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Touch of Evil (December 12, 2013)

Charlton Heston said, in a 1998 interview, “I’ve always said that one of my major contributions to film is the fact that I bullied the studio (Universal) to hire Orson to direct (Touch of Evil). They hired him to act in it. I said, which stunned them, 'Why don't you have him direct? He's a pretty good director, you know.' They said, 'Yeah, uh, that would be interesting to have him, uh, yes, direct that is.’ You could see they were just desperate. They said, 'Look. We'll get back to you.’” Welles had acted in a movie from this film’s producer, Albert Zugsmith, specialist in low-budget pictures. William Alland, Welles’ protege and Mercury Theater actor, who had played the newsreel journalist Thompson in Citizen Kane, and who was now a producer at Universal, also may have helped in getting Welles the job.

The script by Paul Monash, rewritten by Welles, was based on a novel by Whit Masterson. Principal photography took place from February through April, 1957. Most of the lurid, bordertown location shooting was done in Venice, California. Russell Metty was the cinematographer. It starred Heston, Janet Leigh, Welles, and many other actors: Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Marlene Dietrich, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Weaver, and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Some of these (Dietrich especially) were a surprise to studio management when they appeared in the rushes. Universal decided to re-edit and re-shoot parts of it, those parts being directed by Harry Keller. Welles wrote a (now-famous) 58-page memo to Universal studio head Ed Muhl taking issue with the changes. The movie, 95 minutes long, was released in April, 1958, as a B-picture. It won an award at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. French film critics, later filmmakers, François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were on the jury. It was placed on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1993. In 1998 a restored version was issued that followed many of Welles’ suggestions in the memo. However, the 1998 version did not restore some lost footage and it kept some footage by Keller. It’s that version, 111 minutes long, we will see tonight.

Film critic Damien Cannon wrote, “The aspect of Touch of Evil which immediately grabs the attention is the virtuoso and deservedly famous opening tracking shot. This unbroken sequence, stretching for several breath-taking minutes, both sets the scene and introduces the main characters…This technical brilliance, flaunted so early, is a driving force.” Roger Ebert wrote, “The destinies of all of the main characters are tangled from beginning to end, and the photography makes that point by trapping them in the same shots, or tying them together through cuts that match and resonate. The story moves not in a straight line, but as a series of loops and coils.” Welles biographer David Thomson wrote, “It all makes for a fantastic mix—a tour de force filled with a terrible regret about expression itself that infects movie, life and being. Here is a studio noir picture that stands up equally well as a private ‘diary’ film.”

It’s a great ride. It ends with closing words about Welles’ character Quinlan, that, for some, echo Welles’ whole career as a filmmaker. I hope you enjoy watching Touch of Evil with me tonight.