Keaton and Orson Welles – A High Sign Touch of Evil

Buster flashes ‘the High Sign.’

Prior posts discuss Orson Welles and Chaplin (Citizen Kane – Modern Times), and Keaton and Alfred Hitchcock (Day Dreams and Vertigo), so how about Keaton and Orson Welles? Their paths crossed too, filming in Venice, California. As I explain in my books, and in several posts, Venice was a very popular place to film; Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd all filmed there frequently. In fact, Chaplin’s public debut of his Little Tramp character was even filmed in Venice, during the Kid Auto Races (what were they? – read HERE).

As was so often the case, the benign silent movie locations from the 1910s-1920s would become, after decades of accumulated grime and neglect, the stark and seedy landscapes perfect for noir dramas and crime stories. Thus, the beautiful Venice-inspired seaside resort appearing in Keaton’s 1920 produced short The High Sign would portray a corrupt Mexican border town in Touch of Evil (1958). As shown here, the building at the NE corner of Windward Avenue and Speedway (now one of the few remaining original structures), appears in both productions (see matching boxes above).

A view north, 1920, with part of the Abbott Kinney amusement pier at the left, and the corner of Windward and Speedway (box), with the arrow matching the points of view shown above. LAPL

Welles greatly respected and admired Buster Keaton.  During his introduction of The General for the Paul Killiam television series The Silent Years, Welles recalled working with Buster at the old Stage Door Canteen during WWII, describing Buster as “a lovely person, and a supreme artist, and I think one of the most beautiful people that was ever photographed.” He continued that Buster was “as we’re now beginning to realize, the greatest of all the clowns in the history of the cinema.”  Of The General, Welles rated it “one of the great films of all times, one of my favorites.” Welles further stated “in fact, I think it’s THE Civil War movie, nothing ever came near it. Not only for beauty but for the curious feeling of authenticity. … It’s one hundred times more stunning visually than Gone With The Wind.”

Knowing this, it’s fun to imagine what Welles would have thought had he learned his celebrated continuous tracking shot opening Touch of Evil was staged in Venice at the same spot where Buster had filmed his very first independently produced movie.

Filmed at Venice; Chaplin – Kid Auto Races in Venice, By the Sea, The Adventurer, and The Circus, Keaton – The High Sign, The Balloonatic, and The Cameraman, Lloyd – Young Mr. Jazz, By the Sad Sea Waves, Number Please?, Why Pick on Me?, and Speedy.

A view east down Windward Avenue in Venice. Bison Archives – Marc Wanamaker

Below, a 2011 view of the NE corner of Windward and Speedway appearing in The High Sign and A Touch of Evil. The two center windows on the top floor were once shaded by six narrow Gothic arches that have since been removed.

This entry was posted in Buster Keaton, Orson Welles, Venice and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Keaton and Orson Welles – A High Sign Touch of Evil

  1. Marc Wanamaker says:

    You are brilliant to notice the correlation between the two films!!


  2. Pingback: Buster with a Bullitt – Keaton and Steve McQueen’s SF Stunts | Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

  3. Pingback: Buster, Harold, and Stymie at the Venice Pier | Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

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