Touch of Evil
Marlene Dietrich to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil
When Universal-International wrested control of Touch of Evil away from Orson Welles in 1957, it may well have seemed that, like the character he played in the film, his future was all used up. Certainly that would have seemed likely when the studio snuck the film into U.S. theatres in 1958. But almost instantly the picture was embraced by European critics, starting it on a steady upward path that has led to its current reputation as one of Welles' and the American cinema's greatest film noirs.
Welles hadn't directed an American film in ten years when Universal signed him to a meaty supporting role in a thriller called Badge of Evil. He had spent much of the '50s playing film roles to bankroll international productions like Othello (1952) and Mr. Arkadin (1955), which were shot in bits and pieces over several years as money became available. Welles had just finished acting in another Universal film, Man in the Shadow (1957), for which the studio had let him re-write most of his scenes. They were pleased enough with his work to offer him another role, but nobody at the time thought to give him another shot at directing in Hollywood, where his career had crashed through a series of extravagant failures following his triumphant debut with Citizen Kane in 1941. That all changed when the studio approached Charlton Heston to play the male lead, an international narcotics officer who gets caught up in small-town corruption when he sets out to investigate a crooked sheriff (Welles). Through a misunderstanding, Heston thought Welles was going to direct the film. When he learned otherwise, he insisted that the studio offer Welles the job. Universal's head of post-production, Edward Nims, had worked happily with Welles in the '40s, and seconded the recommendation. So the studio offered him the absurdly low sum of $125,000 to direct, re-write and star in the film. At first Welles wavered, but then decided it was time to prove that he could work within the studio system.
At first all was well. Knowing there were studio spies on the set, Welles planned his first day of shooting to start with two uncomplicated close-ups. He started work at 9 a.m. and had the first shot finished by 9:15. Then he got the second shot by 9:25. The studio spy was called off, so nobody noticed that the next shot wasn't completed until 7:40 p.m. Fortunately, that was a long take that covered 11 pages of script, so Welles ended his first day of shooting two days ahead of schedule.
Welles further evaded studio control by shooting much of the picture on location. He had originally asked to make the film in Tijuana, but the executives had feared that was too far from Hollywood for them to call the shots. Instead, he proposed shooting in Venice, California, for a few days. Once he got there, however, he settled in for most of the remaining shoot. By then, the executives were thrilled with each day's rushes, so they pretty much left him alone.
Throughout filming, Welles tweaked the script to get each scene just right. Usually he started his re-writes as soon as the day's (or night's) shooting was done and finished his re-writing in time for the next day's work. Nobody could tell when he was sleeping.
For all his meticulous planning of camera angles and tracking shots, he was also open to improvisation from the actors. The role of the motel clerk, played by Gunsmoke co-star Dennis Weaver, was expanded during shooting as Weaver and Welles came up with new ideas for the character. Without telling the studio executives, he asked his friend Marlene Dietrich to play a small role on 24-hours' notice. All he could tell her about the character was that she was "dark." Dietrich assembled her own costume from bits and pieces she'd collected from her other films, particularly the gypsy adventure Golden Earrings (1947). When she showed up for one night of shooting, he kept adding to the part. By the time she went home the next morning, she had filmed a major supporting role as the town's Madame and Welles' former mistress, serving as a kind of Greek chorus to the action. And the executives only found out about it when she turned up in the rushes. Hers was the film's most recognizable cameo. Also featured in small roles were Joseph Cotten, in old-age makeup, as a police surgeon and Mercedes McCambridge, in male drag, as a Mexican gang leader.
The most famous sequence in Touch of Evil was the lengthy tracking shot that opens the film. The three-minute-plus shot opens with an unseen figure planting a bomb in a car, follows the car through the border town's streets, picks up Heston and wife Janet Leigh as they cross the border and ends as they kiss, and the bomb explodes off-screen. Welles spent an entire night getting the shot just right. When the customs officer questioning Heston and Leigh kept flubbing his lines, Welles told him to mouth the words. They could dub the right lines in later. They finally got the shot at the last possible moment -- the sky was just turning pink in the east.
Throughout filming Welles maintained a healthy relationship with the front office. They even talked about signing him to a five-picture deal. But during editing, everything fell apart. Using techniques almost 20 years ahead of his time, he cut between scenes taking place simultaneously, telling the story in bits and pieces. While he was out of town to work on another personal project, his never-finished version of Don Quixote, the executives looked at a rough cut of the film and decided to take over the editing. Welles was shut out of the editing room and even denied permission to shoot necessary re-takes. Initially, Heston and Leigh refused to do the additional shots with another director. Heston even paid for a day of shooting that had been cancelled when he didn't show up. Under the terms of their contracts, however, they had to do the scenes. When Welles finally saw the studio's cut, he was appalled. He sent off a 58-page memo suggesting ways to re-cut the film, but apparently it was lost in the mail. The film was released with a 93-minute running time, and though Welles was heartbroken, he had to admit that it was closer to his original vision than any of the Hollywood films he'd made since Citizen Kane.
The biggest and most damaging change was the executives' design to run the lengthy opening tracking shot under the film's credits. That also meant playing Henry Mancini's main title theme over the sequence. Originally the scene had been scored entirely with sound effects, with the theme only appearing as a selection playing on the car radio. Even in this cut version, Universal didn't know what to do with the film. They kept it out of distribution for months, then finally snuck it into theatres in 1958 as the bottom half of a double bill. They didn't even bother screening it for critics. Welles' hopes of a Hollywood comeback were dashed.
Although Touch of Evil was largely neglected in the U.S., the picture's European release was met with critical raves. It even won Best Picture at the Brussels Film Festival. That didn't change any minds at Universal, where the film was written off as a loss. But over the years, Touch of Evil continued to find its audience through television and film society screenings which eventually sparked an interest among several of the film's admirers to restore it. The process began in the early 70s when Robert Epstein of the UCLA Film and Television requested a print to show at UCLA for the studio. When the film was screened it ran 108 min. and he believed he found Welles' lost cut; this was reported in The Hollywood Reporter at the time. But this was only a preview cut with many shots that Welles did not direct. A real turning point came in 1992: producer Rick Schmidlin read an article in Film Quarterly by Jonathan Rosenbaum that used excerpts from a 1957 memo Orson Welles wrote to studio chief Edward Muhl offering editing suggestions for Touch of Evil. At this point, Schmidlin, who has since produced critically acclaimed film restorations of Greed, the special edition of Elvis - That's the Way It Is and London After Midnight for Turner Classic Movies got involved in the restoration. As producer Schmidlin brought in Oscar®-winning editor Walter Murch who had just won two Academy Awards for The English Patient and Welles scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum as consultent to help construct the current 111 minute version.
This new version premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, won a special award for Schmidlin and his team from the New York Film Critics Circle, The National Society of Film Critics, The Boston Society of Film Critics and The Los Angeles Film Critics Association for "Scholarship and Integrity. Plus, this new edit of Touch Of Evil was called "Best Film Of The Year" by Premiere Magazine and chosen by The National Society of Film Critics as one of the "100 Essential Films" of all time. The 1998 re-edit ended up grossing almost three times the film's original $800,000 budget.
Producer: Albert Zugsmith
Director & Screenplay: Orson Welles
Based on the Novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Art Direction: Robert Clatworthy, Alexander Golitzen
Music: Henry Mancini
Principal Cast: Charlton Heston (Ramon Miguel "Mike" Vargas), Janet Leigh (Susan Vargas), Orson Welles (Capt. Hank Quinlan), Joseph Calleia (Sgt. Pete Menzies), Akim Tamiroff (Uncle Joe Grandi), Joanna Moore (Marcia Linnekar), Ray Collins (District Attorney Adair), Dennis Weaver (Motel Night Manager), Marlene Dietrich (Tanya), Zsa Zsa Gabor (Night Club Owner), Joseph Cotten (Police Surgeon), Mercedes McCambridge (Leader of the Gang).
BW-111m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller