Given the ongoing controversy over how Touch of Evil should be exhibited - at 1.85 or 1.33 - here are Orson Welles own thoughts about filming in CinemaScope, VistaVision and other wide screen film processes, as published in the 1958 International Film Annual, No. 2 edited by William Whitebait. Strangely enough, the book was published (in London by John Calder), just as Touch of Evil was being shown in theaters.
Welles also wrote a letter in response to an article by Whitebait in The New Statesman, that touched briefly on how Welles liked shooting in the old camera format of 1.33 to 1 and black and white, rather than using the new wide screen formats and color.
From Welles comments, it's a fairly safe bet that he probably never wanted to shoot a movie in CinemaScope or Panavision. In fact, it seems likely that Universal might have tried to pressure him into using CinemaScope for Touch of Evil, since at the time it was all the rage, and Albert Zugsmith's previous picture with Welles, Man in the Shadow was in CinemaScope, as was Zugsmith's other masterpiece from 1958, Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels.
Given Welles comments, it seems quite possible he may have wanted Touch of Evil to be shown in full frame. VistaVision was essentially a 1.85 ratio when projected, so it seems probable that Welles may have realized that Touch of Evil would be projected in 1.85, and thus agreed to compose it for that format, but may still have preferred to have seen it projected in 1.33. to 1.
I've also included Rick Schmidlin's comments from the message board, that explain his reasons (along with the studio documentation he found) for releasing the DVD in the 1.85 format.
RIBBON OF DREAMS
By ORSON WELLES
A sheer joy in everything big was once the hallmark of Hollywood production. People have not hesitated to chide us for thinking 'colossal' the best superlative.
What has changed? Certainly not Hollywood.
Pure size excites us as much as ever. And what are the new screens but a paroxysm of this excitement?
But now those who mocked us run most eagerly to join in our madness.
What was the reaction, under skies one might have thought reasonable, when this monster (Frankenstein's grandest mistake) issued, head held high, from the laboratories of Southern California? Instead of charging with pitchforks, the cinemagoers of the entire world hurled themselves to embrace this monster in a tight embrace. No shape is too demented, no size too paranoiac. In the most popular process the image is blurred, camera movements are strictly limited; good montage impossible. The frame which superficially encloses its action somewhat in the guise of a frieze is ill suited to the human form, cutting it off somewhere above the ankles and below the haunches. Which means that the actors must play their scenes thrusting themselves at us like Punch and Judy. This 'giant screen' is ideally suited to a ground plan of a procession or of a serpent elongated.
These very strange proportions have been dictated by the very low overhang of the balcony in certain super-cinemas, and their object has been to prevent the spectators in the back rows of the stalls from thinking that perhaps they would be better off in cheaper seats. Note that these balconies are rare and specifically American. Yet it is here, in Europe, that the new system is most popular.
Certain other processes are even larger. Many screens are bigger: observe that they are all more uproarious like an outbreak of panic. All these new processes express an identical fear: loss of confidence in the cinema itself. Technical astuteness combines in a frantic attempt to bewitch the public while submerging it.
It is unnecessary to explain in detail how the enlargement of the screen does not augment but diminishes the possibilities of expression. Every active film-maker can testify to this; there are few effects to be got by yells and shrieks. The most exuberant stage actor would hesitate to play a piece throughout at the top of his voice. Beyond a certain point exaggeration becomes a bore. To find oneself next to the siren on the Isle de France is a magnificent experience, but one that does not gain by repetition. When the passing pleasure of physical shock has passed, the range of sensation cannot be extended by more familiarity. With the novelty vanished, we no longer respond to the appeal of the outrageous. We are content to fall asleep.
A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.
Distributors, naturally, are all of the opinion that poets don't sell seats. They do not discern whence comes the very language of the cinema.
Without poets, the vocabulary of the film would be far too limited ever to make a true appeal to the public. The equivalent of a babble of infants would not sell many seats. If the cinema had never been fashioned by poetry, it would have remained no more than a mechanical curiosity, occasionally on view like a stuffed whale.
Everything that lives and in consequence, everything commercially saleable derives from the ability of the camera to see. It does not see naturally in place of an artist, it sees with him. The camera at such instants is far more than a registering apparatus; it is a means by which come to us messages from the other world and which let us into the great secret. This is the beginning of magic. But the charm cannot work unless the eye of the camera also is human. That eye should be on the scale of the human eye.
Man is made in God's image. To enlarge that image is not to glorify but to deform it. It's a sort of joke, and one doesn't joke with God. That is not only religion but good aesthetics.
A film is a ribbon of dreams.
It can happen to us to dream in colors and sometimes in black and white, but never in CinemaScope. We never wake from a nightmare shrieking because it has been in VistaVision.
Our fantasies are not more erotic in Cinerama, and saints know no visions in Cinemiracle.
Where lies the cause for the crisis in world cinema?
In us who make films: and we have not deliberately plotted to make bad ones. Yet we attach ourselves to the dimensions laid down to us by producers. Why? Why allow the mammoths to wipe away our last normal screens?
We have discovered that the enlargement of the image, so far from enriching form or content, impoverishes the film itself. But do we not impoverish ourselves even more by abandoning the sole means which enabled us once to speak of art?
What are we referring to when we speak of the world march of the cinemas, that indispensable figment of statistics? An individual sitting in a seat, in a hall. Multiply him by quite a few millions and what do you get more than the same spectator in the plural? Unconscious of his statistical importance his dreams depend obstinately on the old human scale. No super-screen will make him a superman. He is no giant, he is only numerous.
But already he is less than this; he gets smaller every day.
Who can say that it's an accident that the public is dwindling away as the importance of the artist is destroyed? Are giant screens a symptom or a cause?
Let us joyfully admit that there will always be a place for the circus. But let us also insist that room will always be found for whatever clowning may be foisted on us. What perverse, morbid desire delivers our world cinema to an era of nickelodeons?
ORSON WELLES LETTER TO THE NEW STATESMAN
regarding TOUCH OF EVIL
May 24, 1958
Without being quite so foolish as to set my name to that odious thing, a 'reply to the critic', perhaps I may add a few oddments of information to Mr. Whitebait's brief reference to my picture TOUCH OF EVIL (what a silly title, by the way; it's the first time I've heard it). Most serious film reviewers appear to be quite without knowledge of the hard facts involved in manufacturing and, especially, merchandising a motion picture. Such innocence, I'm sure, is very proper to their position; it is, therefore, not your critic I venture to set straight, but my own record. As author-director I was not and normally would not be-consulted on the matter of the 'release' of my film without a press showing. That this is an 'odd subterfuge', I agree; but there can be no speculation as to the responsibility for such a decision.
As to the reason, one can only assume that the distributor was so terrified of what the critics might write about it that a rash attempt was made to evade them altogether and smuggle TOUCH OF EVIL directly to the public. This is understandable in the light of the wholesale re-editing of the film by the executive producer, a process of re-hashing in which I was forbidden to participate. Confusion was further confounded by several added scenes which I did not write and was not invited to direct. No wonder Mr. Whitebait speaks of muddle. He is kind enough to say that 'Like Graham Greene' I have 'two levels'. To his charge that I have 'let the higher slip' I plead not guilty. When Mr. Greene finishes one of his 'entertainment's' he is immediately free to set his hand to more challenging enterprises. His typewriter is always available; my camera is not. A typewriter needs only paper; a camera uses film, requires subsidiary equipment by the truck-load and several hundreds of technicians. That is always the central fact about the film-maker as opposed to any other artist: he can never afford to own his own tools. The minimum kit is incredibly expensive; and one's opportunities to work with it are rarer less numerous than might be supposed. In my case, I've. been given the use of my tools exactly eight times in 20 years. Just once my own editing of the film has been the version put into release; and (excepting the Shakespearean experiments) I have only twice been given any voice at all as to the 'level' of my, subject matter. In my trunks stuffed with unproduced films scripts, there are no thrillers. When I make this sort of picture -- for which I can pretend to no special interest or aptitude -- it is not 'for the money' (I support myself as an actor), but because of a greedy need to exercise, in some way, the function of my choice: the function of director. Quite baldly, this is my only choice. I have to take whatever comes along from time to time, or accept, the alternative, which is not working.
Mr. Whitebait revives my own distress at the shapeless poverty of Macbeth's castle. The paper mache' stagy effect in my film was dictated by a 'B-Minus' budget with a 'quickie' shooting schedule of 20 days. Returning to the current picture, since he comments on the richness of the urban scenery of the Mexican border' perhaps Mr. Whitebait will be amused to learn that all shooting was in Hollywood. There was no attempt to approximate reality; the film's entire 'world' being the director's invention. Finally, while the style of TOUCH OF EVIL may be somewhat overly baroque, there are positively no camera tricks. Nowadays the eye is tamed, I think, by the new wide screens. These 'systems' with their rigid technical limitations are in such monopoly that any vigorous use of the old black-and-white, normal aperture camera runs the risk of seeming tricky by comparison. The old camera permits use of a range of visual conventions as removed from 'realism' as grand opera. This is a language not a bag of tricks. If it is now a dead language, as a candid partisan of the old eloquence, I must face the likelihood that I shall not again be able to put it to the service of any theme of my own choosing.
Posts from the Wellesnet messageboard:
RICK SCHMIDLIN: 1:33 was the ratio Citizen Kane was shot in, as was the practice at the time. Touch of Evil was composed by Welles in 1:85 but shot full frame at the order of the studio. Welles was very aware on the composition he shot the film in. Welles never complained about the ratio because he screened it a 1:85. I guess those who prefer the studio version feel more is better, but that is going against the way the picture was shot and was meant to be seen in theaters. This was supported by both Russell Metty and Philip Lathrop by the records on the original studio screening and the theatrical release screenings. A little homework on this matter goes a long way.
SERGIO: When I was preparing a lecture that I gave on Touch of Evil last year at the National Film Theatre in London I had the chance to compare the prints of the standard and re-release versions of Touch of Evil both on a Steenbeck and projected on the big screen. I found that the ratio really should be 1.66 and was in fact indicated as such on the re-release print. The easiest way to confirm this was the simple fact that in the third shot of the film, the backward dolly shot in which Heston and Leigh run towards the explosion, if shown at 1.33 then the bottom of the dolly would be clearly visible, but was removed at 1.66. The DVD says that it is masked at 1.85 but in fact it is masked at around 1.77 so as to accommodate widescreen TVs, and I believe that this is still a little too tight, to be honest.