Arts & Events

Moving Pictures: Three Versions of an Orson Welles Masterpiece

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday December 12, 2008 - 12:36:00 PM
Universal has released all three versions of Orson Welles' <i>Touch of Evil</i> in a two-disc 50th anniversary set.
Universal has released all three versions of Orson Welles' Touch of Evil in a two-disc 50th anniversary set.

Textual authenticity is a central issue in the work of Orson Welles. The director saw so many of his films altered in the editing room by his producers that only a few of his completed pictures can be said to represent his original intentions. 

This has made the prospect of releasing "restorations" of his films on DVD a bit complicated. Some of his films exist in multiple versions; some exist only in a single, bastardized version; and many of his films were never completed at all. 

Criterion set the standard for Welles releases a couple of years back with the company's three-disc set of Mr. Arkadin. There was no single version of that film that could be said to represent the director's original vision, so Criterion released all of them, including a "composite" version which attempted to recreate the film according to written evidence and best guesses as to the director's intent. None of these versions are the final word; Criterion simply put all the material out there for viewers to make of it what they will.  

Universal's new 50th anniversary edition of Touch of Evil follows this model, and the two-disc set is precisely the sort of release that is sorely needed for the Welles canon. Containing all three extant versions of the film, it provides an excellent perspective on the shape and scope of this 1958 noir masterpiece.  

Among the many Welles films that were altered and re-edited without his consent, Touch of Evil might be said to have fared the best, or perhaps suffered least. The studio-sanctioned version, released in 1958, was a lesser film than what Welles had intended, but studio interference could not subdue or destroy the power of Welles' imagery and narrative.  

However, years later, a longer cut was found, and for decades this version supplanted the original version, as it was believed to be at least slightly closer to Welles' intent.  

In 1998, Rialto released a new version, re-edited in accordance with a 58-page memo Welles sent to Universal after having previewed the studio's truncated version of his film. The restoration was not a "director's cut," for Welles never completed his own final cut before the studio removed him from the project. Nor was Welles' memo a plea to return entirely to his original design. Welles' memo took into account new footage shot by the studio without his involvement, dismissing some of it yet praising some of it as well. The memo was essentially an attempt at cooperation and diplomacy, saying to the studio, "Given what we have now, here's how we can make this a great picture." 

The restored version is, for the most part, a significant improvement. Welles' editing patterns were restored, including his elaborate cross-cutting between two story lines; the score and soundtrack were reshaped in accordance with his requests; and the credits were moved from the opening sequence to the end, offering an unobstructed view of one of the most spectacular opening shots ever filmed.  

Critics still found plenty wrong, suggesting that the pacing in the second half of the film was too slow. Some preferred one of the previous versions to the new, but until now the restoration was the only version available on DVD.  

To finally be able to see all three side by side, to compare the repercussions of every edit and adjustment, is a gift for Welles fans. Hopefully similar releases will follow, with multiple versions of his landmark works: Hamlet and Othello, both before and after their soundtracks were altered; The Stranger and Lady From Shanghai, with descriptions, stills, storyboards and shooting scripts to explain Welles' original visions for those films and how they were dramatically cut and reshaped by his producers; and perhaps one day someone will finally discover missing footage of The Magnificent Ambersons, and we may perhaps get an approximation of the masterpiece that might have been.  

Universal's Touch of Evil stands in contrast to Image Entertainment's release of Welles' unfinished opus, Don Quixote, which offers a 1992 recreation — a purely hypothetical one — of what Welles intended with this highly amorphous project.  

It is not Image's fault that so little of Welles' Quixote footage is available. The company has endeavored to present us with what is essentially the only available home video release of Quixote, and there is merit in that. But what's available is, unfortunately, a butchered and largely discredited restoration project undertaken by a one-time Welles associate who had nothing to do with this particular film. 

Don Quixote was indeed a quixotic adventure for Welles, a project he worked on for decades. He was questioned about it so often he threatened to release it under the title When Are You Going to Finish Don Quixote? It still isn't quite certain if he ever intended to finish Quixote. Writers and painters have works they keep for themselves, he once said; why not filmmakers?  

Shot independently and often on the fly over many years, Welles outlived the two principal actors—Francisco Reiguera and Akim Tamiroff—and in fact, never had a final script. The film was largely improvised, using available locations, actors and conditions to fashion his narrative.  

In 1992, Jess Franco, who served as an assistant to Welles on Chimes at Midnight, obtained as much Quixote footage as he could, re-recorded much of the dialogue and music, and edited the footage into something resembling a film. Though there are many excellent shots and scenes, and plenty of evidence of good performances and dialogue, the result is not the least bit impressive.  

The odds were against Franco, but indeed the odds were so bad that there was really no reason to go through with the project. Legal battles kept him from obtaining much of the footage, including perhaps the most arresting scene—available for viewing on YouTube—of Quixote in a movie theater, drawing his sword and stepping up to rescue a celluloid maiden by slashing the screen to ribbons. Without the film's most innovative and famous scene, how could any completed version claim relevance? 

But even without these omissions, the project should not have been attempted. After all, Welles himself claimed that he kept the footage scattered in various storage facilities to prevent a project like this one from being attempted without his consent. He didn't want some hack to try to assemble this, his most cherished and personal film, into some dim-witted, half-formed movie. His was a unique and idiosyncratic vision that could not be replicated, even with the best of intentions. 

One day perhaps this film too will be given a decent DVD release. Done properly, it would simply gather all the existing footage like a documentary, grouping scenes for clarity but otherwise with no attempt to structure it as a narrative. It wouldn't make for a great commercial success certainly, but rather it would present us with something of a historical document, allowing us to see Don Quixote as it exists — as a mass of footage lovingly shot but never fully edited. In other words, leave the incomplete film incomplete and let us imagine, as we must with so many of Welles' films, what might have been. 


Touch of Evil (1958) 

95 minutes / 109 minutes / 111 minutes. $26.99. 


Orson Welles' Don Quixote (1992) 

115 minutes.  



Also new on DVD: 


The Spy Who Came In From the Cold 


John le Carré's best-selling novel was adapted to film in 1965. Directed by Martin Pitt and starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, the film, like its source, stood in stark contrast to the prevailing pop-culture image of espionage at the time: James Bond.  

The Bond series, with its camp style consisting of hi-tech gadgetry, debonair wit and scantily clad women, had established the spy's life as desirable and glamourous. Le Carré and Ritt, however, sought to expose the profession's seamy side, to capture its moral ambiguity and corrosiveness.  

The resulting film, though it had great impact on its day, does not hold up quite as well as its producers might have hoped. With its straw man much reduced in cultural import, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold no longer packs the punch it once did.  

The film is bookended with gripping scenes along Germany's east-west border, shot in beautiful black and white and employing light and shadow and tension and suspense to great effect. It opens at a security checkpoint as Burton waits for one of his secret agents to cross, arc lights and guns all pointed at the spook as he tries to inconspicuously make his way through. And the film closes with another border crossing, as two figures attempt to climb over the Berlin Wall, the night air filled with spotlights and sirens.  

In between, the blacks and whites of Oswald Morris' photography give way to a palette of gritty grays, as Burton wanders through a fog of alcoholism, double-dealing and doomed romance. But visual perfection cannot make up for a narrative that too often bogs down in so much chatter. Though the plot is intricate and will involve at least a few fascinating twists, the endless dialogue dilutes the viewer's interest more than arouses it. 

Criterion's two-disc set contains a number of extra features, including a documentary about le Carré and an interview, as well as archival interviews with Burton and Ritt. 


The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965) 

112 minutes. $39.95.