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"Some Kind of a Man": Orson Welles as Touch of Evil's Masculine Auteur

From: The Velvet Light Trap
Number 57, Spring 2006
pp. 32-41 | 10.1353/vlt.2006.0021

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The Velvet Light Trap 57 (2006) 32-41

Orson Welles as Touch of Evil's Masculine Auteur

Brooke Rollins

Interest in authorship has surrounded Touch of Evil since Orson Welles was hired, almost by chance, as its writer and director. Despite the critical success of Citizen Kane, Welles's directorial status had steadily diminished in Hollywood because of a string of commercial failures and his perceived inability to see the films he directed through to their completion. But even though he had garnered a reputation as a megalomaniacal director, Welles was a popular actor and late-night television staple when Albert Zugsmith, the producer with whom he was working on Man in the Shadow, offered him the role of corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan in a crime drama then titled Badge of Evil. How Welles came to direct the film, his first studio project in ten years, is less clear given that we have three conflicting narratives—from Welles, Zugsmith, and Touch of Evil star Charlton Heston—that tell the story.

As Charlton Heston tells it, when he was offered the role of Mike Vargas he accepted only under the condition that Welles be allowed to direct as well as act in the film (Delson 213). Welles himself offers up a slightly different account: he was trying to decide if he could afford to turn down the acting job when Zugsmith called to offer him the position of director. In this version Heston assumed that Welles would direct, and the actor's excitement spurred Zugsmith to offer Welles the job. Welles says he accepted this offer under the condition that he could rewrite the script, adding that he was only allowed to assume these screenwriting duties if he accepted his original salary as an actor, forfeiting pay for writing and directing (Welles and Bogdanovich 297). Zugsmith recalls an entirely different scenario. According to the producer's story, Welles asked to direct one of his projects, and, after being offered any of all the available properties, he requested the "worst one" (Zugsmith 418–21). Zugsmith decided that that dubious honor belonged to Badge of Evil, and Welles embarked on the project that would ultimately mark the end of his Hollywood directorial career.

While no definitive history about how Welles came to direct Touch of Evil is available, the circumstances have generated three distinct legends that construct Welles as a specific kind of Hollywood auteur. While Heston's is a self-serving tale in which he functions as the protagonist, it emphasizes Welles's vulnerability within the studio system and highlights that, though Welles was a forceful artist, he had little, if any, usable power in Hollywood. Universal Studios would not have hired him at all were it not for the demands of the popular star it coveted. Welles's version positions his status in the studio hierarchy similarly, but it makes more vibrant the portrait of an artist with an unflagging devotion to his craft, true to his creative vision even in the face of economic hardship. Zugsmith's narrative, meanwhile, constructs Welles as a brash genius, a man who sought out the difficult circumstances that, in the end, made his successes all the more grand. Where they may fail in their historical veracity, however, these narratives succeed in setting up a larger story of Orson Welles as a daredevil auteur who, because he could not be contained by it, was dismissed by the Hollywood studio machine. They also hint toward a kind of classical masculinity that is inherent to any rendering of the genius auteur: in each of these narratives, Welles is located at the site of textual origin, and his masterful presence is made even more powerful by the studio system's inability to rein him in. But if these narratives bolster the image of Welles's authorial prowess, they also cover over the castrating losses he experienced as Touch of Evil's deposed, compromised, and victimized director.

Welles, in fact, was afforded very little autonomy when he directed Touch of Evil for Universal Studios. Filming from 18 February to 2 April 1957, Welles shot Touch of Evil on schedule and within budget, and at first Universal considered the...



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