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

Schmidlin says he and Louis Feola, president of MCA/Universal Home Video, would meet socially and engage in casual conversation until "I'd drop the bomb and bring up Touch of Evil." Finally, one night over dinner, before Schmidlin had a chance to raise the subject, Feola told him there would be a meeting to discuss whether Touch of Evil was ripe for a theatrical rerelease. The next day Schmidlin started getting excited calls from Universal. He urged the studio executives to find the full memo and launch a re-edit based on its recommendations. Chairman emeritus Lew Wasserman himself helped them get the document. The project went ahead with one stipulation: Schmidlin stick to Welles' memo and other period documents.

Welles had written his memo so cleverly that executives and craftspeople who weren't on his wavelength could still grasp it immediately. Early on Schmidlin fed a VHS cassette into a computer editing system and tried out one of Welles' tips--intercutting Quinlan trying to intimidate Mr. Vargas with Grandi trying to intimidate Mrs. Vargas. (Welles wanted to signal to the audience that these two story strands carried equal weight.) It worked without tweaking of any kind. But Schmidlin also recognized what he dubs "innuendoes of the highest caliber"--audiovisual subtleties that only a film sophisticate could translate. "Carrying out this memo had to be primarily an editor's project, not a producer's or a preservationist's," he says. "And everything [Welles] was saying in this memo was crying out 'Walter Murch.'"

At the time Murch was laboring, without credit, on the final picture edit of The Apostle. Last December, Murch agreed to do the show. "He had read the memo once," says Schmidlin. "Then he read the memo again to me, all 58 pages. He wanted to examine the memo and address each of the issues; he was trying to judge their emotional effect, and make a list of the changes that had to be done. And this was the meeting that won his commitment. I think Orson talked him into it; Walter realized that Orson had given him something serious to work with."

Says Murch: "I'd never been talked to by a director as directly and fully as in this memo. The level of articulation in this piece is astonishing. By the time he wrote this memo, he had seen the abyss, and any smoke or bullshit that he normally might have blown was swamped by the desperate need to get these things down and not venture into ambiguous areas. This was his last stand; he was trying to be direct."

Schmidlin notes that as Murch finished reading certain portions of the memo, "He would look up at me and smile like he knew, he really knew. It gave me goosebumps. Walter operates at some remove from the studio, but he knows how the studios operate and knows what they can do to harm a director's film. This was his chance to listen to a director, without any interference. And what a director!"

By January, Universal had assembled the materials needed for the re-edit. The prime sources were the original negative of the 96-minute 1958 release prints and the single, solitary print of a 108-minute studio-cut preview of the film. Murch digitized both versions and entered them into his editing computer. The short version had a negative in decent shape, plus music, sound effects, and dialogue on separate tracks. These, along with a CD of the original Henry Mancini score, gave Murch all the sounds he needed.

Meanwhile, Bob O'Neil, Universal's director of film preservation and vault services, toiled at lifting a negative off the long print that would allow Murch to fuse material from both versions. Everyone got caught up in the spirit of discovery. After reading the memo, O'Neil went to the Nuart Theatre to see the long version in a noir festival, and was astonished at Welles' perspicacity: "During the scene in which Janet is terrorized in the motel, the cast just keeps marching into the room. Welles had said [that] the way it was cut [in the studio-approved version] the scene would get a bad laugh. And, at the Nuart, it did get a bad laugh. Again and again, having studied the memo, I knew that what he predicted was bound to happen. It convinced me he was a genius."

The prospect of reworking a Welles classic never daunted Murch. Digesting Welles' writing made him feel as if the director were nearby--snoozing on the sofa in Murch's office. It took the editor only a couple of weeks to make his first pass through the material. And Murch knew that after 10 minutes of watching his rough assemblage, "It was a better film. And that betterness sustained itself throughout. I was moved by what had happened; it's like when you're building a boat, and there comes a certain point when you put it together, and then you hit the hull of a boat, and the whole boat resonates--you feel like it's all of a piece."

Schmidlin worked with Murch at Blackberry Farm: "As he edited in the barn, I would go over every day. He's not a five-day-a-week, nine-to-five kind of guy; he's a seven-day-a-week, whenever-he-gets-up-to-whenever-he-gets-tired kind of guy. He'd take off on a Friday afternoon, say see you at Saturday at nine a.m., and still be there at ten p.m.; then he'd say, see you tomorrow. There was no clock."

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