Tag Archives: Charlton Heston

ORSON WELLES’ TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

Only could produce a masterpiece out of a film starring as a Mexican. Of course, the story of Welles’ rise and fall is practically legendary. At 26, he made that greatest of American films, Citizen Kane (1941), which took on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in a thinly disguised biopic. Welles’ was already at work on his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) when the backlash from Kane sent RKO into a panicFearing another flop, studio executives took Ambersons away from the young filmmaker, gave it a happy ending, and recut it. The result was a truncated masterpiece, which should have been the equal of Welles’ first film. Welles’ was practically backlisted and spent the rest of his career primarily in Europe, acting in almost anything to scrape up enough money to produce his own films.

Welles had already been cast for the role of Captain Quinlan in Touch of Evil when co-star Charlton Heston dared to suggest that the man who made Citizen Kane could also direct. According to Heston’s “Actor’s Journals” memoirs, the producers initially thought his advice was ludicrous, but realized that they would essentially be getting a “two for the price of one” (actor and director) bargain. Welles was signed on to direct, and immediately re-wrote the screenplay for Whit Masteron’s[1] novel “Badge of Evil.” The result was another repeating chapter in Welles’ ongoing story: the film was a commercial flop until later audiences discovered it.

Of course, there is a very small body of hopelessly predictable, wannabe filmmakers and critics who erroneously fancy themselves as “going against the establishment consensus” by denying the artistic merits of Welles, Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, or The Trial (1962). Such an attitude is like that of the equally small minority in contemporary pop music who feebly attempt to deny or protest the artistry of t, simply because that band set the bar too high. However, as an art professor once told me: “If you want to be a great painter, then you have to know great painting.”  Those who are too uninformed to know the difference between elitism and discernment can be dismissed. Failure to recognize the aesthetic eminence of Welles’ or his greatest works renders one superfluous.

Still from Touch of Evil (1958)Touch of Evil does not merely stand with Welles’ best work, it also stands among the greatest achievements of American cinema. On the surface, it shouldn’t. After all, it’s garish, grotesque, and pure sleaze; indeed starring Charlton Heston and Marlene Dietrich both in Mexican makeup, which almost amounts to black face, an obscenely obese[2], dissipated Welles in padded nose, Za Za Gabor (in a small part), and some of the most laughable dialogue writing ever committed to celluloid… until you recognize it as the baroque, pulp parody it is.

Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff, Joseph Calleia, Gabor, and Dennis Weaver are delightful. Under Welles’ direction Heston shines in his most emotionally complex role as Mike Vargas, making one wish the actor/director team had worked together more often (Heston, worshipful of Welles, attempted to commission the director for both 1970’s Julius Caeasar and 1972’s Antony and Cleopatra). Dietrich, as the Mexican fortune telling Gypsy whore Tana, delivers jaw dropping zingers with characteristic aplomb: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” and “You should lay off the candy bars, honey. You’re a mess. Your future is all used up.” She could have been making epitaphs for Welles himself, whose last American film this was. Despite being hailed, even in its botched studio cut, by luminaries such as , François Truffaut, and , and highly praised throughout Europe, Touch of Evil was relegated to playing on double “B” movie bills in artless America. Naturally, Welles was blamed, and considered finished by the studio systems.

Volumes have been written about the twelve minute opening shot, Welles’ choreography, and the virtuoso black and white camerawork of cinematographer Russell Metty. Part of the film’s initial stateside rejection was undoubtedly due to the meddling of Universal executives who recut the film, attempting to make the roaming, overlapping, unorthodox narrative into something linear (it didn’t work). A disgusted Welles disowned the cut. Just as he stuck by Sam Peckinpah when the studio interfered with Major Dundee, Heston condemned Universal for mutilating Welles’ work. Seven years after Welles’ death, editor Walter Murch, following the original script and volumes of memos, restored Touch of Evil to the director’s intent. In its mid-90s theatrical re-release, American critics loudly echoed their European counterparts, making it a belated success, which is only fitting. It’s terrific entertainment. Watch it first for its aesthetics, then again for its narrative.

  1. A pseudonym for authors Bob Wade and H. Bill Miller. []
  2. Welles was actually not as obese as portrayed here (or as he was in later life). Low camera angles and makeup assist Welles the director in making Welles the actor look his worst. The result is his greatest role since Falstaff. []

THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)

“The most bi-polar epic ever made” would be more apt.

Big budget Hollywood Bible blockbusters are a category that can put shame to the campiest excursions found in low budget horror and sci fi pics. The king of sword, sandal, and sacred cleavage (male and female) was undoubtedly Cecil B. DeMille. Like many patriarchal types, DeMille was, by most accounts, a mean-spirited, obsessive controlling showman, who aggressively pushed his propaganda in some of the greatest howlers ever committed to celluloid. The trademark DeMille camp was intact from the beginning, with his silent King of Kings (1927) gifting us some of the most jaw-dropping intertitles in cinematic history. Mary Magdalene, in jewel studded bra, on the way to meet her lover Judas, mounts her chariot and barks the command: “Nubian slave, harness my zebras!” Still, even DeMille was ecumenical enough to place blame for Jesus’ death on the religious leaders, as opposed to Mel “I hate other religions” Gibson’s medievalism of condemning an entire race of people.

DeMille was at his most seductive in Sign of the Cross (1932), a sexy romp about first century Christians starring Charles Laughton as a leering Nero and the slinky Claudette Colbert taking a pre-code bath in goat’s milk. As usual, the sinners are more interesting than the hopeless saints.

By and large, the Hebrew Bible makes for better cinematic material than the story of Jesus. Those primitive tribal tales make no apologies about contradictory portrayals of a divine being who is, alternately, a savage and a benign father (depending on who was writing). Some of the more outlandish fantasies found in the Torah are almost hidden, which is rather convenient for the childish, self-proclaimed literalists who tend to bypass such passages. ‘s Noah (2014) looked at the troubling contradictions without blinking, and gave us one of the most challenging Bible-inspired works of art since Arnold Schoeberg’s opera “Moses und Aron.”

Still from The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)A hopelessly derivative pastiche of preexisting rabbinic narratives, the New Testament Jesus narrative is a bit more problematic. Worse, Jesus himself is, more often than not, rendered in artistic representations as a kind of reverential masochist, a bland “John Boy” Walton deity. Some of the figures that surround Jesus are infinitely more compelling. The giddy and girlish Mother of Christ delivers her Magnificat (which echoes Hannah in 1 Samuel). That soliloquy is better written than almost anything that comes out of Jesus’ mouth. The sassy Martha is the Mary Ellen Walton we all secretly root for over her hopelessly pious sister. Insert-foot-in-mouth Peter makes for a more colorful companion than that dullard, beloved John. The woman at the well and post-Gospel figure Paul have more personality than Jesus himself, with a few notable exceptions. When Jesus steps out of character and horsewhips the money changers, or mantles a Garboesque “I want to be alone” attitude, he suddenly comes to life. Oddly, those wonderful Technicolor miracles and kicking demon ass moments are often inexplicably bypassed in Hollywood treatments, probably because they are uncomfortably “unrealistic.” Of all the Tinseltown interpretations of Jesus, Continue reading THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)

BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)

It is all there in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970): from Alpha to Omega, from Moses to St. John of Patmos all the way through to Martin Luther’s antisemitism.

We last saw Taylor (Chuck Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes crying like a baby, making mud pies before the post-apocalyptic ruins of the Statue of Liberty with dumb (i.e. mute) brunette Nova (Linda Harris, in a bad performance) by his side. Insert invisible wormhole to swallow Taylor up whole. Nova now waits for new knight-in-a-loincloth Brent (James Franciscus) to rescue her.

Yes, American astronaut Brent has a loincloth too, and cuts a leaner, more-sylphlike figure than Heston (of whom he gives a second-rate impersonation. Franciscus fared better in his best performance as blind detective Mike Longstreet in the TV series “Longstreet,” which is as lamentably forgotten as Franciscus himself). Nova and Brent go cave exploring and what do they find? An elongated and pointless rehash of the first movie.

Cornelius (David Watson, briefly replacing Roddy McDowell as the chief chimp) and Zera (Kim Hunter) do much hand wringing. Meanwhile, there is a gorilla named Ursus (James Gregory) who is prone to booming his own second-generation, agenda-laden scripture. (“The only good Jew is a dead Jew” has far more expansive potential when mouthed as “the only good human is a dead human.”) A simian neo-Fascist yahoo, Ursus takes his cavalry into the Forbidden Zone, hot on the trail of Brent and Nova. A prophetic Jonestown awaits.

Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) laments: “Someone has outwitted the intelligence of the gorillas.”

“The only thing that counts in the end is power! Naked merciless force!” Hallelujah, General.

The hippie apes protest the impending war (i.e. Vietnam).

Still from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)Meanwhile, our Adam and Eve protagonists (make that Second Adam with Eve) have been bamboozled into joining a charismatic, apocalyptic religious cult, a la Jim Jones.

Former King Tut Victor Buono (with Moses’ staff and sacred scroll in hand) starts slaying in the spirit and whips up a pillar of fire, apparently delivered personally by a cobalt-cased deity, to stall the Mighty 7th. Ursus may just be another replacement for the Pharaoh, but with Gregory’s evangelical charisma practically melting the ape makeup, the stoic  could never have competed.

“If you are caught by the gorillas, you must remember one thing.”

“What’s that?

“Never to speak!”

“What the hell would I have to say to a gorilla?”

“That thing out there, an atomic bomb… is your god?” “Get outta my head!”

Continue reading BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES (1970)

THE OMEGA MAN (1971)

I recently saw two films for the first time since childhood. If there is ever proof that we are not born with taste, that taste is a reflection of our willingness to move past what we know or are exposed to, then the proof is in this proverbial pudding. Two of the coolest movies to an adolescent in the early 1970s were Elvis On Tour (1972) and The Omega Man (1971). However, the sight of a pasty Rock and Roll King, dressed as a lounge lizard Batman, bejeweled in a string of rhinestone Christmas lights, with a shoe-polished football helmet for hair and sideburns reaching down to his collarbone, singing Sinatra’s “My Way”, is the stuff of nightmares.

Even more horrific is Omega Man‘s  as a doomsday martyr with a Savior complex, dying for our sins. Boris Sagal’s apocalyptic oater is a delightfully dated and tacky fantasy. Who better to fill that role than all-American, granite-jawed Heston? The dialogue is jaw dropping. Omega Man was one of several ideologically right-leaning science fiction films that Heston gravitated to. (His choice of roles revealed a shrewd awareness on the actor’s part towards development of a public persona). It was a natural to follow epic Biblical melodramas with parts casting him as a messianic loner. The essence of American power and strength, highlighted by his carved-in-marble Roman profile, Heston was built for adolescent males to emulate and females to swoon over.

Throughout the 60s and 70s Heston gravitated to roles that called for him to be impaled in the arc of the drama. El Cid (1961), Khartoum (1966), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), Will Penny (1968), Omega Man (1971), Soylent Green (1973) and The Last Hard Men (1976) all find Heston in St. Sebastian-mode.

Omega Man was (poorly) based on Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend. The story had been previously filmed with a femmy  in Last Man on Earth (1964), and would be later with Will Smith in I am Legend (2007). No version got it right, but the closest was ‘s Night Of the Living Dead (1968), which was merely inspired by Matheson’s novel, rather than a direct adaptation.

Still from The Omega Man (1971)Heston never looks more like an old man Jesus figurine than he does here, in his polyester white Baptist dress shirt and Fred Mertz-style high trousers, oozing blood. Heston is Neville, the lone survivor of the 1975 apocalypse.He shoves in an 8 track tape of Strangers In The Night as he cruises through the ghost town that used to be New York City (of course). He steps into a theater, turns on the projector, and watches Woodstock (1970) “showing in its third straight year.” Neville has every line of dialogue memorized.

He hears the city’s imaginary phones all ringing simultaneously and does his best James Franciscus impersonation: “There is no phone ringing, dammit! There is no phone!” (a line which echoes Jimmy’s’ “Get out of my head!” in Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Neville sees a shadowy figure running behind a skyscraper window. Continue reading THE OMEGA MAN (1971)

WILL PENNY (1968)

From 1956 on, actor  kept an actor’s journal, which he published in two volumes, in 1976 and 1996. These are some of the most fascinating and valuable behind-the-scene writings published on the subject of studio filmmaking. In addition to these writings, Heston was also an exceptional and underrated visual artist. Often, when actors turn to painting, the result is less than memorable, and can even be downright painful. One thinks of Henry Fonda’s vapid watercolors or the recent, execrable “world leader” portraits by George Bush as painful examples. Heston’s visual art was an extension of his journals. His pen and ink drawings of makeup artists, stuntmen, cameramen, and technicians celebrated the unsung blue-collar workers. I was fortunate enough to attend a small showing of Heston’s extensive work and it remains of the most compellingly unique exhibits I have attended to date.

The story of the making of Will Penny (1968) is a standout entry in Heston’s “The Actor’s Life: Journals.” Heston was handed an incomplete script. Under normal conditions, the actor would have refused to read an unfinished screenplay, but Heston was so taken with the fragment that he immediately expressed interest in taking on the role of the aging, illiterate cowboy Will Penny. Heston was then informed that the writer, Tom Gries, was insistent on directing. When Heston inquired on Gries’ directing experience, he found it consisted of “a couple of television programs.” Heston put up a mild protest, but quickly changed his mind upon learning that Gries’ demand was unconditional. While it is fortunate that Heston compromised in what turned out to be one of his best and most underrated roles, his skepticism about Gries’ lack of experience had some validity.

The central performances and an intelligent, sensitive script are the strengths of Will Penny; however, Gries’ television-like visual direction and an embarrassingly melodramatic performance from  are noticeable flaws. As excellent as Heston’s work is here, Joan Hackett is even better. She imbues her part with an unglamorous freshness (Heston amusingly related that several actresses turned down the role upon reading the description of Catherine as plain). Heston later counted Hackett as the best of his leading ladies, and for good reason.

Will Penny is not a Wyatt Earp type. He does not bravely face down the enemy to clean up a corrupt town. Rather, he is a fifty-year-old cowhand who works with cattle. It’s all he knows. He doesn’t even know how to write his name. When he gets into a fight with a younger co-worker, Penny uses a frying pan “because I use my hands to work.” When a trail job ends, Penny finds himself traveling with a young Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe in hopes of finding work. Majors is a bit of a nonentity here, but Zerbe gives a very good performance as a recently transplanted, thickly accented European immigrant who awkwardly shoots himself and then milks every ounce of sympathy he can.

Still from Will Penny (1968)Zerbe and Majors try to steal an elk from demented preacher Quint (Pleasance) and his sons (one of who is played by  in one of his worst and most cartoonish performances). Penny is inadvertently drawn into the conflict, which will have eventual and horrific consequences.The three men temporarily part company when Penny lands a seasonal job as a line rider. Penny finds his shack occupied by squatters in the person of Catherine (Hackett) and her young son (Jon Francis).

The romance between Penny and Catherine is authentic. They do not wind up in each others’ arms within thirty seconds. It is the building of the relationship between the two that gives Will Penny its substance. Even the inevitable conflict between Penny and Quint is in service of the understated chemistry between Heston and Hackett.

While Gries’ does not have the cinematic visual flair of the best directors, his strength lies in characterization and elegant writing. This was Gries’ first feature film. His subsequent films were mere assignments, lacking the personal vision of Will Penny.

CAPSULE: IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994)

DIRECTED BY: John Carpenter

FEATURING: , Julie Carmen, ,

PLOT: An insurance investigator investigates the disappearance of a bestselling horror novelist whose books have the power to drive men mad.

Still from n the Mouth of Madness (1994)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In the Mouth of Madness has an ahead-of-its-time, and slightly weird, premise, but the movie’s execution doesn’t live up to the promise of the insane scenario.

COMMENTS: A throng of maddening ideas writhe within In the Mouth of Madness. A horror writer whose books turn susceptible readers into psychopaths. A New England town, not marked on the map, inhabited by characters and places from the writer’s fictional stories. A world where the insane gradually come to outnumber the sane, and mental asylums become a refuge from the madness of the world outside. These elements conspire to make Madness an intriguing proposition, but unfortunately the movie sports an equal number of gaffes that keep it from reaching its potential. Madness‘s initial budget of 15 million was cut by more than two-thirds, which perhaps explains some of the unevenness on display. Some of the special effects, especially the ones devised by Industrial Light and Magic such as the sequence where Prochnow peels his face apart and it turns into the ripped pages of a novel, are up to 1990’s snuff. But some of the non-scary rubber makeup effects belong in a movie from a decade earlier; for example, a scene where a circus contortionist wears a mask meant to convince us she’s another character is more likely to elicit chuckles than shudders. The acting, too, is all over the map in terms of quality. The first speaking part goes to a bow-tied asylum administrator whose campy, overly-precise delivery doesn’t inspire much confidence going in. Sam Neill is fine here as the somewhat bland hero, Prochnow has the proper face for the otherworldly novelist, and it’s nice to see Charlton Heston in a small role as a publisher (he probably enjoyed working with Carpenter for a couple of afternoons in the kind of a low-stress cameo accomplished actors can afford to indulge in the twilight of their careers). Julie Carmen is wooden as the female lead, however, and shares little chemistry with Neill; her character serves little purpose and the movie may have benefited if she’d been cut out. Despite having an original premise, the script leans on horror cliches too often, with jump scares, a “fake wake” dream sequence, and an expository wraparound that doesn’t make a lot of story sense (who does the doctor who’s interviewing Neill’s character work for, why is he interested in this patient, and what exactly is he trying to learn?) Given those drawbacks, which are the kinds of flaws that usually sink mid-budget horror attempts, it’s a testament to the strength of the ideas here and to Carpenter’s direction that the movie does manage to keep our interest–and has even become a cult item in some people’s minds. Although the name of the novelist—Sutter Cane—is a blatant sound-alike for Stephen King, the style of horror here (both in this story and in Cane’s fictional universes) is more reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft, with its emphasis on insanity brought about by forbidden knowledge and on unseen, indescribable monsters from other worlds who seek to invade ours. (The movie’s title even suggests Lovecraft’s novella “At the Mountains of Madness”). Those addicted to Lovecraft’s influential style of occult horror—a universe where the Old Gods slumber uneasily, waiting to be awakened by foolish mortals so they can assume their rightful dominion over our world—will appreciate this occasionally clever tribute to the perverse imagination of “the gentleman from Providence.”

In the Mouth of Madness is a pioneering example of meta-horror, by which I mean not just a horror movie that is “self-aware” (as in a parody) but in which the nature and craft of diabolical literature itself plays an essential part in the story. Another example from the very same year of 1994 was Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, in which actors from the Nightmare on Elm Street series find that the fictional creation Freddy Kruger is clawing his way into the real world. The best recent iteration of this interesting mini-genre is last year’s The Cabin in the Woods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…confusing, weird, and not very involving.”–James Berardinelli, Reel Views (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kevin, who argued that Madness is “the best of John Carpenter’s 90s films, and the weirdest in his catalogue.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)