Hef discusses the quirky film-noir masterpiece.
Tonight: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh and Orson Welles in the Orson Welles’ classic Touch of Evil.
With Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver, Joseph Cotten, Mercedes McCambridge, ZsaZsa Gabor and Marlene Dietrich in supporting roles.
This was supposed to be a B-movie made for Universal by Albert Zugsmith, who produced such classics as High School Confidential, Sex Kittens Go To College and The Private Lives of Adam and Eve.
Zugsmith made exploitation films with Mamie Van Doren in the 50s, that also featured the thespian talents of our own Ray Anthony and Mel Torme.
He got Orson Welles to play a role in Touch of Evil in 1957, shortly before Zugsmith made High School Confidential, because Orson had trouble finding work in Hollywood. He had been absent (in Europe and on the Broadway stage in King Lear) for eight years.
Zugsmith got Charlton Heston for the film because he had Orson.
But Heston agreed to accept the role on the provision that Welles also be permitted to direct the picture.
Something Welles had not been allowed to do in Hollywood since The Lady from Shanghai with Rita Hayworth—10 years earlier.
Zugsmith and Universal agreed to let Welles direct, as well as act in the film, if he was willing to do it at no increase in salary.
Orson was willing.
He rewrote the screenplay.
And he changed the location from San Diego to a Mexican border town.
Actually shot in Venice (California), not Italy.
Welles used one of his favorite cameramen—Russell Metty, who shot The Stranger and parts of The Magnificent Ambersons.
And cast the film with many of his personal friends—including Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes McCambridge and Joseph Cotton.
The result was a quirky, film-noir masterpiece—and one that Universal studio heads didn’t understand at all.
They hated it!
They hated it so much that they reedited the film—cutting scenes and adding additional dialogue directed by Harry Keller.
(Mostly narrative intended to explain the complex narrative and unusual film structure.)
The geniuses at Universal thought so little of Welles’ picture that it opened in neighborhood houses in New York on May 21, 1958, at the bottom of a double bill with The Unholy Wife starring Diana Dors.
Then the film won The Grand Prize for Cinema at the Brussels World Fair.
And, over time, it achieved a cult following as Welles’ other lost masterpiece.
In 1958, the film was reedited along the lines originally intended by Welles—as expressed in a 58-page memo written to the studio 40 years ago—and ignored at the time.
The picture begins with what many consider the greatest single shot ever put on film:
An extended opening that was originally hidden under credits by the studio.
So now, we will see Welles’ own version of the 1958 classic—
Touch of Evil