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Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil Memo

April 1, 2010

The 2008 50th anniversary DVD of  Orson Welles’ film noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil includes the three principal versions that exist of the film. Firstly, there is the theatrical version, which audiences saw upon the film’s release in 1958. This version had been re-edited by Universal Studios’ staff editor Aaron Stell after Welles had submitted his rough cut. It also includes several additional scenes that were directed by Harry Keller. After viewing this version, Welles wrote a 58 page memo to Universal’s head of production Edward Muhl, suggesting multiple editing changes and essentially pleading with the studio to respect his original artistic vision. This memo was largely ignored. The second version is the preview version shown to audiences before the film’s release, which incorporated some of Welles’ requests. This was discovered by Universal in 1976, and was regarded as the definitive version for some time. Finally, there is the restored version that was re-edited by Walter Murch in 1998. Murch, along with producer Rick Schmidlin attempted to restore the film to Welles’ original vision by following his suggestions in the memo as closely as possible. The result is impressive and definitely makes for the most dramatically satisfying version of the film. Welles was an extraordinary creative artist, and like many great artists he was also a controversial figure. Whether anyone can truly be faithful to an artist’s conception of his work is of course open to debate. Filmmaking is a complicated process involving hundreds of people. Critics of Welles have argued that his constant battles with the studios over the editing of his films during his career may have been to protect his reputation as a creative genius. Did Welles invent these battles with the studios to protect his reputation? Not in this case. Reading the original memo, it is clear that Welles is trying to restore the clarity of individual scenes and the coherence of the overall narrative. For instance, in the now famous opening tracking shot, the viewer sees an anonymous figure place dynamite set to a timer in the boot of a car. Then, a man and a woman get into the car and the camera follows them as they drive around the border town of Los Robles.  This incredibly tense scene loses some of its effect in the theatrical version, as Henry Mancini’s score is the background music, and the opening credits appear throughout the scene, distracting from the car bomb . Welles wanted the music to change  as the car passes the various clubs of Los Robles, each club playing different music. As Welles put in his memo:

I assume that the music now backing the opening sequence of the picture is temporary…

As the camera moves through the streets of the Mexican border town, the plan was to feature a succession of different and contrasting Latin American musical numbers – the effect, that is, of our passing one cabaret orchestra after another. In honky-tonk districts on the border, loudspeakers are over the entrance of every joint, large or small, each blasting out its own tune by way of a “come-on” or “pitch” for the tourists. The fact that the streets are invariably loud with this music was planned as a device throughout the entire picture. The special use of contrasting “mambo-type” rhythm numbers with rock’n’roll will be developed in some detail at the end of this memo, when I’ll take up details of the “beat” and also specific of musical color and instrumentation on a scene-by-scene, and transition-by-transition basis.

It is clear from Welles’ words that his vision of the film is so complex and intricate that to remove or change even the smallest detail creates a negative effect which ripples throughout the whole film. What seems curious and unusual in one scene is given perfect clarity by later events in the film. Welles’ artistic vision suffered as he was ahead of his time. Tracking shots have become reasonably common in films today, and DVD releases almost always feature multiple deleted scenes that never made it into the final cut. Welles ended his memo:

I close this memo with a very earnest plea that you consent to this brief visual pattern to which I gave so many long hard days of work.

Now at last audiences can finally see a version of Touch of Evil edited as close as possible to the film Welles intended it to be:

Wellesnet has the full text of Welles’ memo to Universal, with their own annotations. Below you can watch the opening tracking shot as Welles intended it in the restored version:

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