Some movies start off with a bang but with his 1958 film noir Touch of Evil cinema legend Orson Welles decided to start with three minutes and 20 seconds leading to the bang. During a tracking shot set in a U.S – Mexico border town we follow a car right after an unseen person has installed a crude bomb in the trunk. It’s a lovely evening with people having a good time and border agents diligently doing their jobs as they let the car cross over onto the American side. Then the bomb goes off, two people die violently, and suddenly it’s not such a good evening. That’s one way to hook in your audience.
Some people resolve to eat better, quit smoking or do more exercise for the New Year. As we start off 2019 one of my resolutions is to try to watch more classics films, and even though I got a lot of great films as Christmas gifts I thought I would use my day off to check one classic film I had never seen off my list. Of course I am familiar with Orson Welles, a filmmaker so prolific that in 2018 he released a film from beyond the grave. Given its setting on the U.S and Mexican, I found his Touch of Evil to be surprisingly relevant today even though I had a hard time buying Charlton Heston as a Mexican official.
Heston, who I’m guessing got very tanned and dyed his hair for the role, plays Miguel “Mike” Vargas, a member of the Mexican government who oversees some sort of narcotics division. When the car bomb goes off he was planning on having some time off with his new wife Susie (Janet Leigh). However given the bomb was clearly planted on the Mexican side of the border Vargas gets interested in the case, putting a damper on his plans with Susie.
A double murder at a border town naturally draws the attention of lots of officials and raises lots of questions about jurisdiction. Welles, who pulled triple duty as director, screenwriter and actor, plays the police captain who takes over the mess at the crime scene. His character, Hank Quinlan, is quite a sight to see. Overweight, frequently sweating and in need of a cane, he either constantly has a cigar in his mouth or a candy bar. The candy bar is a placeholder for booze, which he says he quit, but you get the feeling it wouldn’t take much for him to fall off the wagon. He reminded me of detective Harvey Bullock from the Batman comics, if Bullock had zero support system and even less of a moral compass.
Quinlan is also not a big fan of Mexicans, first acting surprised that Vargas’ wife is American. Then when a suspect in the bombing asks questions in Spanish to Vargas, his reaction is to bark, “I don’t speak Mexican!” The only person in Mexico he seems to like is Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), a gypsy who runs a brothel in the town. When Quinlan asks her to read him his future with her cards, her sad reply is that he has no future. Any competent doctor would have probably told him the same answer.
Despite his gruff ways and appearance, Quinlan has a lot of respect on the American side of the border due to all the cases he has closed over the years. However when evidence magically appears in the bombing case Vargas suspect Quinlan might not be as clean as people think and starts to dig in his past cases. There are however bad people on both side of the border, since while Vargas is investigating a dirty American cop; Susie is being harassed by a Mexican drug runner in the hopes of influencing the outcome of another investigation Vargas is overseeing.
Between the dark shadows in the streets, corrupt lawmen, and the seedy bars, this is film noir at its best. It’s not a genre you see a lot on the big screen anymore, but its themes are sadly still relevant. Drug dealing is still a major problem, as is police corruption and xenophobia. I have a feeling Quinlan would not be opposed to a big wall between the U.S and Mexico. As for the man who is currently pushing for this wall, I believe he doesn’t “speak Mexican” either.
As with many of Welles’ films, there was apparently studio tampering with Touch of Evil so we may never know what his original plans were for the final cut. It may not be on par with his masterpiece Citizen Kane, but it is still a classic in particular because of that long opening shot, the beautiful black and white cinematography and for Welles’ performance as a formerly good man slowly making his way towards no future.