The Touch of Evil memo

In 1957 Orson Welles made Touch of Evil for Universal. The studio disliked the rough cut, ordered Welles off the movie and drafted in another director, Harry Keller, to edit the film heavily and shoot additional scenes.

Before it was released, Welles was given one opportunity to view the revised version of the film. He sat with Universal executives and took copious notes throughout the screening. The following morning he delivered a typed 58-page memo to Universal, outlining the minimum changes he thought the film needed. What a night that must have been! Welles had by then been completely removed from the editing process by the studio, and the memo is a passionate but necessarily civil set of directions on how to treat the film. Considering that he only saw the film once and only had a single night to draft his reaction, the memo is a great piece of technical film criticism, tempered with the need to placate the studio.

By all means retain, in its main lines the edited form of this reel as you now have it put together. Little of the admirable labors of Ernie Nims and his assistants in behalf of clarity need be lost, but let me urge very earnestly that the cutaway from Grandi - in which he was just starting to menace Susan (the scene’s deliberately anti-climatic quality, not at this point, having been established) be retained.

Universal disregarded the memo and released the film virtually unchanged in 1958.

Touch of Evil is famous for its opening scene, a single long tracking shot (remember, this was filmed over fifty years ago). Welles was unhappy with Keller’s treatment, though.

As the camera roves through the streets of the Mexican bordertown, the plan was to feature a succession of different and contrasting Latin American musical numbers - the effect, that is, of our passing one cabaret orchestra after another. In honky-tonk districts on the border, loudspeakers are over the entrance of every joint, large or small, each blasting out it’s own tune by way of a “come-on” or “pitch” for the tourists. The fact that the streets are invariably loud with this music was planned as a basic device throughout the entire picture. The special use of contrasting “mambo-type” rhythm numbers with rock ‘n’ roll will be developed in some detail at the end of this memo, when I’ll take up details of the “beat” and also specifics of musical color and instrumentation on a scene-by-scene and transition-by-transition basis.

In 1998, working from Welles’ memo, editor Walter Murch produced a “director’s cut” of the film, including a revised version of the opening scene that replaced the theatrical score with street music and removed the credits. Although everything else about the scene remains the same, the difference is remarkable. Welles never made another Hollywood picture after Touch of Evil.

— 15 Jan 2009