Tag Archives: Janet Leigh

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)A pseudonym for authors Bob Wade and H. Bill Miller. 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)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., 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.

References   [ + ]

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.

NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972)

“Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!”

Cinematic horror had come a long way since its primitive infancy as part of the 1920s German Expressionist movement. The 1930s Gothic comedies of , the art deco perversity of , ‘s outsiders, and the 1940s literary subtleties of represented the genre in its adolescence. Of course, we are assured that each preceding generation, especially its artists, are comparatively naive—akin to cave painters. So, it should be no surprise that the genre evolved, by leaps and bounds, beginning in the modern era of the 1950s, which brought us the atomic Deadly Mantis in 1958 and topped that within a mere fifteen years: killer bunnies, in a certified classic with “Star Trek”‘s Dr. McCoy starring in his version of the “Wrath of Donnie Darko.” Yes, it’s Night of the Lepus.

This opus of oversized, rabid jackrabbits is such an abomination that star DeForest Kelley (whose career began with 1947’s suspenseful noir Fear In the Night) never made another film outside of the Star Trek franchise. This was at least a guarantee of superior mediocrity. Actually,  despite glued-on porn mustache accompanied by lamb chop sideburns and his polyester suit decorated with a necktie that threatens to swallow him whole long before the Jurassic hares escape the garden, Kelley embarrasses himself the least. Faring worse are former heroine Janet Leigh, “B” western star , Paul Fix, and Stuart Whitman. MGM (!?!) apparently never read the script, and later placed the entire blame on Director William F. Claxton, a veteran of anonymous westerns and television episodes (including the immortal “Love, American Style”). Unsurprisingly, Claxton never made another theatrical film after this ( the same fate met first and last time screenwriter Don Holliday).

Still from Night of the Lepus (1972)As mind-numbing and unfathomable as it may seem, Claxton and the cast and crew play it straight, despite Saber-toothed domestic bunnies, grown men dressed as a Jason Vorhees version of a Chuck Jones toon, and lotza red corn syrup. Predictably, the four legged critters are the only ones who seem to get it, being clearly annoyed by the FX hacks squirting dyed molasses into their eyes.

There is a degree of charm to be found in something so ludicrous being made by such a large, clueless team. Unfortunately, there is no Vincent Price as Irontail to save it from being a crashing bore. The plot is based on the standard Hollywood idea of atomic mutation. A pair of scientists (Whitman and a bell-bottomed Leigh) are solicited by Calhoun. Apparently,  Roger and Jessica Rabbit have been working overtime between the lettuce leafs. Calhoun is sick and tired “of them critters raiding my carrot patch.” Instead of calling Elmer Fudd, the scientists, with help from “Bones,” experiment with harmones! Their daughter (a good argument for birth control) releases the herd of photographically blown-up hares running in slow mo and…Strange things begin to happen at the Arizona Ranch indeed when “COTTONTAIL CANNIBALS” go a-stampeding. Outlining the plot further would only waste precious time.

It is not the yawn-inducing, pedestrian story, but rather the astoundingly slipshod execution (including woefully amateurish editing by John McSweeney) that makes it a movie that can only go well with store bought cardboard pizza. If only this film could have had a director and studio with a taste for rabbit pellets. One can only image what Ed Wood, , or could have done with this. Even more unforgivable than the film itself is the “special edition” DVD, which excised a classic scene of a victim engaged in a bit of sumo wrestling with an extra dressed in Ralphie’s Christmas suit.

The quoted dialogue in the opening above is delivered by a deputy sheriff to a crowd at the drive-in cinema watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. No one is surprised.

The only authentic surprise is the amount of gore: multifarious scenes of severed limbs doused in gallons of tinted Aunt Jemima and extreme close ups of old Peter Cottontail munching away (but it ain’t marshmallow stuck in his teeth).

Actually, Night of the Lepus is probably better suited for Easter than Halloween viewing. It could potentially enliven that hopelessly dull holiday far more than any of those sanctimonious Bible pics always being shown while all the rugrats are out looking for eggs (after the obligatory once-a-year church service). Predictably, Lepus wound up as a so-bad-it’s-good list perennial. While I could think of far better candidates (like any of the Friday the 13th movies), it at least established a slightly hipper tradition.