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 had bargained for final cut on Kane, but after controversy crippled that film, RKO wrested away control of his follow-up, the magnificent The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and aborted his attempt at a folkloric Brazilian epic, It's All True. After the modest, well-made thriller The Stranger (1946), the sometimes dazzling Lady from Shanghai (1948), and a bristling, experimental Macbeth (1948), he and Hollywood gave up on each other. He became the king of star turns in runaway costume epics like The Prince of Foxes (1949) and the occasional classy project such as Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949); he used his salaries to budget seat-of-the-pants movies, like his inspired Othello (1951).

So when Universal hired Welles to direct and write--as well as act in--Touch of Evil, he wasn't slumming: He was fighting for the chance to become once again an American artist working in America after nearly a decade abroad. He thoroughly revamped the script, based on a serviceable roman policier called Badge of Evil (written by Robert A. Wade and H. Billy Miller under the pseudonym Whit Masterson). He made anti-Mexican racism a key issue, telling the story from three different points of view and bringing a tragic dimension to his heavy of heavies--Captain Quinlan, an obsessive police captain with an adoring henchman, an instinct for finding culprits, and a penchant for framing them. Reversing the racial makeup of two central characters, Welles turned the putative hero (played by Heston) into a Mexican supernarc named Vargas and his new wife (Janet Leigh) into an Anglo from Philadelphia.

But Welles did his most glorious work during shooting on the back lot and in Venice, California, which stood in for the border town of Los Robles. It was, for him, a homecoming. "When Welles went to Europe," Kael wrote in her rave review of Welles' Falstaff (1966), "he lost his single greatest asset as a movie director: his sound," and "compensated by developing greater visual virtuosity."

Back in America for Touch of Evil, Welles took his camera wizardry to new heights while cooking up a soundtrack as dense, unruly, and alive as Kane's. And he managed to meld old colleagues, like Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Tamiroff, and Dietrich; young stars like Leigh and Heston; and seasoned Hollywood hands, like Joseph Calleia, into a melodramatis personae vivid enough to anchor a gutter-baroque extravaganza.

Before starring in Touch of Evil, Leigh knew Welles only from his movies and a few shared moments on the celebrity circuit, but she leaped at the opportunity to appear in a Welles production. "Orson and I weren't best friends. We didn't double-date, but we'd met at a benefit in London," she says. It was right before Leigh and then-husband Tony Curtis were to costar in Houdini (1953), so Welles did a magic trick with them. She dined with Welles once in Europe, saw him in Hollywood a couple of times, then was startled to get a telegram from him reading, "Dear Janet, I'm so thrilled you're going to be in my picture. I can't wait to work with you. Orson."

Her agent said Welles wasn't supposed to contact her before they worked out the details; Leigh responded, "'Details, shmetails. I want to work with Orson.' I did! Who wouldn't?" Although studio executives distrusted him, creative people never stopped adoring him. "I was mesmerized by his talent and by him--he was an absolutely riveting man," Leigh reminisces. "In Touch of Evil he was padded, and he had fake jowls for that heavy, saggy effect. He really didn't look like that at al. He could charm the pants off of Mother Teresa. I don't mean that he was overtly sexual or a flirt, but he did ooze this charm and fascination."

According to Leigh, the script "changed and grew and blossomed" during rehearsals. As a performer, she found the role of a spunky gal in an ethnically mixed marriage tantalizing. But what supercharged the production was Welles' adventurous attitude toward the whole filmmaking process.

The most famous and influential traveling shot in motion picture history opens the movie: The camera starts at waist level as a shadowy figure puts a bomb in the trunk of a car; it pulls up into an overhead view of the border town of Los Robles and follows the car down a couple of city blocks; then it picks up Mr. and Mrs. Vargas as they prepare to cross from his country to hers on foot. They reach the checkpoint just as a millionaire and a blonde in the car do, and the blonde complains, "I've got this ticking noise in my head..."

The Vargases kiss. Welles cuts and--kaboom!--nails down the mood, setting, plot, even racial friction in one seductive, three-minute and 20-second camera move. (In the Murch re-edit you really get to see it--without opening credits and with a tawdry, ominous aural backdrop, including a car radio in the doomed vehicle that operates like a tracer in the viewer's mind.)

The one fine-grained account of the making of Touch of Evil appears in Heston's The Actor's Life: Journals 1956-1976. It corroborates Welles' own tales about freely changing locations, dialogue, and camera plans, writing Dietrich into the movie at the last minute, and firing his first editor. Welles loved to work nocturnally. ("That gave Orson control," Leigh observes, shrewdly. "When you're shooting at night, the brass can't see your footage until you've done another night's shooting.") At one point Heston notes, "The company is tiring a little now, after 15 straight nights, but they still work well and cheerfully, full of the hope of a good film."

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