Amidst a flood of films being foisted upon the public in “restored” or “director’s cut” versions, Orson Welles’ 1958 “Touch of Evil” is currently being brought back in a state that truly is different from anything anyone has ever seen before. Though not hugely different, new version is sufficiently so in many small and subtle ways that Welles buffs and film noir fans will be pleased and fascinated.
New version runs 111 minutes, compared with the original release version’s 95 minutes and 108 minutes for the subsequently shown cut, which incorporated additional scenes, including some directed by Harry Keller. Film’s new incarnation was originally meant to debut in May at the Cannes Film Festival, which caved in to the ultimately groundless objections of Welles’ daughter Beatrice that this new version did not represent her father’s work, an ironic argument given that the new cut was undertaken precisely to better reflect the director’s intentions. Film’s debut at the Telluride Film Festival will be followed by theatrical release by October Films, subsid of the company that originally produced and distributed the picture, Universal.
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Instigating the ambitious rehab of “Touch of Evil” was the discovery of a 58-page memo Welles wrote to the studio after production executive Edward Muhl barred him from the cutting room during post-production. Aside from expressing Welles’ urgent desire to be reinstated, the memo described, in extraordinary and eloquent detail, precisely what the director still hoped to achieve through cutting and, especially, in sound editing that remained to be done. Universal never invited Welles back into the cutting room, and apparently accepted some of his suggestions while it ignored others. The film effectively marked the end of his American directing career.
It was these notes that “editorial changes producer” Rick Schmidlin, editor Walter Murch, sound re-recordists Bill Varney, Peter Reale and Murch, and picture restorer Bob O’Neil followed in order to create this new “Touch of Evil.” Given that Welles was never allowed to complete the film his way on his own, there never was any such thing as a “director’s cut” or “definitive version,” only a theoretical one that the current team, aided by Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum, have done their best to approximate.
There were no new picture elements, or outtakes, from which to work, so the actual shots remain the same as before. The most immediately noticeable difference comes in the celebrated opening shot, which traverses the streets of a U.S.-Mexican border town (actually Venice, Calif.) at night leading up to the explosion of a wealthy American’s car. There are now no titles obscuring the virtuoso movements of Russell Metty’s crane, and instead of Henry Mancini’s throbbing jazz theme, the track is devoted to the myriad sounds emanating from the people, vehicles, shops and clubs the camera passes on its journey of several blocks.
Many of the subsequent differences are along similar lines. The dense soundtrack is now composed of many more ambient noises — snatches of radio music, overheard comments, overlapping sounds — combined with Mancini’s score. At the same time, the new mix makes all the dialogue come through with an unprecedented clarity.
The upshot of all this is that “Touch of Evil” now emerges simultaneously as more impressionistic and more coherent than it did before. The plot, always formidable in its tortured complexity, especially on first exposure, can now be followed more easily. The initial-release version of the picture had a hallucinatory, feverish quality which, while still present, has been a tad reduced by the precise technical tweaking. On the other hand, due to the pristine new print, Welles’ technical virtuosity and ingenious use of locations have never been more evident, and the entire picture plays more smoothly.
In the end, all the effort put into steering “Touch of Evil” as closely as possible to Welles’ desires represents the kind of endeavor that scholars and buffs have always longed for (imagine if “The Magnificent Ambersons” could ever be reconstructed) but which the studios have always shunned as unprofitable. In this case, Universal has admirably ponied up even though the reconstruction implicitly points up the studio’s role as the nominal bad guy 40 years ago. What has been done does not significantly alter the artistic standing of “Touch of Evil,” but allows it to be seen from a slightly different angle, and certainly more clearly.
One gripe: Since Mancini’s memorable theme music has been removed from the opening shot, it would have been thoughtful to include it over the newly prepared end credits. But as in the purported “director’s cut” of Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid,” in which Bob Dylan’s classic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is nowhere to be heard, Mancini’s music is missing from this “Touch of Evil.”