A Touch Of Evil Re-Visit --- Part Two
Scuzzy as were aspects of selling, you certainly couldn't fault Touch Of Evil's ad and poster campaign. These were among most striking of one, three, and six sheets displayed during the fifties. U-I was peerless in its art. They used brilliant Reynold Brown on many promotions, and on this occasion, the estimable Bob Tollen, one of few artists permitted to sign his poster work. Having previously got stellar results with All That Heaven Allows (its three-sheet should hang in the Louvre), Tollen rendered gorgeous imagery of Heston and Leigh in what's become an iconic pose of them on a hotel bed. Interestingly (and significantly, I think), the artist drew a cleaner (shaven, that is) and better turned-out Welles for selling purposes (note OW's neatly wound red tie). To be avoided in selling was a slovenly and frankly repulsive Hank Quinlan that hovered over Touch Of Evil. Was Tollen acting on instruction from a Universal alarmed with Welles' appearance in the film? Would Orson's standing around Hollywood suffer for the way he'd presented himself in Touch Of Evil? I'm wondering how many people figured this was OW offscreen as well as on, at least in terms of the weight, which never mind padding he applied, created impressions that couldn't do him good image-wise. Did Touch Of Evil give birth to Fat Orson and cruel japery that would follow Welles to the end?
Charlton Heston felt the only thing that would separate Touch Of Evil from commonplace police dramas was Orson Welles' creative direction. To those for whom it was mere merchandise, this amounted to no separation at all. Wherein lay the difference between this and low-budget cop-and-crime pics a company like Columbia distributed? ... other than Heston in the lead instead of Brian Keith or Aldo Ray? If Welles was going to settle into exploitation subjects, there were plenty of those at Universal to occupy him. Front office satisfaction over Touch Of Evil shooting progress was said to have inspired discussion of a five film contract with director Welles. I'd call that his moment of greatest opportunity with a studio system he still wanted to break into. U-I in the fifties seems an ideal roost for a chastened Welles willing to work within their structure. Friendly associates were already ensconced there. If OW could cozy up to material like Touch Of Evil, why not the full course of genres Universal addressed with ongoing efficiency? I'm not kidding when I propose Welles flourishing with Mercury vet William Alland, by then a capable producing hand at westerns and weirdies (as long as I'm dreaming, how about a Welles/Alland go at Creature #4, the reboot --- am I alone in suspecting OW could have directed one pip of a monster movie?). Albert Zugsmith was congenial and there on the lot. Is it too much a flight of fancy to imagine he and Welles teamed on The Incredible Shrinking Man, instead of Orson merely narrating the trailer for that sci-fi classic? My what-if engine sees OW transforming routine mellers with George Nader and Julia Adams into strands of pearls. Bigger stars would have sought out his now thriving unit as a result and thereby ended talk of Orson Welles, Hollywood exile.
So back to reality and Touch Of Evil. A noted critic (several in fact) claim the film to have played on the bottom of double-bills. This lines up nicely with scenarios of a Welles devalued, but I'm still looking for (so far) elusive first-run ads with TOE occupying lower berths. Yes, it ran with a co-feature in many situations ... there was no more disgrace in that than there had been for The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942 ... but no Charlton Heston/Janet Leigh starring feature was going to bring up rears in decent sized 1958 markets, especially in the face of product shortage we know plagued the industry around this time. The more plausible outcome would have been to pass on it altogether (as my town did --- neither the Liberty or the Allen used Touch Of Evil). I'd be happily proven wrong on this should anyone furnish 1958 ad art with TOE buried 'neath cowboys, spacemen, or even Mexican Spitfire. The other assumption about Touch Of Evil is that its boxoffice rotted on a vine Universal refused to tend. A comparative look at figures for TOE and U-I hopefuls that season reveal outcome better than I'd been led to expect. Touch Of Evil earned domestic rentals of $1.497 million. Lacking foreign numbers, I can only assume they were good for anecdotal evidence that the film enjoyed success and extended runs in European territories. The budget was said to have been $895,000. Maybe there were overruns beyond that. I don't have the final negative cost. What strikes me is the fact that Touch Of Evil stood its ground nicely with those features Universal clearly expected to do better (and promoted more heavily). The Tarnished Angels beat TOE, but not by much, finishing with $1.5 million in domestic rentals. The Lady Takes a Flyer closed books with a modest $1.0 million, surely a more disappointing outcome, but one we've heard less about because who cares about The Lady Takes a Flyer?
The 1998 Touch Of Evil reconstruction turned out to be a smart commercial move, as it did surprisingly well for an oldie offered up theatrically in the video/satellite era. There was no new footage, but enough reshaping had been done to make the viewing experience seem new. A found Orson Welles memo wherein he pleaded for editorial changes got plenty of attention and a public beyond fans was enchanted by fact of Universal finally acceding to the Great Man's wishes. It helped too that results were so transforming as managed here (by producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch). For once it seemed a ravaged Welles project had been put back right, posthumous victory snatched from jaws of neglect and indifference after forty years. The gross from this September 1998 reissue was $2.247,465 million. Rentals derived from that would be fairly close to those generated from Touch Of Evil's initial release in 1958 (the opening '98 weekend at three locations did a whopping $70,725). At one point, there were 45 US theatres running TOE, pretty remarkable for a show played to ribbons on TV and sold non-stop on VHS since the eighties. A DVD box would boast three separate versions of the film, plus documentary extras and commentaries. It's safe to say Touch Of Evil's reputation has gotten a major boost in the wake of all this. The story of its reconstruction is well told in Jonathan Rosenbaum's book, Discovering Orson Welles, a fine collection of essays from this author who was also a consultant on the Touch Of Evil project.