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He stood in awe of Welles and TOUCH OF EVIL, one of those rare "films that call the cinema to order . As he had on 1946’s THE STRANGER, also produced for a cost-conscious studio, Welles kept scrupulously to budget. Francois Truffaut, then on the verge of his own career as a director, reviewed the film for a small magazine in France. A capricious genius, Welles preaches to his parishioners and seems to be clearly telling us: ‘I’m sorry I’m so slovenly; it’s not my fault if I’m a genius; I’m dying: love me . .’ May we always have enough taste, sensitivity, and intuition to admit that this talent is large and beautiful." Universal apparently got a sadistic pleasure out of taunting Welles with his reputation as a spendthrift. He was intrigued, though, by the presence of Orson Welles in a draft of the film’s cast list.
Its very cheapness, and Welles’ ability to make poetry out of poverty, instantly endeared the film to prescient critics.
What began as a routine assignment for some forgotten contract director was transformed the moment Orson Welles laid hands on it.
In any case, Welles began by completely rewriting the script in two weeks, making the whodunit angle subordinate to the tale of urban and personal decay that remains the film’s most compelling constellation of ideas.
Heston says it was he who suggested that Welles direct TOUCH OF EVIL, and it appears that the studio got Welles at a bargain, "allowing" him to direct for his acting fee.
Playing larger-than-life figures out of history (Clarence Darrow in 1959’s COMPULSION) or fiction (1958’s THE LONG HOT SUMMER, from William Faulkner), Welles tacked between the US and Europe, sinking his increasing earnings as an actor into decreasingly profitable films like OTHELLO, MR. Initially, TOUCH OF EVIL was to be no more than the latest source of cash for Welles’ latest directing project.
Beginning with BLACK MAGIC, in which he played Cagliostro, THE PRINCE OF FOXES, in which he played Cesare Borgia, and THE THIRD MAN, in which he played the unforgettably sinister Harry Lime, all made in 1949, Welles financed his increasingly quixotic directing ventures with brilliant, overblown character turns in other peoples’ movies, often a Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
Heston remembered Welles chewing the man out after the third or forth time the shot had been wrecked: "Look, I don’t care what you say, just move your lips, we can dub it in later.
He kept forgetting his single line, ruining the entire take.
Slyly, Welles included Mercedes Mc Cambridge among the motorcycle gang that terrorizes Janet Leigh.
Welles also conned cronies like Joseph Cotten and Ray Collins of CITIZEN KANE, Marlene Dietrich, Dennis Weaver, Akim Tamiroff, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Harry Shannon (who’d played young Charlie Kane’s father in CITIZEN KANE) into playing small roles in the film.