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Even the film's toughest critic, Pauline Kael, noted in The New Yorker, "The old-rock nostalgia catches the audience up before the movie even gets going." But Universal executive Ned Tanen refused to acknowledge its appeal when he attended a fabled preview in San Francisco. Coppola, the film's producer, angered by Tanen's reaction and flush from The Godfather, offered to buy the negative. Universal opened the film small and spread it wide only after it sparked a sensation. The mass audience responded viscerally, and transformed the anemically budgeted youth flick into a commercial and cultural phenomenon.
The point of airballing was to keep the soundtrack unpredictable and alive. Although that helped make American Graffiti a megahit in 1973, Murch surmises that it got Welles in trouble with his proto-airballing in Touch of Evil just 15 years earlier. "People in studios still have a hard time with that concept: 'You pay for an actor's face, why aren't you lighting the face? I paid for it, I want to see beautiful things.' So in sound, what Welles was doing was paying for a beautiful thing and then lousing it up. They just didn't get it. In the art direction he got newspapers blowing everywhere, he put together a very gritty, stained look, and he wanted the sound of the film to have the same staining."
In 1957, Orson Welles was only 42 but he already needed a second chance. In his 20s he lit up New York theater with a Euro-fascist Julius Caesar and a voodoo Macbeth, and irradiated the airwaves with his you-are-there radiocast of War of the Worlds. Descending on Hollywood with plans to film a slate of ambitious properties at RKO, including Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Welles received unique acclaim for his picture-making debut, Citizen Kane (1941). Unfortunately, theater owners were too scared of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, the film's semidisguised subject, to back it solidly.
Welles had bargained for final cut on Kane; but after controversy crippled that film, RKO wrested away control of his follow-up, the magnificent The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and aborted his attempt at a folkloric Brazilian epic, It's All True. After the modest, well-made thriller The Stranger (1946), the sometimes dazzling Lady From Shanghai (1948), and a bristling, experimental Macbeth (1948), he and Hollywood gave up on each other. He became the king of star turns in runaway costume epics like The Prince of Foxes (1949) and the occasional classy project such as Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949); he used his salaries to budget seat-of-the-pants movies like his inspired Othello (1951).
So when Universal hired Welles to direct and write -- as well as act in -- Touch of Evil, he wasn't slumming: He was fighting for the chance to become once again an American artist working in America after nearly a decade abroad. He thoroughly revamped the script, based on a serviceable policier called Badge of Evil (written by Robert A. Wade and H. Billy Miller under the pseudonym Whit Masterson). He made anti-Mexican racism a key issue, telling the story from three different points of view, and bringing a tragic dimension to his heavy of heavies -- Capt. Quinlan, an obsessive police captain with an adoring henchman, an instinct for finding culprits, and a penchant for framing them. Reversing the racial makeup of two central characters, Welles turned the putative hero (played by Heston) into a Mexican supernarc named Vargas, and his new wife (Janet Leigh) into an Anglo from Philadelphia.
But Welles did his most glorious work during shooting on the back lot and in Venice, which stood in for the border town of Los Robles. It was, for him, a homecoming. "When Welles went to Europe," Kael wrote in her rave review of Welles' Falstaff (1966), "he lost his single greatest asset as a movie director: his sound," and "compensated by developing greater visual virtuosity."
Back in America for Touch of Evil, Welles took his camera wizardry to new heights while cooking up a soundtrack as dense, unruly, and alive as Kane's. And he managed to meld old colleagues like Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Tamiroff, and Dietrich, young stars like Leigh and Heston, and seasoned Hollywood hands like Joseph Calleia into a melodramatis personae vivid enough to anchor a gutter-baroque extravaganza.
Before starring in Touch of Evil, Leigh knew Welles only from his movies and a few shared moments on the celebrity circuit -- but she leaped at the opportunity to appear in a Welles production. "Orson and I weren't best friends, we didn't double-date, but we'd met at a benefit in London," she says. It was right before Leigh and then-husband Tony Curtis were to co-star in Houdini (1953), so Welles did a magic trick with them. She dined with Welles once in Europe, saw him in Hollywood a couple of times, then was startled to get a telegram from him reading, "Dear Janet, I'm so thrilled you're going to be in my picture. I can't wait to work with you. Orson."
Her agent said Welles wasn't supposed to contact her before they worked out the details; Leigh responded, " 'Details, shme-tails. I want to work with Orson.' I did! Who wouldn't?" Although studio executives distrusted him, creative people never stopped adoring him. "I was mesmerized by his talent and by him -- he was an absolutely riveting man," Leigh reminisces. "In Touch of Evil he was padded and he had fake jowls for that heavy, saggy effect. He really didn't look like that at all -- he could charm the pants off of Mother Teresa. I don't mean that he was overtly sexual or a flirt, but he did ooze this charm and fascination."