Bright Lights Film Journal

Why Murch’s TOUCH OF EVIL Doesn’t Make the Cut!

[The following is Bright Lights After Dark‘s contribution to the Contrarianism Blog-a-Thon hosted here.]

Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) is a noir masterpiece. For some, it represents Welles’ greatest achievement as a director. At the very least, it is Welle’ greatest contribution to genre filmmaking (most of his other films – Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Trial, F for Fake, and the Shakespearean films – falling outside popular genre categories).

Evaluation of Touch of Evil has been complicated by the fact that there have been at least three different versions of the film released in this country. The first and shortest (95 min.) was the version edited and released by Universal Studios in 1958. We’ll call it the First Studio Cut. It was justifiably criticized by Welles as not representing his original vision, having been re-edited by the studio after Welles left for Mexico to work on his never-completed Don Quixote.

We’ll refer to version No. 2 – released by Universal in the mid-70s – as the Second Studio Cut. It represents a significant improvement on the First Studio Cut, restoring approximately 13 minutes of footage that had been removed from the first version, and clarifying some plot points that had previously been obscure. Notably, it restores the scene of Police Sergeant Menzies (Joseph Calleia) driving Susie Vargas (Janet Leigh) to the motel and explaining to her how his beloved boss, Capt. Hank Quinlan (Welles), once took a bullet for him. It not only explains Quinlan’s limp (and why “Citizen Quinlan” always carries a cane), but also clarifies Quinlan’s line at the end of the film, “That’s the second bullet I stopped for you, Pardner.” It remains the best available version.

The third version – the so-called “director’s cut” released in 1998 – was not, in fact, cut by Welles, but by the Academy-Award-winning film editor/sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) in supposed conformity with a 58-page memo written by Welles after viewing the studio’s first rough cut. In the name of accuracy, we’ll refer to this version as the Murch Cut. While the Murch Cut has been endorsed by such Welles scholars as Jonathan Rosenbaum and Joseph McBride (who consulted on it), I consider it a travesty.

The Mancini Factor

Touch of Evil‘s 38 minute-long opening shot is one of the most famous long takes in screen history, a tour-de-force of crane and dolly that starts with someone planting a ticking time bomb in the trunk of a car, and follows that car as it crosses the border into Mexico, while at the same time introducing us to honeymooning couple Mike and Susie Vargas (Charlton Heston and Ms. Leigh) as they cross the border on foot. The shot ends when Mike and Susie kiss and – simultaneously – the bomb explodes. The shot is underscored by Henry Mancini’s brilliant Latin-inflected title music, his first genuinely important score, setting the tone for the film as a whole.

But not in the Murch Cut. In the Murch Cut, Mancini’s music has been removed, and replaced (as suggested in Welles’ memo) with “ambient sound,” honking horns, bleating goats, and music from the bomb-car’s radio as well other sources, cross-fading in and out as the couple (Mike and Susie) and the bomb-car move in and out of the frame. It reminds one less of Welles than of what Murch did vis-a-vis the sound design of Coppola’s The Conversation. Murch also removed the title credits that appear over the opening shot in the first and second studio versions.

Murch’s reconfiguration of the opening shot turns Touch of Evil into something of a graduate student’s experiment (a la Van Sant’s Psycho), instead of what it was and should be, one of the most exciting genre pieces ever made. And it’s important to realize that the excitement of Touch of Evil begins with its opening shot, those ominous Mancini chords over the image of a hand twisting the bomb’s timer, Mancini’s bongo drums picking up and amplifying the rhythm of the time bomb’s ticks as the car trunk is closed and the camera cranes upward. The credits superimposed over the opening shot in the first and second version of the film only add to its complexity and excitement. Without the Mancini music and carefully placed studio titles, the shot feels comparatively empty.

The fallacy of calling the Murch Cut a “director’s cut” is that we have no way of knowing what Welles would have done with the film had he been allowed to edit and re-edit it to his heart’s content. Welles was notorious for changing his mind in the editing room. (He never stopped cutting and recutting Don Quixote.) It’s possible Welles might have approved an opening shot sans Mancini music as in Murch’s cut, but if so, he would have been wrong – just as Alfred Hitchcock was wrong when he believed Psycho‘s shower sequence would play better without music. Hitchcock changed his mind after he saw the shower scene accompanied by Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking violins. Who knows? Maybe Welles might have had a similar change of heart if he’d had a chance to compare Murch’s version of the shot to the version accompanied by Mancini’s breakthrough score.

Sure, the studio versions of Touch of Evil look and feel like other Universal Studio films made in the late 1950s, but so what? Citizen Kane looks and feels in many ways like an RKO film of the early 1940s, but is none the worse for it.

Aspect Ratio Madness

While a case can be made for what Murch did to the opening sequence, there is no excuse for the Murch Cut’s most serious crime – the cropping of the film from 1.33:1 to 1.85:1 – effectively removing the upper and lower parts of the frame. (What were they thinking? Were they trying to “enhance” the film for 16×9 televisions?) Stanley Kubrick always insisted that the DVD versions of his films be shown in full frame, without any cropping. I believe Welles, if he were still alive, would take a similar position.

In fact, I’m sure he would. In Peter Bogdanovich’s book-length interview, This is Orson Welles, he asks Welles about the various signs and painted images that appear throughout Touch of Evil‘s frames. Welles replies:

“Yes. I did all those and all the artwork-the pinups and everything-I painted myself, from blowups. You have to watch awfully carefully to see them, but I worked hard on those.”

If you compare a full-frame version of Touch of Evil‘s opening shot to Murch’s cropped version on DVD, you will see that some of Welles’ signs, “pinups and everything,” are cropped right out of the image. I can’t imagine that Welles would have approved this evisceration of his work.

Beatrice Welles, Orson’s daughter, tried to stop the release of the Murch Cut on the legal ground, among others, that referring to it as a “director’s cut” was false advertising. While I certainly do not condone her attempts to forestall the release of The Other Side of the Wind; with respect to Touch of Evil, I believe she is right.

The Solution

At the moment, the Murch Cut is the only cut of Touch of Evil available on American DVD.  It is the version that Turner Classic Movies shows when they run the film on cable. If you want to see the superior Second Studio Cut, you would have to know someone who has it on videotape or laserdisc.*

I’m not calling for a suppression of the Murch Cut. The ideal solution would be for some company – Criterion perhaps – to release the Second Studio Cut and the experimental Murch Cut (uncropped, of course) in a single boxed set. That way viewers could compare and decide for themselves which version “touches” them the most.

* UPDATE: Roughly a year after I wrote this post, Universal issued a “50th Anniversary” DVD edition of Touch of Evil that includes all three versions of the film. However, all three versions are STILL improperly cropped from full-frame to 16×9, removing almost a third of what Welles clearly intended us to see.