The film the world has known for the past 40 years - a brooding, brilliant crime story set in a corrupt little town on the US-Mexican border - is in fact a bowdlerised version of what Welles intended, with a full 15 minutes cut, several "explanatory" scenes inserted and the soundtrack entirely reworked.
Now Touch of Evil has been resurrected. One of Hollywood's most respected film editors, Walter Murch, has recreated the film Welles originally had in mind, based on a 58-page memo Welles fired at the studio. The memo was roundly ignored at the time, and lay dormant for years. But it was picked up and published in part by Film Quarterly in 1992 then seized as a golden opportunity by the producer Rick Schmidlin. Schmidlin hired Murch, who had worked with Francis Coppola and, more recently, won Oscars for sound and film editing on The English Patient.
The result, premiered in the US on Friday, has the missing 15 minutes restored, with some 50 other changes, bringing the film closer to Welles's conception of a story in which rhythm, sound and radical juxtaposition of scenes and characters would be just as important as the plot. These were precisely the techniques that shocked the bosses at Universal. They saw Touch of Evil as a racy B-movie that should not tax its audience unduly with flashy narrative techniques.
"The film committed perhaps the worst sin in the Hollywood book: it was a decade or so ahead of its time," Murch wrote in an account of his work last week.
The biggest shock for those who know the film is the beginning, long considered sacrosanct among film-makers and scholars. The bravura three- minute opening take, which starts with the planting of a bomb and ends with its explosion, no longer carries the opening credits or Henry Mancini's frenetic jazz score. Instead, the scene is played out to the natural sounds of the town and tinny Latin music blaring from its bodegas.
The other famous moments have remained intact, including the scene where Marlene Dietrich, playing a fortune-teller, informs the sleazy cop played by Welles that his "future's all used up". Those words became a portent for the man who wrote them: after Touch of Evil, Welles never directed another Hollywood picture.