On Dec. 5, 1957, filmmaker Orson Welles wrote a desperate and heartfelt 58-page memo to executives at Universal Studios, begging them to make specific changes to his film “Touch of Evil,” which had been reshot and re-edited without his participation or consent.
This memo – included with the film’s new 50th anniversary DVD release – is perhaps the ultimate document of a filmmaker pleading for the maintenance of his artistic vision. After Welles filmed “Touch of Evil,” a film noir crime drama starring Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, he left halfway through the post-production process to try to secure financing for his next film.
As Heston recalls on the DVD extra “Evil Lost and Found,” which details the film’s restoration process, this was “a big no-no,” as studio executives found Welles’ version too dark and confusing, and decided to drastically change the picture without his input.
Welles wrote the memo after viewing the end result, which he felt destroyed his intent for the film. The studio ignored his requests, and the episode sank his career. He never made another film in the US.
The DVD includes both the 96-minute version the studio released and a 111-minute restored version constructed in 1998 by editor Walter Murch based on Welles’ memo. (There is also an early preview version included in the set.)
Of the 58 pages, Welles spent eight begging for more cross-cutting between Leigh’s scenes and Heston’s, to establish (as we see in the restored version) a more equal balance between the two characters. As Murch explains, “by trying to make the film simpler, [Universal] complicated things, because the audience was led to believe the film was about Heston,” when the reality was more complex.
Comparing the versions is informative, but the memo itself illustrates both the depth of Welles’ genius and how the stubbornness that accompanied it doomed his career.