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

Sadly, the glee that pervades Heston's log during the shoot dissipates during the editing. After filming was completed, Heston left for three months of shooting on William Wyler's The Big Country; he returned to see a cut of Touch of Evil and found it "uneven in tempo and unclear in the opening sequences," though full of "marvelous things" and Orson's "enormous talent." And after attending a sneak he wrote, "I'm afraid it's simply not a good picture...It doesn't hold together as a story."

Heston now chuckles good-naturedly at that estimation. On the phone from his Beverly Hills home, he says he now rates the film as he did in his 1995 autobiography In the Arena. "That's where I say that I agree with Cahiers Du Cinema. This movie is not Citizen Kane--or The Bridge Over the River Kwai or The Grapes of Wrath--but it's unquestionably the best B-movie ever made. It's marvelously entertaining and consistently surprising. I don't know if Orson was the best director, writer, or actor that I worked with. But he was the most talented man I worked with, if talent means the capacity to get the most out of words and performances and concepts and make something worthwhile. I think these feats of legerdemain were so easy for him that he got bored."

To Welles, the issue wasn't his own ennui but rather the studio's hostility toward him and its lack of enthusiasm for the movie. In an interview with director and film buff Peter Bogdanovich, he said he wanted to finish the picture more than anything, but his initial cut so upset Universal that he was barred from the lot. He referred to it, poignantly, as "the only trouble I've ever had that I can't begin to fathom." However, even the most sympathetic biographers agree with Heston: When Welles absented himself from the studio during the inevitable postproduction give-and-take, roaming to New York for an appearance on TV's The Steve Allen Show and to Mexico to prepare for the never completed film Don Quixote, he lost control of the movie.

Murch feels Welles must have understood the power-mad psyches of studio moguls--after all, he specialized in playing devious big shots and master manipulators like Kane, Cardinal Wolsey (A Man for All Seasons), and of course, Quinlan. That Welles wouldn't train his seductive wiles on his bosses still bewilders Heston, who remains proud that Welles credited him with providing the opportunity to make Touch of Evil. The actor remembers the two of them sharing a bottle of champagne at a ham-and-egg joint right after the film's nocturnal wrap.

"You made one mistake," Heston told Welles. "You wrote two or three short scenes to remind the audience that I'm the hero of the film, when it's really about the fall of Captain Quinlan." Welles replied, with mock relief, "Then I won't have to worry about the cutting."

Murch says that of the directors he's worked with in the flesh, Coppola is "temperamentally the closest to Welles, not only as a human being with all the ups and downs that they both went through, and as a polymath, but also as a filmmaker interested in synesthesia." Indeed, Coppola says, "I viewed the Orson Welles kind of theater as Western kabuki, in that every element was potentially the most important collaborating element--sometimes sound, sometimes lighting, sometimes the actors. I brought that experience of going from area to area with me when I went from the theater into movies. And Walter encouraged and reinforced my ideas and brought them to a higher degree of sophistication."

There's a direct line from the climax of Touch of Evil--the bugging of Welles' crooked police captain--to Coppola's The Conversation. Murch's labor of love on this quirky masterwork, both as sound designer and first-time film editor, marked him as a filmmaker's filmmaker.

The Conversation tells the story of an audio surveillance expert named Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) who allows his emotions to cloud his judgment on a perilous case. While taping a young couple, played by Cyndi Williams and Frederick Forrest, he hears Forrest say, "He'd kill us if he got the chance." Caul assumes they're potential targets in a murder. But it turns out they may have engineered a murder themselves--a point Murch clinched in the sound editing when he inserted, at the psychological climax, an alternate take of Forrest reading the line differently: "He'd kill us if he got the chance."

Thanks to Murch, Coppola fulfilled his dream of making a first-class American art movie--a "combination of character study and suspense film, of Hermann Hesse and Alfred Hitchcock," as Murch puts it. And Murch did it by introducing a note of subjectivity where you least expect it: right between Caul's ears. Watching the film again while thinking about Murch provides a pointed study in contrasts, because Caul is in some ways a matched opposite to Murch. Both are driven to get a job done right. But Caul struggles to extract a clean, rational line of sound from the mire of everyday noise and is disarmed when his heart misleads him; Murch tries to find the metaphor and mystery beneath the obvious and views his intellectual work as preparation for embracing the spontaneous feeling or epiphany.

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