Lawless border town brings out the worst in its inhabitants—and in its screenwriter too.
We've shared some promos from the Orson Welles film noir Touch of Evil before. Those were worthy efforts, but we think this Belgian poster is the best. We don't have a Belgian release date but we can guess at one. The movie premiered in the U.S. in early 1958, then crossed to Europe during the summer, with premieres in the UK in April and France in June—in fact today. The film won the FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique) Prize at the Brussels World Film Festival that year, which was held from April 21 through June 13, but we think the movie showed after its French premiere. So we're guessing sometime between June 8 and June 13 for its Belgian unveiling.
So about the film. We've hinted at this, but now we'll come out and say it: It isn't as good as many claim. Award winner, yes, but one that hasn't aged well. Visual masterpiece with numerous breathtaking shots, certainly, but one in which the script (written by Welles) lacks narrative logic. We could choose a dozen examples of this problem, but we'll give you just one. Early in the film Janet Leigh, who's married to a cop and thus shouldn't be naive, allows herself to be led down dark streets by an unknown male at four o'clock in the morning. And she does this in a Mexican border town Charlton Heston describes as “bringing out the worst in people,” which we can assume to mean “not safe.” Leigh traipsing off into the unknown with an obviously dodgy character is absurd. The movie lost our girlfriends at that point. "Oh, come on!" was the general sentiment.
The truth is Touch of Evil flirts dangerously more than once with being laugh out loud silly. Dennis Weaver's motel desk worker is Norman Bates from Psycho two years earlier, several degrees twitchier, and immeasurably hammier. Even the staging of the film is bizarre at times, with various characters required to physically orbit the central action so they can be glimpsed or encountered at just the right moment. We know, we know—our complaints are total sacrilege. Don't get us wrong. The movie is still entertaining, but people who call it a masterpiece have decided to overlook Welles' screenplay. And generally these people will also call you stupid for disagreeing with them, so be prepared for that. But don't take our word on Touch of Evil. Watch it and see what you think. And if you're interested, we discussed other aspects of the film a while back here.
You can lead a horse to water, but it's probably you who'll end up in the drink.
Charlton Heston attempts to mount a recalcitrant horse for a promotional photo shoot, and ends up in the surf. But he takes it in good humor. The text talks about his affinity for roles on horseback, such as in Ben Hur and El Cid. The shots appeared in the Japanese film magazine Roadshow, and were made around 1965.
Touch of Evil sleeve art perfectly captures the film's mood.
Above, a Japanese soundtrack sleeve for Orson Welles’ lauded 1958 post-noir thriller Touch of Evil, with music from Henry Mancini. Top marks for the beautiful design on this.
Police Gazette gets readers up to date with Ava Gardner but it’s their Castro story that leads someplace interesting.
Above are a couple of scans from an issue of The National Police Gazette published this month in 1963 with cover star Ava Gardner. Gardner had been living in Spain and hadn’t been in a movie in three years, but was about to appear in the historical war drama 55 Days at Peking with Charlton Heston and David Niven. The Gazette discusses how she’d gotten fed up with the U.S.—particularly the American press. She had been particularly annoyed by the rumor that she was involved with Sammy Davis, Jr., a story that took flight after several magazines published photos of the two holding hands. When asked why she was returning to Hollywood after being out of circulation for so long, Gardner, in typically blunt fashion, replied, “I need the money.”
Moving on, we’ve pointed out that the Gazette made a longstanding habit of using Adolf Hitler on its covers, but his wasn’t the only face that moved magazines. After Fidel Castro assumed leadership of Cuba, the Gazette regularly wrote scathing stories about him. We’ve already learned that he let Viet Cong killer squads train in Cuba, and that he planned to “arm southern Negroes” in order to foment revolution in the U.S. Well, now we learn he was also a rapist. Figures, right? He might have been supreme leader of an island filled with beautiful women, but people always want what they can’t have—in this case, a teenaged ship captain’s daughter named Lisa. Gazette writer Bob Hartford cranks up the melodrama:
Castro laughed drunkenly as he weaved his way into Lisa’s sitting room.
“Have you changed your mind, my pet?” he demanded.
“No,” replied the brave but frightened girl.
All Castro needs at that point is a Lacoste sweater and a fraternity paddle and his transformation into pure evil would be complete. But as fanciful as the story seems, Lisa really did exist. Her real name was Marita Lorenz and she was Castro’s live-in mistress for several months in 1959. While Lorenz herself never suggested she was ever raped by Castro, the two did have a falling out around the issue of her unplanned pregnancy, which was terminated in its sixth month. Lorenz later said the abortion was forced on her while she was drugged; Castro’s associates claim that she wanted it. Lorenz went on to join anti-Castro activists in the U.S., and on a fundraising visit with the deposed Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, became involved with him. She was still traveling to and from Cuba, and was recruited by the CIA for a Castro assassination attempt. But instead of poisoning his food, like she’d been instructed, she abandoned the plot, supposedly because she still felt strongly for him. Lorenz later wrote about all this in two autobiographies.
In 1977, Lorenz told the New York Daily News that she met Lee Harvey Oswald in autumn 1963 at a CIA safe house in Miami. She claimed she met him again weeks later along with a group of anti-Castro Cubans and they had Dallas street maps. We all know what happened next. Lorenz eventually testified about this before the House Select Committee on Assassinations, but her story was deemed unreliable. We suppose bouncing between two dictators and acting as a double agent will tend toraise a red flag with American congressmen, though these things have no bearing on whether she was telling the truth. It’s interesting though, isn’t it? You’d think that if a single man of his own accord assassinated another man the surrounding circumstances wouldn’t be so… labyrinthine. Yet lurking near the supposed black swan event of the Kennedy killing were double-agents like Lorenz, spooks like E. Howard Hunt, underworld figures like Eladio Ceferino del Valle and others. Just saying. In any case, we’ll have more from the Police Gazette and more on Fidel Castro soon.
A deep feeling of Welles’ being.
Above, a Spanish-language poster for Orson Welles’ classic noir Sombras del Mal, which would translate to “Shadows of Evil”, instead of what the film was really named—Touch of Evil. Welles’ later-period noir is considered by many critics to be a masterpiece, as well as the last true noir ever made. We may talk about the film more a bit later. It premiered in Spain today in 1962.
Cover art for a French edition of Ben-Hur, circa 1930s. The book was written by Lew Wallace, who, among other things, was an army general on the Union side in the U.S. Civil War. His Biblical epic played a profound role in causing religious leaders of the time to finally reverse their longstanding condemnation of novels as tools of evil. Ben-Hur has since been adapted into a motion picture four times, most definitively in 1959 with Charlton Heston in the lead. The English version of Ben-Hur was first published today in 1880.
Orson Welles makes a run to the border.
It has the most famous one-take tracking shot in cinema history, it’s the last of the official film noirs (unless you’re one of those Kiss Me Deadly purists), and it was directed by distinguished filmmaker Orson Welles. It was called Touch of Evil, and above you see its moody Swedish laguage poster. Though the film has its flaws, the technical prowess on display is indisputable. At this point film noir was a well-charted phenomenon in which Welles had already dabbled when he made Lady from Shanghai and The Stranger. This time out, he wanted to fully explore the possibilities of shadow the way a painter might explore the possibilities of oils. Everyone knew black-and-white was on the way out. Touch of Evil was Welles’ commentary on the style. He was showing the world what was possible, and by extension, what might be impossible using color.
The casting of Charlton Heston as Ramón Miguel Vargas has been thoroughly discussed pretty much everywhere, and those criticisms are understandable. Certainly, an actor such as, say, Ricardo Montalbán would have shone where Heston merely sufficed, but 1958 audiences would have disliked lily white Janet Leigh being hooked up with an actual Latino actor. People overlook that when they criticize Heston's casting. Welles made a racial statement by swapping the ethnicities of the central couple from Whit Masterson's source novel, in which the cop was white and his wife was Mexican. That's as far as he was willing to go. Cinema mirrors the age in which it was produced. It’s okay to use our modern world as a prism through which to examine the circumstances around an old film, but it’s best do so respectfully, because somewhere in the future people with their own prisms will be looking upon our age, and it won’t look so good to them. Touch of Evil played in Sweden for the first time today in 1958.
It's not easy eating Green.
When we wrote in our Planet of the Apes posting that Charlton Heston was capable of creating compelling film moments, his sci-fi mystery Soylent Green was the other film we had in mind. You see the French promo art above, and you’ll notice this is another film that played at the Avoriaz Film Festival. The first screening was today in 1973, and though it was well-received, the film lost the Grand Prize to Steven Spielberg’s made-for-television thriller Duel. Soylent Green’s vision of the future may look a little retro now, but its depiction of smart business as bad morals remains relevant. It’s also notable for being the last screen appearance of the legendary Edward G. Robinson, who died of cancer just three weeks after shooting ended. We recommend you check this one out. At the very least, it’ll make you think twice next time you’re in a crowd and someone starts making those mooing sounds.
Welcome to the late great planet Earth.
Inspired by French author Pierre Boulle’s novel, Planet of the Apes is one of those films many can quote, but surprisingly few have seen. The premise—a group of astronauts crash land on a distant planet where apes are ascendant and humans are jungle-dwelling primitives—sounds like one-note cinema, but Planet of the Apes is an ambitious film that comments pointedly upon religion, nuclear proliferation, and the arrogance of man. Most know Charlton Heston as either a Biblical hero or a gun advocate, but in his day he was capable of creating compelling moments on film that didn’t involve the Old Testament or Michael Moore. Not that he was a master of his craft—but certain roles seemed almost constructed for him. In Planet of the Apes, Heston’s astronaut George Taylor is calculating, physical and, most importantly, stubborn. That stubbornness drives him toward a hard won freedom, but also prevents him from truly understanding cryptic warnings about what he’ll find in the Forbidden Zone. What follows is one of filmdom’s great shock endings. Planet of the Apes premiered in West Germany today in 1968 as Planet der Affen. As a bonus we’ve included the great French poster below.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1912—First Parachute Jump Takes Place
Albert Berry jumps from a biplane traveling at 1,500 feet and lands by parachute at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. The 36 foot diameter chute was contained in a metal canister attached to the underside of the plane, and when Berry dropped from the plane his weight pulled the canopy from the canister. Rather than being secured into the chute by a harness, Berry was seated on a trapeze bar. It's possible he was only the second man to accomplish a parachute landing, as there are some accounts of someone accomplishing the feat in California several months earlier.
1932—Lindbergh Baby Is Kidnapped
The twenty-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh, Charles Augustus Lindbergh III, is kidnapped from the family home in East Amwell, New Jersey. Over two months later the toddler's body is discovered in woods a short distance from the home. A medical examination determines that he had died of a massive skull fracture. A German carpenter named Bruno Hauptmann is arrested, tried, and convicted for the crime. He is sentenced to death and executed in April 1936.
1953—Watson and Crick Unravel DNA
American biologists James D. Watson and Francis Crick tell their friends that they have determined the chemical structure of DNA. The formal announcement takes place in April following publication in Nature magazine. In 1968, Watson writes The Double Helix, a non-fiction account of not only the discovery of the structure of DNA, but the personalities, conflicts and controversy surrounding the work.
1922—Challenge to Women's Voting Rights Rebuffed
In the United States, a conservative legal challenge to the nineteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution establishing voting rights for women is rebuffed by the Supreme Court in Leser v. Garnett. The challenge was based partly on the idea of individual "states rights" to self determination. The failure of such reasoning as it applied to basic human rights created a framework for later states rights losses involving the denial of voting rights to African-Americans.
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