Return to Hollywood: Touch of Evil (1958)

Marking Welles’s return to the U.S. as a director after a few movies produced in Europe, Touch of Evil was originally entitled Badge of Evil after the Whit Masterson novel from which it was adapted. Welles played the supporting role of Police Captain Hank Quinlan, while Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh starred as Mike and Susan Vargas. Along for the ride were Joseph Calleia and Akim Tamiroff.

Welles wanted to shoot a large segment of Touch of Evil in Tijuana, but thinking of the debacle in Rio de Janeiro stemming from the shooting of the never-released It’s All True, Universal forbade it.

As for the script, Charlton Heston says that Welles “took what was a very routine police story, the kind they do on television, on Hill Street Blues or something, and gave it what distinction it had. That was entirely his.”

Welles had learned from shooting Citizen Kane that studios sometimes planted a spy or two among ostensible crew members, so he endeavored, in returning to stateside directing after a decade in Europe, to put on a show for anyone who may have been planted by Universal. Near the end of the first day, he shot eleven pages of script in one take.

The next day it was to the streets of Venice, CA, a stand-in for Los Robles, Mexico. Welles had cameras mounted on cars for a big chase scene, and used a wig cast off from Elizabeth Taylor for Marlene Dietrich in her bit part as a fortune teller. In another shot, the camera starts with a close-up of a bomb in a car, then swings on a crane across the street, showing a wash of houses and pedestrians and the two main characters.  The shot ends with the car bursting into flames.

Of the finished product, Charles Higham writes, “in no other picture did (Welles) match the feverish intensity of the action or the extremity of the black humor.” In fact, he says, “so nervous was the production company that it released the movie without a preview. It clearly was afraid of what the reviews might say.” Welles himself didn’t want the studio to have a chance to preview his opus. Near the end of post-production, Welles took a quick flew to NYC for “The Steve Allen Show,” and post-production head Ernest Nims took advantage of the absence to sneak in a quick in-house screening. Hearing of this from editor Virgil Vogel, Welles shouted “tell them if they run it, I’ll fly back there, and I won’t use an airplane.”

Noting that the critical reception was “not what it should have been,” Higham asserts that Welles was ahead of his time. “Touch of Evil,” the biographer writes, “looked forward to a world of increased violence and corruption and the drug-oriented culture that was to emerge in the 1960s.”

Higham, Charles. Orson Welles: The Rise and Fall of An American Genius. New York: St.
Martin’s. 1985.
Leaming, Barbara. Orson Welles. New York: Viking. 1983.


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