In 1998 I had the rare pleasure of interviewing Charlton Heston for the release of the Walter Murch-supervised “restoration” of Touch of Evil (1958). It was supposed to be the center of a essay on the film, but the article was canceled and the interview unpublished until earlier this year on my website. I republish it here as part of a collection of interviews on Touch of Evil and the 1998 revision of the film.
I‘ve been doing some research and I‘ve read your journals and autobiography where you go into magnificent detail on the making of Touch of Evil.
Well thank you.
So I wanted to talk about some other things that I haven‘t heard you talk about in interviews or read about in your books. One thing that struck me as I read your piece was that it seems like you had quite a rapport with Orson Welles.
Yes, that’s true. I had never known him before but of course I had see Citizen Kane and for that matter I’d seen Othello. And his reputation then as a filmmaker then was remarkable. I was amazed that the studio, when I suggested he direct the picture, they acted as though I’d suggested directing the picture but his work on the film was extraordinary, I thought.
When did you actually meet Orson Welles for the first time?
Oh, we didn’t meet until I came back from Michigan, where I’d discussed on the phone using him as a director, and that may prove to be one of my significant contributions to motion pictures, that I bullied Universal Studios into giving Orson Welles the last picture he made as a director in America. And then I came back to Los Angeles and he had by then rewritten the script entirely and we discussed it and discussed various elements in the story and then of course went on to shoot it.
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.
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 doesn‘t 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.
[Editor’s note: This essay was originally written in 1998, before the re-edited version from producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch, and is based on the 109-minute version that was rescued from the vaults in 1975, generally known as the “preview version. This version had replaced the original 98-minute theatrical version in retrospective screenings and TV showings, but it makes its DVD debut – along with the 98-minute theatrical version – on the new Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition, which also features the previously released 1998 “restored” version. The essay has never before been published.]
Despite the fact that, like most of Welles’s films, Touch of Evil was the victim of injudicious cutting, it holds together narratively better than just about any film he ever made. The result is a film even more corrosively insidious than Mr. Arkadin—a film in which we’re never quite sure what’s going on, but are always profoundly aware that, whatever it is, it is far more horrible than it appears. And, in Touch of Evil, that is very horrible indeed.
It’s an intentionally seedy film—you can pretty much smell Hank Quinlan—and Welles, always a better director of space and decor than of actors, creates in his mise en scene a dynamic tension between the rich baroque and the decadent gothic. “Baroque” in the way it uses incidental ornamentation within the frame composition, insisting upon signs, posters, souvenirs and bric-a-brac to provide comment on character and event, as well as to lend atmosphere. Bulky Quinlan, looking up quizzically, belatedly prepares his defense against the lanky Vargas, in a room walled with bullfight posters and photos of the great matadors. We almost expect him to snort and paw the earth. This mise en scene was, in part, Welles’s debt to Karl Freund, neo-Gothic cameraman (The Golem, 1920; The Last Laugh, 1924; Metropolis, 1926; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930; Dracula, 1931) and director (Mad Love, 1935) who combined compositional richness with thematic darkness to create a Cinema of the Grotesque that seminally influenced the look and style of Citizen Kane (1941).
This sense of the Gothic, augmented with lessons learned from Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, is evident in The Third Man (1949), a film directed by Sir Carol Reed but as closely associated with Welles in our cinematic collective consciousness as any film on which he received directorial credit. Reed had himself quoted the child’s bouncing ball and a few other tones and gestures from Lang’s M in Odd Man Out(1947); and the collaboration of Welles and Reed on The Third Manwas one of like minds and visions, learning from each other, and creating, along the way, both a film masterpiece and an enduring document of the shattered physical and human architecture of postwar Europe.
Last year, in a piece I wrote for GreenCine, I dreamed up my fantasy list of box sets and special editions I wanted to see (heck, I wanted to OWN) in the coming years. Less than year later, two of those dream DVD sets have been announced. (I doubt my piece had much to do with them, but hey, it was a dream list and I can fantasize about its impact.)
Universal is celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil with a two-disc special edition featuring all three versions of the film (the 1958 release version, the longer preview cut discovered in the mid-seventies, and the 1998 Walter Murch reconstruction), plus commentary on each disc by different folks, the complete Welles memo, a couple of featurette, interviews and such. This will be the first time either of the those earlier two versions have actually been home video in their original state (the old VHS and laserdisc releases of the film were of a studio job that combined footage from both of those old versions into one hybrid version). The anniversary branding explains the delay in the release, something fans have been expecting ever since the Murch-helmed reconstruction. The release date October 7. See the press release for the complete details on the release.
A release sure to receive less publicity but one that is equally exciting to me, however, is Sony’s Budd Boetticher Box Set, a collection of the Columbia “Ranown” films directed by Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott. The release has been long in the coming as only a couple of the films had been released to VHS (and those on substandard Goodtimes videos). Paramount’s 2005 DVD release of Seven Men From Now, the first collaboration between Boetticher, Scott and screenwriter Burt Kennedy, only whetted my appetite for the rest of the films.
Seven Men From Now (1956) set the tone and lean style for series, as if it was carved it in the stone-like visage of Randolph Scott’s weatherbeaten face. Boetticher had just come off a two-year stint with Universal, where he cranked out journeyman assignments (including his first westerns) with a muscular sense of action and place, and the austere little crime thriller The Killer Is Loose when producer John handed him the terse script by Burt Kennedy. More than perfect fit with Boetticher, it brought the best in the director. Boetticher pares himself down to the rugged essentials and wrenches up the tension between the central characters, isolated in the empty desert, with remarkable economy. He makes Kennedyâ€™s dialogue sing like lyrics and turns Scott â€œlimitationsâ€ as an actor into an expressive element of character: inexpressive and inflexible, hard, his voice that masks his feelings and his lanky body is perfectly at ease setting a horse or handling a gun but less sure in moments of emotional intimacy.
Producer/star Scott realized that he had a winning combination and immediately signed Boetticher up to direct for his own company at Columbia Pictures, where he cranked out low budget westernsthat made enormous profits. The made five films together at Columbia â€“ The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960) â€“ three of them scripted by Kennedy. From The Tall T to Comanche Station, you can see Boetticher and Kennedy honing the style and structure established in 7 Men to a laconic austerity. That cycle stands next to the greatest works of Anthony Mann and John Ford: tight, taut, often savage little pictures that are both graceful and visceral, direct, and rich in character.