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The story behind Orson Welles's Touch of Evil


The idea to revive Orson Welles's Touch of Evil
Walter Murch Film-maker
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In 1997 I got a phone call from somebody that I had never met before, who had been at a lecture that I gave at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on The Conversation. And his name was Rick Schmidlin, and he was a producer and was involved in a project to revive Touch of Evil, Orson Welles's 1958 film for its 40th anniversary in 1998, attempting to do justice by the film. And incorporate all of Welles's notes and reservations about the damage that the studio, Universal, had done to the film on its release in 1958. And I was overwhelmed at the idea of this, particularly coming out of the blue. But I had some time on my hands. I was in-between projects. And I said, 'Tell me more.'

It involved, principally, Rick's discovery of a memo that Welles had written on his first viewing of what the studio had done to the film. Contractually, the director is obligated to see this. But Universal had put strictures on it, meaning, we're only going to show you the film once. You cannot stop the film. And that's it. So there was Welles, sitting in a theatre, scribbling madly as the film projected. And then, he stayed up all night that night, and typed up a 58-page memo to his enemies at Universal, the people who had taken the film away from him. And said, 'Here's what I think.'

And the memo was rumoured to exist. Peter Bogdanovich had a couple of pages from it, I think in his interviews with Welles. But the entire memo had disappeared. And somehow, Rick managed to find it. I think, reading between the lines that it was in Charlton Heston's file cabinet because Charlton, the star of the movie, was also the producer of the movie. And as such, he would have been copied on any of these internal memos.

Born in 1943 in New York City, Murch graduated from the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. His career stretches back to 1969 and includes work on Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II, and III, American Graffiti, The Conversation, and The English Patient. He has been referred to as 'the most respected film editor and sound designer in modern cinema.' In a career that spans over 40 years, Murch is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, beginning in 1969 with The Rain People. After working with George Lucas on THX 1138 (1971), which he co-wrote, and American Graffiti (1973), Murch returned to Coppola in 1974 for The Conversation, resulting in his first Academy Award nomination. Murch's pioneering achievements were acknowledged by Coppola in his follow-up film, the 1979 Palme d'Or winner Apocalypse Now, for which Murch was granted, in what is seen as a film-history first, the screen credit 'Sound Designer.' Murch has been nominated for nine Academy Awards and has won three, for best sound on Apocalypse Now (for which he and his collaborators devised the now-standard 5.1 sound format), and achieving an unprecedented double when he won both Best Film Editing and Best Sound for his work on The English Patient. Murch’s contributions to film reconstruction include 2001's Apocalypse Now: Redux and the 1998 re-edit of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. He is also the director and co-writer of Return to Oz (1985). In 1995, Murch published a book on film editing, In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, in which he urges editors to prioritise emotion.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Touch of Evil, Rick Schmidlin, Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich, Charlton Heston

Duration: 2 minutes, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2016

Date story went live: 29 March 2017