The Sounds of Evil
Orson Welles' 1957 film noir masterpiece, Touch of Evil, has recently been re-edited and released to enthusiastic reviews--many revolving around the film's meticulously re-worked sound track, and the real, behind-the-scenes drama that deeply affected Welles' life and career.
The re-editing project grew from a 58-page memo Welles had sent to Universal studios just prior to the film's original release. Welles had been absent for the final editing of the film, and Universal had finished it in ways that disturbed the director enormously. The memo, and nine pages of "sound notes", describe in exquisite detail the ways Welles most passionately wanted the film to be re-edited. Unfortunately, Universal implemented only a very few of Welles’ suggestions, aborting the director's vision of a film into which he had poured his soul, in the hope it would revitalized his doomed Hollywood career.
In 1997, producer Rick Schmidlin (The Third Mind, The Doors Live at the Hollywood Bowl, Soft Parade) began producing a re-release of Touch of Evil that was to be edited in strict adherence to Welles' wishes. In his search for the right editor, Schmidlin took the memo and sound notes to multi-Oscar-winner Walter Murch who, uniquely, works as both film editor and sound mixer/editor on all his projects. Murch is particularly well-known for the inventive audio philosophies and techniques he brought to such films as The Godfather, The Conversation, American Graffiti, The English Patient and Apocalypse Now.
Schmidlin read some excerpts from Welles' sound notes to me, opening
a door into film history and exposing more than a touch of the director's
then-revolutionary thinking. Here, Welles makes some forceful points:
It is very important that the usual rancheros and mariachi numbers should be avoided and the emphasis should go on afro-cuban rhythm numbers. ...This rock and roll comes from radio loudspeakers, juke boxes and in particular, the radio in the motel.
It is very important to note that in the recording of all these numbers--which are supposed to be heard through street loudspeakers--that the effect should be just exactly as bad as that. The music itself should be skillfully played, but it will not be enough in doing the final sound mixing to run this track through an echo chamber with a certain amount of filter.
To get the effect we're looking for, it is absolutely vital that this music be played through a cheap horn in the alley outside the sound building. After this is recorded, it can be then loused up even further by the basic process of re-recording with a tinny exterior horn.... And since it does not represent very much in the way of money, I feel justified in insisting upon this, as the result will really be worth it."
Indeed, in reading the notes, Murch experienced an especially poignant understanding of Welles' requests. Referring to Welles’ instructions to "louse up" the music, Murch told me, "What was astonishing to me, was that that very technique was something I thought I'd invented for film in the late sixties, and which I'd used extensively for a number of films, up to--and especially including--American Graffiti. But here Welles had already done it ten years earlier in 1958."
Murch was referring, of course, to the car-radio music so central to American Graffiti. The main characters' cars would each have a signature sound that identified them aurally, as well as visually. And while the Touch of Evil sound notes were a shock to Murch, he felt he understood them completely.
The same could not be said for the B-movie-oriented executives at Universal, or probably for any American producer in 1958. Full, orchestral scores were the order of the day; and while many were produced by masters like Henry Mancini and Bernard Herrmann, they did not create the realism that Welles--and the coming generation--wanted.
His sound notes show how specifically Welles made his distinctions:
This underscoring, as will be seen, is to be most sparingly used, and should never give a busy, elaborate, orchestrated effect. What we want is musical color rather than movement; sustained washes of sound rather than...melodramatic or operatic scoring."
Welles "had always been interested in sound," Murch said. "He was pioneering things in the 1930s, and it took many decades for the rest of the world to catch up." Murch specifically cited Welles' use of documentary reality. The War of the Worlds (Welles’ infamous, panic-inspiring radio broadcast of a "Martian invasion") is a classic example of that: where not only are you listening to something documentary-like, but at the same time he was mimicking the form of the radio documentary."
Another example Murch pointed out was Welles' unprecedented use of silence. "Someone in the War of the Worlds is in the middle of a speech about how horrible the monsters look, and then suddenly the signal goes silent. Welles just held that silence on the air for 20 or 30 seconds....the silence was more horrible than anything you could say."
Murch accepted Schmidlin's offer to edit both picture and sound for the re-release, eager for the opportunity to work so closely with the directions of the legendary Welles, particularly given the match in their sound track aesthetics.
The Touch of Evil project had two sources of material: an original magnetic master and a fifteen-minute-longer print, discovered in the mid-seventies. Working on an Avid Media Composer, Murch re-edited the picture, meticulously adhering to Welles memo and using material from both sources. When the visuals were completed, Murch began delving into the sound notes and re-editing the sound track, together with a talented audio crew including co-re-recordists Bill Varney and Peter Reale and sound effects editors Richard LeGrand and Harry Snodgrass.
The process was apparently as arduous as it was exhilarating, and the results, as Welles wrote, were "really worth it". Indeed, viewers of the new release don't have to wait long to see and hear what's changed. The film's opening sequence--a three-minute tracking shot that sets up the plot, characters and flavor of the rest of the story--is no doubt the most striking part of the new release, and is emblematic of the audio philosophies Welles' memo expresses. In the original release, not only did credits roll on top of this entire scene, but it was scored solely by Henry Mancini's proto-Peter-Gunn band music. Murch realized he had to replace the Mancini "underscoring," as Welles' had directed, with "background music" that Welles might have preferred.
As luck would have it, the magnetic master had separate "stems" (tracks) for dialogue, music and sound effects. "Once we'd eliminated the Mancini music," Murch said, "we discovered that there was an effects track that had been built for that opening shot. It had never been heard before because it was buried by the Mancini music. It had been played quite low, but was a fully comprehensive effects track, with traffic, footsteps, a herd of goats and everything." Murch found that eliminating the underscoring and boosting the level of the sound effects track immediately enhanced the realism of the sequence.
For musical direction, Murch went to the sound notes. "At that point I had to interpret what Welles might have wanted. He'd said he wanted...'a complex montage of source cues', but obviously how complex, and which source cues, and how to use them were never specified." So Murch had to construct the montage himself, using, "source music that existed both on Mancini's sound track in the film, and on a CD he released--I think in early 1980s--that was the complete sound track from Touch of Evil. It included source music with beginnings and ends, which we clearly didn't have in the released version."
It was here that Welles' memo and Murch's background came into perfect sync. Mancini's music yielded a variety of rock and latin "rhythm numbers," as Welles described. On the Avid, Murch cut that music into the opening scene as the camera follows the Vargas characters walking past bars, clubs and cantinas.
The result is a revelation. The rolling credits and Mancini underscoring are gone. In their place-- merging wonderfully with the visuals as the camera tracks down streets and around corners, cranes over buildings and zooms in for closeups--is a protean mix of rock, be-bop, and a melange of latin styles. The music pulses in and out of earshot, along with dialogue that may sound incidental but is usually central, and a barrage of sound effects, creating an intense and realistic introduction to the drama to come.
But as comfortable as Murch evidently felt implementing the bar music according to Welles, yet another bit of commonality between the two men came into play. It turns out that Welles wanted car radios to play a role in the film as well. "In other places in the film," Murch said, Welles "had expressed interest in using the car radio. He'd done some specific shots of car radio inserts because he'd wanted to use the car radios in interesting ways."
This interest on Welles' part tied in uncannily with Murch's experience in American Graffiti, and Murch found the perfect device to intensify our anticipation of the explosion that is central to the film's plot. The introduction opens by showing someone planting a bomb in a car, which then drives off, and reappears several times throughout the introduction. "I invented the idea of putting music on the radio of the car that's about to explode," Murch said. "So as this car goes in and out of frame, the music anticipates the car. It's like a marker, or perfume, that says: 'This is the car.' So you have both the visual and the sound that identifies the car, to make it easier to understand what's going on."
Producer Schmidlin elaborated on another spot where a car radio helps clarify the film's complex plot. "In Grande's car you hear a radio broadcast in Spanish, scripted by Welles." The Spanish "broadcast" contains just enough words familiar to an English-speaking audience, "to keep the story of Grande's brother's arrest in Mexico City alive, and to separate it from the bombing."
The original release didn't include that broadcast, but Murch saw how it would carry and distinguish the different sub-plots. So sound editors Rick LeGrand and Harry Snodgrass had to create it. LeGrand said he got a phony car dashboard from the Foley room, and installed a six-inch car speaker into it. They put the dashboard "in a small waiting room between studios," LeGrand said. "We recorded an actor in a booth, then projected his voice through the car speaker and recorded the sound coming from that. It blended in perfectly with the rest of the sound track."
Though Welles had called for re-recording sounds in even more severe acoustic spaces--"in the alley outside the sound building"--the processing technology of the day was primitive--"an echo chamber with a certain amount of filter." To "louse up" the car radio sound, as well as the background music in the introduction, LeGrand and Snodgrass resorted principally to two Pro Tools software plug-ins--a Focusrite EQ and the Lexicon Lexiverb--to create the appropriately limited bandwidth as well as the right ambient reverberation.
While the introduction will floor you and the radio sounds add welcome clarity, the rest of the film offers no shortage of subtle, yet effective work.
Rick Schmidlin described the changes made to the scene where Welles' detective Quinlan interviews Marlene Dietrich's Tana. The two characters had had an affair in the past (as, ironically, had the actors themselves), and their encounter bristles with their scarcely-revealed history. Tana looks gorgeously world-weary. Quinlan--obese, unshaven and slovenly; sweating corruption from every pore--grunts that the pianola in the background "brings back memories." Tana replies with an exquisitely pregnant look and a sad, "You're a mess, honey," She deflects Quinlan’s reminiscing until he finally begins asking pointed questions about the bombing. In the original release the pianola played through the entire scene. But Welles' memo insisted the music end just before the conversation changes tack. Murch and his crew complied with that stricture and, as Murch said, the device "articulates the scene into two parts: first the longing and might-have-beens, and what-does-she-think-of-me," and then the serious give-and-take that moves the plot along. As soon as the music stops in the new version, you know it's time to stanch the emotions, and pay attention to what's being said.
As if this kind of sound track detail weren't enough, Rick Schmidlin took it to another level in finishing this particular scene. "We were working in the (magnetic master) of the film where we had separation (of music, dialogue and sound effects tracks). At the point Welles indicated, we dump the music and we're fine. But the very end of the scene, where Quinlan walks out of the room, it so happens that we're using footage from the print, which has no sound track separation. We're stuck with about another ten seconds of the pianola, and it's mixed with the other sounds. Under normal circumstances, you'd say there was no way you could separate the pianola from the dialogue and footsteps and so on."
"This is where I drove Walter nuts," Schmidlin said. "I drove everyone here totally bananas. But when you have the likes of Walter Murch and Bill Varney working for you, you take it to the limit. You're like a kid in a candy store. They worked it, and chopped it, and played with it, and put sounds into it, and busted their butts. And now...you can't hear it anymore! You can hear maybe a note if you really listen to it."
"That was big time sound work."
And indeed, the result is really worth it.
Originally published in Videography Magazine, January, 1999
|Touch of Evil
(Restored Collector's Edition) (1958)
Includes 58-page memo from Orson Welles to Universal Studios containing detailed instructions for editing the picture, used in creating this 1998 re-edit
• DVD Region 1 encoding (US and Canada only)
Learning Space for Film Sound
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