Rick Schmidlin on the re-editing and restoration of Orson Welles’s noir masterpiece TOUCH OF EVIL
An Interview with
The re-edit producer of ORSON WELLES' masterpiece TOUCH OF EVIL
The following interview with Rick Schmidlin took place shortly after the re-edited version of the film debuted in 1998. Since that time I've not spoken with Rick, although I was quite happy that he posted many comments about his work on the Touch of Evil re-edit right here at the Wellesnet message board.
Now, I'm pleased to report that Rick has returned to the Wellesnet messageboard, and I'm sure he'll be willing to answer any questions about the new Touch of Evil DVD that readers may have for him. I'll also be speaking to him about the new Touch of Evil DVD shortly, so there will be an update to add to this interview in the near future.
There are scenes in TOUCH OF EVIL I neither wrote nor directed, about which I know absolutely nothing. I’ve been working since I was 17, I’ve directed 8 films, and I’ve been able to edit only three of them myself: CITIZEN KANE, OTHELLO and DON QUIXOTE—in 17 years! They always tear the film out of my hands—violently. For my style, for my vision of the cinema, editing is not simply one aspect: it’s the aspect. The only time one is able to exercise control over the film is in the editing.
—Orson Welles, in a 1958 interview with Cahiers du Cinema
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did the re-editing and restoration of TOUCH OF EVIL come about?
RICK SCHMIDLIN: What happened was about four years ago I was trying to get a laserdisc done on TOUCH OF EVIL. I thought it would be a good idea, to do a laserdisc, the way other discs have been done on different Welles films. There could be commentary to document the different versions of the film. I then talked to a friend, Allen Daviau, (the cinematographer of E.T.) and asked him if he knew anything about TOUCH OF EVIL. He told me that there had been a recent article in Film Quarterly, that excerpted a memo from Orson Welles to Universal about the editing of the film, and I should talk to Jonathan Rosenbaum. So I talked to Jonathan, and looked at the short version of the memo, and found out there was a complete 58-page memo written by Welles, that still existed—indicating the editorial changes he wanted to make before the release of the film. So I met with my friend Louis Feola, the President of Universal Home video, and they decided it was a great idea, and then they decided to re–issue TOUCH OF EVIL theatrically.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did you find Welles 58-page memo?
RICK SCHMIDLIN: What happened was once we got the go-ahead, the project was put in the hands of Jim Waters and Bob O’Neil at Universal, and they put in a request to Lew Wasserman (the former chairman of Universal Studios) to see if they could find the memo. Within 48 hours Lew Wasserman had produced an copy of the original memo for us. Jonathan Rosenbaum and I are doing a book on TOUCH OF EVIL, for the UC Press, which will include the 58-page memo, as well as Orson Welles’ original screenplay. The book will have all the documents we worked with, because I want people to understand what we did (Due to rights issues the screenplay was unable to be included in the book and it never appeared.)
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Welles actually wrote a whole series of memos to Universal. In Frank Brady’s book, CITIZEN WELLES, he quotes from several different memos Welles wrote to the studio—even before he wrote the 58-page memo.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: Yes, I spoke to Frank Brady and found all those back-up memos. Basically, he gave me a huge folder of all the research he did on TOUCH OF EVIL. That led me to Ernest Nims, which is where Frank got all the memos. (In 1957, Ernest Nims was an executive in charge of post production at Universal—who coincidentally had previously worked with Orson Welles on the editing of THE STRANGER). There was also a 9 page memo Welles wrote regarding changes he wanted made to the soundtrack, and I found the original script at USC, as well as all the alternate titles they were going to use. What happened was Orson Welles showed his cut of the film to Universal in late June or early July of 1957, and then went to New York to appear on Steve Allen’s TV show. While he was gone, they showed the film to Edward Muhl, (Universal’s Vice-President in charge of production), and when Welles got back to Los Angeles, Ernest Nims and a new editor (Virgil Vogel) were brought in, to help re-edit Welles first cut in a more conventional style. Then on August 28th, Ernest Nims showed Welles the version Universal had re-cut, and Welles was completely displeased with what they had done to the first three reels. He said he was going to write them a memo, and in the meantime, I believe he began acting in THE LONG HOT SUMMER. But Universal didn’t hear from Welles again until November 4th (apparently Welles memo was either lost in the mail, or he forgot to send it). By October, Universal was still working on the editing and decided they needed some new scenes for clarification. Orson must have heard they were planning to re-shoot new scenes, because on November 4th his memo from August finally arrived at the studio. By this time they were scheduled to shoot 1½ days with Harry Keller. Finally, on November 19th, Keller directed the pick-up shots, and in early December, Orson saw the film again, with the scenes Keller had directed cut into the film. It was after that screening, Welles wrote his 58-page memo. I believe that Orson—although he was very upset with the version he saw in August—he probably thought it was what they were going to release. Then, when he heard they were re-taking shots in October, he may have tried to get his memo to Nims one more time—the one he should have sent at the end of August. I think he may have thought what happened to THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS was going to happen again, and he was just resigned to that fact.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s really sad that Welles vision was so often compromised by studio interference.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: Yes, and on TOUCH OF EVIL Welles was at the top of his bent. He was 42 years old, in top form and everything he did with this film was virtuoso. Virtuoso directing, virtuoso camerawork, virtuoso editing. He was right on the money in everything he was doing. Even when he saw little problems in character development, he would add things, like the Marlene Dietrich part, or the Dennis Weaver part. Those were added in the middle of production. So I think when he got into the editing room he was totally distressed by these changes they wanted to make. I think that was partially because Ernest Nims, who had edited THE STRANGER for Welles, thought he was doing Orson a favor, but what he was really doing was destroying Orson. The STRANGER was Welles most commercial film, and I think Nims was trying to give Welles another commercial film, but it didn’t work because Nims didn’t have Welles blueprint in mind.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Is Ernest Nims still alive?
RICK SCHMIDLIN: Yes, but he’s very hard to talk to. He’s quite old and he doesn’t really want to talk about much.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s strange how a lot of the editors who re-cut Welles’s films seemed to think they were improving the movie. Robert Wise claims THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS had major problems because it wouldn’t cut together, which is totally absurd. He just didn’t understand what Welles was trying to do.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: Exactly. Robert Wise talks about the disastrous previews they had for AMBERSONS, but if you look at the preview cards, half of them say it was the greatest movie every made, while the other half say it was a disaster. Wise is an intelligent man who was a Johnny B. Goode. He knew how to play the studio game. If the studio was unhappy with the film, he was more than delighted to fix it. He was the complete opposite of Orson Welles, doing the most successful kind of mainstream pictures, from THE SOUND OF MUSIC to STAR TREK.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: And twenty years after CITIZEN KANE, Welles was still so radically ahead of his time that the studio had no idea what he was attempting to do with TOUCH OF EVIL.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: Yes, TOUCH OF EVIL basically fell apart in postproduction. The studio just didn’t understand what was going on. They didn’t like the rapid crosscutting, and because of that they ended up changing the first three reels. That’s where most of the problems arose, and where most of the changes were made. The version Welles saw in December 1957 came pretty close to the long 109-minute version—the one that was found in 1975—although Henry Mancini’s music wasn’t completely done. And what Welles was asking for in his 58 page memo was not to make a film that was more artistic, or stranger, or more bizarre. He actually wanted to make it very commercially acceptable. He wanted it to be as smooth as one of his radio programs. He wanted to appeal to mainstream America, and he knew the film Universal was preparing to release had some incoherent moments, and it was not going to appeal to that audience. That was the problem, because he wanted TOUCH OF EVIL to be his comeback film. He put a lot of work into it. If you look at the production reports, from January until June, Welles put in 18 hours a day working on the film, and then to have it all of a sudden fall apart on him—it had to be very distressing for him. The reason it turned out to be such a disaster for Welles, was really because he fell upon unfriendly post-production. They just wanted to get the movie out into the marketplace, hopefully make some money and then let it disappear. But here you have Orson Welles making TOUCH OF EVIL at Universal in the middle of BONZO and TAMMY—it definitely had to confuse them.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You said you found Orson Welles original script?
RICK SCHMIDLIN: Yes, there’s about three or four versions of the script and I found Orson’s master copy in the basement of USC. It includes all the Tanya scenes and all of Dennis Weaver’s scenes, which where not in the earlier drafts of the script. USC had the majority of the material we found. It was interesting to see Orson’s handwritten notes all over the script. I showed it to Gary Graver (Welles cameraman) and he said, ‘yes, that’s Orson’s handwriting’. When we publish it, it’s going to be the original pages with all of Orson’s handwritten notes.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In his memo, Welles talks about the importance of the oil derricks being visible in the background, for the scene where Vargas drives Susan to the Mirador motel.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: I found the production stills, and there were no oil derricks. First they were shooting the process shots, and there were no oil derricks in the process shots. Then, when they stop the car, they were in Palmdale, and there are no oil derricks in Palmdale, and that’s where they originally shot the scene. There were oil derricks in a production shot right outside of town, so there may have been a traveling shot of them leaving town, with oil derricks in the background, but that’s the only place I could figure out where they might be. And when I talked to Janet Leigh, she was not entirely clear where Welles version of the scene begins and where it ends.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: And Welles’s original footage of all those scenes is lost, so we’ll never know for sure.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: They re-shot the scenes to add lines of clarity. And everybody says Orson Welles would never have shot a process shot like that—which is untrue. I have the production reports, which show that when Welles originally shot those scenes, he shot them as process shots. What they did was have Harry Keller re-shoot the same scene, with the same dialogue, except they added one or two more lines. When Vargas stops the car, and Susan says: “you don’t mind, do you darling, if we just sit here by this terribly historic border of yours, maybe for about a month?” That’s a line they added. And they made a change. Welles wanted the scene to end on a kiss. He wants it to be a hotter, romantic scene. They have Susan falling asleep in Vargas’s arms. So they took it and turned it into a snoozing scene—apparently because they wanted Susan to seem tired—to get her to the motel. We’ve now deleted that scene from the film. They also re-shot the scene after that, where Menzies drives Susan to the motel. The reason for that, which Welles was aware of, was because they had to get Quinlan’s cane into Menzies hands—because when Menzies comes back to Sanchez’s apartment he says, “you forgot your cane.” In the version Welles shot, he never left his cane. That’s the reason they re-shot that sequence, and why Welles didn’t object to it. But he was firm where he wanted the Keller shots taken out—like the scene between Heston and Leigh in the hotel lobby at the beginning, which we took out—but he didn’t object to all of the Keller scenes. There’s a scene between Vargas and Schwartz by a stairwell, after the meeting in Vargas’s hotel room, (when Quinlan threatens to resign), that Welles did not object to. In his memo, he says: “I take pleasure in reporting my enthusiastic approval of the new scene between Schwartz and Vargas, It’s a good photographic match, the cut itself follows smoothly and the new words make a definite contribution to the clarity of the story.”
Here is the dialogue of the added Harry Keller scene that Welles approved of:
VARGAS: Al… Have I still any credit left with you?
VARGAS: Tell me, where can I find the records of Quinlan’s old cases?
SCHWARTZ: I’ll show you.
VARGAS: I’d like to get back to my wife. I hope this won’t take too long.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: The point of the memo was Welles wanted the film to be a success. He was unhappy he didn’t get to do the re-takes, or write the dialogue, but he was trying to tell the studio how to polish the picture. He realized, it was basically their picture, but as he said in the memo, their picture didn’t make sense in a lot of places. What he was trying to do was make it much more coherent. In the original cut, a lot of the public would get confused with the story, but now, after the changes we’ve made, it’s a very easy story to follow.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I don’t understand why Universal would re-shoot all these scenes to supposedly clarify the film, and then not include them in the version they originally released in 1958.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: They had a preview of the long version in January of 1958, and it came out very badly. It was just like what happened with AMBERSONS. They only previewed it one time, then pulled it and started re-cutting it. I found 19 different distribution plans they had prepared, but they kept on getting pushed back. One ad campaign made it look like a prostitution-slavery movie that Orson Welles was making in Mexico and claimed the movie couldn’t be shown in California or Mexico, because it was too close to what was going on in the border towns there! The studio was that desperate. I don’t know if this ad copy was ever used, but it said, “a film that can’t be shown in California, because Orson Welles shows the harsh reality of what’s happening south of the border.” So they finally released the 95-minute version, and it looks like the first place it opened was in Nashville, Tennessee! It was released in various different ways around the country. In Los Angeles it was released on the lower half of a double bill. In some places it opened on the top half of a double bill, like in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania—where it opened at a drive-in. That was it’s only northeastern Pennsylvania opening. The studio had a problem with the distribution; they really didn’t know what to do with the film. I think it would have had a whole different life if it had come out later. It’s interesting because when we started we didn’t know if the things Orson asked for would always work. So, when Walter Murch and I were doing the editing, we didn’t look at the completed film until everything was done. Then, when we watched the finished movie, everything worked. Orson’s suggestions were all correct, but we didn’t know that starting out. Maybe they wouldn’t have worked.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How where you able to take the titles off the opening shot?
RICK SCHMIDLIN: We found a text-less opening, because when it was released in Europe, they needed to put the titles on in different languages. That was our saving grace. There was one clean copy, and we also found all the original sounds elements. We were able to bring up all the sound effects, music and dialogue on separate tracks, so we didn’t have to do what they did with VERTIGO, where they had no separate tracks. When they did the stereo track for VERTIGO, they had to re-do the effects from scratch. In our case, we had all the original master tracks. So when Welles asked for a change in the sound mix, we could easily do it. For instance, he wanted the pianolo at Tanya’s to end at one point, so we were able to drop it. He didn’t want the pianolo playing through the whole scene. He wanted it to become silent when everything becomes serious.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How did you get Walter Murch involved in this project?
RICK SCHMIDLIN: I went to the LA County Museum last spring when they showed THE CONVERSATION, and Walter was a guest speaker, talking about his work on THE CONVERSATION, as well as APOCALYPSE NOW and AMERICAN GRAFFITI. So I was listening to Walter talking about sound and picture, and in Welles memo he talks about sound and picture, and I thought, “what we need is a highly intellectual editor, who is on Welles’ wavelength and who understands both sound and picture—the way Welles understood those elements.” Walter seemed to be perfect for that. Walter was like the editorial equivalent of Gregg Toland (the cinematographer of CITIZEN KANE), in that he could take Welles wishes, and make them work—a collaborator who could understand what Welles wanted. Walter is also one of the most ego-less people in the world, so he definitely wanted to make sure that Welles wishes were the one’s that were honored. It was not going to be Walter Murch’s interpretation. He would be making the choices that Welles wanted. That’s why Walter turned out to be the perfect choice. We did all the work at Walter’s editing Barn (in Marin county). We brought the Avid (a digital editing system) up there, and worked out of his barn for a month. The nice thing is we had all these documents to guide us. We started with the 58-page memo, and we where able to get more from Frank Brady, and we got Welles’ original script from USC. (Among the other documents Schmidlin found: copies of the original editors script and cue sheets, continuity reports and production reports). We worked at our own speed, and Walter is the kind of guy who likes to work 7 days a week, so we made this project our life, as long as it took. But we were able to work in a comfortable and casual place, away from Hollywood. Trees and a lagoon surrounded us and we also did a few days work at Fantasy studios (in Berkeley). Another wonderful thing was we had Bingham Ray, (the President of October Films). He was the programmer at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York, and he knew the history of TOUCH OF EVIL. Now the re-release is in his hands and he’s handling it very personally—which is nice, because he understands the project.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Welles wanted the shot of Akim Tamiroff, looking down at Janet Leigh—with his eyes bulging out after he has been strangled—to be cut by ten frames. Welles said to Peter Bogdanovich that “several people (thought I) went too far with that (scene). In fact, they’re right to an extent—because it was almost subliminal in my cutting. And that’s one of the things they changed: they added ten frames to that shot. My way, you didn’t really know if you saw it—you were just left with that. And their way, you got a good long look at those eyes. And I didn’t want you to. I wanted you not to be sure you saw it.”
RICK SCHMIDLIN: Yes, and we made that change. It’s trimmed by exactly the ten frames that Welles asked for, and it works. Ten frames can make a dramatic difference. I found Welles editorial notes for reel ten and eleven, from June of 1957, and let me quote what Welles says: “After (we see) the first shot of Tamiroff dead, use the same shot of Janet Leigh, but before she rises, return to Tamiroff’s face, blown-up, so his eyes are even bigger, for a flash.” Now, if you cut ten frames from the shot, it’s a flash. If you leave the ten frames in, it’s the same length as the initial shot (of Tamiroff dead). So you see it once, then return to it for a flash. That’s the support we had for making that cut.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Plus Welles told Peter Bogdanovich he wanted it cut by ten frames.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: Yes, but we didn’t deal with anything Welles asked for that wasn’t requested before the film was released. After 1958, everything was hearsay. It’s like watching it after it was released and saying, ‘I wish I had done that.’ So even though he told Bogdanovich he wanted it cut by ten frames, we wouldn’t have done it—because he didn’t discuss it in the memo. So unless we had back-up editorial material, that addressed a situation, we didn’t change anything. But for that scene, we found exactly that—the reel ten and eleven editorial notes, where he specifically spent time discussing that cut.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: In his memo, Welles also wanted a shot of Menzies (Joseph Calleia) taken out, when he meets with Vargas at the hall of records and collapses in despair when he realizes Vargas may actually be right about his idol, Captain Quinlan.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: I told Walter we had to take that shot out and he said it couldn’t be done properly, so we’d have to make a sacrifice and let it go. The next morning, I went for a walk in Muir Woods, it was beautiful, with the sun streaming through the redwood trees, but all I could see was Joseph Calleia’s head collapsing on top of the table. I got to Walter’s editing barn that afternoon and said, “Walter, you’ve got to get Joseph Calleia’s head off the table.” He told me once more that it couldn’t be done, and I said, “you’re Walter Murch! You can do it.” And he did it. He worked for hours until he got Menzies’s head off the table, and he was able to do it and still keep the scene intact.
Walter Murch described why making this cut—which might seem like a very minor change—was actually so terribly important, in a article in THE NEW YORK TIMES:
WALTER MURCH: One of the smaller changes we made, but one with the largest repercussions, was the removal of a close-up of Menzies (Joseph Calleia), Quinlan's sidekick. It is particularly interesting that Welles, in asking for this change, phrased his request in technical terms—he wanted the shot removed, he wrote, “because of a mistaken use of the wide angle lens which distorts Menzies's face grotesquely.” “There is no use upsetting the audience this way,” he continued. “The scene played all right without this weird close-up.” At first, this note appeared to me to be somewhat out of character for Welles, because there are many other "weird close-ups" in the film that use the same lens, and he never anywhere else talks in such solicitous terms about upsetting the audience. But I did what he asked, and it was only when viewing the film as a whole that I saw the real reason for the note, which he carefully avoided telling the studio. The close-up occurs in a scene between Vargas and Menzies, at a crucial point in which Vargas has confronted Menzies with evidence of Quinlan's duplicity. Menzies, who has been standing, collapses and his agony is revealed in this close-up. Almost instantly, he jumps back to his feet and defends his boss, but the damage has been done: Vargas has seen him acknowledge the truth, and more to the point Menzies has seen Vargas see this. As a result, everything that Menzies does in the film's last half-hour is done under duress: not authentically, because the character believes it to be best, but because he must, having revealed his weakness to Vargas. Menzies has a metaphorical leash around his neck. By cutting this close-up, we also cut the leash. He never collapses in the scene with Vargas, continuing to defend his boss to the end. But we -- not Vargas -- see the doubt and anguish on his face at the end (Vargas does not see it because of the staging of the scene). As a result, everything that Menzies does from that moment on -- and he plays a crucial role in the undoing of his boss -- is done authentically: he chooses to do it, rather than being coerced. This increases the standing of Menzies's character in the film, raising it to a level of equality with Vargas and Quinlan. Welles described "Touch of Evil" as a story of love and betrayal between two men, Menzies and his boss, Quinlan. The removal of Menzies's close-up plays a significant part in realizing this vision for the film. There are frequently moments like these in the making of films, where huge issues of character and story are decided by the inclusion -- or not -- of a single shot that will reverberate throughout the film. By dismissing Welles, the studio prevented him from having a hand in this fine-tuning of his own work, insuring a certain level of dissonance in the finished product, a dissonance that has now been eased away.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s interesting to imagine what Welles might have done to the film in 1976, when they found the 109-minute preview version. He always wanted to go on changing things. He was like Stanley Kubrick—he’d work for months on the editing—if only the studio would let him.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: He was like Kubrick, but he didn’t have the right support at the studio. That’s what I tried to give him on this project. The type of team he really needed. What Universal said to me was, “you can do anything you want, as long as you obey Welles commands, and we won’t be involved.” So we needed somebody else to be involved in the project, which is why Jonathan Rosenbaum was great. In my mind, he was the watchdog for the studio. That’s how I visualized his position as consultant. He watched out for the studio’s interest. Now, if you can imagine Jonathan Rosenbaum watching out for the studio’s best interest—that’s something you won’t normally see happening.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Yes, it does seem a little strange. It’s great though, because it’s exactly the opposite of what the studio’s mentality was in 1957.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: And today, no studio would hire Jonathan to run things. He’s intelligent, analytical and bright, but no studio would hire him. So my fantasy was that Jonathan was the studio’s watchdog, and Walter Murch was watching out for Welles.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Why did Welles daughter, Beatrice, object to the film being shown at the Cannes film festival?
RICK SCHMIDLIN: She saw a videotape of the re-edit, and all I can say is, the same person (Thomas White) who represents Beatrice Welles, represents Robyn Astaire (the widow of Fred Astaire—who is known for her unreasonable demands regarding the use of Fred Astaire’s image). Thomas White told me he represented Robyn Astaire—and he was very proud of that. He said, “I represent Beatrice Welles and Robyn Astaire. That kind of explains the situation.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: It’s crazy, because here you are trying to correct the film to what her father originally wanted, and she’s trying to stop it. I guess she doesn’t know much about her father’s work—even though she helped restore OTHELLO.
RICK SCHMIDLIN: Yes, but look what they did to OTHELLO (The sound was re-dubbed to make the lip-sync match closer, and the score was re-recorded in stereo—but unlike TOUCH OF EVIL, OTHELLO was one of the few films Welles directed where he retained complete control over the final version).
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I know Jonathan Rosenbaum was very critical of the changes they made to OTHELLO. Do you think that had anything to do with why Beatrice Welles was trying to stop the release of TOUCH OF EVIL?
RICK SCHMIDLIN: I don’t think so. I think she wants a monopoly on everything, and this was an internal studio project. But I don’t even know if it’s her. It could be her advisor. If I had a representative who told me I could get a lot of money—you know, we’d all like lots of money. But, Universal has a well-oiled legal department, so I refer all those issues to them.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: What’s the new running time of the movie?
RICK SCHMIDLIN: It’s 111 minutes, but that’s because of the new credits at the end. With the scenes we deleted, it’s a little shorter than the 109-minute version. We also combined different shots from the short version that weren’t in the long version. They had done that for home video, but they didn’t know what they were doing. They put a shot of Marlene Dietrich near the end in the wrong place, and we fixed that.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Is Charlton Heston or Janet Leigh going to go out and promote the re-release of the film?
RICK SCHMIDLIN: Yes, Charlton Heston did the voice-over for the new trailer, and Janet is going to be on THE TONIGHT SHOW and GOOD MORNING, AMERICA. Janet is also going to the Toronto and Telluride film festivals with the film. They’re both very supportive of the project.