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

Welles' most difficult request was to edit out a shot of Quinlan's doting partner Sergeant Menzies (Joseph Calleia) collapsing on a table while arguing with Heston's self-righteous Vargas. This cut would epitomize the challenges and payoffs of the entire amazing exercise. All Welles had said was that his choice of an 18.5mm lens made the actor look grotesque and broke the visual continuity. But Welles had something more in mind. Coming near the halfway mark, the scene is the turning point for what L.A. Confidential writer-director Curtis Hanson calls the prodigious love story in Welles' oeuvre--the fraternal bond between Quinlan and Menzies. The sergeant looks up to the captain as paragon and teacher; he can't listen to Vargas accuse Quinlan of fixing cases--and, in closeup, he crumples. Schmidlin recalls saying, "We've got to take out this shot. But Walter said it couldn't be done right, that we had to sacrifice this one." Murch confesses he felt that "without the work print for the scene, with only the cut negative, it would be like trying to tie your shoelaces with one hand."

"The next day," Schmidlin says, "I went to walk in [Marin County's] Muir Woods, a great place for meditation. The sun was coming in through the trees, I felt as close to heaven as possible, and all I could see in front of me was Joseph Calleia's head collapsing on the table. I got to the barn that afternoon, as scheduled. I said, 'Walter, get the head off the table.' He said it couldn't be done. I said, 'You're Walter Murch and you can do it!' And he could. He worked on it for hours and got the head off the table while saving the integrity of the scene."

The deletion became a revelation. Rosenbaum, who'd been hired to enforce Universal's edict that Welles' memo be followed to the letter, knew as well as anyone that Welles--like God--is in the details. At one point Rosenbaum reinserted a critical off-screen grunt that underscores Quinlan's brutality during a beating scene. (The effect had been lost on the release-print negative.) But even he was amazed by how excising Calleia's closeup altered "everything else, like how a tiny adjustment in some homeopathic treatment can affect the whole body."

In previous versions there's no contest between Vargas, the straight-arrow Mexican lawman, and Menzies, Quinlan's innocent, overgrown protege. In the old cuts of the film, Menzies denounces Vargas' charges against Quinlan only after his collapse. As Murch says, "When he collapses on that table, the damage is done. To use diplomatic terminology, Vargas sees him blink. You watch that head fall and you think, whoops--there's the dry rot. So in the structure of the film from that point on, Menzies is Vargas' dog on a leash, and his character is reduced accordingly.

"But by taking that closeup out and never having him collapse, what he does in the last two reels of the film, he does on his own account, because he, morally, is outraged at what his best friend has done. And it hurts him: 'He made me what I am!' Menzies says, in a line that was cut out and now is back. Quinlan's relationship with him is kind of Shakespearean--in a sense, the great man is brought down precisely because of his greatness in his servant's eyes, though 'great' and 'greatness' should be in quotes. Now you see the wonderful ambiguity of Menzies' character."

And now, whenever Schmidlin thinks of Muir Woods, he thinks of Joseph Calleia's head.

By the time Dietrich delivered her eulogy to Quinlan at the end of Touch of Evil--"He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?"--Welles' film had left the directors at Skywalker thrilled and dazed.

With its deranged motelkeeper (Dennis Weaver) and its sexy portraits of an endangered Janet Leigh, as well as its seedy ambience and horrific murder, Touch of Evil had everyone thinking that Hitchcock had raided it for Psycho. Philip Kaufman and Carroll Ballard were swapping reactions about Welles' combination of filmmaking bravado and emotion--his use of wide-angle lenses in closeups and tracking shots, of a handheld camera in a homicide--and, overall, his knack for creating compositions that wring maximum tension per minute.

And Aggie Murch felt the group energy. "I think now is a special time and place, in film history, with this Bay Area group," she says. "There's a genuine love among the filmmakers up here. They were young and adventurous together, they've gone through fights and struggle, and everyone's got enough battle scars to appreciate the other. Now they're just artists trying to make their art."

Touch of Evil is scheduled to open Friday, October 30, in Phoenix.

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