Directed by: Orson Welles
Starring: Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich
Perhaps the most legendary of all Orson Welles films, apart from Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil (1958) actually deserves its legend status—even if some of the legend is fabricated. (The notion put forth in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) that Universal was spuriously offering up Charlton Heston as a Mexican to Welles is nonsense, since it was Heston who was fobbing Welles off on a very unenthused Universal.) Today, this rich, dark noir thriller can be seen as one of Welles’ most controlled and effective works—in part because it can now be seen as Welles intended. When it appeared in 1958, Universal had no interest in it, didn’t like it, recut it, and shipped it off to play at drive-ins. How much of this was Hollywood’s still burning desire to punish Welles for being “difficult” is impossible to say; but it likely also has at least as much to do with the unsuitably grim atmosphere that hangs over the film in comparison to the straightforward thriller the studio had been hoping for.
One of the ironies today is that Touch of Evil is rarely thought of for its star, Heston, but rather for both Welles’ direction and Welles’ performance as the corrupt border-town Sheriff Hank Quinlan. That’s understandable, because it really is every inch Welles’ film on both levels. His shambling, looming, sweaty figure pervades the film and is far more interesting than Heston’s hero. Welles’ casting of Marlene Dietrich (whose only previous screen connection with Welles had been in 1944 in his magic act in Follow the Boys) as a fortune-telling brothel keeper and Quinlan’s apparent mistress further takes the edge away from the ostensible star. Not only does Dietrich get the film’s funniest line—“Lay off the candy bars,” she tells the padded-for-extra-girth Welles at one point—but she gets the line that now seems prophetic: “Your future is all used up.” In a sense it was. Despite the fact that at least one masterpiece, Chimes at Midnight (1965), lay ahead, Touch of Evil would be the last film Hollywood allowed Welles to make. But what a way to go out!
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Touch of Evil at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 19, in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community, 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville. (From Asheville, take I-26 to U.S. 64 West, turn right at the third light onto Thompson Street. Follow to the Lake Point Landing entrance and park in the lot on the left.)