Home

Orson Welles in Touch of Evil

Originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma, No. 84, June 1958.
Translated and annotated by Sally Shafto

For a long time, Cahiers has wanted to converse with Orson Welles. The occasion presented itself during the Cannes Festival, which he attended for three days. The multiplicity of receptions, press conferences and other cocktail parties meant that this “interview” was done in a short time; so we abandoned talking about all his films and sometimes hesitated to highlight certain issues that might extend into lengthy discussion. However, since Welles will need to come to Paris to join the crew of [John Huston’s] The Roots of Heaven [1] in which he has a role, we hope to publish a Parisian sequel to this text, that will be accompanied by a complete listing of his work in television, theatre and film […]

Since we had to establish limits, our first questions were centred on the period that followed Mr. Arkadin [1955], the least well-known period of his work. What exactly was Orson Welles’ activity in the theatre, where we knew that he had put on Othello, Moby Dick and King Lear. This was our point of entry.

* * *

ORSON WELLES: I was hoping that you were going to speak to me about the cinema in general and not about my work, because the truth is I don’t like talking about my work. Perhaps that’s why I don’t work enough! Well … For the theatre, you have just stated all that I have done in the last three years. In the cinema, you know what I have done, apart from those films that aren’t yet in distribution or finished, this includes my Moby Dick, my Don Quixote [unfinished] and my own version of Touch of Evil [1958], because the editing of Touch of Evil, just like that of Mr. Arkadin, was in fact redone behind my back.

CAHIERS: Moby Dick is a film based on the play? [2]

That’s right.

And this film has been shown on British television?

No, not yet.

Is it finished, edited?

Nearly edited.

Do you hope to finish it soon?

That depends on the directors of the television stations. All of us who work in the entertainment industry are kidding ourselves: we always pretend to be the masters of our fate, and all the journalists, whether serious or not, contribute to this hoax. The truth is that we do not decide what we are going to do: we run continuously around the globe in order to try to find the funds in order to do something. Personally, I think that I have reached an age where it is useless to continue to pretend that I control the slightest thing, since it’s not true. Journalists constantly ask me: “Do you intend to …?”, etc., etc. Of course I intend! I still do.

Besides Moby Dick, you have undertaken other films for television; in particular, you were talked about here in France at the time of the Dominici case.

Yes. This film is far from finished. [3] Now I am going to finish a film on Italian cinema, on [Gina] Lollobrigida. [4]

A documentary?

A documentary in a very particular style, with drawings by [Saul] Steinberg, a lot of still photos, conversation, little anecdotes … In fact, it is not at all a documentary but an essay, a personal essay.

An essay based on fact?

On facts, no. It is factual like all essays but … this has no pretence to be factual: it just does not lie. It is in the tradition of a newspaper; it is me on a given subject – Lollobrigida – and not what she is in reality. And it is even more personal than a point of view: it’s really an essay.

This essay takes off from topical events, just like your film on the Dominici case. Is that also an essay?

Yes, an essay on water. For me, the gist of the Dominici affair is the story of the difficulty of having water. You can only say that my ideas on dry countries and the problem of water can be suitable for a factual documentary on the Dominici.

How can the story of the Dominici be the story about water?

The answer to this question is my film; if I give it to you, I will give away my film, and it’s all I have. Words are indeed needed to explain that, but to do it in English, in French or any other language would be unfair to my film. It is the story about water because it was on a night where water was freely running on the Dominici’s farm that the crime took place; it is the role of water in the story of a family like this one that made me interested in it. I would need to speak for at least a half an hour in order to answer you, while in images I can do it in 15. You would not be surprised if, instead of a film, it was a question of a book by André Gide, for example, and if you read there that the murder took place because of water; but you are expecting a film that is factual. I am fascinated by films that, while turning their back on fiction, are not the kind to declare: “Here is the truth, this is life”, etc., but are the opinions and the very expression of the personality of the ideas of their author.

Orson Welles on location for Don Quixote

Your Don Quixote is in three episodes? [5]

No, that’s not true. The film is in just one.

It is a modern Don Quixote?

Yes, in a way. The anachronism between Don Quixote and his epoch has lost all effectiveness now, because the differences between the 16th and the 14th centuries are not very clear in people’s minds. This anachronism is thus simply translated in modern terms: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza arrive in the second volume of Cervantes. So, when Don Quixote and Sancho Panza arrive some place, the people always say: “Hold on! Here are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: we have read the book about them.” Cervantes gave them an entertaining dimension, as if they were both creatures of fiction and more real than life itself. My Don Quixote and my Sancho Panza are exactly and, as usual, based on Cervantes, but are contemporary.

The film lasts an hour and a half?

An hour and fifteen minutes at the moment. An hour and a half when it will be finished and when I will have shot the scene with the H-bomb.

It was probably shot more quickly than an ordinary film?

No, not more quickly, but with a degree of freedom that you wouldn’t find in normal productions, because it was done without cutting, without even a narrative thread, without even a synopsis. Every morning, the actors, the crew and I met in front of the hotel, and we took off and invented the film in the street, like Mack Sennett. This is why it is so exciting, because it is a real improvisation; the story, the little incidents, everything was improvised. They are things that we found in a second, in a flash of inspiration, but after having rehearsed Cervantes for four weeks. We rehearsed all the scenes of Cervantes, as if we were going to play them, so that the actors would know their characters; then we went out into the street and we played, not Cervantes, but an improvisation backed up by these rehearsals, by the memory of the characters. It is a silent film.

Will it remain silent with only a musical accompaniment?

No, I will say a commentary. There will be practically no post-synchronization, except for a few words.

Do you act in the film?

I appear as Orson Welles; I do not play a character. There is also Patty MacCormack: she is an extraordinary actress; she plays an American tourist in the hotel.

Why did you choose this method of improvisation?

Because I had never done that: it is the one and only reason. I could certainly invent a reason, an æsthetic reason, according to which a film must be shot in this manner and say that there is no other way to make films, etc. But the real reason is that it is a method of filming that I had never practiced and that I knew certain silent films had been made like this. I was also sure that this story would be fresher and more interesting if I really improvised, and it is, I’m sure. Of course, you need to have a complete confidence in the actors: it is a very special method of working, practically impracticable for commercial films.

This method of working no doubt limited your plastic investigations and, from this point of view, your Don Quixote is probably very different from your other films?

No, not at all. It is very stylised, much more than everything I’ve done before: stylised in the compositions, in the use of lenses.

Are you using still lenses with a short focus, the 18.5mm? [6]

Yes, everything is in 18.5. For Touch of Evil, too, practically everything is in 18.5. There are unsuspected possibilities with this lens!

I saw Mr. Arkadin again recently in Paris. You used there the 18.5 for all the shots?

No, not for all the shots, but for most of them. In Don Quixote, everything is in 18.5.

What was the length of the shoot for Don Quixote?

One time two weeks, and another time three weeks.

Plus the preparation.

Yes, the preparation of the actors, which was particularly special. I still have to do the last two scenes. I had to stop because Akim Tamiroff had to work on another film, then I had to act in The Long, Hot Summer [7] to have some money for my Don Quixote, and that’s how it was all the time: we wait for the moment when the actors and I will be available at the same time.

Because you made Don Quixote with your money?

Yes, of course. No one would have given me that chance.

Is it the same for the film on Gina Lollobrigida?

Also, yes. It is perhaps a slightly more commercial undertaking! … I have no other way: it is very difficult for me to find work.

It is said in fact that it was a little by accident that you made Touch of Evil; someone else was to have done it?

No. But there is in this film some scenes that I neither wrote nor directed, of which I know absolutely nothing. In The Magnificent Ambersons [1942], there are three scenes that I neither wrote nor directed!

You did Touch of Evil because nothing else presented itself?

It’s the eighth one! … You know I’ve been working for seventeen years; I have directed eight films and I have edited only three of them.

Citizen Kane?…

Othello [The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice, 1952] and Don Quixote, in seventeen years!

And The Lady from Shanghai [1947]?

No, not the final editing. You can still detect my style of editing, but the final version is not all mine. The film is violently taken out of my hands each time.

Do you think that there are big differences between your version of Touch of Evil and the studio’s?

For me, almost everything that is called mise en scène is a big joke. In the cinema, there are very few people who are really metteurs-en-scène [8]; there are very few who have ever had the opportunity to direct. The only mise en scène of real importance is practiced in the editing. I needed nine months to edit Citizen Kane, six days a week. Yes, I edited Ambersons, despite the fact that there were scenes not by me, but my editing was modified. The basic editing is mine and, when a scene of the film holds together, it is because I edited it. In other words, everything happens as if a man painted a picture: he finishes it and someone comes to do the touch up, but he cannot of course add paint all over the surface of the canvas. I worked months and months on the editing of Ambersons before it was taken away from me: all this work is thus there, on the screen. But for my style, for my vision of cinema, the editing is not one aspect, it is the aspect. Directing is an invention of people like you; it is not an art, or at most an art for a minute a day. This minute is terribly crucial, but it happens only very rarely. The only moment where one can exercise any control over a film is in the editing. But in the editing room, I work very slowly, which always unleashes the temper of the producers who snatch the film from my hands. I don’t know why it takes me so much time: I could work forever on the editing of a film. For me, the strip of celluloid is put together like a musical score, and this execution is determined by the editing; just like a conductor interprets a piece of music in rubato, another will play it in a very dry and academic manner and a third will be very romantic, and so on. The images themselves are not sufficient: they are very important, but are only images. The essential is the length of each image, what follows each image: it is the very eloquence of the cinema that is constructed in the editing room.

Editing seems, in fact, essential in your last films, but in Citizen Kane, Ambersons, Macbeth [1948], etc., you have a lot of sequence shots.

Mark Robson was my editor for Citizen Kane. With Robson and Robert Wise, who was the assistant, we worked for nearly a year on the editing. So, it’s false to say that there was nothing to edit because I had a lot of sequence shots: we could still work on it today. You can notice that, in the course of these last years, the films that I shot are more full of short scenes, because I had less money and shooting in short scenes is more economical. For a long scene, you need a lot of money in order to be able to control all the elements in front of the camera.

Othello

Othello is in short scenes.

Yes, because I never had all the actors at the same time. Every time you see someone with their back turned, or with a hood on their head, you can be sure that it’s a stand-in. So I had to do everything in shot, reverse-shot because I never managed to unite Iago [Micheál MacLiammóir], Desdemona [Suzanne Cloutier], Roderigo [Robert Coote] and others in front of the camera.

I thought it was the same for Arkadin, but, after seeing it again, I don’t think so; the link shots are very exact.

But in Othello, too, the matches are very exact; I simply shot the film on different kinds of emulsions. The link shot can be as exact as possible, but if you shoot on Dupont, French Kodak, American Kodak and Ferrania, you have inevitably clashes in tonality when you mix them in the editing. For Arkadin, again, I did not do long scenes because a long sequence requires a numerous and skilful crew: there are few European crews that have the men, the technicians capable of realizing a long sequence.

In Othello, there is nonetheless the scene between Othello [Welles] and Iago on the terrace, for example.

It’s true, but it is a shot made very simply with a jeep. This shot is a jeep and two actors. And how many shots in a jeep can you do in a film? In Touch of Evil, for example, I did a shot that takes place in three rooms, with fourteen actors, where the frame goes from the insert to the establishing shot, etc., and lasts almost a reel: well, it was by far the most expensive of the film. So, if you notice that I don’t do long sequences, it is not that I don’t like them, but because I am not given the means to provide them.

It is a better deal to do this image, then this image and still this image, and to try to control them later in the editing room. I prefer, of course, to control the elements that are in front of the camera while it is shooting, but that demands money and the confidence of your backers.

The idea of editing seems related to that of short scenes; if one refers to the Soviet experience, it seems that one can fully play with the editing only if there are only short scenes. Isn’t there a contradiction between the importance that you give to the editing and the fact that you like long sequences?

I don’t believe that the sum of the editing work is a function of the brevity of the shots. It is an error to think that the Russians worked a lot on editing because they shot in short scenes. You can spend a lot of time on the editing of a film in long scenes, because you are not content to just glue them one scene to the next.

What goal do you pursue in systematically using the 18.5mm lens and in pushing the editing so far?

I am working, and have worked with the 18.5 lens only because other filmmakers haven’t used it. The cinema is like a colony with very few settlers; when America was wide open, when the Spanish were at the Mexican frontier, the French in Canada, the Dutch in New York, you could be sure that the English came where there was no one. I don’t prefer the 18.5 lens; I am just the only one who has explored its possibilities. I don’t prefer to improvise: simply no one has done it in a long time. It is not a question of preference: I fill the positions that are not filled because in this young means of expression it’s a necessity. The first thing that must be remembered with regards to the cinema is its youth; and the main thing for every responsible artist is to break up fallow ground. [9] If everyone worked with big angulars, I would shoot my films in 75mm, because I believe very seriously in the possibilities of 75; if there were others working in an extreme Baroque style, I would be the most classic that you had ever seen. I do not act thus out of a spirit of contradiction; I don’t want to work contrary to what has been done; I want to fill an unoccupied terrain and work on it.

Since you’ve been using the 18.5 lens for a long time, you must have already explored a good part of this terrain, and still you persist. Isn’t there a certain affinity between you and this lens?

No, I continue to work with this lens because no one else is doing it. If I saw continuously in the theatres shots filmed with 18.5 lens, my eyes would tire of it. I always try to make my films with images of which I am not tired or had my fill. If people used and exploited the 18.5, I would never touch it: I would be weary of its characteristic distortion and I would search some other language to express myself. But I don’t see enough of these images to be tired of them: so I can see this distortion with a fresh eye. It’s not at all a question of an affinity between me and the 18.5 lens, but just a question of a freshness of the look. I would love to do a film with a 100mm, where you would never leave the face of the actors: there would be a million things to do! But the 18.5 lens is a new, important invention: it’s barely been five years that it’s possible to find good 18.5 lenses, and how many persons have made use of it? Each time I give it to a director of photography, he is terrorized: but by the end of the film, it’s his favourite lens. Perhaps now I am on the point of finishing with this big angular: I sometimes think that with Don Quixote I will finish with the 18.5 … or maybe not!

Do you likewise accord such a great importance to the editing because it is a little sloppy nowadays, or is it really for you the foundation of cinema?

I can’t believe that editing is not essential for the director, the only moment where he completely controls the form of his film. When I shoot, the sun determines something against which I can’t fight, the actor makes his intervention to which I must adapt myself and the story; I only manage to dominate what I can. The only place where I exercise an absolute control is in the editing room: consequently, that is when the director is, in power, a real artist, because I believe that a film is only good to the extent that the director manages to control his different materials and is not content to simply finish the film.

Are your edits long because you try out different solutions?

I am looking for the exact rhythm between one frame and the next. It’s a question of hearing: the editing is the moment when the film has to do with hearing.

It is thus not problems of narration or of dramatic tension that stops you?

No, a form, like a conductor interpreting a piece of music with rubato or not. It is a question of rhythm and, for me, the essential is that: the beat.

What is your position vis-à-vis large screen or colour? Do you think that it is better to orient oneself towards the small screen and the poverty of television?

I am convinced that when the screen is big enough, as in the case of Cinemiracle or Cinerama, it is also a poverty, and I love it: I would love to do a film with one of these two processes. But between the Cinemiracle and the normal screen, there is nothing that interests me. The poverty of television is a marvellous thing. The big classical film is of course bad on the small screen, because television is the enemy of classic cinematographic values, but not of cinema. It is a marvellous form, where the spectator is only a metre and half away from the screen, but it is not a dramatic form, it is a narrative form, so much so that television is the ideal means of expression for the storyteller. And the gigantic screen is also a marvellous form because like television it is a limitation, and one cannot hope to reach poetry only in composing with limitations, it’s clear. I also like television a lot because it gives me my only chance to work; I don’t know what I would say about it if I also had the opportunity to make films. But when you work for something, you must be enthusiastic!

Working in television, does that imply a particular point of view in communication?

And also a certain richness, not a plastic richness but a richness of ideas. In television, you can say ten times more in ten times less time, because you are not addressing only two or three persons. And, above all, you are speaking to the ear. For the first time, in television, the cinema takes on a real value, finds its real function, because it talks, because the most important is what is said and not what is shown. Words are thus no longer the enemies of the film: the film only helps the words, because television is in fact only illustrated radio.

Television would be a kind of way of bringing the cinema back to your beginnings in the radio?

Above all a means of satisfying my fondness for telling stories, like the Arab storytellers on the marketplace. For my part, I love that: I will never grow tired of hearing stories told; you know I make the mistake of thinking that everyone has the same enthusiasm! I prefer stories to tragedies, to theatrical plays, to novels: it is an important characteristic of my taste. I read with a great effort the “great” novels: I love stories.

Isn’t the public less attentive to television than to cinema?

More attentive, because it listens rather than looks. Television viewers listen or don’t listen, but no matter how little they listen they are more attentive than in the cinema, because the brain is more engaged by hearing than by seeing. To listen, you need to think; looking is a sensory experience, more beautiful and more poetic, but where attention plays a smaller part.

For you, television is thus a synthesis between the cinema and the radio?

I am always looking for synthesis: it is a work that fascinates me, because I must be sincere towards what I am, and I am only an experimenter; experimenting is the only thing that fills me with enthusiasm. I am not interested in works of art, in posterity, in fame, only in the pleasure of experimentation itself: it is the only sphere where I feel really honest and sincere. I have no devotion for what I’ve done: it is really without value in my opinion. I am profoundly cynical towards my work and towards the majority of works I see in the world: but I am not cynical towards the act of working on a material. It is difficult to make this understood. We who declare ourselves experimenters have inherited an old tradition: some among us have been the greatest artists, but we have never made muses our mistresses. For example, Leonardo liked to think of himself as a scholar who painted and not as a painter who could have been a scholar. It’s not that I want to compare myself to Leonardo but that I want to explain that there is a long lineage of people who appreciate their works according to a different hierarchy of values, almost moral values. I am not thus in ecstasy in front of art: I am in ecstasy before the human necessity, which implies all that we do with our hands, our senses, etc. … Our work once finished has not so much importance in my opinion as that of the most æsthetes: it is the act that interests me, not the result, and I am taken with the result only when there is the smell of human sweat, or a thought.

Do you have definite projects to direct?

Don Quixote

No, I don’t know. I am considering completely stopping all cinematographic and theatrical activity, to be done with it once and for all, because I have been too disillusioned. I produced too much work, too much effort with regard to what I received in return. I don’t mean to say in money, but in satisfaction. So I am considering abandoning the cinema and the theatre, since in a way they have already abandoned me. I have films to finish: I am going to finish Don Quixote, but I no longer want to throw myself into new ventures. It’s five years now that I have been thinking about leaving the cinema, because I spend 90 percent of my existence and my energy there, without having an artistic post, and, while I have still a little of my youth left, I must find another ground where I can work, without wasting my life trying to express myself via the cinema: eight films in seventeen years is not a lot. Perhaps I will make other films: sometimes, the best way of doing something that one loves is to move away from it, then to come back to it. It’s like a love story: you can wait before the door of a girl that she lets you enter; she will never open her door to you; it’s better to leave; she’ll write to you! No, it’s nothing tragic, you know it’s not that I am bitter or anything else, but I want to work. Now I write and I paint: I am looking for some means to use my energy, because I spent the greatest part of these fifteen years looking for money, and if I were a writer, or above all a painter, I wouldn’t have to do it. I also have a serious problem with my personality as an actor: I have the personality of a successful actor, which encourages critics throughout the world to think that it’s high time to discourage me a little, as in: “What would do him some good would be tell him that in the end he isn’t all that good.” But they’ve been saying that for twenty-five years! No, I’ve really spent too many months, too many years looking for work, and I have only one life. So, for the time being, I write and I paint. I throw away everything I do, but perhaps I will finally do something good enough to keep: I have to. I cannot spend my life in festivals or in restaurants begging for funds. I am sure that I cannot make good films unless I write the script: I could make thrillers, of course, but I don’t want to. The only film that I ever wrote from first to last and was able to carry through to the end was Citizen Kane; well, too many years have gone by since I was given this chance. Can I wait another fifteen years for someone to want to give me again an absolute confidence? No, I have to find a better means of expression … like this tape-recorder!

And you don’t hope to stage something for the theatre?

In London, perhaps, but I don’t know. Whatever I do in the theatre in the future, I must also write. So, in any case, I must stop and write, and not simply get up on stage to perform or direct, because too many talented persons displayed for their greatest glory, their virtuosity as theatrical directors. I need to bring to the theatre my ideas and not my virtuosity: and if I make my comeback in the theatre, which I hope, I will strive to do it with what I have to say and not with the manner in which I have to say it, because these past fifteen years I overlooked what I have to say.

And Shakespeare?

I would like to turn to Shakespeare, but my way of seeing Shakespeare does not suit today’s taste: I am from another school. It is a hopeless struggle, because there is currently a Shakespearian school in the world, which I respect a lot, but which is not mine and which does not seem to have a place for mine, or, when I manage to find a place, it’s such hard work! I am no longer in a position to give myself other failures. I must find some ground on which my chances for losing are not greater than my chances for winning. And my chances for losing with Shakespeare? I was able to assess those in New York with King Lear. I believe that the show was very good; perhaps it was bad, but if it was as bad as the critics said, all that there remains for me is to retire because there was no meeting point. The critic from The New York Times wrote: “Orson Welles is a genius without talent”! I believe that the set was really incredibly beautiful and no one spoke about it, either for or against!

The reception was better in London for Othello?

Yes. As with everything I do, there were people against it, but I nonetheless had some advocates.

And for how long did you perform King Lear?

Four weeks, in my wheelchair. It was the maximum I could do and everyone hated my show. So, why insist?

This text is reprinted with the kind permission of Cahiers du Cinéma. Thanks to Jean-Michel Frodon and Ouardia Teraha.

Endnotes

  1. Roots of Heaven (1958), directed by John Huston, based on the novel by Romain Gary, and starring Juliette Gréco, Errol Flynn and Trevor Howard. (Translator’s Note.)
  2. In 1955, Welles staged in London his play entitled, Moby Dick Rehearsed. The play had a three-week run and Welles subsequently filmed it, with the original cast. The film was subsequently lost. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moby_Dick_Rehearsed. (Translator’s Note.)
  3. Welles filmed several reportages for British television collected in Around the World with Orson Welles (1955). One of them (The Dominic Affair) was devoted to the Dominici case, the story of an English couple and their child (Sir Jack and Lady Ann Drummond) who, while vacationing in the south of France in 1952, were found murdered near their campsite. In 1953, a peasant farmer, Gaston Dominici, was convicted, but was subsequently pardoned by President de Gaulle. According to Wikipedia, Welles’ episode on the case was suppressed by the French government. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orson_Welles. In 2003, TF1, France’s most popular TV channel, aired a highly controversial tele-film on this affair: L’Affaire Dominici (Pierre Boutron). See John Lichfield, “Our Man in Paris: English Spy Drama is a French Fantasy”, The Independent, 9 December 2003. (Translator’s Note.) The Dominici Affair is available on DVD from Image Entertainment, separate from Around the World with Orson Welles (also Image Entertainment). (Editors’ Note.)
  4. Portrait of Gina (1956).
  5. Starring Mischa Auer, Welles’ Don Quixote was never finished. (Translator’s Note.)
  6. Welles often emphasized the setting in his films and this is one of the reasons he liked using a short focal lens. Using a short focal lens also afforded dramatic changes in scale in filming the actors and this too is another characteristic of Welles’ cinematographic style. (Note by Charles Bitsch.) As a point of comparison, Robert Bresson always used a 50mm lens, because it most clearly reproduced the vision of normal eyesight. Anything less than 50mm is a short focal lens; anything more is a long focal lens. (Translator’s Note.)
  7. Directed by Martin Ritt, based on a novel by William Faulkner, and starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. (Translator’s Note.)
  8. A metteur-en-scène is one of several French words for a director; it is borrowed from the theatre. (Translator’s Note.)
  9. A biblical expression from the Old Testament: “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.” Hosea 10:12. (Translator’s Note.)

Related Posts