Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Orson Welles’ noir masterpiece TOUCH OF EVIL
The upcoming Chris Welles Feder hosted screening of Touch of Evil at the Staten Island Film Festival on June 5th, reminds us that this year marks the 50th Anniversary since Touch of Evil premiered in New York (on May 21, 1958).
Since it appears that Universal Home video will not be re-visiting their bare-bones DVD release of Touch of Evil to commemorate it's 50th Anniversary (although there are still 8 months left to hope), here are some comments from the films leading players, who sadly are no longer with us to celebrate the film's brilliance.
The story of how Orson Welles came to direct Touch of Evil varies greatly, depending on who you listen to. Just as in Citizen Kane, each of the key witnesses has his own unique version of how the events unfolded:
Albert Zugsmith - Producer
(From King of the B's by Todd McCarthy & Charles Flynn).
In 1957, prior to directing Touch of Evil, Welles played a corrupt rancher in Jack Arnold’s Man in the Shadow, Produced by Albert Zugsmith for Universal. According to Zugsmith, he and Welles got together in his bungalow after each days shooting was completed, where they would drink vodka, smoke cigars and rewrite the next days scenes. (However, this was disputed by director Jack Arnold, who said Welles didn’t rewrite any of the script). It also appears that Zugsmith would have been a valuable ally with Welles in his battle with Universal over the final editing of the film, but by then, he had left the Universal lot and set-up shop at MGM.
ALBERT ZUGSMITH: On the last day of shooting Man in the Shadow, I was on the set and Orson said, “I guess I can’t come down tonight? I said, “my bungalow is always open to you.” He came down and we really tied one on. He said, “God dam it, you’re the feistiest son of a bitch I’ve ever met and I love you. I’d like to direct a picture for you.” I said, “There’s nothing I’d like better, Orson.” He said, “have you got anything I can direct?” In those days I had a shelf full of scripts in back of my desk and I said, “you can have any one you want.” He said, “which is the worst one.” I said, “right here,” and pulled out a script Paul Monash had written from a novel in four weeks on a flat deal, called Badge of Evil. I threw it over to Orson, and he said, “Can I have two weeks to rewrite it?” I said, “you can have it.”
He wrote a screenplay and we spent a whole day cutting it down to proper size, eliminating things. I never had a fight with the man. He’s a genius. A Great man. Great talent.
Charlton Heston - Miguel Vargas
(From In The Arena by Charlton Heston, and an interview by James Delson)
CHARLTON HESTON: The script was submitted to me in December of 1956 by Universal, for who I had made a successful comedy, The Private War of Major Benson. Since Major Benson was released, I had finished The Ten Commandments, done a play in New York, and I was loafing over the holiday when Universal sent me this script, called Badge of Evil. I told the studio, “it’s not a bad script, but police stories are like westerns. You guys have been making them for more than fifty years. All the great ideas are used up. It really depends on who’s directing it. Have you set anyone? They said they didn’t know who was going to direct it, but that Orson Welles was going to play the heavy. “You know, Orson Welles is a pretty good director,” I replied. “Did it ever occur to you to have him direct it?” Well, you’d have thought I’d suggested that my mother direct the film. They were a bit nonplussed and said, “we’ll get back to you on that.” They did get back to me, a few days later, and said, “yes, Orson would direct the film.” I have no idea how intense the debate was, but I doubt if anyone at Universal slapped the back of his head and said, “of course Orson should direct! How come we didn’t think of it?” More likely it was, “Ahh, let him direct it. How bad can it be? Heston will just get sore if we don’t.” I was delighted.
I met with Orson when I got back to L.A. He was three days into a rewrite of the entire script, which he finished a day and a half later. It was a vast improvement, most interesting to me in that he’d turned my character into a Mexican attorney.
Orson Welles - Hank Quinlan, writer & director
(From a 1965 interview by Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio & Jose Antonio Pruneda and This is Orson Welles by Peter Bogdanovich.)
Q: Was it really Charlton Heston who proposed you as the director of Touch of Evil?
ORSON WELLES: What happened was even more amusing. The scenario was offered to Charlton Heston who was told that it was by Orson Welles: at the other end of the line, Heston understood that I was to direct the film, in which case he was ready to shoot anything at all with me, no matter what. Those at Universal did not clear up this misunderstanding. They hung up and automatically telephoned me and asked me to direct it. The truth is that Heston said, textually, this: “I will work in any film at all directed by Orson Welles.” When they proposed that I direct the film I set only one condition: to write my own scenario! And I directed and wrote the film without getting a penny for it, since I was being paid as an actor.
Q: You made many changes from the original novel.
ORSON WELLES: My God! I never read the novel; I only read Universal’s scenario. Perhaps the novel made sense, but the scenario was ridiculous. It all took place in San Diego, not on the Mexican border, which completely changes the situation. I made Vargas a Mexican for political reasons: I wanted to show how Tijuana and the border towns are corrupted by all sorts of mish-mash— publicity more or less about American relations; that’s the only reason.
After the picture was edited, they did a half a day’s work without me. They had loved the rushes and—it’s a very weird thing—when they saw the whole thing put together they just hated it. And there was a man who’d been in charge of part of their European sales for years, and he put the movie into the Brussels World’s Fair. The studio had about ten pictures they wanted put in instead of Touch of Evil and said no. He insisted, and the picture got the grand prize, and then they fired him!
During the shooting they went out of their way to compliment me every night for the rushes, and said, “when are you going to sign a four picture contract with us?” Every day they’d ask me to sign the contract. Then when they saw the cut version they barred me from the lot. The picture was just too dark and black and strange for them. It’s the only trouble I’ve ever had that I can’t begin to fathom. The picture rocked them in some funny way. They particularly loathed the black comedy—the kind people like now. It was a terribly traumatic experience, when suddenly I was fired from the lot at Universal. I was so sure I was going to go on making pictures at Universal. I was ready to settle down in America. I’d rather make pictures here than anywhere.
And as in Touch of Evil, Tanya gets the last word:
(From a 1973 interview by Peter Bogdanovich in Esquire )
MARLENE DIETRICH: I think I never said a line as well as the last line in Touch of Evil: "What does it matter what you say about people?" Wasn't I good there? I don't know why I said it so well. And I looked so good in that dark wig. It was Elizabeth Taylor's. My part wasn't in the script, but Orson called and said he wanted me to play a kind of gypsy madam in a border town, so I went over to Paramount and found that wig. It was very funny, because I had been crazy about Orson in the forties, when he was married to Rita, when we toured together doing his magic act. I was just crazy about him and we were great friends, but nothing (happened) because Orson doesn't like Blonde women. He only likes dark women. And suddenly when he saw me in this dark wig, he looked at me with new eyes. "Was this Marlene?"
Here is the text of the letter Welles sent to Dietrich to convince her to play Tanya in Touch of Evil. Dietrich framed the letter and kept it over the fireplace in her New York apartment.
—— Of course it will be a real CHARACTER and
not a “personal appearance”.
I know we can make it something entirely new and really worth while—
and I can’t tell you how excited I am at the prospect. . .