Retouching Evil

A pungent, ardent yearning permeated the big theater at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch one balmy evening in July. It felt like artistic homesickness. Walter Murch--the renowned film editor and sound designer--was making an audacious presentation to a few dozen filmmakers, journalists, broadcasters and trusted friends. George Lucas himself took time off from his Star Wars prequels to host the event for Murch, a pal and creative partner for more than 30 years. Indeed, the occasion was almost a gathering of the clan for the San Francisco Bay Area's best directors. And perhaps even a restatement of faith.

Philip Kaufman (director of The Right Stuff) and Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion) were there; so was that relative newcomer to the area, Barry Levinson, who hit the Zeitgeist jackpot with Wag the Dog. (The only member of this once close-knit group who couldn't make it was Francis Ford Coppola.) They showed up to honor Murch, who established audiovisual experimentation as a hallmark of San Francisco filmmaking. Murch is the master of a special kind of synesthesia--making a movie's sound enlarge or color its imagery (and vice versa). A supreme example of his art occurs when Michael Corleone readies himself to commit a double murder in Coppola's The Godfather: As he sits in a family-style Italian restaurant with his imminent victims, the roar of an elevated train takes over the soundtrack and hurtles us into the torrent of his brain. (Murch also did the sound for The Godfather Part II.)

The Godfather (1972) wasn't even a ray on the horizon in 1969. That's when Murch, Lucas and their fearless leader Coppola formed the core of a caravan that journeyed from Los Angeles to San Francisco to found Coppola's pioneering film company, American Zoetrope. But Murch's abilities were immediately felt in American Zoetrope movies such as Coppola's The Rain People (1969) and Lucas' THX-1138 (1971). And American Graffiti (1973) and Coppola's 1974 production of The Conversation and his 1979 Apocalypse Now (for which Murch edited both picture and sound) became milestones of movie sound design. In 1996, Murch took home unprecedented twin Oscars for editing and sound as part of the Academy sweep for Berkeley-based producer Saul Zaentz's The English Patient.

In the '90s, film restoration and rereleasing have ranged from the sacred (Vertigo) to the absurd (Grease). What Murch was unveiling at Lucas' ranch, however, was a radical and unparalleled project--the re-editing and restoration of an odd, flawed masterpiece, Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. As if to celebrate its 40th anniversary, Murch structured its images and sounds according to the dictates of an extraordinary, 58-page memo Welles wrote after seeing a studio-decreed cut released over his objections in 1958. Murch was pulling off a final, critical polish for a director who was deceased.

At age 55, Murch cuts an imposing figure--tall, bearded and angular. He has a resonant voice, a steady gaze, and an unpretentious, philosophical manner. Before the film started, he stood up and used a quip from Kaufman to break the ice: "We will show no film before its time," a sardonic reference to the wine commercial that made Welles' Q rating jump in the years before his 1985 death. Then Murch went on to explain the torturous history behind one of the freest, riskiest and raciest movies ever financed by a Hollywood studio.

With one energizing flourish after another, Touch of Evil takes viewers on a jolting ride through a seedy town on the U.S.-Mexico border. At every turn, the glamorous stars--Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, as a determined Mexican prosecutor and his wife--come up against a couple of charismatic grotesques: a baggy-pants crime boss named Grandi, played by Akim Tamiroff, and a tainted American police captain named Quinlan, played by Welles himself.

Pseudo-insiders might ask: Was this a job for Walter Murch? After all, when Murch pops up in Movie Brat biographies or the occasional interview or profile, he's usually portrayed as an austere, workaholic intellectual. A graduate of the Collegiate School in his hometown, New York City, he earned a B.A. in art history and romance languages from Johns Hopkins in 1965. He studied Italian medieval art history in Perugia, and French literature and 19th-century art history in Paris before getting his master's in cinema at USC in 1968. He peppers his conversations with fables, anecdotes and aphorisms. His writing about film technique and aesthetics (including his book In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing) is exquisitely controlled, full of elegant theories and proofs. Hailing his ingenuity, intuition, constancy and warmth, Coppola has called him Gerald McBoingBoing grown up--referring to the playful cartoon character who expressed himself only through sound. Others speak of him in tones befitting a Professor Emeritus McBoingBoing.

But there's something else about Murch--a blend of passion and, yes, showmanship. I first met him in 1986 at the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley, where he was editing Kaufman's masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He had filled an entire room with mounted 35mm stills of every major shot in the movie. Though it was a useful tool for him to play with the imagery, there was also something impresario-like about his pride in it; in the cramped world of film editing, that room was a De Mille-like gesture. (He continues to use still photos, though he's never again had the luxury of putting them in a separate room.) He has also invented an invisible splicing system for standard wide-screen movies that makes the running of early cuts less jarring. And he takes legendary care with temporary mixes--he and his colleagues spent a 140-hour week preparing the sound for the epochal screening of the unfinished Apocalypse Now at Cannes, three months before its American premiere. In short, he sweats to display a film at peak impact even at the earliest stages.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Sragow