It took him a long time to finish, was unheralded when it was first released — but Touch of Evil is now considered one of his best. It also marked the end of Orson Welles’ fabled career in the U.S. as a movie director.
By 1947, he had more than wore out his Hollywood welcome as the boy genius who directed Citizen Kane at age 25. Heading for Europe was Welles way of extricating himself from an increasingly dicey domestic situation. As an outspoken leftist he was wary, to say the least, of the “Red crusade” coming out at the time from Washington.
There was also the glaring fact that Welles had by the mid Forties almost gleefully alienated key studio brass, who in turn effectively cut off his directoral pay checks. In short, he couldn’t get studio work.
Welles decided it was time to take a European hike — which lasted on and off for more than 20 years — to finance his movies on his own sometimes via his acting fees charged to other pictures.
In 1949’s The Third Man, as the memorably evil ‘Harry Lime,’ Welles solidified his reputation in Europe as a major star. The role led to radio, print and other spinoffs. From his handsome earnings, Welles would film in fits and starts his personal projects such as 1952’s Othello and 1955’s Mr. Arkadin (the title character of which was in a general way modeled on the Harry Lime character).
But, according to biographer Simon Callow, whose superb Orson Welles: One Man Band has just been published, Welles was frustrated by the European technicians he was forced to employ. He longed for the skill and efficiency so often displayed by the Hollywood studio staffs he had worked with.
How he got his wish is fascinatingly told in Callow’s excellent (a must-read) book. Some highlights:
— It was Charlton Heston, the star of Touch of Evil, who is given credit for Welles’ hiring as director by Universal. Heston, who much admired Welles, was very big at the time (he had just starred in The Ten Commandments) and his recommendation carried weight.
— Welles was hired but was paid only for his acting role in the picture, not for his direction and script writing. It was well worth it to him, writes Callow. This was exactly what he needed; exactly what he had come back from Europe for a year earlier — not television, not the stage, not Las Vegas; he wanted to direct a film in Hollywood.
— The film’s most inventive shots (and there were many) were carried out by cinematographer Russell Metty in close collaboration with Welles. The film’s opening, an elaborate one-take depiction of a car bombing, is now legendary and is said to have been Metty’s idea.
Between them, wrote Callow, Metty and Welles summon up a definitive world…integrating an expressionist vocabulary of low and skewed angles and distorting lenses into the more humdrum vernacular of cop movies, plunging the audience into the characters’ nightmare experience.
We’ve deliberately refrained from discussing what Touch of Evil is about, and who’s in it — besides Welles and Heston, Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver, Ray Collins, Joseph Cotten, Mercedes McCambridge, Zsa Zsa Gabor — plus Marlene Dietrich and Joseph Calleia, who steal the show. A great cast.
Our hope is that you’ll get a copy of the film and take a look. As with so many of Welles’ directoral efforts, Touch of Evil ended badly. There was a protracted dispute with Universal, a second director was brought in to film some scenes and recriminations were cast all around. Welles went back to Europe.
The picture opened in January 1958, as part of a double bill. The studio did little or nothing to promote it. It died at the box office. Forty years later, Touch of Evil was officially recut and restored according to the elaborate directions Welles’ had left with Universal. See it. It’s a masterpiece.