Behind the Scenes with Charlton Heston

"'Why don't you ask Welles to direct, too? He's a pretty good director, you know.''d have thought I'd suggested that my mother direct."

THE POST OFFICE in St. Helen, Michigan, was still in the back of the cobblestone general store I remember from when I was a kid and you remember from the movies. There was nothing in the box one day but another script, from Universal. It was called Badge of Evil. I started to read it that evening, and finished it the next morning-an okay police story. As I'd promised, I phoned the studio. "It's not a bad script," I said. "But police stories are like westerns: you guys've been making them for more than fifty years-all the great ideas are used up. It really depends on who's directing. Have you set anyone?" "Well ... no, actually. [Pause, then brightly:] We've got Orson Welles to play the heavy, though."

Now I paused. Could they really not have thought of the obvious? "Why don't you ask him to direct, too? He's a pretty good director, you know." Well ... you'd have thought I'd suggested that my mother direct the film.

"Oh! Ahh, yes, Citizen Kane and ... umm ... yes. Interesting. It would be, that is. To direct. For him .. ah, to direct. The film. We'll, ahh, get back to you. On that." Whereupon I hung up, bemused.

They did get back, a few days later. Yes, Orson would direct the film. I have no idea how intense the debate was, but I doubt anyone at Universal slapped the back of his head and said, "Of course he should direct! How come we didn't think of it? What a smart guy that Chuck Heston is." More likely it was, "Ahh, let him direct it. How bad can it be? Heston'll just get sore if we don't. F---in' actors."

I was delighted. It seemed to me, remembering Kane, that we had a chance at a great film. That's a chance you don't get very often. Getting the great film is even rarer. (But you sometimes get to try, pal. You get to try.)

I talked to Orson at length on the phone, before we left Michigan, and then met with him after we got back to L.A. He swung open the door of the house he was renting, a looming figure in a flowing black Moorish robe from his Othello. I was taller than he, but he filled the room, with his voice, his energy-with himself. His "Hello, Chuck!" rolled twice around the entry hall. He gave me a very large single-malt whisky splashed with water and mesmerized me for an afternoon.

He was three days into a rewrite of the entire script, which he finished a day and a half later. It was a vast improvement, most interesting to me in that he'd turned my character into a Mexican attorney. I'd played several Brits, but this was my first non-Anglo (though God knows not my last).

His name was Vargas, we decided; the very bright first son of a wealthy Mexican family, educated at USC and Harvard Law, on the fast track for high office in his country. None of this was in either the script or the picture, but, inventing his background, we could begin to invent the man. The next day I began growing a moustache, to be dyed black, along with my hair. The makeup department darkened my skin to suggest Hispanic genes. Orson ordered a suit (the action in the film is almost continuous; there are no wardrobe changes) made by the best Mexican tailor in Los Angeles. A first-class Mexican tailor cuts a coat a little differently from his counterpart in London, or New York.

All this gave me how Vargas looked. What about an accent? I took the easy answer: "He's very well educated, mostly in the U.S., he comes from a bilingual family; he speaks perfect English." That was lazy of me, and wrong. No one speaks perfect English, and no one not raised speaking it is totally without an accent. Henry Higgins was right; a speech expert can tell within miles where a man was born. If I had the part to do over, I'd try for the faintest stroke of emphasis and rhythm you might hear from an internationally educated Mexican, instead of my native Midwestern Yankee. It would've been a good creative challenge, and right for the part.

I don't recall that I shared this internal debate with Orson. Had I undertaken the accent, I've no doubt he would have supported me; that I was considering it may never have crossed his mind. He was buried in the prep for his film.

IT HAD become his film, of course, as I had expected and Universal had perhaps feared. He planned to shoot on both sides of the Mexican border, where the story was laid. Universal pulled the plug on that; they were probably wise to do so, though it did them no good in the end. Thwarted, Orson responded with his usual resourcefulness in adversity; he shot all his border-town exteriors in Venice, California, an hour from the studio. It looks marvelous, better than anything we could have found on the border, and logistically far easier.

The casting went well and easily, though our budget of less than a million dollars for the whole film left little money for the actors. Nevertheless, they all wanted to work for Orson, in the first film he'd directed in Hollywood in ten years. Several of his old Mercury players came on board: Ray Collins, Joe Calleia, and Joe Cotton in a cameo. Marlene Dietrich played a very spooky gypsy, wearing one of Elizabeth Taylor's black wigs, and I was responsible for a key casting. Dennis Weaver was just finding fame in Gunsmoke; I called him up and persuaded him to play a crazy motel-keeper for us. He was wonderfully eccentric. Janet Leigh was set as my new bride; very good, even with a broken arm. She wore the lightest possible cast for filming, discarding the sling during takes. A gutsy lady.

Orson came on the picture with a reputation for extravagance dragging after him like the chains clanking behind Marley's ghost. He didn't deserve it. He had his flaws as a filmmaker, but waste and inefficiency were not among them. Still, he knew he had to make the studio believe in him. He did this very resourcefully. The Sunday before shooting started, Orson called some of the actors to his house for an undercover rehearsal of the first day's work, a sound-stage interior of a tiny apartment. The next day, Orson began laying out a master shot that covered the whole scene, including two-shots, close-ups, over shoulders, and insert shots. It was a very complicated set-up, with walls pulling out of the way as the camera moved from room to room, and four principal actors, plus three or four bit players working through the scene.

On any movie set, the production department gets a call from one of the ADs, reporting when rehearsals on the first shot begin, when the first take is made, and when the first print is recorded. Lunch came and went and we were still rehearsing the shot; no camera had yet turned. Studio executives began to gather in uneasy little knots in corners, a bit daunted about approaching Orson while he was cuing an extra's move just as the tracking camera picked him up. They were also very worried. Most of the first day gone, and no film exposed yet.

About four o'clock, Orson called for a take, the first of a good many. Just after six, he said silkily, "Cut! Print the last three takes. That's a wrap on this set; we're two days ahead of schedule." He had designed his master to include all the coverage he needed in the 12-page scene, scheduled for three shooting days. All this was planned, of course, to astound Universal, which it surely did. It was also a fine way to shoot the scene.

The front-office people never came near the set again. They kept hoping for another miraculous 12-page day. The never got one, but Orson had persuaded them: even if he did get into trouble, he could get out of it. Looking back, I think he relished it. There was a little of Wellington after Waterloo: "A close-run thing, sir-a damn close-run thing." I won't say he deliberately painted himself into corners, but he did love leaping out of them. I remember a scene driving an open convertible down an alley in Venice, doing several pages of dialogue.

In 1957, they still shot moving-car scenes in a break-way car with the front off, the camera shooting past the actors at a process screen of traffic footage. Orson decided to shoot it in a real car, driving down a real alley.

Nowadays, of course, that's a piece of cake. The film's faster, the lights are half the size, so are the mikes and cables. When Orson's cameraman had the shot rigged, the back of the car was crammed with batteries and the recording unit, with cables twisting around the seats to mikes taped on the dashboard, and the camera was strapped to a wooden platform on the hood, with no room for even the camera operator and the sound mixer. Someone suggested cutting the front off the car and towing the rear half behind a truck large enough to carry a crew. Orson snorted. "Nonsense! These boys can shoot it without a crew."

And so we did. With a crash course in switching on both camera and sound, I drove down the alley half a mile to our start mark and said, "Turn over."

Mort Mills, my partner in the scene, flipped the right switches, checked the appropriate dials and said, "Speed." (Technical note: Nobody ever says "Lights, camera, action!" on a movie set.)

I gunned the car and yelled, "Action!" as we tore off, acting away. We had a marvelous time. We'd get down to the end of the alley and Orson would say, "How was it?"

"Perfect!" I'd say. "I'd like one more." It was my first experience of the heady bliss of directing a film. By the time I'd done three takes, I felt like D. W. Griffith. As a matter of record, this was the first time a dialogue scene was shot in a moving car.

THE OPENING shot of the film was an even more spectacular example of Orson's alchemist ability to transmute adversity into art. He took the introductory montage written to establish Janet and me in the border-town setting, and made what's been called the greatest boom shot in the history of the movies. Here's how it goes: Close-up on hands holding a bomb, setting timer; ticking starts on soundtrack, continuing behind as the camera booms up over building, follows a scurrying figure down alley, dropping closer as man opens trunk of parked car, drops bomb inside, runs off as laughing couple comes from bar, climbs in, and drives off. Camera follows, holding car in full shot, picking up Heston and Leigh walking arm in arm, dialogue establishing their recent marriage. We pick up car going through border checkpoint, drunken girl complaining of ticking in her head. Car drives off, Heston and Leigh pass checkpoint, dialogue with guard conveys Heston's Mexican-government status. Newlywed banter, Heston kisses Leigh, as bomb explodes offscreen.

It was technically an all but impossible shot, depending on precise timing, not only from Janet and me, the couple in the car and the passing extras, but most critically of all, from the boom grip (the man running the boom) and of course the camera operator. Today, a remote-controlled camera on the end of a Python boom would make the shot far easier to prepare and not nearly as hard to shoot. Then, it was a wonder.

They started lighting in mid afternoon and had it ready to rehearse when darkness came. We shot on it all night, with various things going wrong, most often the actor playing the IRS guard at the border crossing. He had only a line or two, but it must have been terrifying for him to see the whole company bearing down on him from a block away. When we'd get to him, he'd flub his lines. At last, as dawn began to lighten in the east, Orson said to him patiently, All right, let's do it once more. This time, if you aren't sure of your line, just move your lips-we can dub it in later. But whatever you do, please God don't say, 'I'm sorry, Mr. Welles."' That's the take that's in the movie.

More than half the picture was shot at night in the alleys, canals, and crumbling corners of Venice, a curious homage to the Italian original. Parts of it look like a Salvador Dali landscape. One night, preparing a showdown scene in a hotel lobby between my crusading Mexican prosecutor and Orson's corrupt cop, he was fuming at the slowness of the lumbering elevator. Suddenly, he stopped, transfixed. You could almost see the cartoon light bulb glow over his head. Chuck," he said, as the elevator finally sank to lobby level, "would you see if you can run up the stairs to the third floor before this thing gets up there?" I did. (It was a really slow elevator.)

Orson then laid out the scene with me arguing with him in the lobby, he bundling his cronies into the elevator and starting up, talking all the way, only to open the door and find me waiting at the top. Again, not tough to do today, but a real killer shot in 1957, with light and sound cables hanging three stories down the elevator shaft.

Later that same night, Orson and I were peeing into a drain down in the basement of the hotel. He looked at the dank cellar clutter around us and said, "Wouldn't this be a great place to do that scene in the file room with you and Joe Calleia?"

"It sure would," I said, zipping up. "But isn't that scheduled for Friday, back in the studio? They'll have the set built by now. Besides, Joe isn't even called tonight. It's 2 A.M.; he'll be dead asleep. We've got three more pages to shoot up on the third floor anyway. That'll take the rest of the night."

"Nonsense!" said Orson, his eyes gleaming. "I can wrap that scene in two set-ups. It'll take them that long to get Joe down here anyway. He'll be better if he's confused-that's what the scene's about."

He was right. He finished the upstairs scene before Joe got down to Venice, muzzy with sleep. He stumbled through the scene, Orson harrying him-it played wonderfully well. So did the cellar.

He was also very good about sharpening your focus on the scene you were doing that day. Even with a great part, you're not likely to have more than three or four really great scenes, which you get to work on for maybe a week of the whole shoot. A lot of the time you're getting on and off horses, or in and out of cars, or someone else's good scenes. Orson could somehow persuade you that this next set-up happened to be one of the key shots in the whole movie.

Though I don't think he was a great actor, he could give you an actor's insight into the process. He told me something very casually once that's been permanently valuable to me. You know, Chuck," he said as we finished looking at several reels of dailies, "you should work on your tenor range. All of us with these deep bass voices tend to rumble along like organs. You've got to use the high end, too. The tenor range has a knife edge; your bass is a velvet hammer. Use them both." I've tried to do that ever since.

We finished the film early on April Fool's Day, killing Orson on the junk-littered bank of Venice's solitary canal, just before the sun rose. We were one night over our thirty-day schedule and $31,000 over our $900,000 budget. We celebrated over ham and eggs in an all-night coffee shop, with a bottle of Lanson champagne Orson had in his trailer.

I lifted my glass to him. "I think it'll be a hell of a picture, Orson. You did waste some time, and a little film, trying to conceal the fact that you had the best part. I knew that. The movie is about the fall of Captain Quinlan." He looked at me quizzically for a moment, then rumbled with laughter.

"You're quite right, my boy-that was stupid of me." He burst out in a happy roar: "Well, now I don't have to worry about it in the cutting room."

"What do I think of Orson Welles? I think he was the most talented man I ever met."

TOUCH OF EVIL, as it was eventually titled, was released in 1958, to only fair business but excellent notices and a couple of festival prizes. Over the years Evil has become a cult film, much admired, as it should be. It's certainly not a great film, like Citizen Kane, but it is immensely imaginative and provocative-among the finest few films of a hugely gifted filmmaker. Cahier du Cinema probably got it right when they called it "the best B movie ever made." I'm very proud of the film and of working for Orson. I'm also proud I was responsible for his directing the last film he made in this country, or for a major studio. I'd have worked for him again, given a chance.

What do I think of Orson Welles? I think he was the most talented man I ever met, which doesn't mean I think he was the best actor or the best director. I don't. But whatever we mean by "talent"-I suppose it's a label we put on the capacity to create art-Orson had, in spades.

Maybe he had too much of it. It often seemed so easy for him to come up with a marvelous solution for a scene-almost off the top of his head. Maybe he sometimes only used the top of his talent and then got bored with the endgame. It's been said that Hollywood owed Orson more than they gave him; perhaps he owed them more, too. He never lost his spirit, though. In the last year of his life, he was holding court in the Bistro, in Beverly Hills, when an intense young man approached him, almost genuflecting in awe at his work, particularly Kane. "There's one thing, though ... I've always w-wondered about," the man stammered, abashed. "In the [-last scene, when Kane's dying and he ... he drops the glass ball, you know, and he says 'R-Rosebud'? Ahh, there's no one else in the room. So how ... how do they know those're his last w-words?"

Orson looked at him a moment, then put a massive hand on the back of his neck and drew him close. You must never," he rumbled softly, "repeat one word of what you have just told me to a living soul."

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