Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Chuck, Yakima and Orson

The passing of Charlton Heston represents the sad end of a film era. He was one of the last leading men produced by Hollywood's studio system and, arguably, one of its most enduring. Heston entered film when producers, directors and audiences placed a premium on chisled features, a resonant voice and a powerful physique. Mr. Heston certainly had those qualities--in spades--but he was also a consummate actor, commanding the screen in roles that ranged from biblical epics and science fiction, to film noir.

For better or worse, Heston's film legacy will be inevitably linked to the historical figures he played; Moses in The 10 Commandments; John the Baptist in The Greatest Story Ever Told, and his turn as the Castillian nobleman and military leader, El Cid. That's an impressive resume for any actor, but it only represents a fraction of Heston's work over a 60-year career in the movies, television and the theater.

As a performer, Mr. Heston produced his share of memorable moments, almost all on the big screen. The chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959) remains one of the most dramatic film sequences in film history, produced in the days before computer animation and digital special effects. It remains the most complex and expensive stunt ever filmed. Planning and rehearsing the race sequence took five months; getting it on film took another five weeks, utilizing an 18-acre set, the largest ever used in a motion picture.

There was no requirement that Heston actually drive one of the chariots, but he and co-star Stephen Boyd (who played Messala) decided to give it a go. Heston spent four weeks learning to handle a four-horse chariot; Boyd, a late addition to the cast, got only two.

Fortunately, both actors were in good hands. To handle the elaborate sequence, director William Wyler hired Yakima Canutt, probably the best stuntman who ever worked in Hollywood. Canutt was a former rodeo star who had been devising stunts, developing safety gear and doubling for screen lengends since the 1920s. Still, at one point in his training, Heston fretted about driving a chariot against seven other teams in the race. As Orlando Sentinel film critic Roger Moore recounts Canutt's response:

"Chuck, you just make sure y'stay in the chariot. I guarantee yuh y'gonna win the damn race."

To his credit, Heston repeated the anecdote often, in his books, during TV interviews, even during a beer commercial. Always generous, Mr. Heston believed in giving credit where it was due, in this case to Canutt and his stunt team, who did most of the actual driving. After the film was complete, Heston gave Mr. Canutt a statue that became one of the stuntman's prized possessions. It was an equine head on a pedestal, with the inscription, "To Yak from Chuck. Thanks for turning a horse's ass into a half-assed horseman."

Heston also had high praise for a director that, in his words, taught him more about acting than any other he worked for." The director was Orson Welles; the film was 1958's "Touch of Evil." By that time, Welles' career in Hollywood was in eclipse; his one-time reputation as a wunderkind had been replaced by that of an artist who clashed with studio bosses and couldn't complete film projects.

There are at least two accounts of how Welles became involved with the project. The more believeable one, offered by Heston (and at least one film historian) suggests that Orson Welles originally signed on as an actor, playing the corrupt American police Captain Hank Quinlan. Heston, already a major film star, expressed interest in the role of "Mike" Vargas, a Mexican police official investigating corruption and murder north of the border. Mr. Heston suggested that he might me more interested if Welles was given a chance to direct, and the studio (Universal) readily agreed to his demand. A second version suggests that the producer challenged Welles to make a great film out of a pile of "lousy" scripts. He selected Badge of Evil, as the project was originally titled.

Touch of Evil is widely considered one the last--and finest examples of film noir, at the end of that genre's golden era. The picture begins with a three-minute tracking shot, one of the most memorable long shots in film. It follows a man planting a bomb inside a car, which then travels across the U.S.-Mexico border. The shot ends with Vargas kissing his new bride (Janet Leigh), followed by the car exploding. Realizing the implications of a Mexican bomb exploding on American soil, Vargas begins digging, despite the risks to himself and his wife.

It's a brillant film, though it was largely ignored at the time of its release; in most movie theaters, it played on the lower half of a twin bill, giving Evil the dubious distinction of being the best "B" movie ever made. Critics in Europe immediately hailed it as an important film, and their American counterparts eventually came around, as well. Roger Ebert ranks it among his "Great Movies," and it also made the American Film Institute's list of the "Top 100 Heart-Pounding American Movies."

Much of the film's acclaim stems from its virtuoso camera work, conceived by Welles and cinematographer Russell Metty. Their fluid, innovative camera movement, coupled with expert use of light and shadow, are as stunning today as it was 50 years ago. Some have even likened the achievement to Welles' work (with Gregg Toland) on Citizen Kane. Others hailed Orson Welles performance as the sleazy Quinlan, who literally oozes corruption.

But to work, Touch of Evil needed to have a moral core, and Heston provided that, magnificently. As Manolha Dargis of The New York Times recently wrote, in an appreciation of the actor's work:

In long shot and choking close up, Welles directs Mr. Heston brilliantly, making particularly memorable use of the actor's physicality, his big, rangy body and the hard, clean right angles of his face. The ramrod straight, straight as an arrow Vargas with his impossibly long and loping stride, couldn ot look or register more different from Quinlan, an amorphous blob who all but rolls across the screen. Welles exploits Heston's regidity as a performer (and his American movie-star presence) for character, using what in other films sometimes seemed like a limitation of craft and technique to the great advantage of the story's texture and meaning. He turns Mr. Heston's jutting jaw into the wagging finger of righteousness, deepening the film's complex morality.

Sadly, Touch of Evil will not be included in Turner Classic Movies' salute to Heston, scheduled for this Friday. However, a restored version of the film is available on DVD. Like many of Welles' later projects, he lost creative control of Evil. After screening his rough cut, Universal re-edited the picture, including additional scenes that Welles never authorized. The restored film better captures the mood and ambiguity that the director desired. It's a lasting testament to both the film maker and his star. Charlton Heston, unforgettable as Moses and Ben-Hur, was also at his best in Touch of Evil, under the gifted tutelage of Orson Welles.

When future generations of fans and critics watch the film, they should not only remember the director's genius, they should also celebrate the generous (and gifted) actor who gladly shared the spotlight with his collaborators, and gave Orson Welles his last major directing job in Hollywood. That's another achievement worth celebrating in Heston's long and storied career.

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