Evil editing

The story on Touch of Evil is that the movie studio took Welles’ film, re-edited it and re-shot some scenes. When Welles saw what they had done, he wrote a letter, 58 pages long, explaining what needed to be done to fix the damage. In the 90s, suoerstar sound designer/film editor Walter Murch (whose name sounds like something out of a noir story) restored the film as best he could to Welles’ specifications in the letter.

The opening sequences show dramatic differences. Both drop the viewer right into the action, without any explanation. This seems to be a noir/hardboiled thing. The studio edit presents a fairly standard opening, with theme music and credits. A lot of people seemed to prefer this version, perhaps because it meets our expectations of the beginning of a movie better than the restored cut. Henry Mancini’s music brings a sense of drama to it, but it’s artificial in an obvious way. On one hand, it influences the viewer’s emotions, and on the other it creates a kind of barrier between the view and the action. That barrier is reinforced by the credits, which siphon a large amount of our attention away from the scene. In a way, it sets us up to be lazy. It says the movie will tell us how to feel and what we need to know.

The restored version gives a wealth of sonic detail to situate us in the scene. Right from the opening, where someone’s hand sets the timer, we hear the minute detail of the ratcheting noise as the dial is turned. It’ a small thing, but it’s amplified in a subtle way to grab our attention. Jim has talked in the past about how some movies teach us how to watch them. I think that’s happening here in the opening scene. The sound is chaotic, but all the little detail tell us where we are in relation to things. It’s very subtle, but we hear the sound of cross traffic a split second before it shows up on the screen. That draws us in. It tells us there’s things going on that we’re not seeing yet. It’s training us to pay close attention to details, and to think about them, perhaps subconsciously, because all the details matter.

I think the reason so many people preferred the traditional opening is because the scene is taken out of context. I’m looking at it in hindsight, in relation to the movie as a whole, whereas others are probably coming at it fresh. The movie is well worth watching, particularly for its masterful use of light and shadow, editing and sound. The Simpson Library has it on DVD.

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