Well, I finally watched Touch of Evil.
It’s easily my least favorite noir to date. Blasphemy!
After witnessing an explosion across the Mexican-American border, narcotics detective Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) struggles to work with a corrupt police captain (Orson Welles). Things go badly.
1. There are, apparently, a few different versions of Touch of Evil floating around out there, as Orson Welles was none too pleased with the studio interference he encountered. I know this because my Netflix DVD came with a disclaimer.
I have two things to say about this. One, it’s possible that I would have enjoyed another cut of this film better, but I find it unlikely due to the nature of my complaints. Two, I’m sure definitions vary, but for me, anything that is 58 pages long is no longer a memo. That’s well on it’s way to being a freaking thesis.
2. One of my problems with the movie is probably likable characters. Which is funny, actually, because Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas isn’t such a terrible guy, and yet I had an extremely hard time rooting for him. See, thing is, I didn’t do much research into this film before I started watching it, so I was wholly and woefully unprepared to see that our Mexican protagonist was played by Charlton Heston.
Holy. Jesus. I suppose it should be said that Charlton Heston was originally hired to play a white guy, that it was Orson Welles’s decision to change the character’s ethnicity, and of course this was all pretty par for the course back in the day. I don’t care. The makeup is so awful, so awful. He is so obviously, absurdly white that it hurts my eyes and my soul a little to look at him. It’s always frustrating and embarrassing and awful when you watch white actors play non-white roles, but I found myself even more appalled by this one than normal, either because Charlton Heston makes a spectacularly bad Latino, or because I’m (possibly ridiculously) taking it personally. (Ridiculous because I’m the whitest quarter-Mexican you’ll ever see, and though being Mexican has always mattered to me, I feel this whole ongoing guilt thing about, like, trying to claim it. I will forever and always detest any survey that makes me choose only one ethnicity.)
Charlton Heston also doesn’t attempt any kind of an accent at all, and I can’t decide if this is even more annoying or possibly a small mercy. According to IMDb trivia, Heston considered skipping the accent one of the worst acting mistakes he ever made, and I’m like, Yup. American accent. That’s ABSOLUTELY the only thing wrong with this casting.
3. I’m not exactly a big fan of Susie (Janet Leigh), either.
I do actually feel sorry for Susie during Touch of Evil because she faces some harrowing, traumatic shit, but that is hell and gone from saying that I like her. Because no. Susie is an entitled, whiny racist for most of this film. She’s not the kind of Racist, capital R, that we all agree is bad. There are no master race speeches, obviously — she’s not like a Nazi weirdly married to a
supposed Mexican. But she is generally obnoxious to any Mexican character who isn’t her husband — and if they’re going for spunky, boy, did they miss the mark — and when she calls this one guy Pancho just “for laughs”? Ugh. Yeah, Susie. You’re fucking hysterical. I dream of the day I can possess a wit as clever and original as yours.
Also, the motel scene where she’s upset that the incredibly weird desk clerk won’t come inside and make her bed? No. Just no. First, Susie? You don’t want this man in your room. Second, unless he’s both the desk clerk and the maid, it’s not his job to make the bed. (It could be his job. It is an awfully small motel.) Third and finally, is it really that hard to make the bed yourself? Keep in mind, I’m saying this as a person who profoundly hates making beds, but you know. I can still do it, if the occasion calls for it. I have, like, HANDS AND EVERYTHING. It won’t look as nice as someone who does it professionally, of course, but it’ll be functional. Honestly, Susie.
4. And as far as Orson Welles goes . . . well, some of his deliveries land for me, and some of them do not.
I mean, he’s the bad guy, so I don’t have to find him super likable, and he is rocking this sinister sort of leer that is effectively creepsome. But he also reminds me of a duck half the time he opens his mouth, like he’s more quacking than speaking his dialogue, and I find that sort of thing distracting. Plus, Quinlan’s whole backstory . . . I don’t know. It could be interesting, but there’s something about how it’s given to us that doesn’t entirely work for me.
5. The whole movie’s kind of like that, actually. I enjoy certain scenes in the film and the general arc of the story, but the movie itself is troublesome. The casting is atrocious, the performances are uneven, and I really feel like the pacing is off. Because the material itself is, or at least could be, pretty exciting — we have border politics, divided loyalties, dirty cops, explicit vs implicit racism, etc. And yet, despite that breadth of material, I found myself awfully bored throughout.
As such — and take a deep breath for the continued blasphemy, cinephiles — I would actually be pretty interested in seeing a modern remake of Touch of Evil. It might be a decent story to revisit with a post-1950’s mindset and morality. At the very least, we could probably avoid the brownface.
6. We should also entirely rewrite everything that happens at the motel because those are easily the weakest and/or most troubling scenes in the whole movie. And seriously — what the hell is up with the desk clerk?
I don’t even understand the reasoning behind this guy. Is he just supposed to be odd? Crazy? Mentally challenged? I think I’m supposed to find him funny, but yeah. No.
7. Finally, speaking of characters I don’t entirely understand the point of . . .
Charlton Heston isn’t actually the only non-Latino playing a Latino character. Bad Guy Grandi is played by Russian/Armenian actor Akim Tamiroff, and Tanya, our Mexican fortuneteller pictured above, is played by German actress Marlene Dietrich.
Surprisingly, I like Tanya well enough . . . I just don’t know why she’s in there at all. She doesn’t really contribute anything to the plot, and I don’t feel like I get a much better understanding of Quinlan because of her. She has a few good lines, but mostly she’s just sort of there.
I do actually have a few positive things (and a few more negative things) to say about this movie, but if you want to read them, you’ll have to brave the Spoilers.
The opening scene in Touch of Evil is actually pretty cool.
We see a dude planting a bomb in a car. Then we see people get in the car and slowly drive through the Mexican border. We’re also watching happy newlyweds Mike and Suzie walk around town, often passing by the doomed car until, of course, it eventually blows up. What’s cool about this scene is that it’s all done in one long three-minute take. Also, this is not the first time I’ve seen this opener. I actually watched it years ago in one of my film classes back at SF State, but I’d since forgotten what movie it came from. So there I was, sitting on my couch, watching this car slowly roll through traffic, and thinking, Wait . . . haven’t I seen this? Holy shit, I’ve seen this!
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is kind of a disappointment. Mike goes to investigate the explosion and gets invited (more or less) to act as a consultant since he (correctly) believes the bomb was placed on Mexican soil, even if it blew up on American territory. Vargas and Quinlan don’t particularly like one another, but things don’t truly escalate into a serious problem until they’re questioning a suspect at his home. See, Vargas happens to (conveniently) knock over this empty box in the bathroom, right? Afterwards, Quinlan goes in the bathroom himself. A few minutes later, he orders his men to search the place, and what do you know? One of the policeman finds a damning piece of evidence in what was previously the empty box.
So Vargas goes out to prove that Quinlan has a history of planting evidence. Quinlan, meanwhile, becomes pretty desperate, starts drinking again, and ends up conspiring with Grandi on a plan to discredit Vargas by framing Susie as a junkie. Grandi’s people screw around with Susie for a lot longer than necessary before finally shooting her up with drugs and kidnapping her from the world’s worst motel. (She is also possibly gang-raped. It’s hard to tell exactly what happens because while the scene itself seems to imply that she’s about to get raped, one of the policeman later seems to suggest that it didn’t happen. And since no one ever addresses it again, least of all Susie, I am going to assume that she wasn’t raped for my sanity. Regardless, there are so many problems with this part of the movie. It will all have to be fixed for the remake that no one besides me actually wants.
So, yes. The plan is to frame Susie as a junkie, but Quinlan decides to kick it up a notch, either because he wants Susie brought up on stronger charges or because he doesn’t want Grandi around as a potential blackmailer/witness. Quinlan then kills Grandi and tries to make it look like Susie did it, which is both disturbing and kind of dumb. Disturbing because we find out that Quinlan kills Grandi the way his own wife was murdered. (To be clear, Quinlan didn’t kill her. His wife’s murder is, in all likelihood, what caused him to become a dirty cop in the first place.) Stupid because one, while possible, it seems somewhat unlikely to me that a woman would kill a man who’s considerably larger than her by strangling him whilst still totally fucked up on what I assume is heroin. And two, Quinlan’s drunk at the time and makes the not entirely insignificant mistake of leaving his own cane behind. Like, this isn’t accidentally leaving a partial shoe print or something. The dude forgets his CANE. Unacceptable.
Up until this point, Pete (Joseph Calleia) has been Quinlan’s BFF and right hand man, refusing to see the evidence that Vargas puts in front of him because he doesn’t want to. But even Pete can’t ignore the Cane of Stupidity, so he puts on a wire and talks to Quinlan about all the bad, bad stuff the Captain’s been up to.
This is actually kind of a neat scene for a couple of reasons. One, I’m always intrigued by loyal right hand man types, and watching Pete’s obvious heartbreak as he confronts Quinlan is a little sad. Two, this is the rare scene in Touch of Evil that might not update particularly well because of the technology. See, Vargas isn’t just sitting out in an unmarked van, listening in — he’s running around after Quinlan and Pete with his Total Fail Surveillance Device which keeps dropping the voices and providing noisy feedback on Pete’s end. Not that we don’t have all kinds of technology fails today, too, but the fact that Vargas has to chase after Pete and Quinlan on foot to keep in range gives the scene a little more tension.
Eventually, Quinlan catches on to what’s happening and shoots Pete. (With Vargas’s gun — I don’t remember why he has it, but he does.) Before he can kill Vargas, though, Pete recovers for One Last Moment to shoot Quinlan before dying himself. (Proving, yet again, that it doesn’t pay to be the right hand man to a villain. Half the time, they’re the ones who kill you, either for not keeping the faith or just because they’re crazy and don’t care.)
We then find out Sanchez — the guy who Quinlan framed for the explosion back forever ago — was guilty all along. Tanya pops up to look vaguely unhappy for a few minutes, and Vargas and recently recovered Susie drive out of town for their happy ever after. (She’s not traumatized or anything. She still has her man, after all. Everything’s fine!)
Quinlan: “Come on, read my future for me.”
Tanya: “You haven’t got any.”
Quinlan: “Hmm? What do you mean?”
Tanya: “Your future’s all used up.”
Tanya: “What does it matter what you say about people?”
Vargas: “All border towns bring out the worst in a country.”
The ideas are there, but the execution is faulty. I don’t care if this is Orson Welles. I think Touch of Evil could have been a lot better than it was, and the 1950’s mentality towards race and gender isn’t helping anything.
If you’re going all in for premeditated murder, probably best to do it sober.
Being abducted, forced to take mind-altering substances, and possibly getting raped by multiple people probably doesn’t have any lasting effects worth recognizing.
And of course . . .
That’s right, people who steal from the blind. You have been publicly shamed by Orson Welles.