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

Ten years after Murch's father died (at age 60, in 1967), he found a father figure in director Fred Zinnemann (From Here to Eternity), for whom he edited Julia. (Based on part of Pentimento, Lillian Hellman's autobiographical follow-up to An Unfinished Woman, it won three Academy Awards in 1977.) The documentary that Murch directed and edited in memory of Zinnemann--As I See It, named for Zinnemann's credo, "I try to tell the truth as I see it, and the beauty has to take care of itself"--is, as Aggie says, "A true act of love." In turn, Murch himself has become the mentor for generations of editors and sound experts. He's known for honesty and generosity.

Pat Jackson recalls that when Murch was teaching a class at the San Francisco Art Institute, he asked one of the students, "Why in God's name did you make this movie, and who did you think would want to see it?" The student thought that was a bit harsh. But Murch retorted, "No, it's a mass medium. If people don't want to see your movie, it's better to find that out sooner than later." On the other hand, when Murch went to a rough-cut screening of Crumb in 1994, and everyone else walked out convinced it was a debacle, Walter told director Terry Zwigoff, "The one shot where Crumb is at the bus stop should be a few frames longer; add three seconds. Apart from that, don't change a thing." Murch then went on to mix the film for free.

Murch probably would have done the same for Welles--a director who, despite his joke to Heston, cared deeply about editing and sound.

In the early '90s, Chicago Reader critic and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum sold an abbreviated version of Welles' memo on the editing of Touch of Evil to the UC Berkeley-based Film Quarterly. It's a valiant, rending document, filled with acute diagnoses and heartfelt pleas. At one point Welles writes, "I must ask that you open your mind for a moment to this opinion from the man who, after all, made the picture."

Once he read that version of the memo, producer Rick Schmidlin, who has an eclectic list of credits (including The Doors Live at the Hollywood Bowl), began the movement that became Murch's project by pitching Touch of Evil to Universal as a laserdisc special edition. Schmidlin thought he'd add commentaries by Heston, Leigh, and Welles aficionados, along with any documents he could find, and as a bonus, tack on samples of Welles' key suggestions--like unrolling the opening shot without credits.

Schmidlin says he and Louis Feola, president of MCA/Universal Home Video, would meet socially and engage in casual conversation until "I'd drop the bomb and bring up Touch of Evil." Finally, one night over dinner, before Schmidlin had a chance to raise the subject, Feola told him there would be a meeting to discuss whether Touch of Evil was ripe for a theatrical rerelease. The next day Schmidlin started getting excited calls from Universal. He urged the studio executives to find the full memo and launch a re-edit based on its recommendations. Chairman emeritus Lew Wasserman himself helped them get the document. The project went ahead with one stipulation: Schmidlin must stick to Welles' memo and other period documents. (He hired Rosenbaum to keep the re-editing team honest.)

Welles had written his memo so cleverly that executives and craftspeople who weren't on his wavelength could still grasp it immediately. Early on Schmidlin fed a VHS cassette into a computer editing system and tried out one of Welles' tips--intercutting Quinlan trying to intimidate Mr. Vargas with Grandi trying to intimidate Mrs. Vargas. (Welles wanted to signal to the audience that these two story strands carried equal weight.) It worked without tweaking of any kind. But Schmidlin also recognized what he dubs "innuendoes of the highest caliber"--audiovisual subtleties that only a film sophisticate could translate. "Carrying out this memo had to be primarily an editor's project, not a producer's or a preservationist's," he says. "And everything [Welles] was saying in this memo was crying out, 'Walter Murch.'"

At the time Murch was laboring, without credit, on the final picture edit of The Apostle. Last December, Murch agreed to do the show. "He had read the memo once," says Schmidlin. "Then he read the memo again to me, all 58 pages. He wanted to examine the memo and address each of the issues; he was trying to judge their emotional effect and make a list of the changes that had to be done. And this was the meeting that won his commitment. I think Orson talked him into it; Walter realized that Orson had given him something serious to work with."

Says Murch: "I'd never been talked to by a director as directly and fully as in this memo. The level of articulation in this piece is astonishing. By the time he wrote this memo, he had seen the abyss, and any smoke or bullshit that he normally might have blown was swamped by the desperate need to get these things down and not venture into ambiguous areas. This was his last stand; he was trying to be direct."

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