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Weekly Alibi A Touch-Up of Evil

By Devin D. O'Leary

NOVEMBER 16, 1998:  In the mythology of Hollywood, one figure stood head-and-shoulders above the rest as the true demi-god of modern cinema. Orson Welles was the Hercules of movie making--a mythic figure who battled more demons, slew more dragons and inspired more awe struck tales than any other member of the cinematic pantheon. At 26, he made the greatest movie of all time. At 70, he died fat and forgotten by the filmgoing public. Somewhere between those two extremes, he made a little movie called A Touch of Evil.

Almost as quickly as it burst onto the scene with 1941's Citizen Kane, Welles' star began to fade with a series of ill-received efforts and half-finished projects. Ever the maverick, Welles chose to work outside the Hollywood studio system. He was an independent filmmaker long before the term even existed. But by 1958, Welles had exhausted nearly all of his financing options. A Touch of Evil was Welles' last shot at working within Hollywood. Welles needed a hit movie, and he needed to go to Hollywood to get it made.

Touch of Evil began almost as a bet. According to legend, Welles asked producer Albert Zugsmith which of his scripts was the worst. Zugsmith gave the famed director a script based on a cheap pulp novel called Badge of Evil. It was a routine film noir effort, but something in the storyline intrigued Welles. After extensive rewriting, Welles came up with Touch of Evil. With Welles writing, directing and co-starring as a corrupt American detective and Charlton Heston headlining as an upstanding Mexican narcotics investigator, Universal Pictures agreed to fund the film. By all accounts, they expected a run-of-the-mill B-movie. What they got was a dark, uncommercial thriller set in a seedy southern California border town--what filmmaker/ author Paul Schrader in his book Schrader on Schrader and Other Writings called "film noir's epitaph."

Confused by the labyrinthine plot and bleak imagery, Universal took the finished film away from Welles and re-edited it. Rick Schmidlin, producer of 1998's newly restored version of Touch of Evil, explains: "What happened was Welles was taking a long, tedious time (to edit Touch of Evil). The studio, all they cared about was getting a teen exploitation film out. They didn't realize that Welles was telling a very dramatic Shakespearean baroque story that would appeal to those in small towns of America but would also appeal to the cities. He was doing a cross-section as exciting as his War of the Worlds, or Kane. Basically, (the studio) didn't realize he was meticulously putting together this film. And by changing one shot here or there, they upset the balance of the entire movie."

After the film's first test screening, Welles drafted a 58-page memo to the studio, suggesting various tweaks and changes to their cut. Perhaps because they had so little confidence in Touch of Evil (or perhaps because Welles had irked execs by fleeing the country to shoot another film), the studio ignored Welles suggestions and released their version. The film met with audience and critical disinterest. (In their review, Variety wrote, "Orson Welles is back at it, playing himself as writer-actor-director and turning out a picture, Touch of Evil, that smacks of brilliance but ultimately flounders in it.")

Welles never worked in Hollywood again; and, for nearly 50 years, A Touch of Evil has stood as the studio left it--one of the most flawed works of genius ever created. Despite its adulterated state, it continued to appear on "best" lists around the world and was crucial in inspiring the French New Wave movement of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

That was the case until producer Rick Schmidlin (whose eclectic résumé includes a gig as the curator/archivist for the vast film and video library of the legendary rock band, The Doors) came on to the scene. Originally, Schmidlin tried to talk Universal into releasing a laser disk version of Touch of Evil with commentary by Heston and others. In the summer of 1994, however, a friend mentioned film historian Jonathan Rosenbaum's article in Film Quarterly which reproduced an extensive version of Orson Welles' 1958 memo. "I kept on going over to the Universal execs trying to find different ways of producing this, either on home video or anything else," says Schmidlin. "Eventually, they decided theatrical."

The studio--much to its belated credit--insisted on sticking exactly to Welles' memo. The only problem was finding an editor who was up to the task of re-editing the work of a genius. Schmidlin found his man in the form of Oscar-winning splicer Walter Murch.

"Walter Murch, I had seen do a lecture at the LA County Museum on sound and The Conversation." recalls Schmidlin. "I admired his lecture and I talked to him. He was available and he loved Touch of Evil, so he became the editor. He is probably the most respected sound and film editor in the industry in the second half of the century."

Indeed, Murch's résumé (including Apocalypse Now, the Godfather Trilogy, American Graffiti and The English Patient--for which he received an unprecedented double Oscar win) brands him as one of the best film and sound editors in history.

In addition to a complete digital restoration of the footage, Schmidlin and Murch tackled all of Welles' 47 suggested changes. "We decided to address each one of them and not watch the film until we finished it. When we watched it, we realized that (Welles) was making a much more commercial, accessible film."

Now, after half a century, audiences can see A Touch of Evil as Welles intended it to be--not merely a B-movie, but the greatest B-movie ever made.


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