Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Overlooked Films: Touch of Evil (1958)

After seeing (and enjoying) the Orson Welles flick The Stranger recently (review HERE), this one snagged my attention when it turned up on cable.

Unfortunately, I enjoyed Touch of Evil quite a bit less, but all the weird trivia associated with the film almost made up for it. I should note that the version I saw was the 1998 re-editing of the film, intended to hew closer to Welles' original vision than the version released in 1958.

The hero of the picture, Charlton Heston, is supposed to be a Mexican narcotics officer honeymooning on the border with his American bride Janet Leigh. Having incurred the wrath of a Mexican crime family (by sending the head of the family to far-off Mexico City to stand trial) he incurs the wrath of a corrupt American police captain played by Orson Welles. For the rest of the film, the crime family and Welles do their best to put the touch of evil on Mr. and Mrs. Heston, and give them some pretty hairy moments.

On the plus side, the film opens with an impressive street scene involving multiple tracking shots, and conveys an almost 3-D effect. Welles makes his usual great use of light and shadow - made more effective because the film was shot in black and white. Music is used to great effect: I've never seen a film where rock and roll made scenes so menacing, or jazz made them seems so bizarre. Marlene Dietrich adds class to several scenes. And Dennis Weaver pops up as a somewhat demented motel clerk.

On the negative side, Heston is thoroughly unconvincing as a Mexican (he probably wasn't even convinced himself, because the original story - the 1956 novel Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson - called for him to play an American, and his bride to be Mexican). Welles, though he chews up and spits out every scene he's in, is gross, disgusting and contemptible. When he's not drunk he's just plain weird. Janet Leigh, while nice to look at, is on hand simply to be menaced (though she does get the hell menaced out of her). And Dennis Weaver's demented charm quickly wears off, making him simply annoying.

There's much more to the story, of course, but it's much less interesting than what was going on behind the scenes.

First off, Heston signed on believed Welles was going to direct. Welles, who didn't want to do the movie at all, but was forced by contract obligations, had been signed merely to act, but agreed to direct to keep Heston happy. It was Welles who turned Heston's character from American to Mexican and Janet Leigh's from Mexican to American, and moved the setting from a small California town to the Mexican border.

Welles wore pounds of make-up and prosthetics to turn him into the quivering mass of flesh he portrayed. Welles hired Dennis Weaver because he admired his work on Gunsmoke, but told Weaver he wanted his character to be sort of the opposite of Chester. Janet Leigh accepted a low salary merely for the opportunity to work with Welles. She broke her arm before filming started, and wore a disguised cast throughout the picture. Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor appeared as favors to Welles, without the studio's knowledge, and did not expect to receive screen credit. Among those making genuinely uncredited appearances were Joseph Cotton, Mercedes Cambridge and Keenan Wynne.

Welles was fired as director before post-production work was finished, and the studio brought in other directors to film new scenes, diverging from Welles' vision for the film. He wrote them a memo requesting changes - which they ignored - but that memo was the basis for this 1998 re-editing of the film.

More Overlooked Films await you, as always, at Sweet Freedom.


Todd Mason said...

Welles, when forced to do something for the buck, would disguise himself onscreen...and yet I'm one of those who digs the brio he brings to the portrait of near-total corruption his character is here. Having Heston play Mexican but somehow as woodenly Heston as he ever was was another means for Welles to flip the bird, I'm sure...and I think I like Leigh's work here better than you do (I've thought we'd remember her even if the only two films she did were TOUCH and PSYCHO...and the hotel industry would remember her even better than they do...).

Walker Martin said...

This is one of my favorite film noirs. You can't go wrong with Welles directing AND starring as the villain...A great evil portrait of the corruption of power.

pattinase (abbott) said...

This is certainly one of the movies I have watched most often-such an interesting story to take a script no one would touch and get this from it. Even if it doesn't always make sense. And that first shot.

Troy D. Smith said...

Or, as the poster on the bottom translates it, "La Soif du Mal"... the thirst for evil. Seems to fit just as well. Welles is great in this one... and how about Dennis Weaver as that weird Norman Bates-y motel clerk?

Oscar Case said...

Welles must have had a few checks to balance getting those actors to appear with low or no pay. I'm sure he could just make a suggestion and the stars would come out of the woodwork to work with him.

Cap'n Bob said...

Mercedes McCambridge, IIRC. Good review, even if I liked it more than you did. I find it makes more sense after a second or third viewing.

Evan Lewis said...

Yikes. I have to watch it again? And again?

Todd Mason said...

Nope. But some of us like it quite a bit.

Cap'n Bob said...

No, Evan. You'll just find more things to dislike and then you'll have me hating it.