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HESTON, CHARLTON: Touch of Evil

BEST B-MOVIE EVER MADE
In an interview with our special contributor SUE VERMILIONS, Charlton Heston describes how the editing of Touch of Evil was originally completed by Universal in Orson Welles' absence. As a result the film was released with the credits partially obscuring its astonishingly complex single-take opening (a virtuoso shot that has since become part of Hollywood lore.

Q: What do you think of the new cut of Touch of Evil?

A: It is, I think, probably closer to the film Orson had in mind. There are no new shots: the shots that he made and the couple of shots the studio made were always there - it's a question of how you cut them, how you edit them, and I'm very pleased with the work as it stands now. And I think Orson would be.

Q. Do you think it's better than the previously released cut, or just different?

A. Maybe the outstanding example, the best single shot in the whole picture, one of the historic shots in all of film, is the opening sequence. And in the original, not very successful release of the film as the studio had finally cut it, that plays behind the credits and you can hardly make out the shot. That was just ridiculous. That alone is worth all the work of reassembling the picture.

When Orson was shooting the film, Universal was absolutely delighted with what they saw; for one thing, that he was able to shoot so fast. And they made an offer of a 5-picture deal with him, of which Touch of Evil was to be the first. But then he walked off in the middle of editing, which is a really bad no-no, to try to raise money for a film of Don Quixote that he wanted to do with me. That was very nice, but he should have waited till he'd turned in his director's cut to do that, because that opened a gulf with the studio that was never filled."

Q: Can you describe the circumstances under which you and Welles were engaged to work on the film? I understand that Universal had sent you a couple of scripts, of which one was adapted by Paul Monash from a little-known novel by Whit Masterton called Badge of Evil and that Orson would later rewrite the script without having read the novel after the studio took up your suggestion that he direct.

A: They called me after a few days and asked if I had read it (the Monash script). I said 'Yeah, it's OK. It's a police story and they've been making police stories by the dozen for 40 years, so it really depends on who's directing it.' They said 'We don't have a director yet.'

Q: And you suggested Orson?

A: In a sense my major contribution and possibly my major contribution to the film medium, is that.
(Heston then describes how after they had finished shooting the picture in Venice, California and when they were sitting around congratulating each other on 'how marvellously we'd done', Heston says he told him: 'You know Orson, I'm delighted to have done this. I've learned a great deal, but really you only made one mistake. There are two or three short scenes in the film only to demonstrate that I have the leading role. I should in fact (have known) as you certainly know, this story is about the decline and fall of Captain Quinlan (Welles' role). 'Man, I knew that,' he said. (Heston adapts a gravelly Wellesian voice), 'Well, I don't have to worry about that in the cutting, do I?'

Q: Many people have praised the astonishingly seedy performances Welles gives, where you can almost smell the corruption coming off him. What did you think of his performance?

A: It was wonderful. One of his best performances perhaps this side of Citizen Kane, his best performance.

Q: Did his reputation as a director over-shadow his reputation as an actor?

A: Oh, I think he was a better director than an actor, though he was a good actor very good, if you like. He wasn't Lawrence Olivier. Although the Falstaff he did in Chimes of Midnight is very good. That whole film is good.

Q: In your autobiography In the Arena, you wrote that Orson making a film was different to Orson between films. What did you mean by that?

A: Well he was great fun, but it could be difficult sometimes to keep him focussed on a given project until he actually had the money to do it. There's nothing wrong with that. But he was very good company to be around. If he was at a table of 10 people, why he would dominate the conversation; but he would say more interesting things than anybody else had to say.

Q: Where would you rank Touch of Evil among the pictures you've made?

A: Oh, gosh, that I'm asked all the time, and I don't really know the answer because I've made primarily three categories of films. I'm very proud of the fact that I've made more Shakespearian films than any other American actor and that I've played a fair number of films that have made huge amounts of money, which means you get the chance to make more films. And I've done more historical characters, genuinely great men, than, as far as I can tell, any American actor. So that's all three different categories. And where Touch of Evil would fit in there, I don't know. Certainly the chance to work with Orson I learned a lot from him. An offhand example. One time he said in the middle of a shot (adapts Wellesian voice), 'Chuck, you know, those of us with these lovely bass voices love to rumble along you've got to work on your tenor range a little, Chuck.' I took it to heart, and I did.

Q: Have you seen the influence of this film on other movies a lot of people have commented on the motel scene's apparent influence on Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, which also featured Janet Leigh?

A: Well, no, (it's) the opening sequence that other directors have copied. It's a great shot, no question. The motel scene is Ok. It's a good scene, but to compare it to the opening sequence that's an incredible shot.

Q: How was Janet Leigh, who played your character's new American wife, to work with?

A: Janet Leigh was fine to work with. Actually if you think back to the film, we are separate almost all the time, after the opening sequence. I only see her in the jail and then at the very end. Janet is fine in the part and she had a cracked wrist that she was working with.

Q: In your book, you wrote that maybe Orson had too much talent. What did you mean by that?

A: I don't know if I said 'too much talent'. How can you have too much talent? I think so many things were so easy for him creatively, that he must have felt he was constantly stopping in his tracks and waiting for everbody else to catch up. But I loved working with him.

Q: What are the qualities that Touch of Evil has that make it a special film, do you think?

A: It's a fine film. It is the best B movie ever made. B movies are a separate genre and to make a great B movie is extraordinary.

Q: Of course Hollywood now routinely takes B movie plots and spends $100 million making them.

Q: Well sometimes they don't turn out.



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WALTER MURCH details of the restoration

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Beginning on Thursday May 27 at Sydney's Chauvel Cinema and on May 30 at Melbourne's Astor, is a newly completed 'director's cut' of Touch of Evil, Orson Welles' 1958 baroque noir masterpiece set in a town straddling the Mexican- American border. It stars Welles as corrupt US detective Hank Quinlan, Charlton Heston as Mexican narcotics investigator Vargas, Janet Leigh as his American wife and Marlene Dietrich as a gypsy madam.

Touch of Evil has been fully restored and re-edited by editor Walter Murch, according to an 58 page memo of instructions that Welles sent to the studio.

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