Touch of Genius:
An Interview with Charlton Heston
October 8, 1998
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the October 8-15, 1998 issue of Pitch Weekly. ........................................................................................................
Charlton Heston has a staggering record of achievement. He's probably best known for playing Moses in the lavish 1956 spectacle The Ten Commandments. He won an Oscar for the 1959 classic Ben-Hur and is a recent Kennedy Center award recipient. In addition, he was involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and currently serves as president of the National Rifle Association. He has recently written a coffee-table book, Charlton Heston's Hollywood, and will be in Kansas City to promote it this weekend. Also, on Oct. 16, his 1958 cult classic Touch of Evil will be rereleased in Kansas City.
Touch of Evil marks the only time Heston collaborated with legendary filmmaker Orson Welles. Welles had starred in and helmed Citizen Kane, the 1941 film which the American Film Institute recently selected as the greatest American movie ever made. However, in 1957, Welles' directing career was all but over in Hollywood because of his mercurial reputation. His fortunes improved when he was cast as a crooked police captain opposite Heston's idealistic Mexican narc in the thriller Touch of Evil.
Speaking by phone from Beverly Hills, CA, Heston explains, "I've always said that one of my major contributions to film is the fact that I bullied the studio (Universal) to hire Orson to direct it. They hired him to act in it. I said, which stunned them, 'Why don't you have him direct? He's a pretty good director, you know.' They said, 'Yeah, uh, that would be interesting to have him, uh, yes, direct that is.'
"You could see they were just desperate. They said, 'Look. We'll get back to you.' I can guarantee you they didn't hang up and say, 'Boy, that Chuck Heston is so bright. That's just dead on.' They said, 'Those fucking actors.'"
Welles' unique approach to cinema may have made Universal nervous. He used odd camera angles and made offbeat casting choices (Heston and the Russian-born Akim Tamiroff play Mexicans while Maltese-born actor Joseph Calleia portrays an Anglo cop). Universal eventually re-edited the film and added additional footage. Trying to restore his version, Welles sent a 58-page memo, which listed dozens of requested changes, to the studio.
Forty years later, Academy Award-winning editor Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The English Patient) has re-cut the movie to the director's specifications. Heston says the new version offers improvements. "We've been re-dubbed, so the sound is much better than when the film was made. In terms of the cutting, I think the most significant change is that glorious boom (or crane) shot that starts the picture. When Universal gave the picture its first release, which was pretty meager anyway, they put the opening credits over that boom shot. You could see the shot, and you could hear the dialogue, but it was very distracting. They eliminated (the credits). That boom shot is a classic. There's no shot like it in the movies," he states.
The 3-minute and 20-second shot, which glides up and down buildings as it follows an assassination attempt, is a legendary technical achievement. Many movies, such as The Player, Boogie Nights and Snake Eyes, have imitated it. While the scene is amazing to watch, Heston recalls it was Herculean to achieve. "Night shooting is like shooting on the water. You figure the most time, money and preparation it can possibly require; and double it. We all understood it was going to be squeaky to finish the whole scene in one night. We started rehearsing while the sun was still up. Laying out the shot and timing the moves was desperately complicated," he says.
"The shot that's printed is the last take. You can see the sky lightening in the background of the shot. By that time (the technicians) had it down slick, and my scene with Janet (Leigh) was quite simple. But the customs officer, who was a bit player, of course, had two lines. He consistently flubbed them, which is understandable because the shot started at least a long block away. And finally, the last time Orson said to him, 'Let's do one more take, and this time don't worry about the lines. Just move your lips. But for God's sake don't say, 'I'm sorry Mr. Welles,'" he says.
If the movie's bizarre visuals may have endangered Welles' control of the picture, Heston says that Welles himself may have been partly to blame for the unwanted revisions. He recalls, "All that preparation was something he loved doing and was very good at it. It is also, I fear, true that after he had finished shooting and editing his first director's cut, his mind worked so quickly that I think he tended to lose interest. The late stages of post-production on a film indeed gets quite boring. It's highly technical work. I've directed a few pictures myself, and it's all you can do to keep from falling asleep. I think it's what got Orson into his confrontation with the studio."
Welles went to Mexico to work on Don Quixote (which he never completed), unaware the studio bosses found his director's cut confusing. "I was on another picture at the time. I got a call from the studio, and they said, 'Do you know how to get in touch with Orson?' You cannot just walk off a picture. That was a big mistake. I think there are those who say Orson was fired. That's not true. If they had fired him, they wouldn't have called me."
If the arguments with the studio may have marred the experience, Heston says that Welles still taught him valuable lessons. Heston's deep, resonant voice can be heard in everything from beer commercials to the opening frames of this summer's Armageddon. Working with Welles helped him develop that voice. Heston remembers, "He said, 'Chuck, you know those of us with these deep, booming bass voices, we tend to wallow around the bass range. You should develop your tenor range. You don't need to worry about the bass; it makes its point.' That was a very valuable piece of advice."
"It is easy to affirm that Heston still admires his one-time director. Speaking with the man who once brought Moses to life can be intimidating. When nervously addressed as "Mr. Welles" at the end of this interview, he chuckled and graciously replied, "I'm flattered."
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