The Past is All Used Up: Orson Welles, Touch of Evil and Erasure

“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
– from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

In a prescient 1993 essay, Greg Solman warily explores the growing trend of “director’s cuts” on home video. “No conviction,” he writes, “is more thoroughly ingrained in the film-critical consciousness than the notion that directors would sacrifice anything to preserve art, while studio decision-makers appreciate nothing about movies but their commercial potential” (p. 19). Noting the seemingly limitless potential of such revisionism, he argues “the future may well hold Editor’s cuts, Cinematographer’s cuts, CAA-spoiled Actor’s cuts, or ever Writer-Turned-Favored-Director’s cuts, depending on the constituent’s current lobbying power” (p. 27). What he did not anticipate was the “Independent Producer’s ‘Restorative’ Cut,” which describes the 1998 “restoration” of Touch Of Evil by independent producer Rick Schmidlin. The result, keeping with Solman’s description, was received as nothing less than the salvage of art. Yet a crucial, if silent, question lingers under the meticulously “restored” film: what happened in the film’s history to require such action? Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, what does this mean for the versions that precede the restoration? Is it really as simple, as some have claimed, to describe Schmidlin’s restoration as “the definitive version” of Touch Of Evil, and, if so, what are the deeper critical and pedagogical implications?

The closing moments of Touch Of Evil[1] , directed by Orson Welles in 1957 and released by Universal-International on 23 April 1958, play out a series of deeply ambivalent moments relating to failure. Detective Hank Quinlan (played by Welles) floats dead from a gunshot in a garbage-strewn canal in Los Robles, a California border town on the American side of the Mexican border, his bloated body nearly indistinguishable from the debris around him. His partner, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), also lies dead, on the bridge above, shot by Quinlan after a confrontation instigated by Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), a Mexican narcotics official who has uncovered Quinlan’s frame-up of the lead suspect in the murder of a wealthy local blown up in a car bombing. Surrounded by these bodies, Vargas drives away from the scene into the darkness with his wife Susan (Janet Leigh), promising her, “It’s all over, Suzie. I’m taking you home.” Saved from another of Quinlan’s bullets by the dying Menzies, who has shot his partner on the canal bank below, Vargas is finally free. He and Susan leave behind a nightmare honeymoon, represented most immediately by the imposing, silent oil derricks above them and Quinlan’s body below.

As they leave, Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), a madam and old friend of Quinlan’s, and Al Schwartz (Mort Mills), the district attorney’s assistant, look down on Quinlan’s body. Schwartz, having recovered Vargas’s radio receiver, which holds Quinlan’s recorded confession, seems mostly disinterested in Quinlan’s body except as a detached object like the other trash, preferring instead to update Tanya on what the audience already knows: Quinlan’s frame-up of Manelo Sanchez (Victor Millan) was unnecessary. Sanchez has confessed. With a slightly wistful, musing tone, Schwartz tells her: “His famous intuition was right after all… Hank was a great detective, all right.” As quickly as it was summoned, however, this partial recuperation of Quinlan as the “great” detective-gone-wrong disappears, as Tanya fixes back on Quinlan’s literal body, and its lingering presence. “Isn’t somebody going to come… and take him away?” she asks, staring vacantly down into the water. Responding to Schwartz’s recuperative declaration, she reminds him that Quinlan was also a “lousy cop.” No longer an emblem of abstract investigatory instinct or intuition, or a cancerous problem swept away like the detritus swirling around the empty streets in the background, Quinlan is merely the bloated corpse in the canal, the embodiment of long-simmering failure finally snuffed out by, as Tanya puts it earlier in the film, “too many candy bars.” The emphasis, for Tanya, is on Quinlan the man, behind the badge. By showing us both eulogistic approaches, Touch Of Evil fixes Quinlan and his dual downfall – as both man and agent of the law – at the heart of the film, and leaves us (as Tanya points out) with only the body to be “taken away.”

The farther the film’s production and release recede into the past, the more Tanya’s eulogy of Quinlan becomes an epitaph for Welles and the film itself. The parallels are almost too obvious: Welles, also the bearer of a bloated body (though enhanced with makeup and padding for the role), had fallen by 1957 from the prestigious position of “boy wonder” who had conquered Hollywood with Citizen Kane in 1941. He was regarded throughout the industry as a failed talent no longer capable of remarkable work. That the film would be his last project supported by a Hollywood studio has only intensified the mythology of Quinlan as an ideal metaphor for Welles’s own “downfall.” Even more relevant than these elements, though, is the intensely complicated history of the film’s post-production, from which Welles was excised by Universal-International. With new scenes shot by a different director, edits without his participation, and little or no marketing strategy, the film disappeared from theaters and received little initial attention. Yet Welles’s metaphorical body, as figured by the film and its various failures, continues to drift along, waiting for someone to “take it away.” Much like this final sequence, in which a group of people stand over that body and continue to talk, the discourses around the film continue in an apparently endless conversation, alternating between recuperation and dismissal, debating (and erasing) various details of its production and release, preferring ultimately to “print the legend” of an auteur vision, rather than the messy particulars long submerged in the dirty water of the canal of history.

Critical analysis of Welles and his films has become one of the film studies cottage industries, with at least twelve major biographies and many dozens of books, journal articles, and popular press pieces on various topics related to the topic.[2]  It would be a gross mischaracterization to suggest that this immense body of research and work follows a uniform trajectory privileging Welles as a victim, martyr, failed genius, wunderkind, independent cinema pioneer, or Hollywood legend; in fact, all these discourses circulate through the literature, much of which I will examine in this essay as it pertains to Touch Of Evil. Approaches to Welles and his work run a gamut starting, at one extreme, with embracing him as a creative giant who continued to make creative masterpieces long after Citizen Kane, but was prevented by studio bosses and financiers from completing his works or reaching audiences, such as Clinton Heylin’s Despite The System: Orson Welles Versus The Hollywood Studios in 2005. Balanced efforts have been made to restore Welles’s collaborators within the narrative, exemplified by Robert L. Carringer’s The Making Of Citizen Kane in 1985, while polemics such as Pauline Kael’s remarkable Raising Kane essay in 1971 peeled back the cover on the “genius” discourses to illustrate the essential and overlooked nature of those collaborators to that film. One thing is virtually indisputable: Welles has, since the late 1930s and his work with the Federal Theatre project, not to mention his legendary War Of The Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 as part of the Mercury Theatre on the Air program, captivated audiences and scholars like virtually no other figure in Hollywood history. That so many of his projects were interfered with (in various ways and for various reasons) by producers and executives, alongside his remarkable creativity, ambition, and eccentricity, has only added to the immense mythology positioning him as a unique and nearly mythological figure. Touch Of Evil represents a nexus of textual, industrial, and cultural intersections in which to unpack how and why Welles continues to be understood as a complicated and contested marker of all that is right and wrong in Hollywood, the push-and-pull of creativity versus economics, as well as the desire by audiences and scholars to canonize particular films and filmmakers.

Three versions of the film have variously been accepted as “official”: the original 1958 release, a 1975 re-issue discovered in the Universal vault that had been a “preview” version tested for audiences prior to the cutting of the original theatrical release, and the 1998 “restoration” by Schmidlin. I will examine each of these in detail, but will note here that the tendency to conflate Welles and Quinlan occurs alongside the simultaneously frequent portrait of Welles as a victim whose vision must be resurrected posthumously. To return, then, to the questions that began this essay: how has the meaning of Touch Of Evil changed since its inception in 1957? What role do the three versions (and their reception) play in the changes to that meaning? How are these changes tied to the attempted recuperations of Welles’s genius? Finally, how and why is this process related to and important for the institution of film studies? That Universal released a 50th anniversary DVD including all three versions in October 2008 adds further layers even as it opens up the past. How does this new “complete” set further complicate the film’s place in cinema history, and how does it construct the film’s meaning? Ultimately, the question is which Touch Of Evil has become the “official” Touch Of Evil, and why?

The answers to these questions do not reside in the text. Richard Maltby argues that “to write a history of texts and call it a history of Hollywood involves omitting the social processes and cultural functions of cinema, and denies the contextual significance of the material conditions under which movies were produced and consumed” (2007). Much as many scholars and critics (and often the general public) wish for Quinlan to be a perfect metaphor for Welles, he is not.

Nor is the story itself somehow indicative of deeper meaning in Welles’s career or an ideal representation of his feelings toward the Hollywood studios. In fact, if anything, the film text represented for Welles a chance to get back to working as a director in Hollywood. “I thought I had it made and was going to stay and do a whole series of pictures with Universal,” he said later of the experience (Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 289). I will argue for a set of meanings that supersede the film’s content, meanings that emerge in its production, release, and reception histories. Following Janet Staiger’s call for the application of theory in historical work, I wish to trace some of the larger institutional and critical reasons for why these meanings exist quite apart from the text but have become equally important (“The Future Of The Past”, p. 128). Furthermore, I wish (as much as is possible) to move away from placing Welles at the center of the analysis, at least as much as is possible. As Pam Cook argues, Welles’s career “is generally seen in terms of authorship, rather than in historical terms” (p. 402). This essay will attempt to reverse that tendency.

Potential answers arise within a complicated nexus of auteur desire, the process of canonization, and the propensity for historical detail to slide into convenient discourse bolstering pre-determined positions favoring the way the public, critics, and scholars wish to view Welles and the film from a specific perspective. As I move through each of these sites, I hope that a more accurate history of the film emerges that allows scholars to reconsider why the tendency exists to retreat into evaluative criteria rather than the complicated, often messy details of history – and why that tendency has far-reaching impact beyond just Touch Of Evil. As Tom Gunning notes, “analysis of the individual film provides a sort of laboratory for testing the relation between history and theory. It is at the level of the specific film that theory and history converge, setting up the terms of analysis” (p. 6). The details surrounding the ongoing evaluation, auteur reaction, and canonization of Touch Of Evil provide just such a laboratory for how similar tendencies exist across film history, as well as an opportunity to examine the deeper ideological implications. Finally, in performing this analysis, I hope to adhere to another of Maltby’s suggestions, albeit while keeping the film (in all its incarnations) nearby: “[C]inema’s historians might well consider the possibility of writing histories of cinema that are not centrally about films” (2007). In this way, I hope to present a layered history focusing industrially and culturally rather than textually, following Carringer’s aforementioned The Making Of Citizen Kane or Lisa Dombrowski’s 2008 The Films of Samuel Fuller: If You Die, I’ll Kill You!, which track the development and meaning of films through extra-textual discourses, as well as opening new avenues in which to explore auteurism without falling back into single-author perspectives or glorifications of sole creative entities. The first space in which to reconsider Touch Of Evil, not in terms of its content but its ongoing history, is in its production.

Production History

The necessity of delineating the production history of the film stems from the misrepresentation of its specifics within the public imagination. Perhaps an indicative example can be seen in an online review by Jeff Shannon of the latest DVD release at

Considered by many to be the greatest B movie ever made, the original-release version of Orson Welles’s film noir masterpiece Touch Of Evil was, ironically, never intended as a B movie at all – it merely suffered that fate after it was taken away from writer-director Welles, then reedited and released in 1958 as the second half of a double feature. Time and critical acclaim would eventually elevate the film to classic status (and Welles’s original vision was meticulously followed for the film’s 1998 restoration), but for four decades this original version stood as a testament to Welles’s directorial genius. (“Editorial Review”)[3]

This review might be characterized by inaccuracy and simplification, but it does work extremely well to further the mythology of victimization and recuperation of Welles’s “genius” in a forum dedicated to supplying potential viewers with presumably important and truthful information. Working through the history, while avoiding an evaluative approach, will provide the context for how such a mythology has evolved. As Gunning argues, “only a close examination of the untidy processes of production and reception can unfold all the dynamics involved” (p. 8).

The original novel, published as Badge Of Evil by Robert Wade and H. Bill Miller under the pseudonym “Whit Masterson” in 1956, is a relatively standard and predictable crime story. After a wealthy industrialist is murdered in an explosion, assistant district attorney Mitch Holt uncovers police corruption during the investigation. Police Captain Loren McCoy has been planting evidence for years unbeknownst to his partner Sergeant Hank Quinlan. In the conclusion, after being prompted by Holt, Quinlan records McCoy confessing to the crimes. Seeing no other way out, McCoy kills Quinlan and then himself. Holt emerges as the embodiment of ethics, while Quinlan is posthumously rewarded as a hero. Nothing in the novel particularly stands out as unique or exceptional; rather, the story might be typical of the Masterson writing team, which published more than thirty novels in the genre. Thus it is difficult to argue that the resulting film was “never intended as a B movie at all”; on the contrary, the source material is utterly prototypical for just such a project.

Indeed, when Universal-International producer Albert Zugsmith optioned the novel in 1956, it certainly did not rise to the top of the studio’s production list. Zugsmith was not necessarily a “prestige” producer, having worked on Raw Edge (dir. John Sherwood) and Red Sundown (dir. Jack Arnold) that year, but also Written On The Wind (dir. Douglas Sirk). Early that summer, he assigned rookie screenwriter Paul Monash to the project, who completed a draft on 24 July (François and Berthomé 210).[4] The result was an inventive rewrite altering some key details and adding others, such as boosting a gangster subplot, renaming the McCoy character (somewhat confusingly) Quinlan, and rewriting the ending so that Quinlan has planted the evidence on a suspect who eventually pleads guilty, thus adding a layer of ambivalent redemption to the dirty cop after his death.

Nevertheless, Monash’s draft of the script, much like the original novel, is not particularly exceptional or inventive; indeed, at best it seems a standard B movie police drama.[5] From there no movement occurred on the project until 26 December, when Zugsmith offered Welles the role of Quinlan, on offer later extended to include writing and directing duties (Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 421).[6]  Zugsmith and Welles had just finished Man In The Shadow (dir. Jack Arnold), in which Welles plays a corrupt cattle rancher, giving Zugsmith the idea to cast him in a similar role in the film still titled Badge Of Evil. According to Zugsmith, he and Welles became friends during production of Man In The Shadow, and on the final night of shooting, over drinks, Welles offered to direct the “worst” screenplay to which Zugsmith had the rights. Monash’s Badge Of Evil was, apparently, the worst (McCarthy and Flynn, p. 420). This further distances the project from any notion that the film was intended as anything but a B film, nor does the hiring of Welles lend any evidence to the contrary. Other than Mr. Arkadin in 1955, which was a French-Spanish-Swiss coproduction removed from Welles by the producers during the editing process, and Macbeth in 1948, Welles was not exactly a working film director, or remotely in demand by Hollywood studios, when Badge Of Evil came along (Leaming, p. 393).

Any other lingering doubt that the project was intended as anything but a B film might be cleared up by Heston, the other star of the picture and by 1957 a legitimate blockbuster actor, having appeared the previous year in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. In his journal, following the hiring of Welles, Heston writes that Badge Of Evil was “only a police-suspense story, like the ones they’ve been for thirty-some years, but I think with [Welles] it might have a chance to be something” (Heylin, p. 280). Clearly Heston hoped that Welles could deliver on the promise of creativity that had defined his earlier career, but the source material was anything but inspired or unusual – nor, it can be inferred, were the studio expectations for the project. Yet statements such as this by Heston have helped construct the mythology that Welles’s “vision” had been tampered with from the beginning.

A contract for Welles totaling $125,000 for his various duties was finalized on 9 January 1957, and Welles immediately set to re-writing the Monash script (Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 421; Leaming, p. 418). By 5 February, after only five working days (with a group of secretaries to transcribe his notes), the screenplay was complete.[7]  The changes were complex and intricate. Among other additions and alterations, Welles moved the action to a border town between Mexico and California, foregrounded race, and layered Quinlan with emotional, physical, and psychological baggage.[8]  Monash’s efforts to partially redeem (or at least complicate) Quinlan’s actions by having the suspect confess at the conclusion was retained, and even amplified. In Welles’s draft, Quinlan becomes a deeply ambivalent figure designed to elicit sympathy even as he falls from grace, eventually landing in that stagnant canal, dead. Knowing he would be playing the role, Welles created a complex, memorable character layered with rich details such as a drinking problem, a pronounced limp, and a haunting past involving his dead wife.

Principal photography ran from 18 February to 2 April, after which editing began immediately with Welles and Universal-International staff cutter Virgil Vogel (Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 422).[9] The production was relatively smooth, with Welles efficiently and creatively solving various problems, creating virtuoso sequences such as the opening crane shot and the apartment interrogation (both of which are unedited long takes), and utilizing Venice, California’s unique setting to create the film’s signature mise-en-scène of decay and corruption. In fact, during shooting, there were clear indications that something special had happened pushing the film beyond standard B movie territory. Heston later said that Welles “took what was a very routine police story… and gave it what distinction it had,” leading the studio to make preparations to sign Welles to direct five more films (Leaming, p. 419-425). The bizarre characters, overlapping dialogue, and unconventional camera angles did not seem to bother the studio whatsoever as they viewed the dailies.

It is at the close of principal photography that the specific details of the production history of the film are typically collapsed into the type of language used in the review: “it was taken away from writer-director Welles.” The mythology of Welles-as-victim, so pervasive to the legend around him and his films, depends heavily upon such constructions. In fact, my argument that what the film has become – a set of meanings invoking the function of the auteur, the canon, and the tendency toward evaluative criteria – stems directly from what occurred shortly after the close of principal photography, on 6 June 1957. For it is on that date that the elusive “ideal version” would be lost forever, only to be chased, desired, and ultimately created by critics, scholars, and the public out of a collection of mythologies.

On 6 June, Welles left the editing room for a trip to New York to appear on The Steve Allen Show, an absence prompting studio post-production head Ernest Nims to schedule a screening of the footage (Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 422). Vogel, who had been battling with Welles over the editing, removed himself from the project. Aaron Stell was assigned in his place, making him the third editor on the project, as Welles had fired another cutter assigned during shooting. Welles, upon hearing of the scheduled screening, voiced his urgent displeasure, and Nims canceled it – but only after informing Welles that he could no longer participate in the editing process. Stell would work alone with notes from Welles. On 29 June, Welles left the country for Mexico to continue shooting his ongoing Don Quixote; on the same day, Universal-International head of production Edward Muhl finally viewed Stell’s cut. Finding the film incoherent, complicated, and fragmented, Muhl immediately assigned Nims personally to recut the film again. The result was a streamlined narrative devoid of much of the intercutting and complex narrative patterns, but satisfying Muhl’s desire for a more linear storyline. Nims, who maintained his friendship with Welles through the process, recognized the elegance in Welles’s desire for the intercutting of the plotlines, but was also aware of the studio’s desire to meet audience expectations. Later, in an effort to provide some perspective on Muhl’s decision (and his own cutting of the film), he suggested, “in those days, you must remember that smoothness of continuity was very important in pictures” (Leaming, p. 428).

These details are extremely important for understanding the meanings the film has since acquired in both the critical and public imaginations. Rather than simply being “taken away,” an examination of the production history reveals a much more nuanced series of events. Having driven two editors off the project, Welles found himself locked out of a process handed to the studio’s head of post-production. While it is easy to suggest that his “genius” was being ignored by Muhl, such a reading fails to account for the studio’s expectations in the investment. Contrary to apparently popular belief, the film was never intended to be a prestige film, an “art” project, or anything other than a genre picture with moderate box office aspirations. Even Welles’s screenplay draft hardly reflects the aesthetics and visual style created during production.

Moreover, to give just one example among many, Welles had similarly left the editing room during The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942, only to see that film taken away and re-edited. It seems surprising that he would once again leave during post-production. As Barbara Leaming suggests, this decision in 1957 was “one of the worst mistakes of Orson’s career” (p. 428). More missteps occurred in August, when Welles returned from Mexico and screened Nims’s cut. Welles wrote a memo afterwards detailing his dissatisfaction – but, inexplicably, it did not reach Muhl until November; in the interval Welles acted in The Long Hot Summer (dir. Martin Ritt, 1958). If Welles regarded the project as his best chance back to directing Hollywood films, such behavior certainly bespeaks a strange means of solidifying studio support. On 4 November, Muhl, after viewing Nims’s latest cut with displeasure, hired Harry Keller to direct additional scenes for the film, which by this point had been re-titled Touch Of Evil without Welles’s involvement (François and Berthomé, p. 219). Keller’s participation has been widely referenced as perhaps the most visible proof that Welles was victimized, read as the ultimate insult of a second director tainting the “vision” with sequences not designed or approved through Welles.

The key moment of historical triumph for Welles occurred shortly after Keller’s new scenes were inserted into the film, though it would not be seized upon for decades. On 3 December, he viewed the latest cut incorporating Keller’s footage. Two days later, he sent a 58-page memo to Muhl and Heston humbly detailing his objections. That document (which I will examine more fully below) offers sincere, passionate, and complex language convincingly arguing for his vision. Much of the memo is devoted to a restoration of the intercutting of the plotlines, which Welles claimed were at the heart of the story. At times pleading, yet always respectful, the memo is an extended look at a director exiled from his own creative passion. “That I was denied even the right of consultation with you is a hard fact,” he writes, “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.” His conclusion is particularly emotional, and reveals the depth of his investment in the project: “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.”[10]  Whatever else may be said of Welles’s actions on the production, his loyalty to the film and devotion to his own creative vision come through in these words with remarkable clarity – as does his willingness to create a film satisfying the studio’s expectations.

While the memo would become the primary fetish object in the recuperation of Welles’s “vision” in future years, at the time it was merely a long-winded letter to studio executives from an employee with a history of post-production difficulties. Furthermore, it achieved only minimal results: Welles, not permitted back on the project, did not get to complete the editing. Thus a “Welles” cut was never produced. A final “preview” version running 108 minutes was completed by Nims, which included a few of Welles’s suggestions from the memo, and was shown to a test audience in January 1958 (Heylin, p. 323). Notes from that screening produced more cuts, reducing the picture to 93 minutes, and the picture was released on 9 April in San Francisco, Louisville, and Detroit, before being rolled out through April and May to various other cities.[11]  No one in 1958 could have predicted just how long the reception period would last.

Release and Reception: Part I

If the production history of Touch Of Evil disrupts the accepted mythology of Welles’s victimization, the release and reception of the film similarly complicates the perception that the film was, according to Joseph McBride, “tossed away by Universal-International” and “dumped… contemptuously onto the market” (What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, p. 127, 131). A crucial component of the contemporary “meaning” of the film is that the initial release was mishandled by the studio, and that it was misunderstood by critics and the public. While elements of this mythology are accurate, the historical details are much more complicated. For example, the belief that there were no press showings is simply untrue (François and Berthomé, p. 219). The film was screened at Universal-International on 13 March for critics from VarietyMotion Picture Daily, and The Hollywood Reporter.[12]  In order for the continual recuperation of Welles and the film to occur, such details regarding the film’s history have been overlooked. James Naremore is somewhat typical in this regard, suggesting that because of the studio’s “anxious conservatism” about making only profitable pictures, Touch Of Evil “was never given the publicity or theatrical bookings it deserved” (The Magic World Of Orson Welles, p. 176). As I will discuss further below, Naremore’s assertion conforms to the evaluative tendency within scholarship to favor a particular historical narrative for the film when it suits the desire to canonize Welles’s vision.

While Touch Of Evil was not given much advertising or a wide release, its distribution certainly conformed to its B movie status. In Los Angeles (which I will use as a site of analysis), it was initially paired with The Female Animal (directed, coincidentally, by Harry Keller, and shot by Touch Of Evil cameraman Russell Metty), a melodrama starring Hedy Lamarr, George Nader and Jane Powell about an aging movie star who falls in love with a young extra, only to see her adopted daughter fall in love with him as well. It is true Touch Of Evil was not given the type of exclusive engagement or premiere held, for example, for South Pacific (dir. Joshua Logan) at the prestigious Egyptian Theater that May. Instead, the film was released in Los Angeles on 23 April in ten theaters: the Warner Downtown, the Warner Wiltern, the Hollywood Hawaii, the Inglewood Academy, the Pasadena Academy, the Montebello Vogue, the Culver City Meralta, and the Warner Huntington Park, as well as the Sunland and Norwalk La Mirada drive-ins.[13] This theater count was by no means unusual; while some films released in Los Angeles around this time played as many as twenty locations, ten seems well within the average.[14] Additionally these were by no means lower-tier theaters, nor were they reserved for films “tossed away” by studios. Indeed, all types of films played these spaces around this time, ranging from Oscar winner Sayonara (dir. Joshua Logan) to the Elvis Presley vehicle King Creole (dir. Michael Curtiz).[15]  Nor can the inclusion of drive-in theaters necessarily be considered evidence for “dumping” the film; Los Angeles had numerous outdoor exhibition spaces that played various films during their initial release.[16]

Another key element of the mythology of failure and victimization surrounding the initial release is that the film was played as “the second half of a double bill” with The Female Animal (Murch 1998). While it is true that the two films were released together as a double feature in Los Angeles, Touch Of Evil was paired with at least nine other films in its various releases around the country, and in Toronto, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. it did not play as part of a double feature at all.[17] Furthermore, strong evidence in Los Angeles contradicts the belief that Touch Of Evil was the “lesser” part of the pair. The listing for the La Mirada Theater on the day of release, for example, places Touch Of Evil in larger type and above The Female Animal.[18]  John L. Scott, in his review the next day, not only references Touch Of Evil in the headline, but also reviews the film first. The Female Animal, which he calls “cobilled” with Touch Of Evil, is given less space in the latter half of the article (Scott, p. B9). Most illuminating, however, is the graphic newspaper advertisement placed by Universal-International for the films: though variations of it only ran five times, in each instance Touch Of Evil is given top billing, with the words “plus second feature” listed above The Female Animal.[19]  Despite this evidence, though, the pairing is ultimately irrelevant after the first week, when the double bill was broken up and Touch Of Evil was paired (this time clearly as the bottom half) with Sayonara.[20]

Financially, the film achieved minimal success upon release. Variety reported earnings from three of the theaters (the Downtown, the Wiltern, and the Hawaii) at $13,000, which it described as “fairly mild.”[21] That assessment further confirms the B movie status of the film. Compared to a film such as Bridge On The River Kwai (dir. David Lean), which was collecting more than $14,000 in its nineteenth week at the Egyptian theater,Touch Of Evil was a “mild” disappointment at less than that in its first.[22]  Films with similarly low expectations as Touch Of Evil, such as Saddle The Wind (dir. Robert Parrish) and Handle With Care (dir. David Friedkin), the double feature that followed Touch Of Evil at some of the Los Angeles locations, made very nearly the same grosses.[23] Box office totals around the country did not fare much better, where the film played only a week at most locations. Perhaps the most successful outing was in Toronto, where the film premiered on 23 April without a second feature and grossed $10,000; nevertheless, the film was gone after a week.[24] More typical was the film’s performance in Minneapolis, where Touch Of Evil opened on 28 May alongside I Married A Woman (dir. Hal Kanter) and grossed $3,500 in a one-week run.[25] Back in Los Angeles, having shuffled between various theaters, Touch Of Evil was by early June playing only as the second half of a double feature at the Mission drive-in alongside The Young Lions (dir. Edward Dmytryk).[26]

Initial reviews of the film were not entirely positive or negative. Those coming from the advance screening all acknowledge the technical accomplishments, but find the film confusing and populated by strange characters. Jack Moffit, for example, in addition to calling the film a “mishmash,” notes that “this should have been a fine picture. But it isn’t” (1958). Scott’s post-release Variety review was more kind, praising the aesthetics, and noting the “odd but impressive performances” (Scott, p. B9). Critical reaction seemed to acknowledge in passing the significance of Welles’s presence behind the camera, but it was not, unsurprisingly, a major story. The quiet release, failure to achieve substantial grosses, relatively quick slide toward theatrical disappearance, and (at best) nonchalant reviews of the film all set an ideal stage, I would like to argue, for what came next: recuperation.

Andrew Sarris, perhaps the most visible of the auteur theory proponents in the United States, argues, “The auteur theory values the personality of a director precisely because of the barriers to its expression. It is as if a few brave spirits had managed to overcome the gravitational pull of the mass of movies” (p. 65). After the film’s exhibition began to fade, more than a few such barriers existed between Touch Of Evil and Welles’s auteurist reclamation, but the seeds had already been planted – a few by Welles himself. On 24 May the New Statesman in London printed a letter from Welles responding to a negative review, in which Welles mentioned publicly for the first time that there had been “wholesale re-editing of the film” (Welles and Bogdanovich 424). Also in May, André Bazin and Charles Bitsch interviewed Welles about the production, for publication in the June issue of Cahiers du Cinéma. In the interview, Welles says that “the editing of Touch Of Evil… was in fact redone behind my back” (“Interview With Orson Welles”). [27] Giving the interview to Cahiers du Cinéma was a strategic maneuver; known for fostering the auteur theory, the journal was an ideal place to initiate the mythology of victimization and activate the reclamation of a specific authorial vision.

Indeed, coming as it did at the end of the 1950s, Touch Of Evil resided within the same temporal space as the discussion of authorship swirling first in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma and then, with the help of Sarris, in the United States. François Truffaut published the first of the Cahiers polemics, “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français,” in early 1954. The edification of Welles, intrinsic to the auteur theory, was in progress before Touch Of Evil entered production. In 1955, for example, Jacques Rivette wrote a Cahiers piece on contemporary auteurs, whom he claimed were “all the sons of Orson Welles, who was the first to dare to reassert clearly an egocentric concept of the director” (p. 95). Foreshadowing the difficulties between Welles and Universal-International, Rivette also notes that “we are hardly beginning to assess the extent of the repercussions of that Wellesian coup d’état, which cracked to its very foundations the whole edifice of Hollywood production” (p. 95). Further setting the stage for a defense of Touch Of Evil as the work of an auteur was Bazin, who wrote in 1957 that Welles’s Confidential Report (aka Mr. Arkadin) was a “superior film [to Citizen Kane] because it is more personal” (p. 254). A similar frame would later be applied to Touch Of Evil: Welles’s “personal vision” had been mangled by the studio, and thus the authentic creativity needed to be uncovered and restored.

On 8 June the first major victory in that restoration occurred in Brussels, where Welles received the Best Actor award at the Brussels World Fair and International Film Festival. Cahiers alumni Jean-Luc Godard and Truffaut were among the judges.[28] Thus, I would suggest, the long pattern that was to come was established, which would reassert Welles as a victimized, misunderstood auteur, too talented for the Hollywood studios and, following Sarris, confronted by too many barriers to his creative vision to be adequately appreciated. That the initial recuperation would come from the Cahiers auteur theory proponents in the public arena – with an award, no less – created a perfect underpinning of legitimation for what was to follow. Touch Of Evil, even though the film itself had changed not at all, took on new meaning once the French auteur critics entered the discourse. John Caughie, in describing Truffaut’s contribution to the auteur theory, writes: “The appeal [for a cinema d’auteurs] was for more than a shift in creative responsibility; in asking that cinema be given over to the true homes de cinema, Truffaut was rejecting a novelistic, psychologically realistic cinema (however socially conscious it might be) and appealing for a cinema that was truly cinematic” (p. 35). While the French critics never explicitly invoked Touch Of Evil as part of their auteur project (indeed, the film was released after the high point of their publications on the subject), it nevertheless almost perfectly represents the “truly cinematic” desired for Truffaut.

The switch from critical dismissal to recuperation began in the United States at almost the same time. On 10 June, after the film had moved to second-run theaters, Philip K. Scheuer wrote an article on the film for the Los Angeles Times, arguing that “great potential was still evident” in Welles’s work. It would be the first time outside Europe that the production problems, re-editing, and scenes shot by Keller would be publicly mentioned, and also the first time the release pattern would be criticized: “[Universal-International] tossed the film into general release and it has wound up locally as the second half of double bills” (p. B7). Thus all the mythology was now in place: the film had suffered from being taken away from Welles by the studio and re-edited, after which it had been mangled in distribution, and thus never properly appreciated, even in its altered form. After this article, never again would Touch Of Evil be publicly thought of as anything but a work of genius that had been badly handled by the studio. Yet, for all the slow building of the mythology, the film itself had not changed. The 93-minute print was the same at the press screenings on 13 March as it was in Brussels on 8 June and for Scheuer on 10 June, a detail that will become increasingly important.

Release and Reception: Part II

Despite the apparently confusing plotline, bizarre characters, and mismanagement by the studio, something curious happened to the exhibition of Touch Of Evil: it did not end. The film played continuously in various theaters (often in as few as one) in Los Angeles through at least 1969, whereupon it moved to television and became a recurring fixture.[29] On 4 June 1969, Max Laemmle’s Los Feliz Theater hosted a “major retrospective” of Welles’s work, featuring the film as part of the program. Charles Champlin, writing on the event, notes that “Welles has largely become a prophet in exile… doing films which are touched with his genius but sometimes imperiled by shoestring financing and production problems” (p. D1A). Peter Bogdanovich, who would become one of Welles’s most public champions, authored the program notes for the retrospective, further casting Welles as the misunderstood auteur. Thus, by 1969, Touch Of Evil was firmly ensconced in the recuperative discourses of failure and victimization that would become Welles’s great and lasting mythology, with the very act of “retrospection” furthering the evaluative canonization of his work as an auteur. The language of the auteur critics began to seep into discourse: Welles, hampered by the studio pressure to create a B film, worked creatively to exceed generic expectations, thus leaving an indelible authorial signature on the result – mangled and mismanaged as it may have been. While the film itself had not changed, its reception had: it was, by the late 1960s, an overlooked treasure well on its way to becoming a masterpiece.

The next great evolution of the film, and one that would irrevocably alter its meaning in the public and scholarly imaginations, occurred in the 1970s. In 1972, Paul Schrader included Touch Of Evil in his influential genre analysis, calling it “film noir’s epitaph” (p, 239). Also in 1972, Les Editions Du Cerf published the late André Bazin’s Orson Welles: A Critical View (later re-published by Harper & Row in the United States in 1978). The book includes a lengthy section on the film, which Bazin describes as “a masterwork of Welles despite its detective-story pretext” (p. 124). Truffaut wrote the foreword and, completing the circle of Welles’s defenders, Jonathan Rosenbaum, perhaps the leader of the Welles supporters among scholars, was the English translator. Perhaps the first in-depth reconsideration of the film came in 1975, when Stephen Heath published a lengthy textual analysis across two issues of Screen. These analyses would forever alter the meaning of the film: the scholarly attention inaugurated a new sense of critical respect and legitimated Touch Of Evil in ways that superseded the mishandling of the release by the studio and the tepid response by both the public and film critics. Such mythmaking was also occurring around Welles himself: on 9 February 1975, the American Film Institute gave its “Lifetime Achievement Award” to him at a banquet in Hollywood; CBS aired the event on 17 February, which was characterized by one critic as honoring a man whose “great expectations [were] sometimes sadly and sometimes disastrously unfulfilled” (Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 444; Donnelly, p. 125). The timing was perfect for a resuscitation of Welles’s “lost vision” on Touch Of Evil.

Nearly concurrently with the academic interest, a major shockwave occurred which would make that “lost vision” literal. In the early 1970s, archivist Robert Epstein discovered in the Universal film archive the 108-minute “preview” version of Touch Of Evil originally used in the January 1958 test screenings and not seen since (Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 533).[30]  The discovery rocked the film world – though it took some time for the news to circulate. It made its public debut at the L.A. County Museum of Art film series of “The 50 Great American Films” on 15 December 1973, but press coverage did not mention the discovery or the screening’s significance (Thomas, p. F28).[31] On 9 May 1975, the American Film Institute, recognizing the historical value of the discovery, gave a duplicated negative to the Library of Congress for preservation, and subsequently offered a screening in Washington D.C.[32]  From there, it played the Paris Film Festival and was subsequently widely distributed by Universal, which recognized the potential financial value of the discovery – especially for academia, which was showing increased interest.[33] The 1958 release version, while still available, very nearly disappeared from circulation as scholars and exhibitors overwhelmingly selected the preview version (François and Berthomé, p. 219). Foreshadowing what was to come, and echoing my own argument, Universal spokesman Gary Collins noted at the time that both versions would continue to be available, because any other action would “almost get into rewriting film history.”[34] Yet such damage might have already been done. Rosenbaum wrote a breathless review of the footage in the Autumn 1975 issue Sight And Sound, claiming that, except for a few minor details, the version was “apparently identical to Welles’ final cut,” and described it as the “definitive version” (“Prime Cut” 59).[35]

Joseph McBride, in a letter to Sight And Sound the following spring, corrects the error, identifying the discovery as the “preview” copy from 1958 (“Letter” 128-129).[36]  Yet, once again, the damage was done, and the belief in the “authenticity” of the discovery would circulate for decades – much of it, as I will show, circulated by Universal. Welles, whom some have claimed never viewed the film again after 3 December 1958, did not offer an opinion on the legitimacy of the “preview” copy, preferring instead to keep silent on the issue (Murch, p. 1). One other detail from McBride’s letter would be crucial to the ongoing history of the film: the mention of Welles’s 58-page memo to Muhl. This would be the first public mention of the memo, which might well be considered the ultimate “proof” of the vision that had been taken away. While I will return to the memo below, it is important to note here that McBride’s reference to the memo would set a chain of events in motion eventually causing even more dislocation of the “meaning” of the film.

The discovery of the “preview” version might have been an interesting footnote to the film’s history, but instead became the dominant story. Studios have always tested versions of films for preview audiences; what made this particular footage different was the intersection of evaluative tendencies, authorship, and canonization. Even though McBride cleared up the misconception, the discourse did not change: this new version was “‘nearer to Orson Welles’ original conception’ than the shorter version,” and this despite the fact that more of Keller’s footage was present in the preview version (Murch, p. 1). By 1982 this mythology was so strong that Touch Of Evil received enough votes from critics to be ranked in Sight And Sound’s decennial poll of the best films ever made.[37] As the 1958 release print was nearly absent from circulation by this time, it can be assumed that the voting refers to the “preview” version – though no clarification exists as none was apparently deemed necessary during the survey. To cite just one pertinent contrasting example, The Bridge On The River Kwai, winner of seven Academy Awards and the box office and critical giant during Touch Of Evil’s release, did not make the Sight And Sound list. Canonization was now added to the bolstering of Welles’s status as an auteur. Touch Of Evil had gone from disappearing from most theaters after a week to being a masterpiece.

Release and Reception: Part III

Home video permanently altered the way both scholars and the public discovered Touch Of Evil – though it is critical to examine which version of Touch Of Evil. If home video offered the potential for a vast, almost limitless, audience, then it also offered a simultaneous potential to close off the historical details and legitimate an “official” story. That story reinscribed Welles as the victimized auteur, and further pushed the film away from its actual history. The first home video release came in 1987, with VHS and laserdisc editions through MCA, a Universal subsidiary. Part of the “Gene Shalit’s Critic’s Choice” series, the release was the “preview” version, and labeled as the “complete uncut restored edition,” despite more than ten years passing since McBride had cleared up that misconception.[38] The release featured artwork from the original release posters, foregrounding Heston and Leigh, with Welles lurking in the lower corner. Thus this first VHS release somewhat ambivalently holds to the original history by using the 1958 artwork, yet builds on the intervening mythology by (mis)advertising itself as “complete and uncut.” Most tellingly, the decision to release the “preview” version speaks to the desire to erase the theatrical “mistake” from the public imagination, as well as to capitalize on marketing a perception of authenticity.

On 1 March 1992, Universal released the “preview” version again on home video, this time as part of its “Universal Noir” collection.[39] Once again the release was labeled as being “complete and uncut with restored footage.” The artwork changed dramatically from the first release, placing an enormous Welles behind Heston and Leigh, clearly foregrounding Welles as both actor and auteur, and making certain his is the important image. By 1992, then, the mythology seemed to be complete: despite incontrovertible evidence, Universal continued to market the 1975 archival discovery as the “official” version, even falsely advertising it as “uncut.” This erasure of the 1958 release seems particularly odd given that the critical praise, academic interest, and international adulation had stemmed from that version – despite the accompanying discourse on Welles’s victimization at the hands of the studio. By the early 1990s, it seemed the film that had played in theaters in 1958 was long gone.

In his corrective letter to Sight And Sound in 1976, McBride makes a tantalizing reference to Welles’s 1957 memo to Universal, noting that he had read it before watching the discovered “preview” version. In 1992, Rosenbaum, editing Bogdanovich’s interviews with Welles, attempted to include an excerpt of the memo in the finished book, only to have it removed by a HarperCollins editor due to length (Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 1992).[40] Anxious for a public release of the memo as part of his ongoing defense of Welles’s career, Rosenbaum published the excerpt in the Fall 1992 issues of Film Quarterly and Trafic. These first public appearances of excerpts from the memo would once again revitalize interest in the mythology of Welles’s victimization, and resuscitate interest in bolstering his status as an auteur. Here, again, was more “proof” that Welles’s vision could be identified, categorized, and imagined.

Independent producer Schmidlin, having read Rosenbaum’s excerpts, approached Universal in 1994 with the idea of “restoring” Touch Of Evil using the memo as a guiding template for a special edition laserdisc (“Touch Of Evil Retouched”, p. 249).[41]  Not only did the studio support the idea, they agreed to finance a theatrical re-release of the result. Surviving sound elements – preserved by Nims in 1958 – were collected to be used alongside the memo in the process (“Touch Of Evil Retouched”, p. 249-251).[42] In 1997, Schmidlin assembled a team to work on the project: editor/sound mixer Walter Murch, sound editor Bill Varney, and laboratory technician Bob O’Neil, with Rosenbaum as a consultant. Work began in January 1998 (“Restoring The Touch Of Genius To A Classic”, p. 16-17; “Touch Of Evil Retouched”, p. 249-251). The resulting cut played the Telluride Film Festival on 5 September 1998 and was immediately regarded as a “restoration” of Welles’s vision (“High Altitude”).[43] Schmidlin received awards from The National Society of Film Critics, The New York Film Critics Circle, The Boston Society of Film Critics, and The Los Angeles Film Critics Association for the project. Premiere Magazine named the “restoration” the best film of the year.[44]

On 6 September 1998, just before the film’s theatrical release, Murch published an article in the New York Times detailing the project, foregrounding the memo as the impetus for the restoration. He describes the result as “a revivification of a film that has lain partly embalmed for 40 years, awaiting a kind of cinematic redemption” (“Restoring”, p. 1). Laying out in meticulous detail the fifty alterations made to the film, Murch describes the passion and respect the team had for the project. His concluding words are worth quoting at length:

It is both wonderful and sad that Welles’s memo exists. Wonderful because it gives us insights into the mind of one of the greatest filmmakers of the century. And wonderful also because its rediscovery has allowed us to finally complete the work on a film of great historical importance. Sad because, clearly, the memo should not have had to have been written in the first place. Whatever the disagreements, Welles should have been allowed to finish his film, and of course had he finished it to his satisfaction, he would never had to write the memo. (“Restoring”, p. 17)

Whatever else their intentions, Murch, Schmidlin, and the rest of the restoration team make no effort whatsoever to conceal their auteurist desire for Welles’s vision to supersede all other historical context; by so vividly painting Welles as a victim, the only possible recourse is to recuperate what might have been, if only the studio had recognized his genius. The result, in which the “new” history erases the old, ironically betrays at least some of the creative team’s own hopes for the project; Rosenbaum has said, “It was never [our] intention… for the version we worked on to supplant any of the others” (“Touch Of Evil Retouched”, p. 256). Yet such supplantation is precisely what occurred.

Universal’s motives might be more complicated. Justin Wyatt, in a reconsideration of auteur theory in the 1990s, suggests “distributors utilize authorship as one advertising strategy to gain a place within the competitive market for mainstream films” (p. 52). Universal certainly had such intentions: the film was theatrically released on 11 September 1998, played in 45 theaters, and grossed $2,247,465.[45]  Wyatt notes that the 1990s were a particularly fertile time for studio appropriation of authorship as a distinct marketing tool. In the case of Robert Altman, a deliberate strategy was invoked that positioned him as a “famous director returning to artistic form” with The Player in 1992, released through New Line Cinema’s “Fine Line” imprint to add a certain sophistication (p. 62). Similar parallels can be seen with the 1998 release of Touch Of Evil: Universal unquestionably marketed the film as a restoration of Welles’s genius (not unlike Altman “returning to form”), and did so through October Films, their own “art house” subsidiary. To quote Solman, this might be the prototypical example of “the same old commerce [masquerading] as the aesthetics of creative freedom” (p. 20). The twist here, of course, is that the creative freedom was summoned vicariously through the memo.

On 31 October 2000, Universal released the “restoration” on home video without either of the previous two versions, effectively replacing them and marking the Schmidlin project as the “official” Touch Of Evil. The release included a copy of the Welles memo. Critics, scholars, and the public would now be introduced to the film through Schmidlin’s vision, with the memo serving in both a legitimating capacity and as Welles’s “voice.” I would argue that the inclusion of the memo further foregrounds it, almost at the expense of the film itself, as the most important marker of meaning surrounding the project. In some ways, Welles’s passionate defense of his own vision has the last word – as both impetus for the restoration and as a voice on its own terms. Yet the story does not end here.

On 7 October 2008, Universal released the 50th anniversary DVD collection, which includes all three versions of the film, a copy of the memo, and commentaries from Heston, Leigh, Schmidlin, Rosenbaum, and Naremore. For the first time, the 1958 release is available on home video, introducing entire generations of critics, scholars, and viewers to the film as it was originally shown theatrically. Yet the packaging and presentation of these materials inscribe new meanings to the film. The memo, lovingly packaged in a miniature envelope with highly produced graphics, is marked as “notes from Orson Welles,” and dated December 5, 1957. Thus it positions the reader as the direct recipient of Welles’s unfiltered vision, privileging the notes as the ultimate bearer of meaning for the film. This set conforms to what Schmidlin, Murch, Rosenbaum, and the rest of the creative team had in mind from the beginning of the “restoration” project. Rosenbaum, who did not favor the sole release of the “restored” version on DVD, instead wanted the “ideal scenario” of all three versions being released simultaneously (“Touch Of Evil Retouched”, p. 256).[46] While this set finally achieves what he and the others originally desired, it nevertheless continues the imagery of victimization and recuperation by now completely ingrained in the Welles mythology.

The presence of the memo legitimates and foregrounds the Schmidlin restoration as the “official” version of the film even within the set – as it is the only one of the three to work in virtual “partnership” with Welles’s vision. The packaging furthers such mythology in its description of the Schmidlin version as the “definitive cut,” and “restored to Orson Welles’ vision.” That the two earlier versions are presented on one disc, while the Schmidlin version is isolated on its own, further legitimates its presence. As Shaun Huston argues, “the implication is that the other versions of the film are lesser for lacking the auteur’s full touch” (“An Auteur’s Touch Of Evil”). Michel Foucault’s work on authorship offers insight into the critical importance of the positioning of these versions. “[T]he author’s name,” he writes, “characterizes a particular manner of existence of discourse. Discourse that possesses an author’s name is not to be immediately consumed and forgotten; neither is it accorded the momentary attention given to ordinary, fleeting words. Rather, its status and its manner of reception are regulated by the culture in which it circulates” (p. 123). By isolating Welles’s “vision” within the set, such discourses emerge. The historical context of the previous two versions recedes, as they are no longer associated with the name “Welles” – while the “restored” version becomes the preferred, valued object associated most firmly with a creator, despite Welles’s lack of association with its production. His name, in other words, continues to retain the most value in the project of recuperation.

Thus, while for the first time viewers can see all three versions, there is still a privileging of Welles’s auteur status even in this, the most complete set released to date. “Complete,” then, does not necessarily mean an absence of highly determined and positioned meaning. Despite all these moments of tension over the film’s meaning, however, one thing is certain: Touch Of Evil has (once again) been firmly canonized. The reasons for such canonization, as well as the ideological implications, extend into both the academy and more broadly into cultural ideology.


In his analysis of the resurgence of academic auteurism, Dana Polan argues for two simultaneously embedded discursive phenomena: an effort to discover the director’s desire, and also a desire for the director. “It is important,” he writes, “to look less at what the director wants than what the analyzing auteurist wants – namely, to classify and give distinction to films according to their directors and to master their corpuses” (2001). Such a formulation speaks to the long history of Touch Of Evil and its various releases, and particularly the Schmidlin restoration. As each successive release of the film became the “official” version, the “analyzing auteurists” fell further under the spell of Welles’s “vision,” believing that it had finally been discovered. The 1998 restoration in particular seems a clear example of Polan’s argument, as it “speaks” for Welles and his vision without the necessity of his actual involvement, which, as I have shown, did not proceed smoothly in 1957.

That context problematizes readings of Welles as a misunderstood genius who was victimized by the studio, and thus frequently drops out of the “official” story. Polan argues that “we admit that directors take up their place in larger structures of meaning-production, but still, in the long run, we want to imagine that auteurs are of interest independent of all that context – of interest as captivating, creative visionaries in their own right” (2001). It is much easier to ignore the context, to create a simple mythology foregrounding Welles’s vision and status as an auteur than to take the historical details, messy and complicated as they might be, into account. The desire to elevate Welles’s vision has resulted in a rewriting of the production’s history. The desire for the auteur is not one interested merely in reinscribing a sole “genius” to the work of filmmaking, however, or a project of isolating and identifying sources of creativity.

The academic connection to auteurism stretches back to the French Cahiers du Cinéma critics of the 1950s, through the American attachment with Sarris and, as Cook notes, into the structuralist challenge to the theory itself. That challenge, however, presented new problems: “[S]tructuralism itself fell into some of the ideological traps it was so anxious to avoid: the search for ‘underlying structural relationships’ often involved a reduction of those relationships to a fixed, static underlying structure, waiting to be revealed; and structures themselves were often seen as existing outside of time and place, outside of history” (p. 486). The desire for the director, in other words, often seeped back in with the effort to discover the underlying structure. By the late 1970s, auteurism might have been dead in name – but it was lurking in the background, waiting for an opportunity to come back in different clothing. As James Naremore argues, “Auteurism is surely dead, but so are debates over the death of the author” (“Authorship”, p. 20). By the 1990s, the auteur was back in both the public and academic spheres – just in time to resurrect Touch Of Evil.[47]

The tendency toward auteurism is not just an effort to highlight and valorize the creativity of the director. In the case of Touch Of Evil, it is also not just an effort to recuperate Welles’s vision. As Janet Staiger points out, auteurism is also linked to a politics of evaluation (“The Politics Of Film Canons”, p. 12). Early proponents such as Sarris might have been the most vocal – in his case literally ranking directors and films – but the evaluative tendency runs throughout any effort to foreground the auteur. This calls the scholar’s role into serious question: is such evaluation the academy’s goal? Certainly the concept of a “core” group of films from which scholars and students can share common knowledge and awareness is inescapable; as Staiger points out, the sheer number of films requires some process of selection (“The Politics Of Film Canons”, p. 8). Ava Preacher Collins notes that canon formation is a process of “recollecting,” and that “re-collection invests the collected artifact with value (it is worth remembering or saving), but it also bestows a cultural value authority on the agency or institutions engaged in re-collecting” (p. 89). I would extend Collins’s observation and suggest that canon formation also engages in a process of exclusion, by writing out particular films or historical events from the “official” and “important” record deemed worthy for study or shared public awareness. In the case of Touch Of Evil, the rush to reinscribe Welles with auteur status has come at the expense of the historical record surrounding the film. As Polan argues, “The creativity of auteurism bases itself in strategies that construct its objects in value-laden ways” (2001). The desire for the auteur, coinciding with (if not creating) the urge to canonize the film, has led to an erasure of history, an erasure stemming directly from the evaluative tendency to proclaim the “greatness” of Welles’s lost vision. That it can be periodically “found” again (through the “preview” copy, the memo, and now the “definitive” Schmidlin version) only perpetuates the cycle.

Such tendencies have deep pedagogical implications. Even as film studies students are taught to avoid value-laden analyses in favor of discursive awareness that situates industry, text, and spectators in a variety of non-evaluative contexts, they are still presented with models such as Touch Of Evil, in which the director’s “vision” has been foregrounded so entirely that the original, released film has been virtually replaced by a critically and academically sanctioned restoration of the “right” version. Even as instructors de-center the director (as much as is possible) in film history, theory, and industry courses, such versions quietly reinstate them as the final voice of authority and legitimacy. Perhaps a simple question will summarize the current situation: when instructors show Touch Of Evil to students, which version do they choose? When presented, for the first time in decades on home video, with the option of showing any of the three versions, which one is selected and why? Which narrative is told (if any) to justify the choice? I would speculate that the Schmidlin restoration is overwhelmingly selected – just as it probably is by critics and the general public, who may find the only available context to be the type presented in the review.

This might do an enormous disservice to students. As Dudley Andrew notes in relation to the canon, “If texts live in a partly autonomous existence and are mobilized by those in authority, educators need to let students know about the recalcitrance of texts and the politics of mobilization… Students need to learn about texts and expertise. More important, they need to learn the discourses of both” (“Dialogue on Film Canons”, p. 58). As more and more films appear in multiple versions, the issue grows in intensity and urgency. Films such as Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott), Nights Of Cabiria (dir. Federico Fellini), The Last Emperor (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci), and Lawrence Of Arabia (dir. David Lean), among many others, have all seen theatrical re-releases with new or altered material.[48] The “director’s cut” or “extended” and “uncut” editions of contemporary films have become almost a requirement for the home video market, leading to even more confusion as to the definition of “official” in terms of version. Mr. Arkadin (1955), also directed by Welles, represents perhaps the best parallel for this essay: three versions of the film have been released in a box set by The Criterion Collection, including one labeled “The Comprehensive Version.” Welles was removed from the editing process on that film by producer Louis Dolivet – leading to yet another struggle for meaning over which version is “definitive.” Perhaps, as Andrew suggests, rather than asserting the finality of meaning or the wrestling over what Welles (or any other director) intended, the more important pedagogical point is the recalcitrance of the text.

In the case of Touch Of Evil, the auteurist, evaluative tendencies, and implications of canonization have resulted in my desire to unearth and disseminate the historical context, however unpleasant it might be for those interested in valorizing Welles and his creative abilities. In other words, stopping the presses from further printing the legend. Solman’s plea in 1993 for a renewed emphasis on such historical details continues to resonate: “Our film culture faces a future in which old movies will not just seem different from how we remembered them, they will be. The theatrical release is fast becoming a work-in-progress. Original versions soon will exist only in the fragments of our collective memory” (p. 27). For students exposed only to the version of Touch Of Evil legitimated by “restoration” and re-release, that collective memory may cease to exist.


This essay has not been an effort to downplay the importance of Welles’s work on Touch Of Evil, which demonstrates his remarkable creativity and skill as a writer, director and actor, nor to suggest that the “preview” version of the film does not offer scholars and the public an opportunity to see an extended glimpse into the filmmaking process. Furthermore, I would argue that the Schmidlin restoration provides a fascinating and unique case study for “what might have been” had Welles been granted more authority over the final film – so long as audiences understand that it should only be recognized in that context rather than a literal salvaging of Welles’s intent, an impossible enterprise that has long ceased to be relevant to the finished product(s). The beautiful result of the restoration, and presence of the remarkably talented, humble, and respectful Murch, have tended to erase the potentially disturbing consequence that a re-cut version of the film has assumed the status of “official” text; ironically, and despite the adherence to Welles’s memo, this is yet another example of what Welles (and his supporters) abhorred. I hope to have stressed the importance of keeping the historical details alive and in context, and for minimizing the discourse of Welles’s victimization. The continual foregrounding of Welles’s story erases the equally legitimate narrative regarding the studio’s investment, of Muhl’s frustration, of Nims’s construction of the released film, and of the pleasures obtained by critics, spectators, and scholars prior to the discovery of the “preview” version in 1975. Following, for example, Tom Schatz’s work in The Genius Of The System (1996), immensely valuable historical details and narratives can be discovered when the director is de-centered as an object of analysis.

As Schmidlin’s restoration increasingly becomes the “official” version, the 1958 release fades from view, too easily dismissed as a bungled mistake, ruined by studio interference, and only a shadow of what could have been. Yet, as Solman points out, “it’s crucial there was a ‘then’” (p. 21). Perhaps, as a final example of how this erasure has critical historical importance, scholars need only look to the National Film Registry. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington added Touch Of Evil to its collection on 14 December 1993.[49] The NFR website offers hypertext links to the Facets Multimedia catalog, where the collection is available for sale to the public. The link for Touch Of Evil goes directly to the Schmidlin restoration DVD released by Universal on 31 October 2000 – nearly seven years after Billington’s addition and 35 years after the film was first released in theaters.[50]  Yet the date on Touch Of Evil in the “official” repository, the purpose of which is to recognize “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” American films, is 1958. Thus, once again, the “meaning” of the film as a recuperation of auteurism, canonization, and an example of the power of the evaluative tendency all supersede the film’s history. Ultimately, that history now includes all these events and discourses, and the film no longer exists without them. Gunning convincingly argues “one can never establish the historical dimension of a work once and for all, since by definition history is constantly changing. There is no end to history” (p. 16). There is no firmer proof of such an assertion than the ongoing history of Touch Of Evil.

Scholars have long seized on a moment toward the middle of the film as another symbolic metaphor for Welles himself, when Quinlan meets with Tanya and asks her to tell him his fortune. “You haven’t got any,” she tells him, “Your future is all used up.” The same could not be said in any way for Touch Of Evil, which has enjoyed increasing success, recuperation, and canonization in the intervening years since Tanya uttered those now-famous words. Yet such actions have come at the expense of the film itself, and have deep critical, institutional, and pedagogical implications that have helped construct a particular mythology around Welles and the film that are now being passed on to future generations of film scholars as well as the general public. As Staiger notes, “How people comprehend the past affects their sense of remembering it” (129). What has become increasingly clear in the case of Touch Of Evil is that, for far too long, its past has been all used up.

Thanks to Richard Abel for his guidance and assistance with this essay, and also for the insightful feedback by my colleagues at the University of Michigan and the anonymous readers at Screening The Past.

Works Cited

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[1] Unless otherwise noted, Touch Of Evil refers in this essay to the version of the film released theatrically in 1958. I will refer to the 1975 re-issue as the “preview” version and the 1998 re-issue as the “restoration.”
[2] Bret Wood’s Orson Welles: A Bio-Bibliography (1990) continues to be the most comprehensive source for tracking down the multitude of Welles-related scholarship. Lawrence French runs the Wellesnet, an invaluable web resource for anyone attempting to enter the swirling and often vertiginous waters of surrounding the history and scholarship on Welles.
[3] (31 March 2009).
[4] An undated script labeled “first draft” by Monash is held at the University of Michigan library in the Wilson-Welles archive. Changes are marked throughout in the upper left corner with dates reading “7/12/56” and “7/19/56.”
[5] The B movie discussion is a critical part of the cultural recuperation of the film. Yannis Tzioumakis defines the B film as a cheaply made productions designed to fill the demand created by movie-hungry audiences, either by companies founded to exploit this demand (such as Monogram and Republic), or by studio units devoted to lower-cost, rapid working conditions, and presented as the bottom half of double bills (p. 64). I would argue the cultural positioning of the film as “the best B movie ever made” even though it was not intended to be one allows Welles’s supporter to claim a unique form of victimization for him, in which his genius superseded all efforts by the studio to ruin the film; simultaneously, it allows them to claim that he was a master of all genres, from the most literary and highbrow to the most banal.
[6] At least three versions of how Welles was offered participation in the film exist: Welles’, Zugsmith’s, and Heston’s. As James Naremore suggests, elements of truth probably exist in all three (p. 177). Heston, in his two autobiographies, claims he suggested Welles as director to Zugmsith after reading the Monash script. Welles offers a story slightly similar to Heston, claiming that he was offered the acting role before Heston’s participation. Heston, told that Welles was “involved,” assumed this meant Welles would be directing – which led Zugsmith to expand the offer to Welles to include writing and directing the film (Welles and Bogdanovich, p. 297). Zugmsith’s version is noted above.
[7] Dates vary for when Welles actually completed the “final” draft of the screenplay. Bogdanovich and Rosenbaum claim the final draft was completed (after five days) on January 22 and “trimmed and approved for shooting over the next few days” (This is Orson Welles, p. 422). François and Berthomé claim the final draft was completed on February 5 (p. 210). This latter date aligns with a copy of the script dated February 5 and credited to Welles as the “Final Draft” in the University of Michigan Wilson-Welles archive (though that copy is also covered in handwritten notations and pages with dates later than February 5). Needless to say, the discussion is ultimately irrelevant, as Welles added entirely new scenes (and even characters) during the pre-production and shooting phases. Rick Schmidlin notes that a “master” copy of the final script held at the USC archive contains all of the scenes shot in the film, including those with Marlene Dietrich and Dennis Weaver, as well as handwritten notes by Welles made during shooting. (25 March 2009). Additionally, at least some of the dialogue was scripted or improvised, as confirmed by Janet Leigh (“Touch of Evil Retouched”, p. 254).
[8] For an exemplary and detailed textual comparison of the novel, Monash draft, Welles draft, and “final” film, see John C. Stubbs, “The Evolution of Orson Welles’s ‘Touch Of Evil’ from Novel to Film,” Cinema Journal 24.2 (Winter 1985): p. 19-39.
[9] These dates are contradicted by the reproduction of an extant shooting schedule that lists the shooting range as 18 February to 22 March. Nevertheless, it would certainly not be uncommon for a film to go over the schedule by a short period (François and Berthomé, p. 208).
[1] Full text of the memo is available online: (10 March 2009).
[11] See “‘Evil’ Fairish 10G, Frisco; ‘Kwai’ 21G,” Variety 16 April 1958, 13; “‘Brothers’ Boffo $9,000, L’ville “S’W.’ Fancy 11G, ‘Kwai’ Great 15G, H.O.,” Variety 16 April 1958, 20; “‘Summer,’ ‘Kwai,’ ‘Pacific’ Aces,” Variety 16 April 1958, 13. Most sources cite April 23 as the release date for the film, and that it was paired with The Female Animal in this release. While it is true that the film was released to a wide variety of sites on that date, including Los Angeles (where it was paired with The Female Animal), it was released prior to this in a small number of theaters with other films. In San Francisco it was paired with The Girl Most Likely (dir. Mitchell Leisen), and in Louisville and Detroit it was paired with Day Of The Bad Men. It was also released on April 16 in Cleveland, with Fort Bowie (dir. Howard Koch). See “‘Lions’ Lofty $15,000 in Cleve; ‘Kwai’ 130, 6th,” Variety 16 April 1958, p. 9.
It was also paired with various other films throughout the country, too numerous to mention here. The ubiquitous mention of The Female Animal probably stems from the Los Angeles release.
[12] “History of Cinema: Hollywood and the Production Code.” Variety printed its review on March 17, The Hollywood Reporter on March 17, and Motion Picture Daily on March 18.
[13] “Advertisement,” The Los Angeles Times 25 April 1958, p. A8.
[14]This conjecture stems from an analysis of theater advertisements from April and May 1958 in The Los Angeles Times.
[15] “Advertisement,” The Los Angeles Times 2 May 1958, B7; “Advertisement,” The Los Angeles Times 1 July 1958, p. C7.
[16] While I focus here on Los Angeles as a geographic site of analysis for the release, New York offers similar evidence for the film’s status as a B movie. Touch Of Evil opened on Wednesday, May 21, at more than twenty RKO theaters, paired with The Unholy Wife (dir. John Farrow). Within a few days, however, it was only playing at the 58th Street RKO theater, and by June 2, it was already at the second-run Loew’s theater on Bedford Avenue. From there it left theatrical exhibition within a week. See “Advertisement,” New York Times, 23 May 1958, p. 28; “Advertisement,” New York Times, 25 May 1958, p. X6; “Advertisement,” New York Times, 2 June 1958, p. 24.
[17] These other films were: The Girl Most Likely (dir. Mitchell Leisen) in San Francisco; Day of the Bad Man (dir. Harry Keller) in Louisville; Fort Bowie (dir. Howard Koch) in Cleveland; Last of the Bad Men (dir. Paul Landres) in Seattle; Flood Tide (dir. Abner Biberman) in BuffaloQuantrill’s Raiders (dir. Edward Bernds) in Boston;Fraulein (dir. Henry Koster); and I Married a Woman (dir. Hal Kanter) in Minneapolis. In other cities, some of these pairings were duplicated. Information taken from various Variety box office reports.
[18] “Advertisement,” The Los Angeles Times 23 April 1958, p. A7.
[19] “Advertisement,” The Los Angeles Times,
24 April 1958, p. B9. The other four ads: April 25, A8; April 26, p. B3; April 28, C11; and April 29, p. 22.
[20] “Advertisement,” Los Angeles Times, 1 May 1958, p. B9.
[21]  “LA Off Sharply, Baseball Blamed; ‘Lions’ Socko p. 26G, ‘Days’ Lofty p. 16G; ‘Blues’ Light 16G Opener,”Variety 30 April 1958, p. 13.
[22] “LA Off Sharply, Baseball Blamed; ‘Lions’ Socko p. 26G, ‘Days’ Lofty p.16G; ‘Blues’ Light p. 16G Opener,”Variety 30 April 1958, p.13.
[23] “LA Off Sharply, Baseball Blamed; ‘Lions’ Socko 26G, ‘Days’ Lofty p. 16G; ‘Blues’ Light p. 16G Opener,”Variety 30 April 1958, p. 13.
[24]  “‘Evil’ Good $10,000 in Toronto; ‘Lions’ Boff p. 15G, ‘Witness’ 17G, 2d,” Variety 30 April 1958, p. 12.
[25] “‘Acre’ Sturdy 10G, Mpls.; ‘Texas’ 8G,” Variety 4 June 1958, p. 8.
[26] “Advertisement,” Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1958, p. B2.
[27] (15 March 2009).
[28] The film is often erroneously cited as also the winner of the grand prize for best film at the festival. For example, see This is Orson Welles, p. 424. This is also repeated by Murch in “Restoring the Touch of Genius to a Classic,” p. 16, and by Barbara Leaming, Orson Welles: A Biography, p. 435. An Associated Press release from the festival correctly names The Devilish Invention as the grand prize winner. “Czech Film Top Winner,”The Los Angeles Times 15 June 1958, p. 25. The article does confirm that Welles won the acting prize. See also Harold Myers, “Film Festival Gets ‘Lost’ in Brussels,” Variety 18 June 1958, p. 10; and “Orson Welles Awarded Brussels Festival Prize,” Chicago Daily Tribune 16 June 1958, p. B12.
[29]  Various theater and television advertisements from the period in the The Los Angeles Times.
[30] Specific changes between the 1958 release and the “preview” version are discussed by Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Prime Cut,” Sight And Sound 44.4 (Autumn 1975): p. 217-218. Exactly when Epstein discovered the print is unclear. Variety reported the details in 1975, but mentioned that the longer version “was discovered several years ago.” See “Orson Welles ‘Evil’ Now Has ‘Cult’ Aura,” Variety, 25 June 1975, pp. 2, 71.
[31] “Marathon to Conclude Film Series,” The Los Angeles Times, 12 December 1973, p. D24. That it was the “preview” version that played this series is mentioned several years later in Variety. See “Orson Welles ‘Evil’ Now Has ‘Cult’ Aura,” p. 71.
[32] “Orson Welles ‘Evil’ Now Has ‘Cult’ Aura,” pp. 2, 71. The Library of Congress acquisition date for the “preview” version is from (14 March 2010). The LOC had previously preserved the release print on 16 November 1959, as well as a second copy (donated by the American Film Institute) in November 1970. (14 March 2010).
[33] “Buffs Show Interest In Enlarged Vault Version of ‘Evil’ of ’58,” Variety 27 August 1975, p. 4.
[34] “Buffs Show Interest In Enlarged Vault Version of ‘Evil’ of ’58,” p. 4.
[35] Rosenbaum does admit the severity of his error (and his regret) in a reprint of the article.
[36] Variety had already corrected the assumption as well, in August: “[I]t is not (as had been thought earlier) the director’s original cut.” “Buffs Show Interest In Enlarged Vault Version of ‘Evil’ of ’58,” p. 4.
[37] (15 March 2009).
[38] Various online claims have been made that the 93 minute original theatrical version was released on VHS and laserdisc prior to this date, but I have not been able to locate any existing copies or even evidence it was, in fact, released. To my knowledge, this is the first home video release in any format of Touch Of Evil, and the only laserdisc edition released in the United States. Rosenbaum and Schmidlin have suggested that the original 108 minute VHS release is yet another version of the film, this time an amalgamation of the 93 and 108 minute releases. I have not found this to be accurate (250-251); (14 March 2009).
[39] The information on the release date comes from (14 March 2009).
[40] The excerpt is restored in the second edition of the book, published by Da Capo Press in 1998. Rosenbaum discusses the removal of the memo by the HarperCollins editor in his “Preface to the Editor’s Notes” of the second edition (p. 506).
[41] Cinematographer Allen Daviau brought the Film Quarterly excerpts to Schmidlin’s attention, prior to which the plan was simply to include the two versions then available. (17 March 2009). Schmidlin’s elaborates on the project’s history in an interview with Sean Axmaker. (17 March 2009).
[42] Schmidlin also notes the discovery of these elements, including footage stripped of opening titles for release in Europe. (17 March 2009). For a brief discussion on Nims’ decision to preserve elements of the film in 1958, see Leaming, p. 429. The complete memo was exceedingly difficult to track down. Universal did not have a complete copy, nor did the Welles estate. Eventually, after a request by Universal head Lew Wasserman, Heston supplied the copy that Welles had sent him in 1958 (Rosenbaum, p. 256).
[43],,284940,00.html (18 April 2009).
[44] (20 March 2009).
[45] (1 April 2009).
[46] In a further moment of reflection, Rosenbaum notes his “chagrin” at Leonard Maltin’s 1998 Movie & Video Guide indirectly claiming that the Schmidlin restoration is the only “correct” version of the film by telling readers, “Beware 95m. version.” As I have suggested throughout this essay, Rosenbaum’s displeasure at such cultural reception must be seen alongside the continual efforts to portray Welles as a victim whose “vision” was unfairly stifled. In other words, it must be asked of Rosenbaum and the rest of the creative team: did they expect anything else when they decided to undertake the restoration?
[47]  For more on the resurgence of auteurism in the 1990s, see Dudley Andrew, “The Unauthorized Auteur Today,” Film Theory Goes to the Movies, ed. Jim Collins, Hilary Radner, and Ava Preacher Collins (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 77-85; Noel King and Toby Miller, “Auteurism in the 1990s,” The Cinema Book, pp. 474-478.
[48] In addition to Solman, see Steve Daly and Jeff Gordinier, “Midas ‘Touch’,” Entertainment Weekly, p. 453 (October 9, 1998),,,285197,00.html (5 April 2009).
[49] (5 April 2009).
[50] (5 April 2009).

Created on: Thursday, 29 April 2010

About the Author

Peter Alilunas

About the Author

Peter Alilunas

Peter Alilunas is a doctoral student in the department of Screen Arts & Cultures at the University of Michigan. He is the former co-editor of the Michigan Feminist Studies journal and at the University of Texas at Austin. His research resides primarily in the mediated construction of gender and sexuality. He is the author of “Male Masculinity as the Celebration of Failure: The Frat Pack, Women, and the Trauma of Victimization in the ‘Dude Flick’” in the Spring 2008 issue of Mediascape.View all posts by Peter Alilunas →