Monday, April 7, 2008
In His Own Country
If I was given a choice to only see one Charlton Heston film over and over from now until the end of time it would have to be TOUCH OF EVIL, no question about it. True, there are a number of his prestige films that I still haven’t seen, an oversight I hope to correct one of these years, it contains neither massive battle scenes or talking apes and people have made jokes about him playing a Mexican for years, but I don’t care. It’s just too enjoyable for me to ever pass it up. There’s so much going on in the film that sustains repeat viewings and watching it again over the past day confirms that it’s one of those films that gains added depth over the years as my own perceptions of people and the world itself changes.
Of course, much of that has more to do with Orson Welles than Heston, but hey, it’s the lead actor who was responsible for his director getting the assignment, despite the factually inaccurate dialogue in ED WOOD that suggests otherwise. And look past the oddity of his casting because of how strong he is in the part and how much he ultimately adds to the flavor of the film. In a world populated by colorful and eccentric characters from Dennis Weaver to Mort Mills to Marlene Dietrich, some of whom have peripheral association to the plot at best, Heston’s Miguel ‘Mike’ Vargas is the rock it all has to be centered around. His physicality lets itself be known whenever he is on camera and as an actor he seems perfectly comfortable with letting the other actors get their share of the visually overwhelming spotlight. He’s a figure of true righteousness in the ultra-sleazy border town which TOUCH is set in and his screen presence here is almost more powerful to me than in some of his other ‘bigger’ films, maybe because he isn’t required to carry the full weight of civilization (and, often, its end) on his shoulders. He’s simply a man of principle who may speak of how much he hates what he has to do in the climax, but it’s clear he does it because he can’t leave town without doing otherwise. And he’s believably vulnerable in the slight tension which exists between him and new American bride Janet Leigh in their cultural differences (“It would be nice for a man in my place to be able to think he could look after his own wife in his own country.”). Reading over some comments he gave on the project through the years Heston seems very aware that the film isn’t ‘about’ his character even though you’d expect it would be and it’s to his credit that he allowed this to occur. It not only provided the greater challenge as an actor to stand face to face with the great Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan but this shifting of focus resulted in a true masterpiece, something no one seemed to be contemplating when the film first went into production. And even if he’s never allowed the little touches in performance that others in the film seem to have, every time in my own life I put on my sunglasses when I have to walk outside for just a moment, I think of the ultra-cool way he manages to do it, as he crosses the street from Sanchez’s apartment to the awkward moment he has with the blind woman whose phone he asks to use.
I only saw Charlton Heston in person a few times and never actually met him. One of those times I was in his presence was back in 2000 for a special screening of TOUCH OF EVIL at the Fine Arts Theater in Wilshire, I think to promote the video release of the restored cut. Among the participants at the post-film panel were Heston and his screen wife Janet Leigh. She died a few years ago and now he has as well. Thinking of that reminds me how the two of them are reunited at the end of the film but there seems to be no further interest in them beyond this narrative fact. The couple never learns of the revelation that Schwartz makes to Tanya and they don’t even seem to warrant a ‘final shot’ of their car driving off in the end, giving Marlene Dietrich in her legendary cameo the famous final image instead. I have no complaints about that but it does make me think today of their characters Susan and Mike, reunited once again. There’s a lot to be said about Charlton Heston, but I’m going to avoid doing that here. Right now, I’ll think of him as someone who seemed to have ability to carry the weight of the universe on his shoulders but sometimes was just an upstanding individual out at night looking for a chocolate soda for his wife.