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

Sure enough, it was: Universal's subsequent relegation of the film to the second half of double bills sealed a long-held Tinseltown view of Welles as a prodigal child and has-been. Luckily, after a single viewing of the studio cut, Welles composed that 58-page memo. It specified improvements to the sound, pace, rhythm, look, and drama. Murch used this memo as a blueprint; it turned out to be a magic carpet. "There were no clunkers" in Welles' notes, he told his audience at Skywalker, and the screening proved it. The Murch re-edit has a juggernaut velocity. It should remind movie lovers that Welles was no art-house obfuscator but a fabulous popular artist.

"People like Welles, and like Walter," says Kaufman, "are the people who know how to work film like sculpture, to discover what's hidden. Walter has been through tough times. He's survived defeats, but he's found that he can play with things in his mind and survive and come up with truly interesting creations--not as a boy wonder but as a man. And that's what you see with Welles in Touch of Evil, which is filled with an adult kind of sensibility; not the boy wonder of Citizen Kane, but Orson the man."

To Murch's wife, Aggie--also known as Muriel Murch, who hosts a show called Cover to Cover on the Berkeley-based radio station KPFA--Welles was present at Skywalker in a number of ways. Welles, she says, was "the bridge that burnt and left the embers in the river that these filmmakers could walk over. He was absolutely influential on everyone who was there and others who were not.

"I think it was poignant that Walter was the creative part of the team that pulled together this version of Touch of Evil," she continues. "It was Walter who followed the direction of the director. Welles' phantom slept on the sofa in his office and growled at him on occasion. I think, in the heart of their hearts, that all those filmmakers know the contribution Walter has made to their work. So it was touching for me to see George mount his homage to Walter--and a little scary. It was like, oh my goodness--have we left something that other filmmakers can build on?"

After the Skywalker screening, Lucas gave Murch an original Touch of Evil poster. "The Strangest Vengeance Ever Planned!" the poster promised. What Murch had delivered was a sweet revenge for Welles. And it seemed right, inevitable, fated. Murch held up a bound volume containing one of Welles' sound notes for the street scenes. "The format is just ordinary typing," he explained. "Then it breaks into a narrow paragraph all in caps, the only time he does that. It reads:

'IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT IN THE RECORDING OF ALL THESE NUMBERS WHICH ARE SUPPOSED TO BE HEARD THROUGH STREET LOUDSPEAKERS, THAT THE EFFECT SHOULD BE JUST THAT, JUST EXACTLY AS BAD AS THAT. THE MUSIC ITSELF SHOULD BE SKILLFULLY PLAYED, BUT IT WILL NOT BE ENOUGH IN DOING THE FINAL SOUND MIXING TO RUN THIS TRACK THROUGH AN ECHO CHAMBER WITH A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF FILTER. TO GET THE EFFECT WE'RE LOOKING FOR, IT'S ABSOLUTELY VITAL THAT THIS MUSIC BE PLAYED BACK THROUGH A CHEAP HORN IN THE ALLEY OUTSIDE THE SOUND BUILDING. AFTER THIS IS RECORDED IT THEN CAN BE LOUSED UP EVEN FURTHER BY THE BASIC PROCESS OF RE-RECORDING. BUT A TINNY EXTERIOR HORN IS ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, AND SINCE IT DOES NOT REPRESENT VERY MUCH IN THE WAY OF MONEY, I FEEL JUSTIFIED IN INSISTING UPON THIS AS THE RESULT WILL REALLY BE WORTH IT.'"

Murch says that when he first scanned that passage it raised the hairs on his neck: Welles seemed to be discussing a process that Murch thought he'd invented himself and had nicknamed "airballing."

"Going back to the early '70s," he says, "I was dissatisfied with how I heard music that was supposed to be coming from a scene. What people normally did was put music on and then filter it slightly and make it a little squawky, maybe put it through an echo chamber, but usually not even that. There was a discontinuity for me between the space I was looking at and the sound, which seemed not to know whether it was coming from this space or was part of the score. So when I used 'source' music, I would just play it in a room and record it with another tape recorder, so it would have the sound of a radio or a record player in that room. Then I would take the original 'clean' track and put it right next to the so-called 'dirty track' or 'airball' track. I was creating a ball of air around the original sound. In the mix I could decide just how much of one track or the other I could use. And this came out of everything I had done in film school."

In 1968, Murch and his friend and USC classmate George Lucas both went after the annual Warner Bros. fellowship, which set up the winner as an intern on Warner studio productions. Murch says they made a pact before the final decision that whoever won would give the other guy a hand up. Lucas took the prize, met Coppola on Finian's Rainbow, then went to work for the dynamic, only slightly older filmmaker on The Rain People. He called Murch in the fall of 1968 and asked if he'd cut sound for Coppola. In the middle of 1969, Lucas, Coppola, Murch, and their families moved to San Francisco in a convoy. And Coppola installed an expensive sound panel at Zoetrope, first thing.

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