In 1958 the Academy Awards ignored Orson Welles’s TOUCH OF EVIL: Were they really that dumb?
In 1958, the year Touch of Evil and Vertigo were released, these were the nominees for best picture: Auntie Mame, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones, Gigi (the winner) and Separate Tables.
Besides Richard Brooks bowdlerized version of Tennessee William's great play, I don't own any of these pictures. I certainly don't think any of them is better than Touch of Evil or Vertigo. 50 years later, I don't think any serious film historian would dispute that, except perhaps for the members of the Academy who never saw fit to give Welles, Hitchcock, Kubrick or Hawks an Oscar as best director. In fact, looking back, here are five superior films from 1958 that should have been nominated:Touch of Evil, Vertigo, Man of the West, Bonjour Tristesse and Nazarin.
Of course, back in 1958, it is understandable how the Academy could actually manage to ignore Touch of Evil given the way it was released. Yet, how in this 50th Anniversary year, they could still ignore the film and all the other very major mistakes they made in their 1958 awards, seems to defy logic, but I can still understand it (see Mr. Arkadin's fable about the Scorpion and the frog.)
So in 1958 Touch of Evil received no nominations. Alfred Hitchcock's great masterpiece, Vertigo, received two nominations, for art direction and sound, but won in neither category. Ray Harryhausen's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad also failed to get a nod for it's groundbreaking special effects. In the music category, two of Bernard Herrmann's greatest scores were totally overlooked in favor of Dimitri Tiomkin's mediocre The Old Man and the Sea ! And Russell Metty's great black and white camerawork was considered lesser than the five nominated films for best cinematography. Clearly the Academy was wrong about many of the "best" films of 1958. The three they are most wrong about will all be released on October 7th in 50th anniversary DVD editions.
In 1958, the Academy's big winner was Vincente Minnelli's Gigi, a film so far behind the work of Hitchcock and Welles, one can only wonder how the Academy can seriously offer up a salute to Leslie Caron (on October 10th with a sold-out screening of Gigi) on the 50th anniversary of their idiotic mistakes, while still ignoring the 50th anniversary of Touch of Evil, Vertigo and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad !
Well, as Oscar Wilde said, "We learn nothing from experience believe me. Experience is merely the name men give to their mistakes. And all it really demonstrates is that our future will be the same as our past. And that the sin we did once and with loathing we will do many times and with joy."
In any event, the reason for this diatribe is that I have just received a copy of Universal's new two-disc, three film DVD set of Orson Welles's masterful Touch of Evil. I think it's very safe to say this is the version of the film we've all been waiting for. Of course, we must thank Criterion and producer Issa Clubb for breaking the ground in this area, by showing the studios what can and should be done with Orson Welles work, by giving us their three disc set of Mr. Arkadin. However, I don't think anyone, including Orson Welles himself would ever say Mr. Arkadin was among his greatest works.
Touch of Evil, on the other hand, was clearly a masterpiece of film noir, and a very major Welles film. Yes, it got taken away from Welles and was cut down to only 93 minutes by the studio, but like Ambersons, it was still a great movie that was far ahead of it's time.
In any case, until the official release of Touch of Evil on October 7th, Wellesnet will be offing up a 7-day tribute to Welles masterful movie. To begin, here is the letter Charlton Heston wrote to the Los Angeles Times after the re-edited version of the film appeared in 1998:
Monday, February 9, 1998 - Los Angeles Times Calendar
'Touch of Evil' Needed a Final Touch of Welles
By CHARLTON HESTON
I was glad to read your update on Universal's restoration and re-release of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" (ironic note: the work will undoubtedly cost more than the original film--we had 30 days and $800,000; we came in one night and $29,000 over budget). I'm sure [film editor] Walter Murch and his colleagues are equal to their task ("Orson Welles Gets Final Cut--at Last," Calendar, Jan. 31).
It's often been said that Welles deserved more of Hollywood than he got; true enough. Also true: Film, the art form of our time, deserved more of Welles than he gave.
Once I'd persuaded Universal to accept Welles as director, he flung himself into the project with the full range of his protean creative capacities. He rewrote the entire script in 10 days, vastly improving it.
The shoot went very well, as did the editing, some of which I watched and learned from. I also saw several reels of Welles' rough cut, superbly done. I then went off to film "The Big Country" for William Wyler.
Two months later, the studio called me in the Mojave: Could I reach Welles? On turning in his cut, he'd gone off to Mexico to raise money for "Don Quixote" and hadn't called them since. When I got back in town, I found Welles and read his 58-page memo, but by then, the fat was in the fire.
In terms of sheer talent, I admire Welles as much as any of the fine directors I've had the good luck to work for, but the director cannot abandon a film in post-production.
I look forward to the film's reincarnation, warts, wonders, cross cuts and all, though it occurs to me that the most memorable scenes in the film--the stunning boom shot that opens the picture, the 12-page scene in Sanchez's apartment, the scene driving down the alley (with me and my partner running the sound and the camera during the take)--were all shot as seamless setups, with no cuts at all.
In the end, Cahier du Cinema's early judgment may be the best. " 'Touch of Evil' is not a great film," they said. "It is undoubtedly the best B movie ever made." I'll settle for that.
P.S.: I'm bemused that your reporter found my casting as a Mexican attorney "bizarre." It was the first of more than a dozen non-American roles I've played, from Brits, Scots, Irishmen to a variety of kings, tyrants, cardinals and geniuses. Don't we call that nontraditional casting nowadays?