TOUCH OF EVIL (1958, Dir. Orson Welles)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

If Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) served as a kind of prologue to film noir, anticipating many of its visual strategies and narrative structures, then Touch of Evil serves as a kind of coda (or perhaps epitaph) that provides a veritable catalog of noir characters, situations, and visuals. All of these elements, though, are pushed to such an extreme that it is hard to see how any film could push them further without spilling over into pure parody. Touch of Evil itself, in fact, can be read as a parody of film noir—and it contains a number of moments that are genuinely hilarious. Yet the film also manages at the same time to be an excellent noir film in its own right, treating some very dark topics in a very serious (if always out-of-kilter) manner. Meanwhile, those topics are about as tawdry and pulpy as they ever get in film noir (which is saying a lot), yet this film is also the product of genuine cinematic genius and virtuosity. Such mixtures of seemingly incongruous elements make this film a fitting capstone to the original noir cycle, of which it is widely considered to be the last major work.

Touch of Evil epitomizes Welles’ ability to push the boundaries of genre, twisting and extending conventions in such a way as to produce recognizable genre films that at the same time question the premises of the genre to which they belong. For example, Touch of Evil is a tour de force of noir lighting, but it pushes the typical film noir lighting effects to an almost absurd extreme, thereby conducting a self-reflexive and self-parodic inquiry into the thematic use of darkness and shadow in film noir as a whole. The plot that accompanies this lighting also resembles that of the typical film noir, with lots of betrayals and sinister forces at work, but again to an extent that spills over into parody. It is almost as if Welles constructed the film from a sort of film noir tool kit, making sure that all the elements were there but putting them together with twine and bailing wire that remain clearly visible. As James Naremore puts it, Touch of Evil is the Welles film in which “all his strengths—the showman, the political satirist, the obsessed romantic, the moral philosopher, the surrealist—are somehow merged” (146).

One story about the origin of Touch of Evil is that the film began when producer Albert Zugsmith dared Welles to try to make a good film out of the worst script Zugsmith could find (Naremore 148). True or not, the story certainly provides an interesting gloss on the resulting film, which seems to try to raise cheesiness to an art form. It begins as a mysterious figure plants a bomb in the trunk of a car. Then we follow the car as it drives through a Mexican border town, crosses the border into the U.S., then suddenly explodes, obliterating the occupants of the car, who include wealthy contractor Rudy Linnekar and a blonde bimbo (Joi Lansing). Yet all of these events are shown to us in one of the most impressive (and famous) bits of camera work in all of American film, a 3 ½-minute-long continuous overhead tracking shot that not only gives us an unusual view of the events but that also calls attention to its own virtuosity, announcing the film’s reflexivity. This opening tracking shot, meanwhile, sets the stage for a number of unusual shots that run throughout the film, presenting us with odd camera angles, unusual camera movements, and peculiar editing that all seem designed to enhance the sense of strangeness that runs throughout the film. This opening tracking shot also includes a view of couple walking along the same route as the exploding car, soon identified as newlyweds Miguel “Mike” Vargas and Susan Vargas (played by Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh). Vargas, it turns out, is a prominent Mexican crimebuster with “nearly cabinet status” in the Mexican government; Susan is an American woman who seems to regard all Mexicans as potential rapists, presumably with the exception of her husband, whom she insists on calling “Mike” and who, fortunately, speaks perfect American English without a trace of an accent (though his Spanish is quite clumsy). Dressed throughout the film in either tight sweaters or lingerie, Leigh prefigures her upcoming role in Psycho (1960) by stumbling through the film as a prototypical white-woman victim, in this case surrounded by sleazy, swarthy tormentors. Meanwhile, Heston ostensibly plays the straight man amid the film’s gallery of grotesques, yet Vargas is in many ways the oddest character of the lot. For one thing, as played by Heston, he is an absurdly unconvincing Mexican whose lack of accent is compensated for by ludicrous skin-darkening makeup and a thin moustache so fake-looking it would make Groucho Marx’s look real. For another, Vargas speaks almost entirely in pompous clichés, delivered with a hokey breathless passion that sounds for all the world like a bad comedian doing impressions of Heston. Indeed, much of the film’s subtle humor comes from a palpable sense that the excessively earnest Heston is somehow in a different film from everyone else and that everyone else in the film is possibly having a great deal of fun at his expense.[1]


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While Vargas is the film’s “hero,” the real central figure in the film is the corrupt American police captain, Hank Quinlan (Welles), who first arrives on the scene to investigate the car bombing. Welles plays the role in almost exactly the opposite fashion from Heston, hamming it up from beginning to end. Quinlan is a literally larger than life figure; the swollen Welles limps and mumbles his way through the film with his rumpled clothing supplemented by stubble and a putty nose, looking as disreputable as possible. As the bizarre Mexican gypsy Tanya (played by Marlene Dietrich with no attempt to hide her German accent) tells him when she sees him, apparently for the first time in years, “You’re a mess, honey,” suggesting that he has decayed considerably since she last saw him. The wise and wearily tolerant Tanya (who apparently operates a brothel in Mexico, though that is never made entirely clear) has no particular role in the plot, though she does seem to have perhaps had some sort of fling with Quinlan many years earlier, while her reaction to him in the present suggests that he was not always such a fallen and degraded figure. Tanya also functions, among other things, as a counterpoint to the innocently bitchy Susan, just as Quinlan is contrasted with Vargas. Tanya, however, is a far more interesting figure than the vacuous Susan, while, in one of the film’s many ironies, the grotesque Quinlan (partly due to Welles’s superb performance) is not only more interesting, but far more believable than the upright, repressed Vargas.

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Among other things, Quinlan serves as a sort of allusion to Welles’s recent casting as a fat racist in films such as Man in the Shadow (1957) and The Long Hot Summer (1958), though the film provides its own explanation for Quinlan’s condition. He has supposedly deteriorated to this state due to his despair over the unsolved murder of his wife, years earlier, apparently the only area murder in recent history that has gone unsolved. It turns out, however, that Quinlan’s technique for solving murders is highly questionable: he deduces the probable identity of the culprit through intuition, then plants evidence to ensure that the designated culprit will be convicted. The murder of his wife, then, may have gone unsolved because, for once, he wanted to make sure he captured the real perpetrator. Or just the opposite: it is possible, of course, that Quinlan murdered her himself, but this interpretation seems inconsistent with the oddly sympathetic presentation of Quinlan in much of the film. The final major character in the film is the Mexican gangster Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), whose brother is being prosecuted by Vargas and who is attempting (when not wrestling with his recalcitrant hairpiece) to gain some sort of leverage with which to undermine that prosecution. These major characters are also supplemented by minor characters, such as Grandi’s gang and Quinlan’s lieutenants, though many of the secondary characters are included less for their roles in the plot than to increase the overall surreal atmosphere. Particularly memorable is Dennis Weaver as the hysterical (in more ways than one) “night man” of the deserted motel (owned by Grandi) where Susan is stashed (for her “safety”) during much of the film, there to be terrorized by Grandi’s gang. There are also a number of brief cameo appearances by a diverse crew that includes Merecedes McCambridge, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Ray Collins, and old-time Wellesian Joseph Cotton.

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Weaver’s performance in the motel sequence of Touch of Evil is worth commenting on in detail, both because it is so outrageously entertaining in its own right and because of what it tells us about the sort of film Touch of Evil really is. Momentarily diverted from his honeymoon by the bombing investigation, Vargas stashes Susan at a remote motel on the American side of the border, where she clearly feels it will be safer than on the Mexican side, though she tries to pretend that this is not her reason for fear of offending her new husband. And, of course, she couldn’t be more wrong about the safety in any case. As Susan wanders into her cabin at the motel, we see the night man peering at her through a window as if in anticipation of Norman Bates. Weaver’s night man, though, is not a real threat. In fact, he seems terrified of Susan from the very beginning, clearly suspecting that she might be planning to use the motel for some sort of illicit activity, especially given that she is checking in at 7 am. (He also clearly suspects that this activity will be sexual in nature, thus his refusal to help put clean sheets on the bed, lest he somehow become complicit.) Later, while Susan lolls about on the bed in her sexy honeymoon duds, Grandi’s sinister gang of leather-jacketed nephews, looking like they just escaped from an American juvenile delinquent movie, shows up and commandeers the motel. Working with several female gang members (one of whom, played by an uncredited Mercedes McCambridge, is extremely butch), the nephews sadistically terrorize Susan with their hepcat music, then break into her room and attack her. The film cuts away, making it unclear whether Susan is raped (the film suggests, though not unequivocally, that she was wasn’t, but that might have been just to soothe the Code censors). By the time Vargas, unable to get through on the phone, gets back to the motel to rescue Susan, she has been taken, unconscious, back to a Mexican hotel, where her room is planted with drugs as part of a plan to make it look as if Susan is a marijuana addict and as if Vargas himself is involved in drug smuggling, thus undermining his prosecution of Grandi’s brother.

The jittery night man greets Vargas in a state of high agitation, suggesting (with a clear suggestion of moral outrage) that there was just “one of them wild parties” going on in Susan’s dark cabin (to which the electricity has been cut). Alarmed, Vargas rushes to the cabin with the night man lurking behind him. Vargas begin to search the room, and the night man catches a whiff of marijuana smoke. “It stinks in here!” he exclaims. “It’s a mess!” he cries, opening a window. “It’s a stinking mess! Them and their wild parties!” He finds and sniffs the remnants of a reefer, realizes what it is, then screams in terror and hurls it away from him as if it might bite. Then he flees the cabin, unable to stand being in the midst of such moral turpitude. By the time Vargas runs him down and learns from him that Grandi owns the motel and that the gang has probably gone back to Mexico, this motel scene (intercut with scenes of the investigation by Vargas and Quinlan) has lasted roughly 44 minutes, nearly half the run-time of the entire film.

This motel sequence is also one of the most confusing aspects of the entire film. We never see what the gang actually does to Susan, but only get hints. Meanwhile, that the Mexican gang seems suspiciously like a group of American delinquents possibly suggests the way in which Americans sometimes have a hard time distinguishing among the various groups of Others that they feel threatened by. In addition, the drugs, the music, and the gender confusion involved in this sequence—combined with the barren, remote setting of the motel—all contribute to the sense of the motel as a sort of hellish nightmare world, disconnected from normal reality. At the same time, Weaver’s comically over-the-top performance as the night man adds another sort of strangeness, and it is difficult not to see his hysterical reaction to all these goings on as a sort of mockery of how Welles might have imagined the prudish Code censors reacting to it—an idea that makes the scene all the funnier.

With such extended, nonsensical sequences and with such a cast of bizarre characters, it almost goes without saying that the actual plot of Touch of Evil is largely beside the point. The plot is also extremely confusing, and seems, at first glance, to be poorly constructed. Some of this confusion might, indeed, be attributed to the battles between the studio and Welles, who was extremely unhappy with the studio-cut version that was finally released to theaters. However, Welles’ intended version has now been largely reconstructed, and it is, if anything, even more confusing than the studio version. Much of the narrative chaos of the film is simply a result of its formal logic, which is more concerned with presenting striking scenes than with telling a continuous, coherent story. But this strategy is itself partly motivated by a desire to convey confusion, which is very much the texture of the world of the film, especially as seen by Quinlan, who seems to be living in a world of the past, unable to understand the changing world in which he finds himself, a modern world represented by Vargas and the kind of professionalization of police work that he represents.

This sense of confusion is also carefully conveyed by the style of the film. Indeed, to a large extent, Touch of Evil is an exercise in style, though it is style with a purpose. And that purpose is, again, to convey some of the sense of bewilderment and that is central to the experience of the characters in confronting the world in which they live. Partly, this confusion is achieved by the simply mismatch between the high-brow cinematic artistry of the film and the low-brow nature of its subject matter, which creates a sort of Brechtian estrangement effect. But the visual texture of the film can also be directly confusing. Even the opening tracking shot, however deftly constructed, seems designed, not to convey a sense of smoothness and continuity so much as a sense of chaos and disorientation. Then, throughout the film, the accumulation of odd camera angles and movements helps to reinforce the sense of confusion that is central to the world of the film.

Noting this confusion, Andrew Spicer has suggested that Touch of Evil has very much the texture of a nightmare, thanks both to its narrative incoherence and its off-beat cinematography. He thus notes that the use of wide-angle lenses tends to distort faces (especially in close-up shots) and buildings, giving them a dream-like quality. In addition, he notes that the composition of scenes and the editing and cutting of the film add to the confusion by presenting viewers with an excess of disconnected and unexplained information. Even the virtuosity of that continuous crane shot at the beginning of the film, for Spicer, “does not establish a clear sense of space, but rather a swirling, confused sequence of disconnected actions (the actual explosion happens off camera) whose only logic seems to be that they are typical of a border town where people move restlessly between two countries” (61).

This border town setting is, of course, crucial to the sense of confusion that informs the world of the film. This is an in-between world, neither here nor there, a world where easy distinctions and categorizations cannot be established. Mexico, of course, often features in film noir—perhaps, in fact, more often than in any other American film genre, with the possible exception of the Western. Indeed, Mexico typically functions in film noir very much as it does in the Western, as a world that is simpler and closer to nature than the North, and also one where capitalist routinization has not exerted such a death grip on daily life. Mexico, in American film, often functions as a land of relative lawlessness, but this lawlessness often has an almost utopian aspect, making Mexico (or Latin America in general—Cuba is especially prominent in this sense in the pre-Castro era) a place where individuals can escape the restrictions of life in the U.S. and live their lives relatively free of rules and regulations.

There is clearly an Orientalist aspect to this figuration of Latin America, which includes a number of classic Orientalist stereotypes, most of which rely on a binary logic in which the “civilized” Western world is seen as the polar opposite of the untamed “East”—which often also includes the “South.” Young Mexican women in American film are typically depicted as almost universally beautiful and sexually available—especially to American men with cash in their pockets. Mexican men, on the other hand, are typically depicted as lazy, scheming, and potentially dangerous—especially to American men with cash in their pockets. The nefarious Mexican bandits of John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) are a classic example: they famously “don’t need no stinkin’ badges” both because they are outlaws who eschew rules in general and because they live in a wild land where such regimentation has no purchase.

The morally murky world of film noir typically undercuts simple binary thinking, though the Orientalist strain that runs through much of film noir tends to be an exception. But even the Orientalism of film noir tends to differ substantially from the classic Orientalism described by Edward Said with regard to European representations of the Middle East. This form of Orientalism, closely aligned with colonialism, contains an element of exoticist fascination, but it is even more strongly informed by fear and loathing. The Orientalism of film noir, on the other hand, is more of the “consumerist” variety recently described by Booker and Daraiseh, which contains an element of fear and loathing, but in which the element of exoticist fascination (in which Orientalist motifs simply become part of the arsenal of images used by Western marketing and popular culture) is dominant.

To its credit, Touch of Evil, more than most noir films, tends to avoid—or even directly undercut—even such consumerist Orientalism. After all, the massive confusion that reigns throughout the film simply cannot support neat binary thinking. For one thing, in the nebulous borderlands of the film, it is often quite difficult to keep up with all the border crossings, so that it is sometimes hard to tell which side of the border we are actually on. The film’s main “exotic” Mexican woman might be beautiful and of questionable morals, but she is a middle-aged gypsy, whose main role in the film might well be to lampoon the habitual casting of European actresses such as Dietrich (the casting of Austrian Hedy Lamarr as the “half Egyptian and half Arab” Tondelayo in the 1942 film White Cargo might be the most outrageous example) as a variety of “exotic” and “foreign” characters, even when those characters are not European. Meanwhile, the film’s principal criminals are Mexican (though the head Mexican gangster is stipulated to be an American citizen and is played by a European actor, while his Mexican gang mostly look American). Moreover, the film’s most corrupt figure is the American cop Quinlan. At the same time, Quinlan’s counterpart, the Mexican super-cop Vargas, is depicted as a paragon of virtue and as a stickler for doing things by the book. In short, though there are many things about the film that tend to undermine Vargas and make him (or at least Heston) look ridiculous, he is depicted essentially as the opposite of the shiftless, free-spirited Mexican stereotype. On the other hand, nothing is simple in Touch of Evil. Thus, the corrupt Quinlan makes no money from his corruption and is apparently usually correct in his intuition, while the virtuous Vargas admits to compromising his ethics to be able to get along with “the machine.”

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Good cop, bad cop.

In any case, rather than depict Mexicans in a racist light, the film instead depicts Quinlan’s racist attitudes toward Mexicans as deplorable. For example, employing what is clearly a habitual racist logic, Quinlan quickly concludes that a Mexican worker, Manolo Sanchez (Victor Millan), is the bomber, especially after it becomes clear that Sanchez had been recently fired from Linnekar’s construction firm because he was involved with Linnekar’s daughter, Marcia (Joanna Moore). Sanchez and Marcia turn out to have been secretly married, but that doesn’t stop Quinlan, with the help of long-time crony Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), from planting evidence that will connect Sanchez with the crime. Vargas, however, catches them in the act, then spends the remainder of the film trying to prove that Quinlan has framed Sanchez. Quinlan, meanwhile, responds by conspiring with Grandi to discredit Vargas via the plot involving Susan, with the implication that Vargas has been using his official position to obtain drugs for his and her use.

In a crucial dimly-lit scene back in Grandi’s Mexican hotel, Quinlan raises the stakes when he murders Grandi so that he can attempts to associate Susan with the killing. In a bravura example of noir lighting, this whole scene is played out essentially in the dark, with the room lit only by flashing neon signs from outside the window, once again given the scene the texture of a nightmare. This texture, then, becomes even more intense when Quinlan strangles Grandi and leaves his corpse draped over the head of the bed on which Susan lies unconscious. She then awakens to see Grandi’s dead, bulging eyes peering blankly down at her, intermittently lit by the flashing neon. It’s about as nightmarish an image as one could imagine.

Despite his expertise at planting evidence, Quinlan’s efforts to frame Susan seem quite clumsy (and almost comically ill-conceived), so they come to nothing—though it is also possible that they come to nothing at least partly because of her husband’s political clout. Meanwhile, Menzies finds Quinlan’s cane in the hotel room with Grandi’s body and realizes it was his boss who killed the gangster. Feeling that Quinlan has gone too far, Menzies switches sides and helps Vargas get the evidence he needs against Quinlan (using a then high-tech surveillance device), leading to another decidedly strange sequence (set with a late-night backdrop of oil wells that are “pumping up money,” as Quinlan puts it) in which Menzies and Quinlan ultimately shoot and kill each other. Meanwhile, Vargas (who has to this point seemed to be more concerned with Susan’s “good name” than with Susan herself) then drives hastily away with his wife, while Schwartz (Mort Mills), an investigator from the district attorney’s office, surprisingly arrives to announce that Sanchez apparently really was the killer (and has confessed, though, we, of course, have no way of knowing whether this confession itself is actually reliable). That leaves Tanya, who inexplicably also appears at the scene, to deliver Quinlan’s epitaph as his bloated body lies in a pool of filthy, stagnant water: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?” It’s an enigmatic closing line, but an appropriate one. It explains nothing about Quinlan, just as the film itself leaves so many things unexplained.

WORKS CITED

Booker, M. Keith, and Isra Daraiseh. Consumerist Orientalism: The Convergence of Arab and American Popular Culture in the Age of Global Capitalism. I. B. Tauris, 2019.

Delson, James. “Heston on Welles.” Perspectives on Orson Welles. Ed. Morris Beja. G. K. Hall, 1995. 63–72.

Naremore, James. More than Night: Film Noir and Its Contexts. University of California Press, 1998.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage-Random House, 1979.

Spicer, Andrew. Film Noir. Longman, 2002.

NOTES

[1] Interestingly, in his interview with James Delson, Heston seems to have no idea that he cut such a ridiculous figure in the film, also speaking in clichés as he fields Delson’s compliments and calls his own performance in the film “as satisfying creatively as anything I’ve ever done” (70).