The Characteristics of Sound in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil

Although much has been written about the expressive visual language in the films directed by Orson Welles, comparatively little attention has been paid to their sensual auditory landscapes. Critical analysis of Touch of Evil (1958), a film which Paul Schrader famously described as the ‘epitaph of film noir’ (Schrader 1972: 61), has tended to be no different in perpetuating this apparent domination of the image. In this article, I will identify Welles’ auditory strategies through a discussion of their formal characteristics and then discuss how they elucidate the film’s narrative and thematic concerns.

When film sound is discussed, it is most often referred to in terms of what it adds to the image, so my comments in this essay regarding the film’s visual qualities will be purposefully limited in order to counteract this tendency in film scholarship. Aside from innovative and detailed work by Rick Altman and Michel Chion (1), the vocabulary of sound theory is not as established as the accepted visual terminology of cinematic discourse. This perhaps suggests that our auditory imaginations are not as well developed with regards to filmic technique. Chion argues that one of the reasons for this is that sound has no audio unit comparable to the specifically cinematic unit of the visual ‘shot’. Instead, the listener has to break a film text down into elements of everyday experience such as verbal sentences, musical themes and individual noises (Chion 1994: 45). Therefore sound will remain perceived as secondary to the image even though it is audio, to a considerable degree, which gives the cinema’s large flat screen its three-dimensionality by way of the illusory audiovisual contract with the spectator (2).

Touch of Evil is a heated crime noir story of police corruption and murder set against the seedy backdrop of a fictitious Mexican-American border town called Los Robles. After a car bomb kills an influential local businessman and his young girlfriend, newlyweds Mike (a Mexican narcotics enforcement official played by Charlton Heston) and Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh) become embroiled in a furious chain of events that leads Mike into a direct confrontation with the town’s morally and physically grotesque police captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles).

The main obstacle in building a consistent discourse on Touch of Evil is that there are three versions presently available; the original theatrical release, the ‘preview version’ which was discovered deep inside the Universal archives in 1975 and the 1998 ‘restored cut’ which was produced by Rick Schmidlin and re-edited by Walter Murch following notes made by Welles in his now legendary 58-page memo. The document was written after Universal had dismissed Welles from post-production, but were contractually obliged to show the director a studio-approved assembly of his footage -for a single screening. The version I have chosen to focus on is the 1998 re-edit because, though not a complete director’s cut, is the closest to Welles’ intentions for the film(3). For this important restoration, Murch was able to obtain an original monaural optical print which had been created from a magnetic mix consisting of three separate tracks: music, dialogue and sound effects (Murch 1998: 83-102). This simple component breakdown will inform the structure of my essay.

One of Welles’ primary audio strategies in Touch of Evil is the use of acousmatic source music to create a sense of depth and perspective to articulate the fictional border town of Los Robles. After the brief overture accompanying the Universal logo, Welles makes extensive use of diegetic music (all compositions by Henry Mancini) from local bars, nightclubs and car stereos as the camera weaves through the border town, switching perspective from the unidentified bomber then onto the car as it steadily moves through the town, finally settling on Mike and Susan Vargas before the explosion(4). As Welles described in his memo, ‘Underscoring… 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’. (Tully 1999) This multileveled mix of Rock ’n’ Roll and Latino dance numbers effectively comes to replace conventional ‘thriller’ underscoring and it is a full twenty minutes before the first non-diegetic music is used; occurring during a verbal confrontation between Vargas and Quinlan. The harmonics of these culturally distinct musical styles are clashed forcefully together to create a thematic foreshadowing of the divisive role that race will have in the story, whilst at the same time revealing the director’s hyper-realist sensibility. Welles’ technique –a kind of deep spatial and temporal focus- pursues realism only to exaggerate it and draw attention to itself as a filmic construct.

Welles familiarises us with the geography of the town largely through source music. Los Robles is presented as a labyrinth, an inter-place where physical and moral borders are erased. There are few conventional transitions; scenes tend to leak into each other. However, the acoustic space is often divided within scenes, the music synchronously creating a sonic partition which is slowly erected as the narrative progresses. The breaking down of physical borders is, throughout the film, used as a metaphor for the moral crumbling of its protagonists. In the final sequence, Vargas and Menzies (Joseph Calleia) are required to lure Quinlan away from Tanya’s (Marlene Dietrich) bordello in order to obtain a clean recording of his confession (because Quinlan would “never stand” for the music to be turned off). At the end, we are cut adrift from the music and lost geographically in a field of oil derricks indicating that each character is collapsing into their own moral abyss. The musical compositions gradually become leitmotifs assigned to a particular character or thematic idea. For example, the pianola theme is continuously linked to notions of nostalgia and usually precedes an appearance of Tanya– except when it is played in a modified form in the bar as the scheming Grandi feeds Quinlan shots of bourbon. The theme is reprised for a final time after Quinlan’s death; as Tanya walks away into the night it becomes a shatteringly poignant coronach for lost innocence.

Welles’ concentration on source music as opposed to classical cinematic underscoring achieves a verisimilitude largely due to the way he intended to (re)record Henry Mancini’s compositions, as Welles explains,

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 (Murch 1998: 88) (5).

This method gives the original, professionally produced music a distinctive timbre by allowing the reverberation of the environment to soak into the track and thus create new textures as it is re-recorded. In the late 1960s, Walter Murch had independently developed a similar technique during the making of Rain People (1969) and THX-1138 (1971) which he called worldizing. This differed from Welles’ own method primarily in that Murch would lay the worldized track over the original recording so that he could utilise both the clean and dirty versions, ‘depending on the needs of the scene.’ (Murch 1998: 90) (6) In Touch of Evil the worldized music blends with the dialogue to maintain a harmonious sound balance. As Walter Murch continues,

There is a practical reason for spatial colouring; you can put acoustically-treated sound… in the background of a scene and it will tend not to interfere with the intelligibility of the foreground dialogue because its sonic ‘edges’ have been softened and diffused. (Murch 1998: 89)

The important question of intelligibility directly affects Welles’ selection of source music, which is entirely devoid of lyrics so that they do not conflict with the dialogue. Though paradoxically, by flooding the film with an almost constant auditory backdrop it allows Welles the freedom to experiment with varying levels of verbal comprehension.

In his short book on Orson Welles, French critic Andre Bazin (1978: 46) asserted that Welles’ experience in radio had been of no less importance to his film work than his experiences directing plays for the theatre and this influence can be detected throughout Touch of Evil in his approach to the dialogue track. Often ignoring traditional production techniques, Welles, ever the experimenter, demonstrates an astute alertness to the possibilities inherent in film sound for creating auditory sensation. Welles’ techniques break the unwritten rule of word-for-word intelligibility in the cinema. An example of this is the film’s frequent and daring use of overlapping dialogue; in the scenes where Quinlan and Vargas quarrel for the first time and, most notably, when Quinlan interrogates Sanchez (Victor Millan), three different voices can often be heard concurrently. In this verbal collision words are sacrificed for heightened intensity enabling the soundtrack to achieve an almost documentary-like realism. It is a practice that rejects the theatrical device of action being used merely to punctuate and emphasise the dialogue. The spectator dispenses with the linguistic units because we are suddenly unable to distinguish between the speakers, which creates an unavoidable dissonance. In addition, with the abovementioned Sanchez interrogation scene Welles chooses to further restrict intelligibility of the dialogue by often mumbling Quinlan’s lines and choosing not to subtitle the Spanish-language exchanges between Sanchez and Vargas, which reinforces divisions within the scene (7).

Welles’ desire to re-record the actors’ vocal performances in post-production (post-synch) is symptomatic of a director wanting to control every detail of the soundtrack (8). Post-synching was widely used in Europe (in particular) at the time of Touch of Evil’s production and Welles was simply using cost-effective techniques he had adopted for Macbeth (1948), Othello (1952) and Mr. Arkadin (1955). Yet there is still a tension; the conspicuous ‘unreality’ of post-synching seems directly at odds with his ‘realistic’ use of worldized source music. It seems obvious to say that dialogue delivered in large, empty hall is likely to be significantly different to words spoken in an elevator in terms of its acoustic character, as Chion explains, ‘The ear detects depth from such indices as a reduced harmonic spectrum, softened attacks and transitions, a different blend of direct sound and reflected sound, and the presence of reverberation’ (Chion 1994: 71). In Touch of Evil, the voices have clearly been recorded from a frontal perspective that optimises clarity, but sacrifices subtlety of variation, as Phyllis Goldfarb notes, ‘The voices in the post-explosion confusion… sound as if they were being emitted within a confined area, but the scene takes place in the open air’ (Goldfarb 1971: 87). The most remarkable thing about the dubbing -which often diminishes an actor’s expressiveness and nuance- is that the performances do not seem to suffer from this acoustic ‘flatness’.

Though a small amount of reverb is regularly used when characters are situated indoors, this vocal ‘flatness’ is consistent for much of Touch of Evil until Welles’ voice modulation experiments during the bravura final sequence. Subverting crime film convention, Vargas uses a microphone instead of a gun to trap the mentally unravelling Quinlan. As Murch observes, ‘[Welles makes] the resolution of the story depend on the different shadings and perspectives of sound’. (Ondaatje 2002: 194) The sequence consists of three different verbal perspectives; Quinlan and Menzies when we are physically close, their distorted voices emitting from Vargas’ tape recorder and their echoing voices as the camera pulls back to a wide shot. Eventually, as Vargas creeps closer to the two policemen, these levels of voice overlap and the distortions caused by the bridge create an amplified vocal overlap that exposes Vargas’ whereabouts. It is perhaps a tribute to Welles’ aural innovations that Goldfarb, writing in 1971, declared, ‘By the end of Touch of Evil we have not only lost all sense of distance and direction, we are also confused about the source itself,’ (Goldfarb 1971: 88) whereas today’s spectator -after innovations in film sound such as Murch’s worldizingexperiments in films like The Conversation (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979)- is unlikely to be confused and instead view this sequence as being distinguished by its skill in coherently combining disparate sound levels and perspectives.

The repeated use of sustained washes of source music means that when it is abruptly absent this relative ‘silence’ is noticeable to the spectator. This is used to particularly unsettling effect in the motel sequences where the initially innocuous Rock ’n’ Roll heard earlier in the bars and nightclubs transforms into the relentless and threatening leitmotif of the raucous biker gang that terrorises Susan. Having tormented her for hours by blasting music through the speaker on the wall, the gang finally enters her room. As the tension reaches its peak, the Night Man turns off the music. The change from sustained sound to minimal sound effects is profoundly unsettling. This extended ‘silence’ highlights that Susan is now utterly alone and at the mercy of this biker group, that no matter how loud she screams no-one will come to rescue her. The scene’s volume is then reduced to the level of Pancho’s chilling and excitable whisper, “Hold her legs.”

Welles’ use of individual sound events is no less sophisticated. This is reflected in Chion’s assertion that ‘(Welles’) films leave the impression in the spectator’s memory of a super-abundance of sound effects’. (Chion 1994: 135) However, on closer examination it becomes apparent that it is not an abundance of sound effects or a busy buzz of sustained and unmediated wild track, but rather the distinct and expressive clarity of the sound effects that makes them so memorable. Though occasionally in danger of being drowned out by the source music, evocative single sounds -usually suggested by the environment- are often used to set up scenes or to generate auditory punctuation. For example, during Sanchez’s interrogation at the apartment, the questioning continues off screen as we follow Vargas into the bathroom. As Quinlan delivers the line, “You stayed just long enough on that one to get your hands on some dynamite,” Vargas knocks an empty shoebox into a bathtub, which lands with a sharp, heavy thud on the word ‘dynamite’. The use of reverb on this particular sound has two important dramatic functions; one is as an audio correlative to underline the word ‘dynamite’ through metaphoric values of the effect which has been exaggerated through use of reverb. The second reason is to keep the box alive in the audience’s imagination so that when Quinlan plants evidence in the box we are positioned by Welles to share Vargas’ indignation (9). Welles produces meaning through careful timing and articulacy in his mixing of voices, ambience and single sound effects. It is subtle technique that the spectator perceives almost entirely subconsciously.

A wider study of Welles’ work would undoubtedly reveal further characteristics of his auditory signature, which may be as complex and original as his celebrated visual sensibility. What is clear is that he considered sound design to be essential in the conceptualisation of his films and eternally sought to push formal boundaries to illuminate emotional and intellectual ideas. One of Welles’ stated intentions for Touch of Evil was to create a, ‘Tour de force in the rather sadly neglected dimension of the sound track’ (Welles 1958: 31), and few would argue that with the 1998 restoration, his goal was finally –but alas, posthumously- achieved.


(1) Of course, there are several other essays by notable scholars (Eisenstein, Metz, et al), but still too few for sound to be seen as anything other than in thrall to the visual image.

(2) Chion defines the audiovisual contract as, ‘not natural but rather a sort of symbolic pact to which the audio-spectator agrees to forget that sound is coming from loudspeakers and picture from the screen’ (Chion 1994: 222).

(3) Though I often refer to ‘Welles’ intentions’, I would not want to undermine the contribution made by the credited sound technicians, Lesley I. Carey and Frank Wilkinson. However, according to restoration producer Rick Schmidlin, assistant director Phil Bowles reported that during the original shoot Welles and Wilkinson were in constant conflict due to Welles’ insisting, “Don’t worry about the sound now, we’ll get it later (in post-production)” (Schmidlin 2008).

(4) This replaces the Mancini title track which originally underscored the theatrical and preview releases of the film.

(5) This technique was finally achieved in the 1998 version where the source music is much more prominent.

(6) There is a similar technique used in Grandi’s murder scene, which is initially backed by source music and then mixed with a booming non-diegetic underscore.

(7) See Altman (2000: 25) and Chion (2000: 104-110) for more on intelligibility of dialogue in the cinema.

(8) This control extended to Welles dubbing Joseph Cotton’s (who played the Coroner) voice, but mysteriously, in only one scene (Schmidlin 2008).

(9) Chion calls this technique added value, i.e. ‘the expressive and informative value with which a sound enriches a given image so as to create the definite impression’ (Chion 1994: 5).


Apocalypse Now, 1979, USA, dir. Francis Ford Coppola
The Conversation, 1974, USA, dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Mr. Arkadin, France/Spain/Switzerland, 1955, dir. Orson Welles
Macbeth, 1948, USA, dir. Orson Welles
Othello, 1952, USA/Italy/France/Morocco, dir. Orson Welles
Rain People, 1969, dir. Francis Ford Coppola
THX-1138, 1971, dir. George Lucas
Touch of Evil, 1958 (1975/1998 alternate versions), USA, dir. Orson Welles


Altman, Rick (2000) Material Heterogeneity of Recorded Sound, Sound Theory Sound Practice(2000) Edited by Rick Altman, Routledge Publishing

Bazin, Andre (1978) Orson Welles: A Critical View, Elm Tree Books

Chion, Michel (1994) Audio-Vision (originally published as L’Audio-Vision (1990)), Columbia University Press

Goldfarb, Phyllis (1971) Orson Welles’s Use of Sound (Originally published in Take One Vol.3, No. 6),Focus on Orson Welles (1976) Edited by Ronald Gottesman, pp85-95, Prentice-Hall

Murch, Walter (1998) Touch of Silence, Soundscape: The School of Sound Lectures 1998-2001, Edited by Larry Sider, Diane Freeman & Jerry Sider, pp83-102, Wallflower Press

Ondaatje, Michael (2002) The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

Schmidlin, Rick (2008) Restored Version Commentary, Touch of Evil, Directed by Orson Welles [DVD] Universal Studios Home Entertainment, USA (61103474)

Schrader, Paul (1972) Notes on Film, Noir Film Noir Reader Edited by Alain Silver & James Ursini (1996) Limelight Editions pp53-63

Tully, Tim (1999) The Sounds of Evil, Film Sound (Originally published in Videography Magazine Jan. 1999), Accessed 01/04/2010

Welles, Orson (1958) Touch of Evil Memo (2008) Touch of Evil, Directed by Orson Welles [DVD] Universal Studios Home Entertainment, USA (61103474)