Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Screw The Director's Vision

Finally I can embed a clip (poor quality, but at least it's there) of the original version of the opening shot of Orson Welles's Touch of Evil. The only version of Touch of Evil currently available on home video is the version that was created after the death of everyone who made the picture, to conform to the vision that Welles outlined in a memo to Universal. The most obvious change, besides the removal of scenes that weren't shot by Welles, is that the opening credits are removed from the famous opening tracking shot; Welles didn't want any credits over the shot, and he didn't want any music in the film other than "source" music (Henry Mancini's score is mostly heard from distant radios). The released version runs the credits over the shot, and has loud opening-credits type music. So it's not at all what Welles wanted.

The thing is, I can't bring myself to care that much what Welles wanted here. I find that the revised version, without the credits and the blaring theme music, is kind of dull. Yes, it's an amazing shot, but that doesn't justify holding on a shot of people walking down the street for such a long time, particularly when the audience hasn't been clued into what's going on. I know that the theory is that we're all supposed to be in suspense about when the bomb is going to go off, but I think that it's hard for the scene to build suspense when we have no reason to care if these people get blown up or not; the movie's only just started. So I think the studio had it right: the movie doesn't truly begin until the characters start talking and we get a sense of who they are, and that's indicated by putting the credits over the first part of the shot.

I also don't agree with the idea that Welles's intentions are the final word on a movie like Touch of Evil. Yes, Welles wrote, directed and starred in it, and it's unquestionably his movie. On the other hand he didn't produce it, and the producer, Albert Zugsmith, wasn't just there to raise the money; the project was his idea (he brought in Welles to rewrite and direct it, at Charlton Heston's suggestion), and he had his own style as a producer; Touch of Evil is very much a Zugsmith movie as well as a Welles movie, even if Zugsmith's career was less distinguished overall.

The credits sequence of Touch of Evil is similar to that of Zugsmith's production Written On the Wind, where we get the credits over an opening sequence where we're not completely sure what's going on (it's explained much later in the movie). Zugsmith did the same thing in Touch of Evil: run the credits over the first minute or two where the audience doesn't know what's going on, so they won't start scratching their heads in confusion; the "official" beginning of the movie comes when the credits end and we get into the part that's easier to follow. If this is the producer's movie as well as the director's -- and it is -- then I don't see why the producer's decisions are less legitimate. Particularly since Zugsmith was probably more in charge of the post-production than Welles was.

I feel the same way about the additional non-Welles scenes, some of which I think are effective and useful. This isn't something like The Magnificent Ambersons, where Welles was the producer as well and the decision to re-cut was entirely made by people who had no creative involvement with the film. This was a movie with a strong director and a strong producer, and where the producer won out, I think his decisions are worthy of respect.

In fairness to the people who put together this version, I don't think they intended it to replace the other versions of the film (the original 96-minute cut and the 108-minute reissue, both of which contain scenes that Welles didn't direct). It's not their fault that Universal hasn't bothered to release a DVD of the other versions.

Anyway, here's the version currently available:

And here's the version that was actually released, with the opening credits running over the shot:

Update: It occurs to me that I'm assuming, in this post, that most of the changes/reshoots were the idea of the producer. It's possible, of course, that some of them were suggested by the studio. But it's hard to say because the things I've read about Touch of Evil don't seem to make any distinction between "the producer" and "the studio."


wcdixon said...

Fascinating. I haven't seen this since film school.

You make a lot of good points, and though I will admit while watching the studio version I was less 'anxious' and the titles took my eye away from 'watching the car', it still felt more like the opening of a movie. And the music/score helped.

Effin' directors. I swear I've yet to see a 'director's cut' release of a film that dramatically improved on the original... whatever original. More often than not the scenes that were cut either were superfluous or slowed the pace down or were just 'look at my pretty shot/camera' move.

The best 'directed' movies have always been the ones where the 'director' was invisible, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

I would to some degree differentiate "the studio," and "the producer," here, because Welles was always careful to specify that "the studio" interfered and demanded changes. If Welles had believed that Albert Zugsmith had instigated the changes on his own and had personal responsibility for involving Ernest Nims and Harry Keller in re-structuring and re-shooting, I think he would have said so. It didn't help, I think, that Universal production head Edward Muhl deeply disliked TOUCH OF EVIL -- in an interview decades later, he reiterated his disdain for the film.

While I admire the work that went into the re-structured version of TOUCH, I'm glad I still have a laserdisc of the 108 minute version of the movie, and I wish I had a copy of the 96 minute version -- the version that I remember most vividly from many tv airings and revival house screenings. Hopefully U will eventually get around to releasing the needed dvd special edition including all three versions of the movie, as well as the rarely screened documentary about the film, suppressed by Beatrice Welles' legal actions.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that for whatever reason "Touch of Evil" has never done it for me. I don't know why--I've enjoyed everything else of Welles that I've seen. I remember hearing about the the famous long opening shot and being really let down when I finally saw it. It calls attention to itself but the long shot doesn't seem to add anything. I think it's what you said--we don't know anyone yet, so there's no tension. It also bugs me that Heston and Leigh react before the bomb goes off, and then we get an insert shot of burning car that doesn't match up with anything.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

It didn't help, I think, that Universal production head Edward Muhl deeply disliked TOUCH OF EVIL

Right, but we should also remember that Zugsmith liked and admired Ed Muhl (who appears to have been the only guy who would hire Zugsmith to produce "A" pictures) and it's possible that he supported or agreed to Muhl's demand for changes. Or maybe not. We don't really know, I guess.