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Monday, July 12, 2010

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.


Anonymous Kevin K. said...

"Touch of Evil" is one of those movies that I'm glad I saw, but not sure if I ever want to sit through again. But, as usual with Welles, brilliant direction, cinematography and editing.

9:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just wondering here, but I just now realized that it IS Janet Leigh being terrorized at an out of the way motel in TOE, in a UI picture. Do you think Hitchcock was influenced by this when he did Psyco let then two years later using the SAME leading lady ??

12:50 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I read somewhere that Welles resented Hitchcock for lifting his motel set shock scene for "Psycho." Looking at the two, I don't see how AH could NOT have been influenced by what OW did in "Touch Of Evil."

1:46 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

This is really an excellent analysis of a difficult but brilliant film. Welles always fascinates film buffs with his mixture of genius and boorish behavior. I have to ask the question but do you think "The Other Side of the Wind" will ever be released?

11:00 PM  
Anonymous Ed Watz said...

"Touch of Evil" looks like the kind of picture Erich von Stroheim might've made if he were still directing in the 1950's, with a rich detail for the offbeat and sometimes seamy side. The blind woman sitting in the storefront where Heston telephones; Uncle Joe with his slippery toupee; Dennis Weaver the geek motel clerk; Mercedes' cool comment in the motel room: "I wanna watch"; Orson falling into the sewer. It's as though "Foolish Wives" or "Greed" was remade but the setting was changed to Tiajuana. Orson's Hank Quinlan has become a latter-day Man You Love To Hate, villain Welles steals the picture from the nominal can bet that if any old-timer on the Universal lot in May '57 came up with this analogy it was not viewed as a positive influence!

11:37 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dugan, I'm thinking more and more that "The Other Side Of The Wind" will never be released. Too many competing interests, it seems ...

Ed, I never considered the Stroheim aspect of TOE, but yes indeed, this was his kind of subject. Thanks for that very perceptive insight.

9:41 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Love the Blackhawk masthead, John!

3:12 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Another similarity between TOE and Psycho might be the willingness of the directors to make dark, unpleasant stories but with such skill and style that they couldn't, ultimately, be dismissed, as trash or otherwise, almost to spite "hollywood".

Unlike Welles, though, Hitchcock was always trying to...if not exactly please the audience, at least send them home satisfied (and his Psycho deal meant a personal financial windfall if it hit--the "commercial artist" in contrast to Welles "artiste.")

But I do like TOE, and it seemed to really hit with my kids' generation the way Psycho did with mine.

(I also got to add that I recently re-watched F for fake over a couple of lunch hours and, while it's a minor piece, you can almost feel Welles' enjoyment in just piecing something together from a bunch of different sources.)

12:58 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Scott --- Remember in the 60's when the Blackhawk Bulletins were sent out without protective envelopes? Mine were sometimes pretty ripped by the time they arrived ...

5:16 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercers e-mails some interesting observations on "Touch Of Evil" and "The Tarnished Angels":

My centavos were among the gross of the 1998 "reconstruction" of Touch of Evil, a movie the charms of which are hardly understated. The gang leader, licking his lips as he says, "Hold her down," Akim Tamiroff's display of tongue under less fortunate circumstances, and that really incredible performance reamed out of Dennis Weaver's nether regions. I liked it rather better than the version originally released, with its stacatto tempo and changes in emphasis. The long continuous tracking shot which opens the picture is much better without the distraction of the opening credits, and with the different kinds of music pouring out of the bars and honky tonks as the camera makes its long, winding journey. But surely it was played to ribbons before this version came along. The year before, I attended a showing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Music, of all places, held in a room with hard-plastered walls. There was an aural ambiance that would have sent Orson back to the stenographer for another memo to the U-I executives.

You may be on to something, so far as U-I being a venue where Welles could conceivably have re-entered the studio system. At RKO, of course, he'd done Citizen Kane and Magnificent Ambersons, but he'd also put out Journey into Fear, a movie not so different in tone or technique than Carol Reed's later, better, and vastly more celebrated The 3rd Man. Couldn't he have done much the same for U-I, melodramas with style and a bit of nastiness? Douglas Sirk did. Welles was a great filmmaker, but more than that, he was a showman and an entertainer. His stage productions, his movies, his radio shows, all of them had some showy, even trashy angle meant to intrigue the suckers...ah, that is, the public, and surely that would have found a home at U-1. And if there was the possibility of something a little more artistic, well, he'd also made Macbeth for Republic, another studio with an economical approach aiming towards a genre market, though Herbert J. Yates had pretensions the U-I suits wouldn't have recognized if they'd tripped over them on their way to the executive wash room.

Nothing came of his association, though. If the returns from Touch of Evil were as decent as you've revealed, then something else must have been going on. Maybe they just didn't trust Orson to play ball with them and didn't think the possible return justified the real risk in their minds of flushing away a million bucks on a personally directed Orson Welles production.

By the way, my dad took me to see Tarnished Angels when it came out. Even then, I was affected by that theme of injured nobility, but the last sequence, with Robert Stack's doomed pilot deliberately sacrificing himself while his young son is trapped on an airplane, helplessly crying for his father, just tore at my heart. Today, when I see it, the theme remains as affecting, the last sequence also,

4:21 PM  

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