Memo to Universal: Touch of Evil
The following document – an “outtake” from This is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, a book I recently edited for HarperCollins – is excerpted from a 58-page memo written by Welles to Edward Muhl, the Universal Pictures studio chief, in 1957. The excerpting was carried out by Welles and Bogdanovich in the early 1970s for This is Orson Welles as part of a larger chronology of the making of Touch of Evil, only portions of which can be given here.
After shooting on Touch of Evil concluded on April 2, 1957, editing and dubbing under Welles’ supervision, mainly with Virgil Vogel, continued until Welles flew to New York on June 6 to appear on Steve Allen’s TV show. When he returned, a new editor, Aaron Stell, had been assigned by the studio to the picture, and Welles was asked to let him work alone. After Welles quarreled with post-production head Ernest Nims about when he could start shooting a few inserts needed for narrative clarity, and Muhl decided to look at the rough cut for the first time, Welles left for Mexico around June 29th to work on his Don Quixote. Objecting to the rapid crosscutting between scenes in the first five reels, Muhl assigned Nims to recut these reels. Welles returned from Mexico and viewed Nims’ cut in late August; he returned to Mexico for more work on Quixote in September and October.
After screening the new cut on November 4, Muhl decided that brief additional shooting was needed to clarify the storyline, and by mid-November the film’s star, Charlton Heston, was informed that Universal didn’t want Welles to carry out this work, which was scheduled for the 18th. After some communications with Welles, Heston canceled the shoot at his own expense (just over $8,000), but after further deliberations agreed to cooperate a day later, with Harry Keller directing. Later that month, after the new scenes were cut into the film, Welles was shown the results, and on the basis of this single screening and his copious note-taking, he wrote the 58-page memo which is excerpted below, a copy of which he sent to Heston. Soon afterwards, he sent Heston the following letter:
“I got a wire last night from Muhl, stating that Nims is working on the ‘majority’ of the changes requested in my memo, and asking me to turn up on Wednesday for dubbing. What interpretation are we to put on this?
“a. They are afraid I won’t come for dubbing unless they promise to make the changes.
“b. A certain throbbing of war drums has reached their ears at last, and they intend to make a convincing show of cooperating with my suggestions in the hope of spiking my guns, in the event of any future battle.
“c. Utter demoralization. Hundreds are being fired from the studio, and the rumors of Muhl’s joining them continue to spread. In such an atmosphere of decay and despair, maybe the sheer force of energy – which they now see I am prepared to put into this fight – has awed them into momentary compliance.
“d. Another possibility is that the very evident constructive spirit of my memo... amounts to a strong weapon which they do not wish to have used against them...
“e. The last possibility (and, I think, the least likely!) is that they have all been genuinely converted to the suggestions in the memo and are hastening to put the ‘majority’ into effect.
“Obviously, at this point, our cue is to play it straight. They deserve no thanks for their expressed willingness to follow the main lines of the memo. If, in fact, they do so, it will not constitute a personal favor to me; nothing but the good of the picture has ever been at issue. I shall make my loops and wait and see. It’s up to them. The big question, of course, is just what the ‘majority’ will really turn out to be. In fact, there were no bargaining points in that memo of mine. It represented my notion of the minimum number of improvements necessary. It’s my fear that their execution of these changes will leave something to be desired, since they may be acting without much enthusiasm, but most importantly, because they will be working in great haste...”
Unfortunately, Welles was right, and further scenes were deleted from the picture before it opened without press shows the following February, in a 93-minute version. Eighteen more years would pass before a 108-minute version containing these deleted scenes (including footage shot by Keller) was found at Universal and made available, in 1976 – a longer version that has now effectively supplanted the one originally released on both film and video, although, pace Leonard Maltin, it cannot be called “Welles’ original version,” which, properly speaking, never existed. (For clarification of certain differences between the two existing versions, see Terry Comito’s 1985 Touch of Evil volume in the Rutgers Films in Print series.)
To my mind, the value and interest of the following document largely rest in the rare glimpse it offers of some of Welles’ artistic intentions and strategies as he saw them himself. One obvious difficulty in following all the arguments today stems from the fact that the version of the film discussed here is neither the 93-minute original release nor the 108-minute rerelease but a rough cut we no longer have access to; but for anyone very familiar with the film, I think most of the issues at stake remain fairly legible.
In the excerpts that follow, the bracketed comments and those in italics are by Peter Bogdanovich, although I have taken the liberty of expanding them to clarify which details are present in the currently available 108-minute version.
Memo to Universal: Touch of Evil
… Resigned as I am to the fact that a great majority of my previous notes and suggestions have been disregarded, the case of the scene between Grandi [Akim Tamiroff] and Susan [Janet Leigh] is one of the few issues I feel justified in reopening. This scene is just exactly a thousand percent more effective played, as it was first arranged, in two parts, with a cutaway to the scene of the explosion between those two parts.
No matter how the scene is edited, this scene has – and was intended to have – a curious, rather inconclusive quality. It was written that way and directed and played that way. The audience is presented with a menacing villain who does not, in fact, succeed in being very menacing after all. He takes a threatening tone with Susan, but as it turns out, his threats are vague and the audience must begin to realize (if the scene works at all) that he’s actually more frightened than frightening. Dividing this scene in two parts, as we intended, and keeping the situation with Vargas at the scene of the explosion “alive” in the audience’s mind, is not to confuse but to clarify. Making a short contrapuntal reference to what is going on across the border underlines and precisely illustrates the correct values. Absolutely nothing is gained by gluing these two parts together, except to make the total scene seem rather long and rather shapeless. The shooting was done, for the most part, on location, certain reverses and close-ups having been picked up in the studio. Now I did not allow in shooting these for a version in two parts, and hence, there is no available footage for continuous action. As the editing now stands, the welding of these two parts has been managed with as much skill as the resources in actual film made possible, and I congratulate whoever made the attempt. It remains, however, just that: an attempt...
When photography falls sharply below a particular standard, cameramen say that the scene shot is not “commercial.” They do not, of course, mean that it is too “artistic” for the commercial market, but that the physical quality of the film is not up to the ordinary minimum standards generally required for exhibition. The sort of editing it was necessary to resort to in the attempt to force these two parts of a sequence into the form of a single scene can only be described in the same way: as film cutting, it is simply not commercial.
The cut by which we returned to Grandi (after a brief visit to the scene of the explosion) with his violent movement towards the mirror and the line: “We used to have a nice quiet town around here!” – was also a very good cut indeed. Both were exceptionally effective and cry out to be restored... If I’d been one of your number during the editorial discussions, I should know whom to address on this question which I consider to be so important. As it is, I can only plead with whoever it was who championed the notion that these two scenes be joined together as one – plead that since all other rearrangements in all these opening sequences are now fixed in an acceptable form, the Grandi-Susan scene be re-examined with an open mind. No great effort will be needed to find the proper footage for intercutting from the wealth of material available from the various scenes which play by the flaming car. It’s my opinion that the entrance of Quinlan should be saved for this. I think that moving the conflict between Quinlan and Vargas closer to the street scene in front of the hotel will aid clarity and much improve the narrative line. But this is only one of several solutions. Quinlan’s arrival through his line, “Whoever did it, ye jackass,” and the cut of the blazing car would also make a most effective transition. You would then return to Grandi (by a quick dissolve, if you prefer) for his line, “We used to have a nice quiet town around here!” This would play beautifully. The subject of Grandi’s anxiety would have been dramatically illustrated, we would not have left the scene of the explosion until after all our principals had been established, and the device of cutting away from Quinlan (clearly the most significant figure to appear since the entrance, at the start of the film, of the leading man and leading woman) would pique the audience interest without the remotest danger of confusion. This is in the best, classic tradition of movie continuity, the clinching virtue of which is the fact that in this arrangement we would never stay away from either story – Susan’s or Vargas’s – long enough to lose their separate but relating threads of interest...
What’s vital is that both stories – the leading man’s and the leading woman’s – be kept equally and continuously alive; each scene, as we move back and forth across the border, should play roughly equal lengths leading up to the moment at the hotel when the lovers meet again… No point concerning anything in the picture is made with such urgency and such confidence as this. Do please – please give it a fair try. [This change was not made.]
At the end of the Grandi scene, there is a new trim which is by no means an improvement. In almost every instance of this kind – that is to say, where there’s simply a difference of taste between your editing and mine – I have resigned myself to the futility of discussion, and will spare you my comments. In most cases, I can see, or guess, the point of view which has motivated the change, even when I don’t happen, personally, to agree with it. But in some few instances, the point of view remains completely mysterious to me, and in those cases where the improvement is not apparent, and where I cannot fathom the reasons for alteration, I’m registering, as I do here, my objections. This matter of the “trim” isn’t a vital issue one way or the other, but since it took me some considerable work on the moviola to decide on the precise frame to cut away from the Grandi street scene, and again, to pick up Vargas and the others near the hotel, I find it hard to resist pointing out that the new version – though the idea behind it may well be superior – displays a much hastier craftsmanship... [This was attended to.]
We now come to the first additional dialogue: the new scene between Susan and Vargas... In the light of the decision to deny me permission to direct these scenes, to write the dialogue for them or to collaborate in that writing, or indeed even to be present during your discussions of the matter, I must, of course, face the strong probability that I am the very last person whose opinion will be likely to carry any weight with you. I am, therefore, limiting myself to points which might genuinely interest you – points which seem to me to interfere quite actively with the story itself, and tend to confuse the narrative line. Without going into any question of quality in the actual writing of the dialogue for this added scene in the hotel lobby, I think two points are truly confusing to the simple mechanics of the plot, and this, I suggest, could very probably be fixed by the simple process of dubbing slightly different lines over the scene. To begin with the less important point: Vargas tells his wife to be sure and lock the door to her room. Yet, we will see him later opening this door by a simple turn of the knob. Since she has been genuinely frightened and disturbed, it is a little hard to understand why she has chosen to disregard her husband’s good advice. As the film now stands, his injunction about the door locking is the last thing she hears from him before going to the nearby room, and it isn’t easy to see how she could possibly have forgotten it during the course of that short walk. In the original version, the question of the door being locked is simply not raised. Bringing Susan to the door to unlock it would have changed the basic action in the scene in the hotel room and made Vargas’s semi-comic confusion in the darkness unworkable. Thus, he was through the door and into the room before the audience could have time to think about the question of Susan’s locking it at all. Anyone who wished to be sharply analytical could have assumed that she had simply neglected to do this – foolish but not really an idiotic mistake. However, if her husband has told her to lock the door, her failure to do so is underlined, and the audience, forced to think about the whole door-locking business, is given a choice between blaming the director for carelessness, or considering that the character played by the leading lady is flighty to the point of feeble-mindedness.
The second point about this new scene in the hotel lobby is, I think, a more important one and has to do with reference to “those boys.” Unfortunately, since this new dialogue was never sent to me, I do not have the exact text and was unable, during a single running of the picture, to write it down in the projection room. The substance, however, of what is said at this point would seem to be that Susan has been impressed by the existence of what she describes as “those boys” or “those kids.” I believe Vargas also directly refers to them in some such terms. The purpose here, one presumes, was to establish the gang of delinquents, on the face a good idea. But a real difficulty presents itself in terms of logic: Susan has not seen this gang at all and neither has the audience. True, one boy directed her attention towards the photograph, but he could only impress her (and the audience) as being one of several people in the street. As yet, there has been no impression given at all of a group of “kids.” Susan and the audience would remember “Pancho,” some old men, a woman with a baby, and Grandi. Of these, of course, Pancho and Grandi will impress themselves as the significant figures. In other words, we have established a middle-aged gangster and his young henchman, and beyond that, a general, rather vague impression of Mexicans of all different ages and types obviously bearing no special meaning in the story. “Sal” will appear later and so will “Risto.” Only in the scene in the street between Grandi and these three boys will the actual existence of a gang of youths begin to impress itself. This talk of “boys” and “kids” is almost certainly going to have the effect of confusing the audience. If Susan and Vargas had emphasized Grandi, the conversation would be clear. As it is, the natural reaction will be to wonder, “What kids are they talking about?”... It poses a question in the audience’s mind which cannot logically be answered at a point in the story when we must agree that the slightest sense of bewilderment may spark an irritation and produce that chain reaction of bewilderment which leads so often to a lack of interest. Thus, in the strongest terms possible, I want to urge that you consider this point on its merits... If I could have the text of this new scene, I would be most happy to work on it, and present you immediately with suggested alterations in the dialogue. You will prefer, I suppose, to accomplish this on your own and without any direct collaboration on my part. But do please give the question some thought. [Both these lines of dialogue were altered.]
Some specific problems are posed by the introduction of the new scene in the hotel lobby concerning which I simply cannot bring myself to keep silent. The excuse for this added scene, I take it, is clarification of the plot, and perhaps, too, the value of added footage for Miss Leigh and Mr. Heston. But, in terms of the characters they play, and their relationship to each other, I must insist that, as far as the author is concerned – (and for whatever remnant of interest may be attached to his opinion) – this particular new scene goes directly against the intentions of the script, and the original line of the story. This added dialogue makes the later scene (one of my own), in which Susan packs and stamps out of her hotel room, completely arbitrary. Coming, as this does now, quite without emotional preparation of any kind, we wonder what makes Susan so coldly furious with her husband, and why, when he opens the door, she doesn’t simply throw her arms around him and beg him to take her away from this awful place. The new lobby scene leaves our couple in a fairly warm relationship, and with a perfectly rational understanding of each other. True, the young wife states her opposition to hubby’s police activities in the course of their honeymoon, but her indignation is expressed in a poutingly “cute” sort of tone (a standard cliché reaction of newly-weds in B pictures). She is, in fact, more hurt than angry; this new scene with her husband actually leaves her fairly well resigned to what, as her husband explains it, is to be a short but necessary operation. Thus, the essential tension between them is totally relaxed: we have nothing “cooking” between these two except a hint of their physical interest in each other and their momentary but inconsequential pang at being parted. The original story line went, briefly, as follows: A honeymoon couple, desperately in love, is abruptly separated by a violent incident (the bombing of the car) – an incident which, although it has no personal bearing on either of them, the man considers as a matter of his urgent professional concern. This feeling of responsibility by Vargas is, of course, an expression of the basic theme of the whole picture; further, his wife’s resistance to such masculine idealism, her failure, and even her refusal, to understand is a human and very feminine reaction which any audience can grasp easily and sympathize with. She is, after all, in a foreign country and has been subjected to a series of indignities which irritate and bewilder her and which her husband fails to completely appreciate. Vargas’s behavior and her reaction make it necessary to dramatize and underline this temporary misunderstanding between them. By minimizing it, by sweetening their relationship at the wrong moment, and warming it up at precisely that point where the distance separating the man and woman should be at its greatest, there is a sharp loss in dimension, and both Vargas and Susan emerge as stock characters – the sort of routine “romantic leads” to be found in any programme picture.
[Here is Orson’s original scene; it was replaced by the one which, as he put it, “sweetened” the Heston-Leigh relationship.]
TIGHT TWO SHOT - MIKE AND SUSAN - HOTEL ENTRANCE
Darling, let me take you to the hotel.
(as Mike turns to go)
You mean you’re leaving me?
(breaking in gently)
I’ll be just across the street – I hate leaving you like this, but, after all, I’m working on a case.
She glares at him; then turns to the honkytonk.
HER VIEWPOINT - FULL SHOT - “GRANDI’S RANCHO” with big cheesecake blow-ups.
BACK TO SCENE
(reading the sign)
“Twenty Sizzling Strippers –” Some case! Who pinned the tin badge on you. Fearless Fosdick?
Well, Susie –
Oh, for heaven’s sake!
(breaking off, doing a mild double-take)
Fosdick? Who’s he?
(with a sigh)
A corny detective in a comic strip.
She marches indignantly INTO the hotel –
But she has gone. He sighs and moves across the street.
[Orson’s memo continues]
The added scene in the hotel cannot have been made in the expectation of reaching a real level of sexiness; its tone is simply intimate – the tone of that standard “marital-friendly” relationship with which moviegoers are by now so very familiar. If it was felt that an extended scene between the two was really necessary at this point, then that scene should have been developed along the lines of the gulf widening between a couple passionately in love. This, believe me, is not at all a matter of mere preference on the part of the author of the script and the director of the picture. Here I invoke more than personal opinion; it’s a simple fact that what I’m pressing on your acceptance has a very direct bearing on the story line.
The separation of the newlyweds is a vital point in that story line, it is a separation which doesn’t come about through the arbitrary mechanics of the detective story, but develops as an organic progression of events implicit in the characters of the people rather than the plot. Woman’s classic failure to fully appreciate and sympathize with that sense of abstract duty so peculiar to the male – a sense bearing no relationship to the personal reality of a marriage – is here intensified by the fact that these are honeymooners, that she’s American and he a Mexican. Their separation, too, is directly the result of a sort of “border incident” in which the interests of their two native countries are in some conflict. This is a pretty good story. The underlying sex relationship was, in my opinion, stated with some degree of dramatic truth by developing it, just at this point, in terms of Susan’s irritation and Vargas’s exasperation: that form of quarreling which is sparked in the very midst of passion.
The later reconciliation in the car was intended as a climax to this particular phase of the story. Without the right preparation this makes no impact as a reconciliation but is merely another scene. The leading man and the leading woman cuddle up to each other and kiss; there is neither resolution nor development – just an empty display of snuggling. Now there’s no intrinsic merit in a perfectly straightforward honeymoon relationship being interrupted by the machinery of a detective plot. In those terms, the girl would be present in our picture simply to provide “feminine interest” in its most shapeless and ordinary form. But if you’re sure you prefer the boy-girl relationship to develop along the routine lines of uncomplicated wifely warmth and husbandly intimacy, then Susan’s later actions in the bedroom and the manner in which she flings out of the hotel is totally unmotivated.
My promise to withhold direct attack from any of other other added scenes will, I hope, give me the right to hope that you, on your side, will be willing to re-examine this sequence in the light of the objections I’ve laid before you. Reducing the peculiar angles and sharp edges in this early relationship between Susan and Vargas eliminates whatever might be interesting about the couple. In these opening stages, regardless of any question of individual taste, I’m convinced that one story (mine) or the other (yours) should be told. The attempt to combine them annuls the logic of both.
I can well appreciate your proprietary feelings for this new scene of yours. For my part, I’ve looked on the rest of the picture (and on the edited version I was so near to finishing last July) with just the same jealous sentiments of ownership. Pride in your own work is also bound to be stiffened by the special circumstances in which that work was carried out. That I was denied even the right of consultation with you is a hard fact strongly hinting that, of all people, I must be the least welcome as a critic. In spite of this – and in fairness to a picture which you now describe as “exceptionally entertaining” – I must ask that you open your mind for a moment to this opinion from the man who, after all, made the picture. [This change was not made.]
... You must have had some good reason for cutting the footage in which Grandi’s tailing operation was made clear to the audience, but after considerable thought, I’m still unable to make any sort of guess as to what those reasons could be. For the close angle of the chase, the plan... was for a quite interesting pattern of newscasts to be heard on the radios of the two cars and in the two languages. When Vargas switched stations, there was to be a dreamy, old-fashioned Mexican waltz to take the place of the announcer’s excited chatter, and thus underscore our short love scene with a sentimental note, nicely combining “local color” and, in realistic terms, perfectly justified. This pattern was to be rudely broken by the aggressive siren of Quinlan’s car, and then – after Vargas’s departure in that car – the gently picturesque lullaby would soothe Susan toward sleep as Menzies drove off with her...
This music would also have been useful in relation to the waking up business at the motel, and would all be part of a most intricately worked out sequence in which sirens, dynamite explosions, and various radio voices (including the news flashes in the police car) would play their different roles. As it stands at present, the editing annihilates the possibility of this sound pattern around which, as a matter of fact, this whole series of closely related scenes was originally designed and photographed. What was meant to be a tour de force in the rather sadly neglected dimension of the sound track now cannot be anything more interesting than a succession of straight plot-scenes, all quite necessary to our story, but of no special value in themselves.
The excision of those quite colorful crane shots which feature Grandi’s and Vargas’s cars is less to be lamented, but I can’t leave the sequence without registering doubts that this cut accomplishes much of anything in terms of pace. Establishing the oil derricks (rather surprising country, in which our closing scenes are played) was of some importance too. The audience, I believe, should be prepared for those derricks. This also was an element in a carefully built-up pattern - in this instance, a visual pattern...
The case of Grandi’s following Menzies prompts me to inquire why you’ve cut all shots of Grandi’s pursuit; his hiding when Vargas and Susan stop on the road; his ducking from the police car; and his continued chasing of Vargas’s car. If my version was felt to be wrong, there is surely enough material for another editing in which the clarity of this plot point could be further underwritten – in visual terms. This would make possible an elimination of some of that nagging and repetitive sound track on the road by the motel. [None of this was heeded in any way, and in fact more of the Grandi chase sequence was deleted in the release version, thus cutting several important character points. In the 108-minute version, part of this material is restored, although the scene of Heston and Leigh in the car - using Welles’ dialogue, but virtually none of his design for the material to be heard on the radio - was directed by Harry Keller; and the oil derricks are nowhere in sight – J. R.]
In Susan’s scene with [Dennis] Weaver, there is a very curious cut by which his move from above the window to the door is eliminated. This is accomplished by an extreme lengthening of Susan’s close-up, while Weaver is heard in a continuous, bewildering chattering off-scene. The close-up is by no means one of Miss Leigh’s best, but even if the camera flattered her more than it does in this shot, her reaction, which is one of drowsy reaction, could not, by its very nature, be interesting enough to support such a very extended close-up. More important than this is the fact that what has been chopped out of Weaver’s performance is strikingly good material in itself. Further, it prepares for and builds up to the extreme eccentricity of his behavior at the door. Unless we see him stuttering (as he does so magnificently) about his position as night-man – unless we follow his startled, neurotic, scrabbling progress from the position where he’s first cornered to the door through which he wants to escape, his sudden wild behavior must strike us with a sort of shock, as being wholly arbitrary. This scene is balanced on a perilously delicate point: the audience simply must have time enough to – so to speak – digest Weaver’s character. If they are even slightly rushed in the process, he will seem to be merely phony. Instead of developing as a queerly likeable and diverting sort of zany, he will emerge as an exasperating ham. The simple fact is that “snapping up” or “tightening” any of Weaver’s scenes does not help the pace, it only results in a rackety, disjointed effect which is not pace at all, but raw confusion. Here the question of rhythm is absolutely central. Each one of Weaver’s scenes was so fully rehearsed, so painstakingly built up in terms of what I can only describe as “sound-pattern” that a single snip of the scissors must bring the whole structure down in noisy ruins. [This was restored to Welles’ version.]
For the scene between Vargas and Schwartz in the racing car, I was at some pains to make inserts of the car radio. Ordinarily, of course, inserts are not the responsibility of the director, but I regarded these as so important that I made them myself. They should come at the beginning and at the end of this scene. The effect I had in mind has never been seen or heard and, therefore, could not be judged. The scene was to open on the car radio with the announcer recapping the plot in the form of a fragment from an excited news bulletin. Vargas’s hand switches from this voice to music – the music being a very gay and extremely fast Mexican march. We then cut to the two-shot of Schwartz and Vargas, who play their scene to the accompaniment of this lively “chase music”. This is particularly important because even the second dubbing of the scene failed to eliminate a boxy mechanical quality in the sound track. The background of “chase music” from the radio would do much to fix this and would also offer an amusing, faintly ironic comment on its own. The closing shot of the scene begins with a down angle on the two in the car in which Vargas’s hand goes again to the radio. The idea here was for the music to be suddenly raised in volume. Then, when the camera cranes up, and the car pulls violently ahead, there would be an interesting reverse pattern in the sound, with the “chase music” abruptly fading as the car speeds off into the distance... [This was restored to Welles’ version.]
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...
The present arrangement of scenes in the motel – the scenes building up to the attack on Susan – adds up to a sequence having its own simple melodramatic progression, but which, in fact, is quite a meagre substitute for the original plan...
... This is a case where a whole sequence of effects depended on the use of music. The film for this was shot strictly within a most precise pattern involving rather special arrangements of sound and silence. The crescendo of suspense was to depend more on the sound track than the images. The decision to shuffle those images in a new, and much more obvious order could never have been made, except in ignorance of this basic scheme. [This was changed back to Welles’ version.]
... The dialogue cuts in the motel office scene may shorten playing time but nothing is accomplished in terms of pace. There is, in fact, a serious loss of suspense. Weaver’s performance building up to the business with the hotel register is one of the most perfectly brilliant things of its kind I’ve ever been privileged to have in a picture. There would have to be some very big advantage to the playing of the whole sequence to justify throwing out the major part of such a scene as that. There is no such advantage. The building up about the party now makes little or no sense and Vargas’s growing apprehension (and ours) is exploited. Here was a lovely developed atmosphere of suspense; and the suspense really worked, too. God knows it’s called for at this point. To chop into it in the interests of plain speed is to let the pressure out of the situation, to hurt the story just where it hurts most: at the point of build-up.
Here was the original plan: Menzies stands almost paralyzed with shock as Vargas moves out of the Hall of Records and we dissolve (from Menzies’ stricken face) to the forlorn figure of the “night-man” in the motel. Vargas’s car stops and he appears. Where is his wife? ... Where, indeed? ... Our fears fly ahead of him as he struggles to communicate with Weaver. The exchange is painful: in a spooky sort of way, even a little crazy.... Slowly Vargas himself begins to realize that this man he’s talking to is crazy, or something very close to it.... Out of hesitation - out of odd, anxious blank moments - a hint of some nameless enormity grows like smoke in the darkroom.... As the kids would put it, this is a real “gone” scene... The “night-man” is “way, way out there.” ... Conscious as ever of the need for careful politeness in this foreign country, Vargas presses on with his questions.... Suddenly, out of the murk, the reference to some sort of “party” drops like a heavy stone...
That’s the way the scene was shot. As it is now, Vargas appears, asks for this wife, gets one fumbling reply and then, abruptly, without any feeling of chill, we’re faced with that word “party.” The cut outside comes very quickly – there’s no time given us to let our questions about what’s happened to Susan grow or take on strange, distorted shapes... Now, before we know it, Weaver and Vargas are bustling off to the bedroom... [This was not restored in the release version, but is restored in the 108-minute version – J. R.]
... I’d like to congratulate whoever edited the street scene in which Vargas drives into the traffic jam, fails to hear Susan, and continues across the international boundary. The cutting here is not only superior to what it was at the stage when I left it, but actually better than the effect I’d been hoping for...
The extremely tight shot of Vargas speaking the line “... murder... ” has now been trimmed to the point of being merely jerky and abrupt. I particularly regret the decision to cut away from this scene before the effect of going out of focus. I ask that this trim be reconsidered, bearing in mind that the out-of-focus device assists the violent transition to the interior of the jail, and at the same time, expresses the frenzy of Vargas’s feelings at this moment, and his virtual disintegration. The frames have to be carefully picked for this, because the lens itself had to be removed at the end of the out-of-focus effect, and at that moment, of course, the screen goes white. My idea was to dissolve very quickly during the out-of-focus action into the darkness of the jail door, finishing the dissolve as the door opens. [This was restored.]
Mr. Heston reports that the cutting of the second half of his scene with Menzies (on the porch opposite Tanya’s), resulted only from the fact that the sudden silence where the recording device is intended to “playback” was not understood. I hope that this is so. The exact sentence which was to have been played back escapes me, but a few moments’ study of the preceding action will make this perfectly clear. The trick of the machine echoing their words at this point is a good one in itself; but what’s genuinely valuable in this scene is just that part of it which is now trimmed. The whole sequence is really a build-up to Menzies’ line, “... everything I know I learned from him... ” (or something very near that) and then his look off-scene to the house where Quinlan is. Menzies’ feeling for his boss and love for his friend is never shown so well elsewhere in the picture. This is Calleia’s decisive moment in the performance of the character… and communicates much more than Menzies ever says in words. … [This scene survives only in the 108-minute version; Menzies’ last line is, “I am what I am because of him.” – J. R.]
… At the very end, I had a particular arrangement of short cuts building up to Quinlan’s collapse into the water of the canal. This involved the closing of the recording device, the backing up of Quinlan, his dead body dropping into the water, and other moving shots arranged in a very fast crescendo. As I left it, this brief montage, although not exactly as I wanted it, was quite close to being right. I honestly believe it was – or would have been – one of the most striking things I ever had anything to do with.
I close this memo with a very earnest plea that you consent to this brief visual pattern to which I gave so many long days of work. [This was partially restored.]
Originally published in Film Quarterly 46, nr. 1 (1992): 2-11.
Republished with the kind permission of Jonathan Rosenbaum
Images (1) and (2) from Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)