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

Schmidlin notes that as Murch finished reading certain portions of the memo, "He would look up at me and smile like he knew, he really knew. It gave me goose bumps. Walter operates at some remove from the studio, but he knows how the studios operate and knows what they can do to harm a director's film. This was his chance to listen to a director, without any interference. And what a director!"

By January, Universal had assembled the materials needed for the re-edit. The prime sources were the original negative of the 96-minute 1958 release prints and the single, solitary print of a 108-minute studio-cut preview of the film. Murch digitized both versions and entered them into his editing computer. The short version had a negative in decent shape, plus music, sound effects, and dialogue on separate tracks. These, along with a CD of the original Henry Mancini score, gave Murch all the sounds he needed.

Meanwhile, Bob O'Neil, Universal's director of film preservation and vault services, toiled at lifting a negative off the long print that would allow Murch to fuse material from both versions. Everyone got caught up in the spirit of discovery. After reading the memo, O'Neil went to the Nuart Theatre to see the long version in a noir festival and was astonished at Welles' perspicacity: "During the scene in which Janet is terrorized in the motel, the cast just keeps marching into the room. Welles had said [that] the way it was cut [in the studio-approved version] the scene would get a bad laugh. And at the Nuart, it did get a bad laugh. Again and again, having studied the memo, I knew that what he predicted was bound to happen. It convinced me he was a genius."

The prospect of reworking a Welles classic never daunted Murch. It took the editor only a couple of weeks to make his first pass through the material. And Murch knew that after 10 minutes of watching his rough assemblage, "It was a better film. And that betterness sustained itself throughout. I was moved by what had happened; it's like when you're building a boat, and there comes a certain point when you put it together, and then you hit the hull of a boat, and the whole boat resonates--you feel like it's all of a piece."

Welles' most difficult request was to edit out a shot of Quinlan's doting partner Sergeant Menzies (Joseph Calleia) collapsing on a table while arguing with Heston's self-righteous Vargas. This cut would epitomize the challenges and payoffs of the entire amazing exercise. All Welles had said was that his choice of an 18.5mm lens made the actor look grotesque and broke the visual continuity. But Welles had something more in mind. Coming near the halfway mark, the scene is the turning point for what L.A. Confidential writer-director Curtis Hanson calls the prodigious love story in Welles' oeuvre--the fraternal bond between Quinlan and Menzies. The sergeant looks up to the captain as paragon and teacher; he can't listen to Vargas accuse Quinlan of fixing cases--and, in close-up, he crumples. Schmidlin recalls saying, "We've got to take out this shot. But Walter said it couldn't be done right, that we had to sacrifice this one." Murch confesses he felt that "without the work print for the scene, with only the cut negative, it would be like trying to tie your shoelaces with one hand."

"The next day," Schmidlin says, "I went to walk in [Marin County's] Muir Woods, a great place for meditation. The sun was coming in through the trees, I felt as close to heaven as possible, and all I could see in front of me was Joseph Calleia's head collapsing on the table. I got to the barn that afternoon, as scheduled. I said, 'Walter, get the head off the table.' He said it couldn't be done. I said, 'You're Walter Murch and you can do it!' And he could. He worked on it for hours and got the head off the table while saving the integrity of the scene."

The deletion became a revelation. In previous versions there's no contest between Vargas, the straight-arrow Mexican lawman, and Menzies, Quinlan's innocent, overgrown protege. In the old cuts of the film, Menzies denounces Vargas' charges against Quinlan only after his collapse. As Murch says, "When he collapses on that table, the damage is done. To use diplomatic terminology, Vargas sees him blink. You watch that head fall, and you think, whoops--there's the dry rot. So in the structure of the film from that point on, Menzies is Vargas' dog on a leash, and his character is reduced accordingly.

"But by taking that close-up out and never having him collapse, what he does in the last two reels of the film, he does on his own account, because he, morally, is outraged at what his best friend has done. And it hurts him: 'He made me what I am!' Menzies says, in a line that was cut out and now is back. Quinlan's relationship with him is kind of Shakespearean--in a sense, the great man is brought down precisely because of his greatness in his servant's eyes, though 'great' and 'greatness' should be in quotes. Now you see the wonderful ambiguity of Menzies' character."

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