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Touch of Evil - Orson Welles
Image: Universal-International


Cursed Genius: Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil

The Overwhelming Drama of a Strange Vengeance

Sometimes when I see a late-career Orson Welles film, or even his appearance on the rerun of an old talk show, I think about what a burden it must have been for Orson Welles to be Orson Welles.

Think about it:  just about since he stepped out of his mother’s womb he’d been hailed as some kind of genius in art, as an actor and a producer/director in theater, then later in radio.  Only twenty-five, this multi-talented enfant terrible decided to give cinema a try and as a writer/director/actor, for his first film, turned out…Citizen Kane (1941).  I mean, you know…CITIZEN KANE!  

At this late date, it’s easy to confuse the film’s commercial failure at the time (due less to audience antipathy than to media tycoon William Randolph Hearst – who took the film as a barely disguised skewering of his own public image – exerting his considerable wealth and media muscle to crush Kane’s release) with unrecognized greatness, but even at the time, critics knew they were watching something spectacularly unique. Pauline Kael, in her wonderful essay on all things Kane-related – “Raising Kane” — described the film’s 1941 critical reception as “thunderous.”  The New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review both named Kane as the best picture of 1941, and the film received no less than nine Academy Award nominations including Best Director making Welles the youngest filmmaker ever to be so nominated (a record which would hold for a half-century; however, the film’s only Oscar win was for Best Screenplay which Welles shared with co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz).

But where do you go after greatness your first time out?  Decades later, Welles would tell filmmaker Henry Jaglom, “With my first film…I had nowhere to go but down!” 

The films Welles made between Kane and 1948 showed flashes of the same directorial brilliance but never achieved (in their time) the critical stature of KaneThe Magnificent Ambersons (1942) might’ve been as good as Kane had not Welles flown off for an aborted documentary project in South America leaving Amerbersons to suffer a re-editing mauling and clunky tacked on happy ending by RKO.  Journey into Fear, which he produced but didn’t direct (although some sources say otherwise), was his third box office stiff in a row for RKO.  As if trying to make a point that he wasn’t some erratic genius, he turned in The Stranger (1946), a solid piece of entertainment and the only box office success of his career, a day ahead of schedule and under budget, but then followed it up with The Lady from Shanghai (1947).  The hall of mirrors sequence in Lady still dazzles as a pitch-perfect blend of visual exuberance and thematic subtext, but the movie overall didn’t click at the box office.  With such a lousy batting average, one has to ask what was going through Welles’ head when he made an audience-challenging low-budget version of Macbeth (1948) that almost predictably followed Lady down the box office toilet.

It was a pattern which would remain with Welles the rest of his career:  box office duds often initially dismissed (although he usually fared better critically in Europe) but later acclaimed too late to do him any professional good.  Except for The Stranger, Welles could never find love with the ticket-buying public; that great fickle mass he once described as “…the big, many-headed beast crouching out there in the darkness,” on which the industry not only depends, but by whose favor they measure bankability. 

After Kane, and with a parade of box office losers considered (at the time) lesser efforts, Welles’ career tended to be consistently characterized as – so Joel Finler writes in his book The Director’s Story – one of “…unfulfilled genius – (Welles) a director…of great talent and originality who astonished the film world with his brilliant first feature…but has never been able to equal the achievement.”

An Alva Johnston piece in The Saturday Evening Post had already written off Welles’ future in Hollywood as early as 1942:  “Big agents soon lost interest in the boy genius.  They learned that he wasn’t interested in money….Genius got a bad name because of Welles…Since…Welles…it has been practically impossible to interest a big agent in an intellectual giant.”

In “Raising Kane”, Pauline Kael writes:

“A decade after Citizen Kane…the terms ‘wonder boy’ and ‘boy genius’ were thrown in Welles’ face.  When Welles was only thirty-six, the normally gracious (critic) Walter Kerr referred to him as ‘an international joke, and possibly the youngest living has-been’.”

“You know, I always loved Hollywood,” Welles would say in reflection years later, “It was just never reciprocated.”

By 1948, Hollywood and Welles had little use for each other, and Welles would spend most of the next decade in Europe, scraping together money – often through acting gigs — to make personal projects like Othello (1951) and Mr. Arkadin (1955).  Despite these efforts often displaying his usual visual exuberance, Welles could put together neither a financial success nor one which earned the same critical respect as Citizen Kane.

The shadow of Kane must have haunted him; it certainly annoyed him.  When asked years later to provide a commentary track for Kane, Welles refused saying he was tired of talking about the film.  The early label of genius also had to weigh on him:  “The word ‘genius’ was whispered into my ear, the first thing I ever heard, while I was still mewling in my crib.  So it never occurred to me that I wasn’t until middle age.”

In 1957, as he approached that middle age mark and its dispiriting epiphany, he returned to the U.S.  “I went a year without almost nothing,” he later recalled, “just sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring.”  Finally, in 1957, Universal tapped him to play a villainous ranch owner second-billed to Jeff Chandler in Man in the Shadow.  For what would, in my opinion, be Welles’ most artistically significant film of the filmmaker’s post-Kane career, this put Welles in the right place at the right time.


Image: Universal-International

Universal had acquired the film rights to the “Whit Masterson” novel (the name was a pen name taken on by co-authors Robert Allison Wade and H. Bill Miller) Badge of Evil in 1956.  The novel’s plot concerns an assistant district attorney, Mitch Holt, who begins to suspect that the latest bust by local legend cop Hank Quinlan might be based on planted evidence and that maybe even his past arrests are equally tainted.  Holt’s efforts to expose Quinlan put both his own life and that of his Mexican wife at risk.

I’ve read different things about the novel, one source dismissing it as a routine “potboiler,” and another that the novel had been well-reviewed and sold quite well.  In any case, Universal began developing the property and showed it to Charlton Heston, then a major talent who had, just the previous year, starred in a humongous hit with The Ten Commandments (1956).  Universal wanted Heston to play the lead; the Holt character.  Heston liked what he saw in an early draft of the script but didn’t think the project was particularly exceptional.  The project took a turn when the actor asked who was directing.

As he wrote in his book, The Actor’s Life:  Journals 1956 – 1976:

When I called Universal and asked them this cogent question (about who would direct), they said, ‘Well, that’s not set yet, but we have Orson Welles to play the heavy.’  I made the obvious comment, ‘Why not have him direct, too.  He’s pretty good’.”

Heston would later prod his agent to push Universal to give Welles the director’s chair and they finally agreed.  “It’s only a police-suspense story, like the ones they’ve been doing for thirty-some years,” Heston journaled, “but I think with (Welles) it might have a chance to be something.”

And it was.


Anybody who’d seen Welles as he worked the celebrity talk show circuit and televised Friars’ Roasts in the last stage of his career in the 1970s-80s could clearly see here was a showboating showman of the first magnitude:  glib, charming, sophisticated, full of colorful tales of Hollywood, entertainingly self-deprecating, occasionally displaying his gift for sleight-of-hand magic.

At times, he seemed very aware – maybe too aware — of his significance in the cinematic firmament, and that sometimes got away from him in that he felt compelled to lay his hands on whatever job he’d gotten to leave his mark.  There are stories of Welles in his acting gigs sometimes overstepping, as in the chaotic production of Casino Royale (1967) where he insisted on shoehorning his magic skills into his cameo as the villainous Le Chiffre much to the irritation of Peter Sellers with whom he shared the scene.  Other times, Welles, whose ego at times knew no bounds, seemed to take credit for work he didn’t do.  Part of the goal of Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” was to be a pointed reminder that the Oscar-winning screenplay wasn’t solely the work of Welles.  And there was a 1958 interview where Welles seemed to imply he had something to do with the making of The Third Man (1949), an easy sell to make since stylistically, it may be the most Wellesian movie Welles didn’t direct, but there’s no evidence to support that anyone but credited director Carol Reed was at the helm.  Still, Welles did contribute the famous Cuckoo Clock speech.

Welles plays Harry Lime, a completely amoral black marketeer who – in one of the film’s great set pieces – has a lengthy scene with his old friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) in which he lays out a rationale for his sociopathic conduct.  According to Graham Greene, who wrote the screenplay, the scene needed what writers call a “button” and Welles came up with this:

“You know what the fellow said:  In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed; but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce?  The cuckoo clock!”

My point is Welles – whether he was in front or in back of the camera – tried to put his personal stamp on whatever material came his way as if to sneak in the message I still have it.  He would do no less with Touch of Evil – a project Universal had evidently expected and hoped to be a routine cop thriller.  My suspicion is Welles saw in the project the possibility of a return to Hollywood’s good graces as a filmmaker.  Both parties were to be disappointed.


Images: Universal-International

Welles’ first step was to junk much of the screenplay that had already been developed.  Years later, Janet Leigh, who would be cast as Charlton Heston’s wife in the film, recalled how Welles began to redevelop the script:

“It started with rehearsals.  We rehearsed two weeks prior to shooting, which was unusual.  We rewrote most of the dialogue, all of us, which was also unusual, and Mr. Welles always wanted our input.  It was a collective effort, and there was such a surge of participation, of creativity, of energy…You felt you were inventing something as you went along.  Mr. Welles wanted to seize every moment.  He didn’t want one bland moment.”

Welles would put the screenplay through several drafts, each one, according to Heston’s journals, improving on what had come before.

The biggest changes Welles made to the original story were to move the setting from San Diego to the U.S./Mexico border and change the central character – the narcotics cop played by Heston – to a Mexican, and his wife to an American.  Said Welles:

“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.”  A running theme throughout Touch of Evil is that of racial bias; the word of American cop Hank Quinlan (Welles) is always taken over that of Mexican narc Vargas (Heston), Vargas can be suspected of corruption but not Quinlan, and when Vargas’ wife (Leigh) is set up to look like a killer junkie, even though she’s an American, there’s an attitude – fostered by Quinlan — of, Well, what do you expect?

Welles wanted to shoot in Tijuana but when that seemed impractical, opted for Venice, California, then a city in decay.  If The Third Man had at all been influenced by Welles’ earlier work, I sometimes wonder if Welles, on Touch, might’ve been influenced by Third Man, replacing bombed-out Vienna with a crumbling Venice.  Forgive the shameless self-promotion, but as I wrote in my book, Overkill:  The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema:

“(Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty) found a similar tone of disillusionment and corruption (to The Third Man) for Touch of Evil among the cracked-plaster arcades and riverside garbage dumps of Venice, California.  With its overlapping dialogue, distorted visuals, flowing crane shots, towering oil derricks glowing in the dark, and a border town boulevard teeming with seediness, Touch’s ‘queasy meltdown style’ (the words of film critic Harlan Kennedy) turns reality into a fever dream of moral entropy.”

Welles encouraged improvisation from his cast to – as Janet Leigh said – make every moment of the movie pop.  Dennis Weaver who, at the time, was known to audiences as the steadfast deputy Chester Goode to James Arness’ Matt Dillon on the hit TV Western Gunsmoke, was cast as a weirdo night clerk at a motel where Leigh is whisked to be first psychologically tormented by her husband’s dope-dealing enemies, and then later assaulted.  Weaver described the experience in Barbara Leaming’s biography, Orson Welles:

“We went into his (Weaver’s character’s) whole background – about his mother and how he was a mamma’s boy.  He had this terrible guilt about sex and yet he had a large sex drive.  There were no words to indicate such a thing in the script at all, but it gave him an interesting behavior pattern when we put it all together.  The main thing was his attraction to women and his fear of them at the same time.”

Welles may have had an insatiable ego which sometimes pushed him to hog credit, but in production he was all for collaboration which would push a project beyond the routine toward something making bold thematic and stylistic statements; something distinctively, uniquely Wellesian.  It was that kind of collaboration with cinematographer Gregg Toland which had produced the distinctive look of Citizen Kane, and again with lensman Stanley Cortez on The Magnificent Ambersons, and so it was on Touch of Evil in his working relationship with another of the all-time great cinematographers, Russell Metty.

One presumes they had a productive rapport already established as Welles had previously worked with Metty on The Stranger.  In Touch of Evil, the two took the noiry shadow play of Kane, made the lights and darks harsher, mixed it with sharp angles and distortion and came up with a visual style bordering on German expressionism.  

Some of the ways Welles and Metty stepped beyond the usual studio norms were to light the oil derricks at night which only increased an oppressive sense of industrial seediness to the setting.  They filmed the first dialogue scene ever shot in a moving car at a time when such scenes were typically shot in front of a back projection screen.  And then there were the long takes, the most famous of which is the three-and-a-half minute opening crane shot, probably the most discussed single shot in the film.

Producer Albert Zugsmith tried to insulate Welles and the production from Universal brass but that didn’t mean they weren’t nervous.  From Heston’s journals:

“…we began shooting with a drama no doubt Orson planned.  We rehearsed all day, lining up a dolly shot covering the entire first scene in (murder suspect) Sanchez’s apartment.  We never turned a camera all morning or all afternoon, the studio brass gathering in the shadows in anxious little knots.  By the time we began filming at a quarter to six, I know they’d written off the whole day.  At seven-forty, Orson said, ‘Ok, print.  That’s a wrap on this set.  We’re two days ahead of schedule.’  Twelve pages in one take, including inserts, two-shots, over-shoulders; the whole scene in one, moving through three rooms with seven speaking parts.”

Still, overall, Zugsmith provided Welles with the uninterrupted peace he needed to be at his most creative, and the filmmaker would look back on the experience as the most fun he’d ever had on a shoot working with a suitable budget, a cast he enjoyed, and no front office “suits” looking over his shoulder.

But no Orson Welles story has a happy ending.


Image: Universal-International

It was a repeat of what had happened to The Magnificent Ambersons.  Welles flew to New York to appear on a talk show while the film was still in the editing stage.  When Welles returned to L.A., he found himself locked out of the editing room while Universal execs, bewildered by the film’s high style and complicated plot (Roger Ebert would write in a later appreciation that Touch of Evil’s plot flows not in a straight line but in “loops and coils”), had the film re-cut in a way which outraged Welles.  Just as bad, the studio had no faith in the film and released it on the bottom half of a double bill; to them, it was just another B-caliber crime meller.

From Charlton Heston’s journals:

“I’m afraid it’s simply not a good picture.  It has the brilliance that made each day’s rushes look so exciting, of course.  Indeed, there’s hardly a dull shot in the film.  But it doesn’t hold together as a story.”

Reviewers at the time agreed, often damning the film as an exercise in style over substance.

The studio-inflicted box office failure of Touch of Evil seemed to cement Welles’ reputation as a filmmaker studios — whose priority was the jangle of cash registers — couldn’t trust.  For the man behind Citizen Kane, it would be his last time behind the camera on a Hollywood film.


Years later, the film would get the restoration treatment based on a lengthy memo Welles had written of how the movie should’ve been shaped.  But even before that, even in its studio-meddled form, enough of Welles came through to cultivate a following for the movie.

When Touch of Evil was shown at the 1958 Brussels World Film Festival (which Universal tried to prevent), the film was given the two top awards as well as the International Critics Prize; Europe always seemed to have a better understanding of Welles’ work than his native country.  But these foreign accolades did nothing to bolster his standing in Hollywood.

Welles would still occasionally make movies overseas, but the bulk of the rest of his career was spent working up financing – or even just paying bills – with acting gigs, celebrity appearances on TV, even doing commercials (Welles’ wonderfully sonorous voice reduced to shilling for Paul Masson wines:  “We will serve no wine…before it’s time”).

As it happens, I know someone who worked with Welles during that stage of his career, and it sort of gives some picture about how far his standing in the business had slid.

In 1972, the Emmy-winning writer/producer team of Bill Persky and Sam Denoff had written an updated version of the Moss Hart/George S. Kaufman stage comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, and were producing it for TV for the anthology umbrella, Hallmark Hall of Fame.  They thought Orson Welles would be perfect casting for the central character of Sheridan Whiteside, an abrasive, arrogant, and condescending media personality who takes command of the household of an upscale Ohio family when he takes a fall and can’t be moved.

The taping had to take place in London as Welles was typically in financial trouble.  As Persky wrote in his memoir, My Life Is a Situation Comedy:

“(Welles) couldn’t play (the role) in America:  he owed so much in back taxes to the IRS he couldn’t work in the U.S. and keep any of the money.”

Hired to direct was veteran TV director Buzz Kulik who, the previous year, had won an Emmy for directing the quintessential male sports weeper, Brian’s Song (1971).

Persky, again:

“Buzz was tough, an ingredient we thought necessary with someone as powerful as Mr. Welles….early in the rehearsal period it became clear Welles was going to challenge him and Buzz was going to show Orson Welles who was boss.  It is my belief that ‘that’ director doesn’t exist, including whoever is running things wherever Mr. Welles is spending eternity.  ‘The Kulik-Welles War’ started on the second day of rehearsal…”

The contention between the one-time boy genius and the fresh-off-his-Emmy-win TV director resulted in “…delays, long hours, and an unhappy crew…” throughout the shoot.  Things seemed to reach a nadir over the taping’s final shot:  “The disagreement started out simple but quickly escalated to the battle of egos that had been building from Day One.”

Welles characteristically had his own ideas for the shot, Kulik made the point that he was the one (literally) calling the shots, and there followed “…an escalating exchange of barbs, challenges, and insults ending with Orson playing his trump card:  ‘I should remind you, Mr. Kulik, you are talking to the director of Citizen Kane’.

“The response was devastating:  ‘A film I always felt was highly overrated, Mr. Welles…”

At which point Welles walked off the shoot.

Eventually, Persky and Denoff managed to coax a public apology out of Kulik and the shoot was wrapped, but I think the point is made:  Citizen Kane could keep making Best of All Time lists, but Orson Welles had been reduced to a hired hand.


Orson Welles

I won’t dispute the assertion that Citizen Kane deserves its place as one of the best and most important films ever made.  I’d even go with the idea that The Magnificent Ambersons isn’t far behind.  As cinematic art, yeah, ok, I’ll say they do trump Touch of Evil.

But where Touch has the edge is that I’d argue it’s the most fun of Welles-directed films, one that can be enjoyed as much as appreciated.  Great as Kane and Ambersons are, they don’t have moments like my favorite one near the end where Heston’s narc is facing off with Welles’ Quinlan in a riverside garbage dump.  “This is where you’re gonna die,” Quinlan says, holding a gun on a defenseless Heston.  When Heston says that nobody’ll buy Quinlan’s b.s. about how Heston would wind up dead, with Russ Metty’s up-tilted camera accenting the gross, sweaty corruption of the man, Welles’ Quinlan sneers, “Wanna bet?”

In 1958, the noir wave was just about spent, and Touch of Evil – one of the noiriest of noirs – was a closing aria to the genre, and showed that Welles, indeed, still had it.  And perfectly noir turn, that it didn’t matter.

“I made essentially a mistake staying in movies,” Welles later reflected, “…(but) it’s the mistake I can’t regret because it’s like saying, ‘I shouldn’t have stayed married to that woman, but I did because I love her’.  I would have been more successful if I’d left movies immediately…I’ve spent the greater part of my lie looking for money…too much energy on things that have nothing to do with a movie.  It’s about 2% movie making and 98% hustling.  It’s no way to spend a life.”

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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