. If people don't want to see your movie, it's better to find that out sooner than later." On the other hand, when Murch went to a rough-cut screening of Crumb in 1994, and everyone else walked out convinced it was a debacle, Walter told director Terry Zwigoff, "The one shot where Crumb is at the bus stop should be a few frames longer; add three seconds. Apart from that, don't change a thing." Murch then went on to mix the film for free.

Murch probably would have done the same for Welles--a director who, despite his joke to Heston, cared deeply about editing and sound.

In the early '90s, Chicago Reader critic and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum sold an abbreviated version of Welles' memo on the editing of Touch of Evil to the UC Berkeley-based Film Quarterly. It's a valiant, rending document, filled with acute diagnoses and heartfelt pleas. At one point Welles writes, "I must ask that you open your mind for a moment to this opinion from the man who, after all, made the picture."

Once he read that version of the memo, producer Rick Schmidlin, who has an eclectic list of credits (including The Doors Live at the Hollywood Bowl), began the movement that became Murch's project by pitching Touch of Evil to Universal as a laserdisc special edition. Schmidlin thought he'd add commentaries by Heston, Leigh and Welles aficionados, along with any documents he could find, and, as a bonus, tack on samples of Welles' key suggestions--like unrolling the opening shot without credits.

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