Orson Welles

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil (1958)

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston in Touch of Evil (1958)

  • Born:  1915
  • Died:  1985
  • Rank:  16
  • Score:  735.30
  • Nominations:  Oscar
  • Feature Films:  10
  • Best:  Touch of Evil
  • Worst:  Mr. Arkadin

Top 5 Films:

  1. Touch of Evil – 1958
  2. Citizen Kane – 1941
  3. Chimes at Midnight – 1965
  4. The Magnificent Ambersons – 1942
  5. Othello – 1952

Top 10 Best Director Finishes  (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1941 – 1st – Citizen Kane
  • 1942 – 2nd – The Magnificent Ambersons
  • 1946 – 9th – The Stranger
  • 1948 – 4th – Macbeth
  • 1948 – 5th – The Lady from Shanghai
  • 1955 – 9th – Othello
  • 1958 – 1st – Touch of Evil
  • 1967 – 2nd – Chimes at Midnight

“There, but for the grace of God, goes God.”

Herman J. Mankiewicz referring to Orson Welles during the shooting of Citizen Kane

I was distracted by other things on Friday when I meant to start this, but as I sat on the T reading Andrew Sarris, I came upon his article concerning Pauline Kael and her attacks on Orson Welles in her own article “Raising Kane.”  Kael wanted to negate Welles’ contributions to the script of Kane and place most of the credit with Mankiewicz, but in reality, it was a thinly veiled attack on the entire auteur theory.  Kael felt that Welles was a shallow genius.  But the fact is, Welles was a genius.  With the possible exception of Charlie Chaplin, he was the single most talented person to ever sit foot in Hollywood.  He was a better writer, actor and director than Chaplin and only fell behind because Chaplin had effortless grace and because Chaplin could also compose.  Welles was once quoted later in his life as saying “Everybody denies that I am a genius – but no one ever called me one!”  Not true.  Many did.  Many still do.  I do.  That he is as low as 16th on this list is entirely due to the bad combination of Orson Welles and the studio system and the fact that by the time independent film outside of the system was starting to churn out in the fifties, he had already so badly alienated anyone with the financial resources to help Welles complete his projects that he only filmed 10 feature films.  Imagine how much higher he could have climbed and what incomparable limits he might have soared to if he been able to complete Don Quixote or Heart of Darkness.

And even if we discount the rumors that he did much of the directing on The Third Man, he is still able to make the top 20 with only 10 films.  The first, of course, is Citizen Kane and while I think Touch of Evil is a better overall film, there is no more influential or groundbreaking film in the history of cinema.  He followed it up with Ambersons, which even in its truncated form (“they let the janitor recut The Magnificent Ambersons” Welles famously groaned) shows his genius.  If, like Greed, we could see the true directorial vision it might be something new and magical.  It was four years before Welles would direct another film, the underrated thriller The Stranger.  In 1948 he gave a double whammy with his first Shakespeare (the dark, moody Macbeth) and his witty thriller, The Lady from Shanghai.  It took him years to finish his Othello but the completed film is fantastic.  His Mr. Arkadin, admired by many, I find to be his only misfire.  But then Charlton Heston hired him to star in and direct Touch of Evil and then Welles took his own take on the script and created something of genius.  Then came The Trial, another underrated work.  His last feature film is Chimes at Midnight, the great Shakespeare film that no one has seen and which I have already reviewed here.  Then he spent 20 years in the wilderness, taking acting jobs, but never again making a feature film.  And it is our loss.  Because his genius rose above all.  If only someone had financed it.

Touch of Evil – #2 film of 1958

A better film than Citizen Kane but not the best film of its own year?  Yes, because it’s funny how these things work out and this film was released in the same year as Bergman’s masterpiece, The Seventh Seal.  It’s the one year that truly deserves a tie because both films rank in my top 20 (so, for that matter, does Kane).

So what is it about Touch of Evil that rises so high?  In a word, everything.  There is the bravura opening shot, now perhaps the most famous opening shot in all of film, the 4 minute long tracking shot that crosses the border and follows the placement of a bomb in a car and then a Mexican policeman and his blonde American bride and then the actual explosion, all before the first cut.  It has been copied, most notably by The Player and by Boogie Nights, but this is where it all began, an amazing shot that’s so amazing because if you haven’t been told about it, you don’t realize it.  It’s not a trick shot.  It’s just a long shot, not designed to show off.

There’s the script, of course.  The script was ready to shoot but Welles decided to take his own stab at it.  And what do you know?  He gave himself the dirtiest, most vile corrupt cop you could imagine.  He made sure to add depth to Heston’s character and make him something more than just a boring good cop.  And he added the scenes with the fortune teller that so encapsulate the whole film (“your future’s all used up.).

There is the direction.  Not only the brilliant opening, but also the ending, as the cop wades into the water, desperate to stay close enough to the corrupt Quinlan to get the incriminating evidence he needs, but far away enough that Quinlan won’t realize it.  Of course, if you see Get Shorty, they ruin the ending for you by showing it to you (I had The Bicycle Thief similarly ruined for me by seeing The Player first).  But the power of the ending rises above actual knowledge of it.  Because of the line.  Because of the performance.

The line belongs to Marlene Dietrich, as does the performance.  But of course, she is such a small part of this film.  And while she is brilliant in her smaller role, just as Janet Leigh and Charlton Heston are great in their larger roles, the film itself belongs to Welles.  That’s what so key about the three main films in Welles’ career: Kane, Touch and Chimes at Midnight.  They were all written by him, all directed by him, and all starred him in roles that were much larger than life.  The Welles performance in those three films are three of the great performances in all of film.  It’s a shame that the Oscars never grasped the importance of Welles.  They nominated him three times for Kane and he took him the Original Screenplay Oscar.  But that was it.  And they missed so much.  Including all of the greatness of Touch of Evil, a film that should have won Welles the Oscar for both Director and Actor.