A Touch Of Evil Re-Visit --- Part One
Not that Touch Of Evil needs my stamp of approval, but after e-mail exchanges where readers questioned previous dismissal of it, I decided to give Orson's 1958 "Last of The Classic Noirs" another chance. This time it was 1998's reconstruction that got an airing. Talent responsible for that deserve applause for putting TOE very near what Welles envisioned. I admire the film more now without necessarily enjoying the sit. A friend describes it as slimy, and there's an apt word to sum up those 108 minutes. I came away feeling like OW must have after falling backward into sewage at Touch Of Evil's finish. Can you blame Universal execs' apprehension? What fans call baroque, they thought extreme; too much so for 1958 patronage. Was it just Orson again being years ahead of his time? I can't imagine a remade Touch Of Evil faring well in 2010, so maybe we've still got catching up to do. A modern writer referenced TOE as "a B movie crime thriller" to which I respectfully take exception: No immediate post- Ten Commandments Charlton Heston vehicle is/was a B movie. He was a major outside name Universal-International was lucky to get, a big enough influence to arrange the director chair for Welles and allow his own (should have been lead) role to ultimately play second violin behind Orson's flamboyant heavy. Touch Of Evil began at least as an important film because Heston was starring. With The Ten Commandments into a second year of release, and just now canvassing smaller towns and drive-ins, CH was a major draw, and other than Three Violent People and some television, had done little as of early 1958 to follow-up on Moses.
Another Welles scholar says Touch Of Evil was reworked and tossed away by Universal. Records are replete as to the reworking, but I question somewhat the tossing away part. There's no doubt of Universal's disappointment (if not outright disgust) with Touch Of Evil, but again, there was a relationship with Heston to maintain, whatever their low opinion of his director, and in consideration of that, they'd not dump the finished film so casually. A trade ad was run (above) ... first in The Motion Picture Herald (January 11, 1958), then Boxoffice (January 13), and more undoubtedly elsewhere. Such ads shouldn't be taken for granted. There were features seemingly ignored in the trades by their distributors. I looked but could not find any trade support for Universal's There's Always Tomorrow when I posted on that 1956 release a few months ago. Touch Of Evil was announced as available to help commemorate U-I's 45th Anniversary Drive, that celebration having been kicked off with earlier in the season's Man Of A Thousand Faces. What happened I think was merely a rearrangement of priorities on the part of U-I's sales department. The Tarnished Angels had opened well in selected playdates over the holidays. Holdovers suggested it would be 1958's bigger attraction, especially in the wake of the stars/director team's Written On The Wind, a $4.4 million rentals blockbuster and Universal's top earner during 1957. There seemed more promise too in The Lady Takes a Flyer, their upcoming Lana Turner/Jeff Chandler comedy deemed worthy of double page two-color trade ads. Universal merchandisers were chasing dollars, after all. They cared from nothing about Orson Welles, the man who'd done Kane (and flopped with it).
Few minded Touch Of Evil being trashy. There was plenty of room in the market for that. Universal was set to Explode More Boxoffice Dynamite on January 28 with Damn Citizen! (why didn't RKO think of such an exclamatory title for Kane?). There was one they didn't offer with the 45th Anniversary Drive, what with its unapologetic serving of Murder, Gambling, Assault, Girls, Bribery, and Dope. U-I's campaign for Touch Of Evil was a model of decorum beside this. I haven't seen Damn Citizen!, would guess it's trash ... but here's the difference ... coherent trash. Touch Of Evil was thought unmanageable from delivery of Welles' cut, Universal being confused, then indignant. Producer on the lot (and former Welles associate) William Alland said everyone there resented the hell out of OW. Welles would years later reflect that Touch Of Evil was just too dark and black and strange for them. Universal heads felt, justifiably so, that if you're going to make exploitation movies, at least do them simply enough so a target audience, already distracted by corn dogs, soda pop, and in-car fondling, can understand. Touch Of Evil ended up too dense and sophisticated for patronage figured to attend, those efforts to reshoot and rejigger it making matters only worse.
For all his directorial pyrotechnics, was Welles also pandering to increased numbers of drive-in sensation hunters (as Hitchcock would, and more successfully, with Psycho)? There's a footnote in Glenn Erickson's excellent Touch Of Evil DVD review wherein a reader shares a memo he'd acquired between Welles and TOE producer Albert Zugsmith. Quoting OW: To keep them away from the popcorn stand, I've invented a nasty little outrage for the section you felt might tend to drag in terms of melodrama. I agree with Erickson that this is probably the infamous Janet Leigh hotel scene Welles is referring to. It wasn't Shakespeare and he was obviously on board with realities of U-I's marketplace ... but did Welles go overboard? His hotel's an ordeal beyond even what Hitchcock would put us through, Psycho's carnage being fun even as it was frightful. TOE's drug-tinged gang assault is surely one of the decade's nastiest mayhems, not easy getting through even if one grants the notion of Welles sending up exploitation pics with it. Could he have reasonably expected studio overseers to be hep to his jest? Still, Universal got all the trailer bait they needed from the segment (and used even more footage therefrom in their recut version than Welles intended), with disturber images left over for utilization in TOE's lobby card set. This was to be her wedding night, intones the narrator for 1958's preview as we move into Leigh's violated cabin with her attackers. OW was right at least for knowing his over-the-top sequence would be catnip for marketers. With a Production Code still in force in 1958, you wonder how Universal ever got a seal for Touch Of Evil.
Thanks much to Mike Cline for the Touch Of Evil montage. And HERE is Touch Of Evil --- Part Two.