Sound, Mise-En-Scene, and Plot in Touch of Evil


“Our cherished dreams of a sound cinema are being realized” write Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov in 1928. Their dreams were certainly beginning to be realized then, but let’s wonder if they dreamed of Orson Welles’ use of a primarily diagetic soundtrack in Touch of Evil (1958) to enhance a realistic film philosophy that was so different from their own theory of montage. Welles used diagetic sound artistically to build deep mise-en-scene and as a narrative plot device. We’ll contrast an improper use of sound technology to a proper one using the theatrical and restored versions of the film.

Welles uses diagetic sound to characterize the scene. Los Robles is not just the setting for this crime-drama, but a character within it. This is accomplished with creative use of sound mixing, especially evident in the famous opening shot. The studio hijacked the direction of the film in the middle of editing in 1957 and reworked Welles’ rough cut into a disastrous 1958 theatrical release (Dirks). When Welles was shown the studio’s work, he was so outraged that he stayed up all night penning a 58-page memo detailing his complaints with the new cut and specifying changes (French). Though Welles died in 1985, the studio eventually released the closest the world will ever get to a director’s cut of the film in 1998 based on the memo. The differences relevant to our discussion are in the opening scene – or is it a title scene?

Both versions start off similarly, with the visually-synced sound of the winding up of an egg timer, and Zita’s laugh. But then, a diversion. In the theatrical version, a hand-drum beat follows the young man planting the bomb, and transitions into an orchestral theme composed by Henry Mancini. The soundtrack overpowers the sounds of the street we see, though a few noises poke through, including: a police officer's whistle, bleating goats, and pedestrians’ laughter. But, the main focus is on the score and the opening credits. As the Vargas couple approaches the border crossing, the score fades out to leave room for the film’s first dialogue. This combination of titles over the pictures and score over the soundtrack draw the focus of the audience away from the narrative to the credits and the theme music. When the music finally fades off, it hands off the movie to the plot, signaling the start of the story. This is exactly the effect that Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov warn about, “[using] this new improvement in cinema [of sound] for the wrong purposes. […] An incorrect understanding of the potential of the new technical invention [will] hinder the development and improvement of cinema as an art form.” This use of Mancini’ s score is no innovation over silent-era films that have composed accompaniments like the copy of Battleship Potemkin (1925) that we screened in class, which featured drum hits timed to gunshots on screen. The theme music over the title scene overpowers the setting, story, and film itself. It weakens the narrative. The scene is about the title, the actors and actresses, the big-name crew members. You forget that you saw a bomb being placed in the trunk of the car. Contrastingly, the restored version starts with an opening scene. It draws you in, acoustically to the setting of the coming tale, using town-street sound effects, and the moving music. The restored version’s soundtrack starts with hand drum too, and then mixes in some of Mancini’s orchestra, other Latin American beats, a jazzy muted trumpet, and rock n’ roll guitar riffs as the camera glides through the streets of Los Robles, simulating the different tracks blaring from the different storefronts and clubs. Welles starts his 58-page memo with this very complaint: “I assume that the music now backing the opening sequence of the picture is temporary... As the camera roves through the streets of the Mexican border-town, the plan was to feature a succession of different and contrasting Latin American musical numbers - the effect, that is, of our passing one cabaret orchestra after another. In honky-tonk districts on the border, loudspeakers are over the entrance of every joint, large or small, each blasting out it's own tune by way of a ‘come-on’ or ‘pitch’ for the tourists. The fact that the streets are invariably loud with this music was planned as a basic device throughout the entire picture. The special use of contrasting ‘mambo-type’ rhythm numbers with rock 'n' roll will be developed in some detail at the end of this memo” (Welles, French). This version also has diagetic noises: feet shuffling, car doors opening, engine noises, police officer’s whistles, people laughing, pedestrian’s footsteps, goats bleating, and shop carts rolling. These are mixed from the same recording that was suffocated by Mancini’s score in the theatrical release, but are at the forefront this time. These sound changes combined with the lack of opening credits means that the movie starts right after the Universal globe, not three minutes in with the border guard’s line. The sound effects and diagetic music in the restored version work with the visuals of that iconic crane long-take to create the setting of Los Robles. It’s clear now that it’s a town of drums and neon signs, saxophones and flaking posters, whining guitars and police whistles. The changing music is slightly disorienting, it causes the viewer some tension, and hints that this is a dangerous and unpredictable town that we’re seeing, and foreshadows the convoluted plot. The tumultuous soundtrack of the opening scene contrasts but also accompanies the omniscient grace of the camera shot. This example satisfies Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Alexandrov’s postulation that “a new orchestral counterpoint of visual and sound images [is necessary].” Welles’ soundtrack in the restored version of this opening scene is as much a part of the mise-en-scene as the traditional elements. Touch of Evil combines Welles’ previous mastery of visual direction as seen in Citizen Kane with acoustically mature direction. This scene introduces the audience to Los Robles not only with deep-focus camera work, but also with deep sound work.

We’ve seen how the invention of sound can be used for immersive mise-en-scene in Touch of Evil, but it’s also used to drive the plot of the film. For example: Tanya is often accompanied on-screen by her pianola’s music, her character’s theme entraps Quinlan in a drunken stupor in the third act. “Come on out, Hank, I’m tired”, Menzies has to trick Quinlan into stepping away from the music to get a recorded confession. And then as they’re walking and talking, the audience hears their voices from three different sources. First, from their own mouths, secondly from the tape recorder, and thirdly from the echo of the recorder that Vargas holds under the bridge. This effect adds realism and drama to the climax of the film, and the sound quickly becomes a source of conflict in the plot when Quinlan hears the echo. There’s no music in the buildup of this scene, just crickets and the layers of dialogue. Bang. Quinlan shot Menzies, and cue the music.

Welles uses sound to create a more complete work of cinema. Meaning that more of our senses are entranced by the art. This use of – primarily diagetic – sound brings the imagined world closer to life, and the vehicle of that transformation more immersive. The addition of sound also adds another dimension to the narrative, bringing audio from the setting and dialogue from the characters to our waiting ears. How else can technology revolutionize film-making? Will we see the medium of film technologically advance to more immersive forms in our lifetimes? Perhaps those dome IMAX theaters will be put use for more than just short documentaries, or VR film-making will make a breakthrough, or smell-o-vision will be commonplace. Whatever cinematic innovations the future brings, film artists will need to be careful to use their new powers in the right ways, like Orson Welles did with the soundtrack in Touch of Evil.

Works Cited

Dirks, Tim. “Touch of Evil (1958).” Filmsite, AMC,

Eisenstein, Sergei, et al. “Statement on Sound.” 1928.

French, Lawrence. “Orson Welles' Memo on Touch of Evil.” Wellesnet,

Schmidlin, Rick. Touch of Evil. Universal Pictures Co., 1998.

Welles, Orson, director. Touch of Evil. Universal Pictures Co., 1958.