‘Touch of Evil’: Orson Welles’ Grandiose Film Noir that Took Four Decades to Shine In Its Intended Form

Orson Welles during the production of the famous opening long take from Touch of Evil, one of the greatest long takes in cinematic history. Photographed by Sherman Clark © Universal International Pictures

When Universal approached Orson Welles with an intriguing supporting role in a new thriller tentatively called Badge of Evil, the filmmaker was at a difficult point of his career, not having directed an American film in a full decade. He spent the last ten years directing international productions like Othello (1952), whose budgets he managed to cover through acting gigs. Welles had just finished acting in Man in the Shadow, a Universal film in which he was allowed to rewrite many of his scenes, and the studio agreed to offer him another role, but this specific gig was to be limited to that of a supporting pillar to Badge of Evil star Charlton Heston. But the thing is, Heston agreed to star in the film partly because he mistakenly thought Welles was there to direct it. When he figured out the truth, he pressured Universal to hand over the director’s chair to Welles, a recommendation further supported by Universal’s head of post-production, Edward Nims, who had the pleasure of collaborating with Wells back in the forties. Universal reluctantly agreed, but offered to pay Welles only for his acting service. The filmmaker, who carried a grudge against the studio system and felt he was more than good enough to succeed in Hollywood, saw this as an opportunity for a major comeback, for a new project that would completely obliterate all the past misunderstandings and the lack of appreciation that forced him to continue his filmmaking career abroad. According to Welles himself, he had the time of his life directing the movie that would later get the title of Touch of Evil: minimal studio interference, a hugely talented and respected cast eager to work with him and honored to be included in his inspiring creative process, a distinguished cinematographer ahead of his time and peers… Everything seemed perfect, and Welles honestly believed he was back in the game and there to stay. However, when Touch of Evil premiered as the bottom half of a double bill (alongside The Female Animal with Hedy Lamarr) after extensive studio re-editing without Welles’ authorization or creative input, he was appalled, bitter, disappointed and disillusioned both with the quality of the final product and with his future chances of establishing himself as a triumphant director within the studio system. Failing to prosper at the box office, Touch of Evil was written off by Universal as a failure, sealing Welles’ fate in America, but found its audience in Europe right away. This success has plenty to do with the film’s unexpected appearance at the 1958 Brussels World Fair without the studio’s blessing: not only was Touch of Evil named best film at the competition, but Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut sat on the jury, lauding Welles’ picture and preparing the turf for a warm and enthusiastic welcome Welles could have only dreamed of back in the States. Getting the directing gig by chance and thanks to the two-decade old reputation from the glory days of Citizen Kane, enjoying a fruitful, harmonious production without any hints as to the possibility of any significant studio interference, Welles felt he had a masterpiece in his hands. It took a couple of decades and the admiration of film lovers from a whole other continent for Touch of Evil to gain the reputation it fortunately still enjoys today.

The dark, convoluted, spiraling story of a Mexican and American investigator battling for dominance in a corrupt, gritty little border town was based on the novel ‘Badge of Evil’ written by American authors Robert Allison Wade and H. Bill Miller, who published their work under the pen name of Whit Masterson. The story might seem a bit tricky to follow the first time you watch the film, but it’s not the narrative that mesmerizes and attracts you during first contact. “I’d seen the film four or five times before I noticed the story,” confessed Peter Bogdanovich to Welles, explaining it was the direction and cinematography that blew him away. The re-appreciation of Touch of Evil lauds its spatial choreography, effective acting improvisations, and especially the work of expert cinematographer Russell Metty. It’s curious to note Metty’s relationship with Welles started on somewhat uneasy terms. Impressing RKO by his work on Bringing Up Baby (1938), Metty was hired for the infamous reshoot of Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. As we know, Welles finished production and went to South America to help the United States’ government boost its relations with those countries, and in his absence, RKO hired two directors (Robert Wise, Fred Fleck) and Metty to provide additional scenes for Welles’ classic adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel. It’s safe to say Welles was largely displeased with the studio’s decision, but found Metty’s work impressive enough to swallow his pride and bring him in to work on his film The Stranger and, later, Touch of Evil. His mastery is aptly demonstrated at the very start of the film, with the breathtaking, over three minutes long tracking shot. It’s a huge pity this sequence was tarred in the original release by the studio’s choice to paste the distracting credits and Henry Mancini’s theme to it, but the later versions thankfully corrected this mistake.

I was so heartbroken when it turned out I couldn’t go on with it. I was so sure I was going to go on making a lot of pictures at Universal, when suddenly I was fired from the lot. A terribly traumatic experience. Because I was so sure… It’s the only trouble I’ve ever had that I can’t begin to fathom. —Orson Welles to Peter Bogdanovich in the interview book This is Orson Welles

 
Casting was certainly not an issue for Welles on this project, as distinguished actors and actresses were going far out of their way just to get the chance of working with him. As we already stated, Heston practically twisted the studio’s arm into hiring Welles in the first place. Although Janet Leigh’s agent originally refused the offer on his client’s behalf, Orson Welles sent her a personal letter professing his happiness over the fact they would be working together, so Leigh was furious at her agent and eager to join the production, however small a salary she could be offered. Mercedes McCambridge, who won an Oscar for All the King’s Men (1949), joined the cast because Welles managed to convince her at one lunch during production. Dennis Weaver was chosen for a supporting role because he impressed the director with his performance in Gunsmoke, while Marlene Dietrich joined the project without the studio’s knowledge. She filmed her entire role in a single day as a personal favor to Welles and at minimum union wage, but upon seeing the rushes, Universal decided to give her a full credit so it would help with the film’s promotion.

A big role in the creation of Touch of Evil was played by Universal’s staff producer Albert Zugsmith, who not only approved of giving the directorial gig to Welles, but also allegedly helped him create in peace without studio interference. Unfortunately for Welles, when the editing process began, Zugsmith had already transferred to MGM, but during production, Zugsmith and Welles had a great relationship, as can be seen in Charles Flynn and Todd McCarthy’s 1975 book ‘Kings of the Bs: Working within the Hollywood system’ Zugsmith did all he could, and Welles efficiently eluded any possible meddling by shooting much of the picture on location and at night, but his vision was disrupted as soon as the studio took over the editing. Welles called the 1958 version “an odious thing,” and was enraged when the studio completely ignored his 58-page memo suggesting necessary changes. In 1976 Universal found a 108-minute print of Touch of Evil that predated the original release version, but this was still not Welles’ picture as he envisioned it both during production and in the subsequent detailed memo. But two decades later, the great Walter Murch gathered all the available material, including Welles’ instructions from the memo, consulted film critic and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum and re-edited Touch of Evil in a Rick Schmidlin-produced latest version that came closest to Welles’ original intentions.

A strange and unhappy thing, he could just charm the birds out of the bloody trees and… actors and crewmen just thought he was great, but he almost deliberately seemed to go to lengths to ignore or even insult studio executives. —Charlton Heston

 
Written by Orson Welles loosely based on Whit Masterson’s Badge of Evil, shot by Russell Metty with Henry Mancini’s score, and featuring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Marlene Dietrich, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver and Welles himself, Touch of Evil is one of the best film noirs ever made. It might be another step in the filmmaker’s traumatic and tragic battle with the studio system, and it definitely didn’t open any Hollywood doors for him at that time, but it’s nevertheless an undisputed, grandiose, innovative and influential piece of filmmaking that crowned the golden era of film noir.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Orson Welles’ screenplay for Touch of Evil [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
An interview with Orson Welles. Originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 84, June 1958. Translated and annotated by Sally Shafto.

It is said in fact that it was a little by accident that you made Touch of Evil; someone else was to have done it?
No. But there is in this film some scenes that I neither wrote nor directed, of which I know absolutely nothing. In The Magnificent Ambersons, there are three scenes that I neither wrote nor directed!

You did Touch of Evil because nothing else presented itself?
It’s the eighth one! You know I’ve been working for seventeen years; I have directed eight films and I have edited only three of them.

Citizen Kane?
Othello and Don Quixote, in seventeen years!

And The Lady from Shanghai?
No, not the final editing. You can still detect my style of editing, but the final version is not all mine. The film is violently taken out of my hands each time.

Do you think that there are big differences between your version of Touch of Evil and the studio’s?
For me, almost everything that is called mise en scene is a big joke. In the cinema, there are very few people who are really metteurs-en-scene; there are very few who have ever had the opportunity to direct. The only mise en scene of real importance is practiced in the editing. I needed nine months to edit Citizen Kane, six days a week. Yes, I edited Ambersons, despite the fact that there were scenes not by me, but my editing was modified. The basic editing is mine and, when a scene of the film holds together, it is because I edited it. In other words, everything happens as if a man painted a picture: he finishes it and someone comes to do the touch up, but he cannot of course add paint all over the surface of the canvas. I worked months and months on the editing of Ambersons before it was taken away from me: all this work is thus there, on the screen. But for my style, for my vision of cinema, the editing is not one aspect, it is the aspect. Directing is an invention of people like you; it is not an art, or at most an art for a minute a day. This minute is terribly crucial, but it happens only very rarely. The only moment where one can exercise any control over a film is in the editing. But in the editing room, I work very slowly, which always unleashes the temper of the producers who snatch the film from my hands. I don’t know why it takes me so much time: I could work forever on the editing of a film. For me, the strip of celluloid is put together like a musical score, and this execution is determined by the editing; just like a conductor interprets a piece of music in rubato, another will play it in a very dry and academic manner and a third will be very romantic, and so on. The images themselves are not sufficient: they are very important, but are only images. The essential is the length of each image, what follows each image: it is the very eloquence of the cinema that is constructed in the editing room.

 
Editing seems, in fact, essential in your last films, but in Citizen Kane, Ambersons, Macbeth, etc., you have a lot of sequence shots.
Mark Robson was my editor for Citizen Kane. With Robson and Robert Wise, who was the assistant, we worked for nearly a year on the editing. So, it’s false to say that there was nothing to edit because I had a lot of sequence shots: we could still work on it today. You can notice that, in the course of these last years, the films that I shot are more full of short scenes, because I had less money and shooting in short scenes is more economical. For a long scene, you need a lot of money in order to be able to control all the elements in front of the camera.

Othello is in short scenes.
Yes, because I never had all the actors at the same time. Every time you see someone with their back turned, or with a hood on their head, you can be sure that it’s a stand-in. So I had to do everything in shot, reverse-shot because I never managed to unite Iago, Desdemona, Roderigo and others in front of the camera.

I thought it was the same for Arkadin, but, after seeing it again, I don’t think so; the link shots are very exact.
But in Othello, too, the matches are very exact; I simply shot the film on different kinds of emulsions. The link shot can be as exact as possible, but if you shoot on Dupont, French Kodak, American Kodak and Ferrania, you have inevitably clashes in tonality when you mix them in the editing. For Arkadin, again, I did not do long scenes because a long sequence requires a numerous and skilful crew: there are few European crews that have the men, the technicians capable of realizing a long sequence.

In Othello, there is nonetheless the scene between Othello [Welles] and Iago on the terrace, for example.
It’s true, but it is a shot made very simply with a jeep. This shot is a jeep and two actors. And how many shots in a jeep can you do in a film? In Touch of Evil, for example, I did a shot that takes place in three rooms, with fourteen actors, where the frame goes from the insert to the establishing shot, etc., and lasts almost a reel: well, it was by far the most expensive of the film. So, if you notice that I don’t do long sequences, it is not that I don’t like them, but because I am not given the means to provide them. It is a better deal to do this image, then this image and still this image, and to try to control them later in the editing room. I prefer, of course, to control the elements that are in front of the camera while it is shooting, but that demands money and the confidence of your backers.

The idea of editing seems related to that of short scenes; if one refers to the Soviet experience, it seems that one can fully play with the editing only if there are only short scenes. Isn’t there a contradiction between the importance that you give to the editing and the fact that you like long sequences?
I don’t believe that the sum of the editing work is a function of the brevity of the shots. It is an error to think that the Russians worked a lot on editing because they shot in short scenes. You can spend a lot of time on the editing of a film in long scenes, because you are not content to just glue them one scene to the next.

 
What goal do you pursue in systematically using the 18.5mm lens and in pushing the editing so far?
I am working, and have worked with the 18.5 lens only because other filmmakers haven’t used it. The cinema is like a colony with very few settlers; when America was wide open, when the Spanish were at the Mexican frontier, the French in Canada, the Dutch in New York, you could be sure that the English came where there was no one. I don’t prefer the 18.5 lens; I am just the only one who has explored its possibilities. I don’t prefer to improvise: simply no one has done it in a long time. It is not a question of preference: I fill the positions that are not filled because in this young means of expression it’s a necessity. The first thing that must be remembered with regards to the cinema is its youth; and the main thing for every responsible artist is to break up fallow ground. If everyone worked with big angulars, I would shoot my films in 75mm, because I believe very seriously in the possibilities of 75; if there were others working in an extreme Baroque style, I would be the most classic that you had ever seen. I do not act thus out of a spirit of contradiction; I don’t want to work contrary to what has been done; I want to fill an unoccupied terrain and work on it.

Since you’ve been using the 18.5 lens for a long time, you must have already explored a good part of this terrain, and still you persist. Isn’t there a certain affinity between you and this lens?
No, I continue to work with this lens because no one else is doing it. If I saw continuously in the theatres shots filmed with 18.5 lens, my eyes would tire of it. I always try to make my films with images of which I am not tired or had my fill. If people used and exploited the 18.5, I would never touch it: I would be weary of its characteristic distortion and I would search some other language to express myself. But I don’t see enough of these images to be tired of them: so I can see this distortion with a fresh eye. It’s not at all a question of an affinity between me and the 18.5 lens, but just a question of a freshness of the look. I would love to do a film with a 100mm, where you would never leave the face of the actors: there would be a million things to do! But the 18.5 lens is a new, important invention: it’s barely been five years that it’s possible to find good 18.5 lenses, and how many persons have made use of it? Each time I give it to a director of photography, he is terrorized: but by the end of the film, it’s his favourite lens. Perhaps now I am on the point of finishing with this big angular: I sometimes think that with Don Quixote I will finish with the 18.5… or maybe not!

Do you likewise accord such a great importance to the editing because it is a little sloppy nowadays, or is it really for you the foundation of cinema?
I can’t believe that editing is not essential for the director, the only moment where he completely controls the form of his film. When I shoot, the sun determines something against which I can’t fight, the actor makes his intervention to which I must adapt myself and the story; I only manage to dominate what I can. The only place where I exercise an absolute control is in the editing room: consequently, that is when the director is, in power, a real artist, because I believe that a film is only good to the extent that the director manages to control his different materials and is not content to simply finish the film.

Are your edits long because you try out different solutions?
I am looking for the exact rhythm between one frame and the next. It’s a question of hearing: the editing is the moment when the film has to do with hearing.

It is thus not problems of narration or of dramatic tension that stops you?
No, a form, like a conductor interpreting a piece of music with rubato or not. It is a question of rhythm and, for me, the essential is that: the beat.

 
What is your position vis-a-vis large screen or colour? Do you think that it is better to orient oneself towards the small screen and the poverty of television?
I am convinced that when the screen is big enough, as in the case of Cinemiracle or Cinerama, it is also a poverty, and I love it: I would love to do a film with one of these two processes. But between the Cinemiracle and the normal screen, there is nothing that interests me. The poverty of television is a marvellous thing. The big classical film is of course bad on the small screen, because television is the enemy of classic cinematographic values, but not of cinema. It is a marvellous form, where the spectator is only a metre and half away from the screen, but it is not a dramatic form, it is a narrative form, so much so that television is the ideal means of expression for the storyteller. And the gigantic screen is also a marvellous form because like television it is a limitation, and one cannot hope to reach poetry only in composing with limitations, it’s clear. I also like television a lot because it gives me my only chance to work; I don’t know what I would say about it if I also had the opportunity to make films. But when you work for something, you must be enthusiastic!

Working in television, does that imply a particular point of view in communication?
And also a certain richness, not a plastic richness but a richness of ideas. In television, you can say ten times more in ten times less time, because you are not addressing only two or three persons. And, above all, you are speaking to the ear. For the first time, in television, the cinema takes on a real value, finds its real function, because it talks, because the most important is what is said and not what is shown. Words are thus no longer the enemies of the film: the film only helps the words, because television is in fact only illustrated radio.

Television would be a kind of way of bringing the cinema back to your beginnings in the radio?
Above all a means of satisfying my fondness for telling stories, like the Arab storytellers on the marketplace. For my part, I love that: I will never grow tired of hearing stories told; you know I make the mistake of thinking that everyone has the same enthusiasm! I prefer stories to tragedies, to theatrical plays, to novels: it is an important characteristic of my taste. I read with a great effort the “great” novels: I love stories.

Isn’t the public less attentive to television than to cinema?
More attentive, because it listens rather than looks. Television viewers listen or don’t listen, but no matter how little they listen they are more attentive than in the cinema, because the brain is more engaged by hearing than by seeing. To listen, you need to think; looking is a sensory experience, more beautiful and more poetic, but where attention plays a smaller part.

For you, television is thus a synthesis between the cinema and the radio?
I am always looking for synthesis: it is a work that fascinates me, because I must be sincere towards what I am, and I am only an experimenter; experimenting is the only thing that fills me with enthusiasm. I am not interested in works of art, in posterity, in fame, only in the pleasure of experimentation itself: it is the only sphere where I feel really honest and sincere. I have no devotion for what I’ve done: it is really without value in my opinion. I am profoundly cynical towards my work and towards the majority of works I see in the world: but I am not cynical towards the act of working on a material. It is difficult to make this understood. We who declare ourselves experimenters have inherited an old tradition: some among us have been the greatest artists, but we have never made muses our mistresses. For example, Leonardo liked to think of himself as a scholar who painted and not as a painter who could have been a scholar. It’s not that I want to compare myself to Leonardo but that I want to explain that there is a long lineage of people who appreciate their works according to a different hierarchy of values, almost moral values. I am not thus in ecstasy in front of art: I am in ecstasy before the human necessity, which implies all that we do with our hands, our senses, etc. Our work once finished has not so much importance in my opinion as that of the most æsthetes: it is the act that interests me, not the result, and I am taken with the result only when there is the smell of human sweat, or a thought.

 
Do you have definite projects to direct?
No, I don’t know. I am considering completely stopping all cinematographic and theatrical activity, to be done with it once and for all, because I have been too disillusioned. I produced too much work, too much effort with regard to what I received in return. I don’t mean to say in money, but in satisfaction. So I am considering abandoning the cinema and the theatre, since in a way they have already abandoned me. I have films to finish: I am going to finish Don Quixote, but I no longer want to throw myself into new ventures. It’s five years now that I have been thinking about leaving the cinema, because I spend 90 percent of my existence and my energy there, without having an artistic post, and, while I have still a little of my youth left, I must find another ground where I can work, without wasting my life trying to express myself via the cinema: eight films in seventeen years is not a lot. Perhaps I will make other films: sometimes, the best way of doing something that one loves is to move away from it, then to come back to it. It’s like a love story: you can wait before the door of a girl that she lets you enter; she will never open her door to you; it’s better to leave; she’ll write to you! No, it’s nothing tragic, you know it’s not that I am bitter or anything else, but I want to work. Now I write and I paint: I am looking for some means to use my energy, because I spent the greatest part of these fifteen years looking for money, and if I were a writer, or above all a painter, I wouldn’t have to do it. I also have a serious problem with my personality as an actor: I have the personality of a successful actor, which encourages critics throughout the world to think that it’s high time to discourage me a little, as in: “What would do him some good would be tell him that in the end he isn’t all that good.” But they’ve been saying that for twenty-five years! No, I’ve really spent too many months, too many years looking for work, and I have only one life. So, for the time being, I write and I paint. I throw away everything I do, but perhaps I will finally do something good enough to keep: I have to. I cannot spend my life in festivals or in restaurants begging for funds. I am sure that I cannot make good films unless I write the script: I could make thrillers, of course, but I don’t want to. The only film that I ever wrote from first to last and was able to carry through to the end was Citizen Kane; well, too many years have gone by since I was given this chance. Can I wait another fifteen years for someone to want to give me again an absolute confidence? No, I have to find a better means of expression… like this tape-recorder!

And you don’t hope to stage something for the theatre?
In London, perhaps, but I don’t know. Whatever I do in the theatre in the future, I must also write. So, in any case, I must stop and write, and not simply get up on stage to perform or direct, because too many talented persons displayed for their greatest glory, their virtuosity as theatrical directors. I need to bring to the theatre my ideas and not my virtuosity: and if I make my comeback in the theatre, which I hope, I will strive to do it with what I have to say and not with the manner in which I have to say it, because these past fifteen years I overlooked what I have to say.

And Shakespeare?
I would like to turn to Shakespeare, but my way of seeing Shakespeare does not suit today’s taste: I am from another school. It is a hopeless struggle, because there is currently a Shakespearian school in the world, which I respect a lot, but which is not mine and which does not seem to have a place for mine, or, when I manage to find a place, it’s such hard work! I am no longer in a position to give myself other failures. I must find some ground on which my chances for losing are not greater than my chances for winning. And my chances for losing with Shakespeare? I was able to assess those in New York with King Lear. I believe that the show was very good; perhaps it was bad, but if it was as bad as the critics said, all that there remains for me is to retire because there was no meeting point. The critic from The New York Times wrote: “Orson Welles is a genius without talent”! I believe that the set was really incredibly beautiful and no one spoke about it, either for or against!

The reception was better in London for Othello?
Yes. As with everything I do, there were people against it, but I nonetheless had some advocates.

And for how long did you perform King Lear?
Four weeks, in my wheelchair. It was the maximum I could do and everyone hated my show. So, why insist?

 
Go behind the scenes with Charlton Heston as he talks about the making of Touch of Evil, in this excerpt from his autobiography.

The post office in St. Helen, Michigan, was still in the back of the cobblestone general store I remember from when I was a kid and you remember from the movies. There was nothing in the box one day but another script, from Universal. It was called Badge of Evil. I started to read it that evening, and finished it the next morning—an okay police story. As I’d promised, I phoned the studio. “It’s not a bad script,” I said. “But police stories are like westerns: you guys’ve been making them for more than fifty years—all the great ideas are used up. It really depends on who’s directing. Have you set anyone?” “Well… no, actually. [Pause, then brightly:] We’ve got Orson Welles to play the heavy, though.”

Now I paused. Could they really not have thought of the obvious? “Why don’t you ask him to direct, too? He’s a pretty good director, you know.” Well… you’d have thought I’d suggested that my mother direct the film. “Oh! Ahh, yes, Citizen Kane and… umm… yes. Interesting. It would be, that is. To direct. For him… ah, to direct. The film. We’ll, ahh, get back to you. On that.” Whereupon I hung up, bemused. They did get back, a few days later. Yes, Orson would direct the film. I have no idea how intense the debate was, but I doubt anyone at Universal slapped the back of his head and said, “Of course he should direct! How come we didn’t think of it? What a smart guy that Chuck Heston is.” More likely it was, “Ahh, let him direct it. How bad can it be? Heston’ll just get sore if we don’t. F—in’ actors.”

I was delighted. It seemed to me, remembering Kane, that we had a chance at a great film. That’s a chance you don’t get very often. Getting the great film is even rarer. (But you sometimes get to try, pal. You get to try.) I talked to Orson at length on the phone, before we left Michigan, and then met with him after we got back to L.A. He swung open the door of the house he was renting, a looming figure in a flowing black Moorish robe from his Othello. I was taller than he, but he filled the room, with his voice, his energy—with himself. His “Hello, Chuck!” rolled twice around the entry hall. He gave me a very large single-malt whisky splashed with water and mesmerized me for an afternoon.

He was three days into a rewrite of the entire script, which he finished a day and a half later. It was a vast improvement, most interesting to me in that he’d turned my character into a Mexican attorney. I’d played several Brits, but this was my first non-Anglo (though God knows not my last). His name was Vargas, we decided; the very bright first son of a wealthy Mexican family, educated at USC and Harvard Law, on the fast track for high office in his country. None of this was in either the script or the picture, but, inventing his background, we could begin to invent the man. The next day I began growing a moustache, to be dyed black, along with my hair. The makeup department darkened my skin to suggest Hispanic genes. Orson ordered a suit (the action in the film is almost continuous; there are no wardrobe changes) made by the best Mexican tailor in Los Angeles. A first-class Mexican tailor cuts a coat a little differently from his counterpart in London, or New York.

 
All this gave me how Vargas looked. What about an accent? I took the easy answer: “He’s very well educated, mostly in the U.S., he comes from a bilingual family; he speaks perfect English.” That was lazy of me, and wrong. No one speaks perfect English, and no one not raised speaking it is totally without an accent. Henry Higgins was right; a speech expert can tell within miles where a man was born. If I had the part to do over, I’d try for the faintest stroke of emphasis and rhythm you might hear from an internationally educated Mexican, instead of my native Midwestern Yankee. It would’ve been a good creative challenge, and right for the part.

I don’t recall that I shared this internal debate with Orson. Had I undertaken the accent, I’ve no doubt he would have supported me; that I was considering it may never have crossed his mind. He was buried in the prep for his film. It had become his film, of course, as I had expected and Universal had perhaps feared. He planned to shoot on both sides of the Mexican border, where the story was laid. Universal pulled the plug on that; they were probably wise to do so, though it did them no good in the end. Thwarted, Orson responded with his usual resourcefulness in adversity; he shot all his border-town exteriors in Venice, California, an hour from the studio. It looks marvelous, better than anything we could have found on the border, and logistically far easier.

The casting went well and easily, though our budget of less than a million dollars for the whole film left little money for the actors. Nevertheless, they all wanted to work for Orson, in the first film he’d directed in Hollywood in ten years. Several of his old Mercury players came on board: Ray Collins, Joe Calleia, and Joe Cotton in a cameo. Marlene Dietrich played a very spooky gypsy, wearing one of Elizabeth Taylor’s black wigs, and I was responsible for a key casting. Dennis Weaver was just finding fame in Gunsmoke; I called him up and persuaded him to play a crazy motel-keeper for us. He was wonderfully eccentric. Janet Leigh was set as my new bride; very good, even with a broken arm. She wore the lightest possible cast for filming, discarding the sling during takes. A gutsy lady.

Orson came on the picture with a reputation for extravagance dragging after him like the chains clanking behind Marley’s ghost. He didn’t deserve it. He had his flaws as a filmmaker, but waste and inefficiency were not among them. Still, he knew he had to make the studio believe in him. He did this very resourcefully. The Sunday before shooting started, Orson called some of the actors to his house for an undercover rehearsal of the first day’s work, a sound-stage interior of a tiny apartment. The next day, Orson began laying out a master shot that covered the whole scene, including two-shots, close-ups, over shoulders, and insert shots. It was a very complicated set-up, with walls pulling out of the way as the camera moved from room to room, and four principal actors, plus three or four bit players working through the scene.

On any movie set, the production department gets a call from one of the ADs, reporting when rehearsals on the first shot begin, when the first take is made, and when the first print is recorded. Lunch came and went and we were still rehearsing the shot; no camera had yet turned. Studio executives began to gather in uneasy little knots in corners, a bit daunted about approaching Orson while he was cuing an extra’s move just as the tracking camera picked him up. They were also very worried. Most of the first day gone, and no film exposed yet.

 
About four o’clock, Orson called for a take, the first of a good many. Just after six, he said silkily, “Cut! Print the last three takes. That’s a wrap on this set; we’re two days ahead of schedule.” He had designed his master to include all the coverage he needed in the 12-page scene, scheduled for three shooting days. All this was planned, of course, to astound Universal, which it surely did. It was also a fine way to shoot the scene. The front-office people never came near the set again. They kept hoping for another miraculous 12-page day. The never got one, but Orson had persuaded them: even if he did get into trouble, he could get out of it. Looking back, I think he relished it. There was a little of Wellington after Waterloo: “A close-run thing, sir-a damn close-run thing.” I won’t say he deliberately painted himself into corners, but he did love leaping out of them. I remember a scene driving an open convertible down an alley in Venice, doing several pages of dialogue.

In 1957, they still shot moving-car scenes in a break-way car with the front off, the camera shooting past the actors at a process screen of traffic footage. Orson decided to shoot it in a real car, driving down a real alley. Nowadays, of course, that’s a piece of cake. The film’s faster, the lights are half the size, so are the mikes and cables. When Orson’s cameraman had the shot rigged, the back of the car was crammed with batteries and the recording unit, with cables twisting around the seats to mikes taped on the dashboard, and the camera was strapped to a wooden platform on the hood, with no room for even the camera operator and the sound mixer. Someone suggested cutting the front off the car and towing the rear half behind a truck large enough to carry a crew. Orson snorted. “Nonsense! These boys can shoot it without a crew.”

And so we did. With a crash course in switching on both camera and sound, I drove down the alley half a mile to our start mark and said, “Turn over.” Mort Mills, my partner in the scene, flipped the right switches, checked the appropriate dials and said, “Speed.” (Technical note: Nobody ever says “Lights, camera, action!” on a movie set.) I gunned the car and yelled, “Action!” as we tore off, acting away. We had a marvelous time. We’d get down to the end of the alley and Orson would say, “How was it?” “Perfect!” I’d say. “I’d like one more.” It was my first experience of the heady bliss of directing a film. By the time I’d done three takes, I felt like D. W. Griffith. As a matter of record, this was the first time a dialogue scene was shot in a moving car.

The opening shot of the film was an even more spectacular example of Orson’s alchemist ability to transmute adversity into art. He took the introductory montage written to establish Janet and me in the border-town setting, and made what’s been called the greatest boom shot in the history of the movies. Here’s how it goes: Close-up on hands holding a bomb, setting timer; ticking starts on soundtrack, continuing behind as the camera booms up over building, follows a scurrying figure down alley, dropping closer as man opens trunk of parked car, drops bomb inside, runs off as laughing couple comes from bar, climbs in, and drives off. Camera follows, holding car in full shot, picking up Heston and Leigh walking arm in arm, dialogue establishing their recent marriage. We pick up car going through border checkpoint, drunken girl complaining of ticking in her head. Car drives off, Heston and Leigh pass checkpoint, dialogue with guard conveys Heston’s Mexican-government status. Newlywed banter, Heston kisses Leigh, as bomb explodes offscreen.

 
It was technically an all but impossible shot, depending on precise timing, not only from Janet and me, the couple in the car and the passing extras, but most critically of all, from the boom grip (the man running the boom) and of course the camera operator. Today, a remote-controlled camera on the end of a Python boom would make the shot far easier to prepare and not nearly as hard to shoot. Then, it was a wonder. They started lighting in mid afternoon and had it ready to rehearse when darkness came. We shot on it all night, with various things going wrong, most often the actor playing the IRS guard at the border crossing. He had only a line or two, but it must have been terrifying for him to see the whole company bearing down on him from a block away. When we’d get to him, he’d flub his lines. At last, as dawn began to lighten in the east, Orson said to him patiently, All right, let’s do it once more. This time, if you aren’t sure of your line, just move your lips-we can dub it in later. But whatever you do, please God don’t say, ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Welles.”‘ That’s the take that’s in the movie.

More than half the picture was shot at night in the alleys, canals, and crumbling corners of Venice, a curious homage to the Italian original. Parts of it look like a Salvador Dali landscape. One night, preparing a showdown scene in a hotel lobby between my crusading Mexican prosecutor and Orson’s corrupt cop, he was fuming at the slowness of the lumbering elevator. Suddenly, he stopped, transfixed. You could almost see the cartoon light bulb glow over his head. Chuck,” he said, as the elevator finally sank to lobby level, “would you see if you can run up the stairs to the third floor before this thing gets up there?” I did. (It was a really slow elevator.)

Orson then laid out the scene with me arguing with him in the lobby, he bundling his cronies into the elevator and starting up, talking all the way, only to open the door and find me waiting at the top. Again, not tough to do today, but a real killer shot in 1957, with light and sound cables hanging three stories down the elevator shaft. Later that same night, Orson and I were peeing into a drain down in the basement of the hotel. He looked at the dank cellar clutter around us and said, “Wouldn’t this be a great place to do that scene in the file room with you and Joe Calleia?” “It sure would,” I said, zipping up. “But isn’t that scheduled for Friday, back in the studio? They’ll have the set built by now. Besides, Joe isn’t even called tonight. It’s 2 A.M.; he’ll be dead asleep. We’ve got three more pages to shoot up on the third floor anyway. That’ll take the rest of the night.” “Nonsense!” said Orson, his eyes gleaming. “I can wrap that scene in two set-ups. It’ll take them that long to get Joe down here anyway. He’ll be better if he’s confused-that’s what the scene’s about.” He was right. He finished the upstairs scene before Joe got down to Venice, muzzy with sleep. He stumbled through the scene, Orson harrying him-it played wonderfully well. So did the cellar.

He was also very good about sharpening your focus on the scene you were doing that day. Even with a great part, you’re not likely to have more than three or four really great scenes, which you get to work on for maybe a week of the whole shoot. A lot of the time you’re getting on and off horses, or in and out of cars, or someone else’s good scenes. Orson could somehow persuade you that this next set-up happened to be one of the key shots in the whole movie. Though I don’t think he was a great actor, he could give you an actor’s insight into the process. He told me something very casually once that’s been permanently valuable to me. You know, Chuck,” he said as we finished looking at several reels of dailies, “you should work on your tenor range. All of us with these deep bass voices tend to rumble along like organs. You’ve got to use the high end, too. The tenor range has a knife edge; your bass is a velvet hammer. Use them both.” I’ve tried to do that ever since.

 
We finished the film early on April Fool’s Day, killing Orson on the junk-littered bank of Venice’s solitary canal, just before the sun rose. We were one night over our thirty-day schedule and $31,000 over our $900,000 budget. We celebrated over ham and eggs in an all-night coffee shop, with a bottle of Lanson champagne Orson had in his trailer. I lifted my glass to him. “I think it’ll be a hell of a picture, Orson. You did waste some time, and a little film, trying to conceal the fact that you had the best part. I knew that. The movie is about the fall of Captain Quinlan.” He looked at me quizzically for a moment, then rumbled with laughter. “You’re quite right, my boy-that was stupid of me.” He burst out in a happy roar: “Well, now I don’t have to worry about it in the cutting room.”

Touch of Evil, as it was eventually titled, was released in 1958, to only fair business but excellent notices and a couple of festival prizes. Over the years Evil has become a cult film, much admired, as it should be. It’s certainly not a great film, like Citizen Kane, but it is immensely imaginative and provocative—among the finest few films of a hugely gifted filmmaker. Cahier du Cinema probably got it right when they called it “the best B movie ever made.” I’m very proud of the film and of working for Orson. I’m also proud I was responsible for his directing the last film he made in this country, or for a major studio. I’d have worked for him again, given a chance. What do I think of Orson Welles? I think he was the most talented man I ever met, which doesn’t mean I think he was the best actor or the best director. I don’t. But whatever we mean by “talent”—I suppose it’s a label we put on the capacity to create art—Orson had, in spades.

Maybe he had too much of it. It often seemed so easy for him to come up with a marvelous solution for a scene-almost off the top of his head. Maybe he sometimes only used the top of his talent and then got bored with the endgame. It’s been said that Hollywood owed Orson more than they gave him; perhaps he owed them more, too. He never lost his spirit, though. In the last year of his life, he was holding court in the Bistro, in Beverly Hills, when an intense young man approached him, almost genuflecting in awe at his work, particularly Kane. “There’s one thing, though… I’ve always w-wondered about,” the man stammered, abashed. “In the last scene, when Kane’s dying and he… he drops the glass ball, you know, and he says ‘R-Rosebud’? Ahh, there’s no one else in the room. So how… how do they know those’re his last w-words?” Orson looked at him a moment, then put a massive hand on the back of his neck and drew him close. You must never,” he rumbled softly, “repeat one word of what you have just told me to a living soul.”

 
A close look behind the scenes of the classic Orson Welles vehicle Touch of Evil revealing detailed information about the production and filming process, discussed by actors Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, restoration producer Rick Schmidlin, crew members and film historians. Interviewees include Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, Dennis Weaver, Valentin De Vargas, Rick Schmidlin, and Walter Murch.

 
Restoring the Touch Of Genius to a Classic by Walter Murch.

As time has gone by, though, Touch of Evil has acquired a large cult following, and it now regularly appears on lists of the best films of the century. What is not generally known is that the film never accurately reflected Welles’s intentions for it. In July 1957, the studio took over the editing of the film and prevented him from participating in its completion. In an odd turn of events, however, a 58-page memo that Welles wrote in 1957 was recently rediscovered, and a small team on which I was film editor and sound mixer has used that remarkable document to bring Touch of Evil as close as possible to Welles’s original concept. —Walter Murch

 
Listen to an audio commentaries with restoration producer Rick Schmidlin, Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston; Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore.

The job of the cinematographer is not just to record what the actors do and say, it is also to use light and shadow, shades of color, low angles and high to create an atmosphere or another world. One of the greatest of these was Russell Metty, as evidenced in films such as The Stranger (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958). —Russell Metty Profile

Jeff Boortz explained how “everything in the frame has meaning” making a systematic analysis of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil initial sequence. Boortz explained the parallelism between a film director and a motion graphic artist: The director must tell the actors and camera what to do, the motion graphic artist must do the same, it just that there are no actors, just graphic elements, but the narrative challenges are the same. Each element, frame and camera movement “everything in the frame” must work in harmony to reinforce the cinematographic narrative, and be able to successfully tell the story. This is our take on that analysis. The best way to understand this, is to watch first the original movie sequence (above) and then watch the analysis. Otherwise can be overwhelming and confusing. One of the best motion graphic classes that we have ever received. Thank you Mr. Boortz. —Deconstructing Motion Graphics (Touch Of Evil, 1958)

“This is a comprehensive analysis of the ‘Sanchez’s apartment scene’ from Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, his second great masterpiece after Citizen Kane. This scene is a 12-minute one take shot that was designed to be invisible. How did Welles pull that off?” —Sareesh Sudhakaran, Wolfcrow

 

BEHIND THE EDIT: THE ORSON WELLES MEMO

In this video, director/editor Joey Scoma compares and contrasts versions of the 1958 film Touch of Evil and shows us how the arduous process of editing pushes and pulls the overarching narrative of a film. Take a page out of this incredible piece of film history and see how even the most minor of edits can act as a powerful storytelling tool. The editing process is one of the most elusive parts of filmmaking to teach and it’s rare to get a glimpse into the often private and meticulous decisions filmmakers make in the edit bay. With the film Touch of Evil, we are afforded that rare glimpse into the creative thought process of Orson Welles, often considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. —RocketJump Film School

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Photographed by Sherman Clark © Universal International Pictures. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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  • Richard White

    Another great piece. Thank you. Ummm… if anyone is interested in more evidence of Metty’s exemplary cinematography, they need look no further than the 11 films he made with Douglas Sirk (a director who’s work I wait for you to tackle).