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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

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.


Anonymous Jon said...

I still believe that Welles had a tendency to be his own worst enemy. In 1956 Desi Arnaz approached Welles with a proposal for a TV series. It was to be an anthology modeled on Welles' old MERCURY THEATER from radio. Welles would host each week's show and direct a certain number of episodes. Arnaz, impressed by CITIZEN KANE and shocked that Hollywood was ignoring Welles, thought it would be a good opportunity, providing Welles with a regular income, weekly exposure to the public and an outlet for his creative talents. Welles was agreeable, and Arnaz went so far as to settle the income tax problems that had been following Welles for a few years. The only stipulations he made when Welles filmed the pilot, a John Collier story titled "Fountain of Youth," were that he had to stick to his budget and to his shooting schedule. Welles proceeded to ignore both. The completed pilot was shopped around and while everyone who saw it was impressed, they turned it down after learning it had come in over schedule and over budget.

5:03 PM  
Anonymous Chrystal said...

I understand a remake of one of my favorite Sci-Fi is "The Incredible Shrinking Man" circa 1957. Apparently shrinking back in the 50's was something of a scientific concern. The graphic artistry used to make this movie was beyond the scope of anyone's imagination back then. The character, Scott Carey was fantastic in this movie. Feigning off ordinary house pet (the cat), a garden insect that suddenly to the shrinking character is a prehistoric predator--timeless! The unfortunate ending of Carey was his escape from the pet cat and going outdoors ultimately shrinking into nothing. I cannot help but wonder if Richard Matheson, who helped write the screenplay for this movie, saw a Sci-Fi of 2010 would he be slacked-jaw or applauding insanely saying "yes, that is what I dreamed it could be!" I hope they leave the movie alone it was utter perfection as it was.

5:58 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer weighs in via e-mail 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 tongue, and that really incredible performance reamed out of Dennis Weaver's nether regions. I liked it rather better than the version originally released, for its 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 ride, helplessly crying for his father, was absolutely searing. Today, when I see the movie, the theme is, if anything, even more affecting, for my appreciation of Dorothy Malone's performance, and the last sequence remains no less so, but all of it with so much of the futility that attends living in this world, though with a suggestion also of a grandeur too seldom recognized.

8:48 AM  

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