“A rough, jagged, jarring, shaking-you-up kind of movie” – Janet Leigh on “Touch of Evil”

In 1998, as Universal was preparing the theatrical release of the revised Touch of Evil, I was offered the opportunity to talk with star Janet Leigh about the film in a phone interview. I had yet to see the new version, so my questions were formed around my research and my familiarity with the previous versions of the film. The interview was never published. What follows is an edited version of the transcript focused specifically on her experiences during the original production of Touch of Evil and her thoughts on Welles, on the original film and on the revision, which she generously supported and promoted in interviews and personal appearances.

I wanted to talk to you about what it was like to work with Orson Welles on the shooting of the film.

Right. This new reediting is not a new shooting, it’s just the proper assemblage of what we shot, which hadn’t been done the way he [Welles] had hoped. Well, you know the story. But I don’t want to give the impression that it’s like another picture or something. I mean I don’t think we’d match if we shot scenes today (laughs), so it’s really just what we shot then, as you know.

Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston
Posed publicity shot: Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston

Were you involved in any way with this revision?

With this revision? No, only in, now that it’s coming out, in telling people about it. But I didn’t have anything to do with the revision.

I understand it doesnt make a lot of narrative changes but it does make a lot of stylistic changes.

Exactly. Plus the pacing. At that time in Hollywood the level of our movies were sort of, everything had to be kind of tied up with a little pretty ribbon, each scene rounded off, and Touch of Evil was never meant to be that kind of picture. It was way ahead of its time, as Orson was. It was meant to be a rough, jagged, jarring, shaking-you-up kind of movie, and the studio just didn’t understand that. They couldn’t understand the rough edges. When I saw it this way it was so exciting because you went back to the way it had felt on the set. In mean this was the kind of picture we made and now that’s what we’re seeing on the screen. I mean, the editing has pace to it and suspense and much more of the mounting kind of horror and the mounting kind of “My god, when is he going to look for his wife?” It just mounts to a frenzy.

Going back to when it was originally made, everyone seems to refer to this film as a B movie, but when you get stars like Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh to appear in a film in the 1950s its not a B movie.

I think that the reference is always budget. Psycho, to a lot of people was a B movie because it cost $850,000.

And Touch of Evil was a low budget film on that scale?

I’m sure that Mr Heston’s percentage, I don’t know what deal he had, but I’m sure that was the most expensive thing in the film.

Id read that Orson Welles had a two week rehearsal period before the film began shooting.

Right.

Did he just block out everything in sequence or how did that work?

Well we blocked out what we could. There were some things action-wise you can’t block out, but we blocked out anything with conversation with a two or three or four person encounters and it added tremendously to the fullness of the characters. We really dug out, fleshed out the characters. I mean it was written but we kind of rewrote a lot of the dialogue scenes and the confrontational attitude between Akim Tamiroff and myself more or less grew out of that rehearsal period. I think what happened was that it enriched the characters and we really found how we saw, instead of being an ordinary kind of wife, an ordinary kind of detective, we brought more it I think. Like for me, Susan was… I gave her the background of coming from a well-to-do family, social country club, and whether her family approved of the mixed marriage or not, thumbed her nose and said “Too bad, this is what I want.” I could feel this is the kind of woman she was and she’s not going to be intimidated by this fat little funny man [Grandi], and I just think that that was her attitude and I think that made it more interesting.

Now seven weeks of shooting was mostly night shoots, is that right

Yes. We were not scheduled for that. It started out at the studio and we moved to Venice maybe a week into the picture and Orson had lulled the studio into saying “Oh, I think he’s come around, he’s ahead of schedule.” He had planned the scene where the police are in the apartment of the suspect and Quinlan plants the dynamite, you know, you see the empty box and then you see the dynamite in there, and that was actually scheduled, I can’t be sure, but on the schedule it was maybe three days or possibly four but I can’t be sure of that, at least three I know. And he did it in one day because instead of doing your normal setups like close-up, two shot, over the shoulder, master, all that, he used his camera much like Hitchcock actually. His camera just kind of wove through the crowd and focused where it needed to be focused and then went to the next thing. It moved right with the scene and so he shot it in one day and the studio was head over heels in love with him. So we moved for what was supposed to be a week of night shooting in Venice, California, before it was refurbished, and we were supposed to be there a week. Well we finished the picture doing night shooting. Once Orson got us down there, he then was in control, because by the time they saw dailies, we’d shoot at night, the dailies wouldn’t be ready for them to see the next day like normal shooting, it would be the next day, and by that time we’ve already shot another night’s work. They were playing catch-up the whole time so he was in control, and that’s when we kind of veered a lot from the script. But certainly we veered from day shooting. We just exchanged the day for night and made it more interesting and obviously darker and moodier and more forbidding.

While in Venice he was also away from the studio so he was able, if Im not mistaken, to just keep on with that style.

Oh yeah, yeah. Marlene’s part was not anything, practically, and he developed that because her house was on location in Venice and that’s where that all came about, that grew down there as well. And your cameos with Joseph Cotten all down there, all at night down there. Mercedes was at the motel. It was on location, I don’t remember the place, and we started in the afternoon for the daytime with, oh God, the first day, and I did this scene with Dennis (Weaver) and saw his take, it was wild. Then we stayed at night to do the night scenes. Again it was on location and at night.

Suzie (Janet Leigh) terrorized by the Grandi gang
Even racier publicity still: Suzie (Janet Leigh) terrorized by the Grandi gang

Welles really put your character through hell in that film.

(laughs) Yeah! That whole scene with the guys and then Mercedes: “I vant to watch.” Bleh! And in this hotel with waking up to Grandi’s head there. Ugh! That hotel was really just like it looked. I have to tell you that there was a derelict, poor man, in that room, not when I was there. That was shot not there, the outside, when I went on the balcony and when he goes in the car underneath, that was shot in Venice at the hotel and inside that room there was derelict there on the bed and was assisted out, but two assistants were right there with me at all times. It was very scary.

So he didnt have to fake a whole lot in Venice to make it look like a really seedy border town.

No, no, because this was before it had been made like it is now. It was very seedy and run down and filled with oil derricks. It was spooky.

What scenes did you shoot in the studio before you left for Venice?

I don’t think I had any. My scenes were all on location. The scenes at his apartment, right? We went to the studio but it was at night. The jail, when he sees me in the jail. But we finished in Venice and we came back to the studio at night to shoot that.

I understand your arm was broken while you shot the film.

I broke it a week before we started rehearsals.

So it had not healed before you started shooting.

Oh my God, it was in a cast!

Through the whole film?

Yes. What we did was, I had it set at an angle, not like a normal sling, I had it set at a 45 degree angle and then I would put a coat over it or something, and where I was undressed, so to speak, we sawed the cast in half and took it off for those scenes and then we’d tape back on after.

Did you tell your doctor you were doing this?

Well… (laughs) He knows. What’s he going to say, not to do it? I would have done it anyway, whether he said it or not. Actually, he used to take care of the football teams and everything, so I think he was used to people working with broken extremities.

I’d seen the film five times and it never occurred to me that you had been hiding a broken in your scenes until I read about it

It was done, I thought, very cleverly. I’ve said this before, but this always tickles me. When I went in to see Orson after it had been set, I had it set at an angle, as I told you, and I had a sweater thrown over it, and he said, ‘I thought you broke your arm?’ and I said, ‘Ha-ha, I did,’ and I showed him, and he said, ‘Oh, that’s no problem, we’ll get away with that.’ And then he said, ‘You know, when I heard about, I thought just do the picture with you with the broken arm,’ but he said, ‘I got to thinking, even for me, that’s pretty weird to have a broken arm on your honeymoon.’ (laughs) I love that.

Relaxing on location
Relaxing on location

I’m sure people have brought this up to you before, but you have these scenes in the motel room with the insane night clerk, and then a couple of years later you make Psycho, where you are in a remote motel with an insane clerk

I have very bad luck in motels. Obviously. And my choice of motels is very poor, also. I mean, you’re the only one there and there’s a lone madman as the keeper. But at least Norman Bates wasn’t as obviously mad.

He hid it much better.

I thought Dennis’ take, I swear, it was so wonderful to work with him. I assumed it was going to a normal kind of character, eccentric, sure, but it brought out, from my reaction, his takes… It was wonderful.

I understand his part was added, or at least radically redefined, after production started. Did you rehearse with him in the rehearsal period?

No. I didn’t rehearse with him in the rehearsal period but I was always going to the motel and there was going to be somebody there. But I heard something, Rick may have told me this because he did so much research on the movie himself. When Orson and Dennis talked about this, I don’t know who came up with it, Orson sort of let Dennis have free rein, said, ‘Go as far as you want and let’s see where it takes us.’ So I have a feeling that what happened was that when Orson got a taste of what he was going to do, that’s when the role became embellished. It added so much to this whole bizarre scene.

What was it like working with Dennis Weaver in those scenes?

That’s why I said it was so wonderful, because I had no idea. When we did the first run through, I was so shocked and it was wonderful because it brought out another element in my performance as well. Not only am I tired, not only is all this crap going on, now I’ve got a crazy guy to contend with who doesn’t want to do the sheets and can’t look at the bed. What does he think I’m going to do, rape him? All these things are going on that I never would have had in the background of that scene.

It certainly sets the stage for the nightmare to come before the Grandi gang even arrives.

Exactly. She’s at the end of her rope just with this crazy man. She’s really not afraid, it’s just like, what’s with this guy? She’s really not scared until it all starts to hit her, and that is the thing that makes it much better, because if she’s scared from the beginning, there’s nowhere to go.

As you mentioned earlier, in those first scenes with Grandi, you’re not scared of him, you sort of take him on.

Exactly, and with the guy who’s flashing the light [through the hotel window].

You and Charlton Heston have almost no scenes together after the first few minutes

Except for the end.

Except for the end, yes. You establish this relationship in just a few minutes and then the whole movie is essentially trying to get you two back together while everyone else is trying to break you up.

We’re on our honeymoon and haven’t consummated our marriage yet.

You had more scenes with Akim Tamiroff than you did with Heston. What was he like?

He was adorable and very creative as well. He brought up a lot of things about the character. It was either he or Orson who thought of the toupee. I think it may be because he actually wore a toupee and they thought, ‘We can use that.’

It fits with his whole movie gangster attitude through the movie. He comes off as a guy trying to appear like a gangster.

He’s evil, but yet he’s smart and he bubbles with this character. You know that he’s capable, because obviously this gang has been going on for some time, but he’s not the real leader. The leader is in jail. So you know that he’s out of his element, really, and I think he makes a wonderful character out of it.

Janet Leigh as Susie, terrorized by Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Grandi (Akim Tamiroff)
Janet Leigh as Susie, at the mercy of Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Grandi (Akim Tamiroff)

I think you really find out how much he’s out of his element in his last scene with Hank Quinlan, when he discovers what Quinlan did to you. He gets this look on his face that shows he just doesn’t want anything to do with it anymore, that’s Quinlan has taken it too far for his taste.

Yeah. He’s just not the man that, obviously, is the leader of this group, which makes him vulnerable. You know, he’s… funny in a perverse kind of way.

Was that really Tamiroff or was that a fake head when you woke up and saw his dead face staring at you?

No, that was him.

That is one of the most grotesque looking things I have every seen in a movie.

I can’t tell you. I know now it’s nothing unusual at all now, but that was the first time I had seen a handheld camera used in a movie. He used it in the hotel when he kills Grandi, that whole scene with me and the fight with Quinlan and my waking up. I’d never seen one used before.

How many takes would Orson do for a scene, apart from those long, long takes?

It would depend. He wouldn’t take anymore than was necessary. Like the opening shot, we spent all night getting that one and just got it as we could see the pink in the background of the sun coming up.

You had this rehearsal period before shooting began, but when you went down to Venice, did you rework those scenes to make best use of the locations?

If it needed to be, because sometimes the actual locale was different from somebody’s living room. Plus, a lot of the things that were changed from one locale to out there, we had to adapt for that. But the work that was done was not lost. It had to be adjusted because of a change in the surroundings.

I have the Orson Welles interview book here and I’d like to read a passage from it. Peter Bogdanovich asked Welles about working with you on Touch of Evil and he said: “I gave her a very rough time because she had to change her hairdo back and forth all the time, not knowing why. In the motel sequence we were shooting 40 or 50 setups a day and she never knew where she was in the plot. I just said ‘Hair up, hair down, go to the window, don’t ask me why you know and she was going. Because we made it very quickly.”

Well, it was because of the situation of being on location and having night and day shots, we had to keep making it… Because what happened was, we arrived in the daytime and then we finished that part and so they did day-for-night shots. So what would happen was if we were shooting the day-for-day shots, my hair was up. If we were doing day-for-night shots, my hair would be down. And it was sometimes confusing because I didn’t know which sequence we were doing. And that was the difference.


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