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Apr 9

Written by: Diana West
Wednesday, April 09, 2008 6:10 AM 

UPDATE: Having mentioned "Touch of Evil" as a memorable Heston film, I found Heston's remarks on the film of particular interest:

Charlton Heston (R.I.P.) on 'Touch of Evil'
From Steven Rea's "On Movies Online"


In an interview nearly 15 years ago (yikes!), Charlton Heston reflected back on his career, on playing such epic figures as Moses, Michelangelo, John the Baptist and Buffalo Bill. But Heston - who passed away Saturday at the age of 83 - said during the 1993 phone chat that "my most important contribution to motion pictures" was off-camera. That is, persuading Universal Pictures to let Orson Welles direct a little noir thriller called Touch of Evil.

The 1958 classic, which stars Welles (as a corrupt U.S. cop), Heston (as a dogged Mexican government detective) and Janet Leigh (as his American bride), was without a director when Universal gave the picture the green light. It was Heston who mentioned that Welles, who hadn't helmed a successful picture in years, be given the job. The producers' initial reaction was one of gaping silence, "as though I had suggested that my mother direct the film," Heston recalled.

Touch of Evil, which also boasts a cameo by Marlene Dietrich, is "an extraordinarily interesting film," Heston said. "I think Cahiers du Cinema had the right take on it. They wrote - oh my gosh, 20 years ago - that Touch of Evil is not a great film, but it's the best B-movie ever made. And that's about right.

Great comment: apt, modest, intelligent, and funny.

 "I'm very proud to have been in it, and I'm very proud to have played a significant part - well, the crucial part - in having Orson direct it."


The first obituary I came across on hearing the news that Charlton Heston had died today at age 84 was from USA Today. After opening by observing that Heston was someone whose name could bankroll a Hollywood extravaganza (more on that below), the obit goes on to observe--oddly, I thought--that this same name never enjoyed a vogue in American baby names as, for example, "Gary" (Cooper) did. As far as I can tell, neither did "Clark" (Gable),  "Sylvester" (Stallone) or "Leonardo" (Dicaprio) so I'm not sure what we can draw from this except that Charlton, a perfectly beautiful name, is a name that was and is out of the ordinary. As was and is Charlton Heston.

The obit goes on:

Think of Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford from a later generation or Tom Cruise, Ben Affleck and Johnny Depp from today's. You cannot imagine any of them doing what to Heston came naturally: Holding stone tablets or looking at home in a loincloth.

Nor, I would add, can we even imagine the Hollywood Golden Age stars who preceeded him handling the ancient epic props with similar aplomb. In many ways, he really was larger than life in his ability to assume and project the stories and roles straight out of a Western and practically primordial consciousness.   

Like John Wayne, he could play the dominating individual in a Panavision frame of hundreds, yet no one would have even tried to cast Wayne as a galley slave. Heston was at his best in Biblical or medieval times. Look at 1965's The War Lord, which was made when historical epics were on the wane. With co-star Richard Boone wasted and little else to look at beyond co-star Rosemary Forsyth's beauty, Heston makes you believe he's an 11th-century Norman authority figure, though it's obvious that even the exteriors he's acting against are on Universal's back lot.

Even in his heyday, Heston was a tough actor to size up. Put him in a comic or conventional romantic role that any relaxed B-lister could ace, and he could appear stiff and even pompous. But give him a role that was littered with minefields or even nearly unplayable, and he could give you a movie Moses, Ben-Hur or El Cid for the ages.

True enough. I would add to his pantheon of pictures the dark and dazzling  "Touch of Evil"  (1958), directed by and co-starring Orson Welles, with Janet Leigh, Akim Tamiroff, Marlene Dietrich and more. But now watch what happens as the obit turns political.

As one who stood up and was counted marching for civil rights in the 1960s, Heston eventually surrounded himself with conservative Republicans.

This sentence is a marvelously economic representation of the kind of  political character assassination that killed Heston's latter-day career (more on that below) and ultimate status as Hollywood icon.  Presenting Good Heston in the modifying clause--the one who marched for civil rights--Bad Heston prevails as the one who "eventually surrounded himself with conservative Republicans." USA Today continues:

And this took a toll, as his controversial 1998-2003 presidency of the National Rifle Association tended to obscure his screen achievements.

No, what obscured his screen achievements was the Hollywood and media establishment bias against his conservative philosophy--a shrill and intolerant bias that effectively blacklisted him for work as an actor. We hear ad nauseam about the 1950s blacklists of Hollywood communists, who were, let's recall, political allies of a nation that actually wanted to destroy this country and its freedoms--something we don't hear about ad nauseam. Another thing we don't hear much about are the Hollywood conservatives whose careers were similarly blighted by de facto liberal blacklists of subsequent decades. For Heston, well-known as a conservative, not to mention a friend and ally of Ronald Reagan's, being on the outs in Hollywood, long pre-dated 1998.

I can add a couple of observations from family lore on this count. My late father Elliot West, an author and Hollywood writer, crossed paths with Charlton Heston a couple of times over the years. The first time, my mother tells me, was at a party at producer Walter Seltzer's house sometime after the assassination of JFK. Late-ish in the evening, the guests had gathered around the fireplace where talk turned to the apparent consensus that the assasination was the result of a massive conspiracy plot. The way my Dad later depicted the scene for my Mom--she had to miss the party to babysit Your Truly and Brother--the conspiracy talk of the the guests, dramatically backlit by the fire, made my Dad uncomfortable. Unable to sit still for it, he paced silently up and down behind a nearby sofa as he listened.  Interestingly enough, the one other guest similarly discomfited was Charlton Heston, who paced with him.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and, as writers do, my Dad was working with a producer trying to get a novel of his onto the screen. The book is The Killing Kind and it features a middle-aged detective that Heston, at that age, would have been perfect for. Heston heartly agreed, but was concerned that his name attached to the project--for political reasons--would doom it. And  he was right. I, at this point a conscious being, still remember the word when it came back from the production-company head involved. And I quote: I wouldn't make a move with Charlton Heston if he was the last actor on earth."  And it wasn't Moses he didn't like; it was Heston's conservative politics. 

I might add, that Hollywood didn't like my Dad's conservative politics, either.  But that's another story.



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