Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mexican Standoff

Film: Touch of Evil
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on big ol’ television.

There is a particular vogue among modern film critics—mostly younger and mostly online—to hate Citizen Kane. There is a particular level of independence of thought to be gained, these critics seem to imagine, by publically declaring their dislike of the film that has been voted as the greatest ever made by the AFI. It’s the classic anti-conformity argument. If I as a critic hate what I’m “supposed” to like, I must be trustworthy. Certainly some of these critics genuinely do dislike Kane and I won’t fault them for it, but I know for certain that there are those who hate because it’s cool and rebellious to do so.

That said, Citizen Kane isn’t my favorite Orson Welles project by a long shot. I respect that film and even like it, but given my choice, I’d much rather spend time watching Touch of Evil, which is truly Welles’s magnum opus in my opinion. Everything works perfectly, even Charleton Heston as a Mexican police officer. Yeah, it’s a stretch, but it still seems to work really well.

The opening of the film is one of the greatest ever made. We see a bomb planted in a car as it crosses over the border from Mexico into the U.S. As we follow the car, we are also introduced to a pair of pedestrians. These are Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Heston) and his new bride, Susie (Janet Leigh). They and the car cross the border at about the same time, and we learn of the recent wedding of the pair. Just as they embrace, the car explodes, setting the plot into motion.

Like any good film noir, there are a number of things going on at once here. We’re quickly introduced to the major players on what we’re led to believe is the side of good and law. The main man here is Hank Quinlan (Welles), who as both an actor and as a character has started to go to fat. Quinlan is the police captain on the American side of this border town, and it’s quickly evident that he does things in his own way. He decides what the real story is, and then does what he can to make that story stick. It’s also pretty evident that he dislikes Mexicans intensely, and takes an immediate dislike to Vargas, who has a reputation both as a clean cop and a very good one, having just busted part of a drug ring in Mexico.

While the car bombing is explored, we also learn of that drug bust in Mexico. Vargas has busted a man named Grandi, who has relatives with influence in both sides of this border town. “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) manages to threaten Susie Vargas without really threatening her, and Vargas is attacked by one of Uncle Joe’s flunkies with a vial of acid.

Things continue to come to a boil, and the two plots intersect in one important point—Quinlan’s hunch about the source of the car bomb. The man killed in the car was wealthy, and left $1 million to his daughter. It’s discovered that the daughter has been running around with a Mexican worker, something he forbade, which makes that boyfriend suspect number one. In Quinlan’s mind this is especially true because the boyfriend is Mexican. Exploring the apartment the two lovers share, Quinlan’s assistant Menzies (Joseph Calleia) finds two sticks of dynamite, closing the case. The problem is that Vargas saw the box the dynamite was found in, and the box had been empty. Essentially, he has proof that Quinlan and Menzies framed the young man, and Vargas suspects this isn’t the first time.

As it happens Uncle Joe Grandi is there when all of this goes down, and he plots with Quinlan to take care of the problem that is plaguing both of them—Vargas. If Vargas can be discredited, then the conviction in the bombing will stick (planted evidence and all), and Grandi’s brother will get out of the drug charge. And so the movie goes.

This film is tuned to the absolute perfect pitch throughout. It’s so tightly wound, it feels like it could be played like a guitar string. As each plot point becomes evident, everything is wound even tighter until it finally reaches its breaking point.

As a case in point, Susie’s stay at the motel is pitch-perfect and brutal. Exhausted from her day, she is taken to an out-of-the-way motel on the American side of the town. As it happens, the motel is owned by Grandi, who wants her husband to back off his brother. Grandi sends his minions to keep her awake, and then frighten her. The scene of the assault on Susie is played as if it will become a rape scene—and a gang rape scene at that. What we learn later is that the hoodlums merely trashed the motel room, planted drug evidence, and then drugged her to discredit her and play into Quinlan’s story that the Vargases are drug addicts. But we don’t find this out right away. We see the assault, we hear Quinlan mention that Vargas is a junkie, and then the film puts the two threads together for us.

If the film has a weakness, it’s the casting of Charleton Heston in Mexican brownface. Despite the heavy makeup, he still doesn’t look Mexican, and he certainly doesn’t sound Mexican. It’s a piece that requires overlooking, perhaps considering him as a cop from another state and thus out of his jurisdiction in that respect rather than a legal representative of a foreign government.

Despite this oddity, Touch of Evil is a near-perfect film. The characters speak exactly as you want them to, and act exactly as you feel they should. Menzies is a lapdog and a sycophant. Quinlan is a racist and plays the martyr card to full effect. Vargas is upright and a straight arrow, and believes in the power of law. But it’s Susie Vargas who gets the most of my sympathy. Not only is she poorly treated, she shows early on that she’s got a spine, and that she can be pretty rough when she needs to be. It does make me wonder at why a couple of years later in Psycho she’d run into trouble in a motel room again, though.

What truly makes this movie work for me, though, is that it works on multiple levels. On the one hand, it’s a pretty good noir, filled with questionable morals and actions, crime, punishment, and shadowy lighting. It’s entirely possible to simply watch this for the great plot and acting and enjoy it completely. It works on a deeper level, too. Quinlan admits toward the end of the film that he frames people, but only those he knows are guilty. While this makes him a criminal in a very real sense, in a way, don’t we expect our police to do this? To keep dangerous people off the streets by any means necessary? On still a third level, it plays to Welles’s favorite theme—that of a powerful man destroyed by his own demons. We see the wheels come off for Quinlan. Offered a drink, he protests—he’s given up alcohol. Later, he protests more weakly and hops off the wagon with gusto, beginning his long slide from framing those who need to be taken off the street to framing the innocent Susie Vargas to protect his own career.

This is Welles at his finest. He was still the great director for this film, and while he was starting to come apart physically, he hadn’t yet become the farce he eventually became late in his career. This movie hits on all cylinders, and represents the pinnacle of the Welles canon, and sits near the pinnacle of film noir as a genre. Everyone should see this.

Why to watch Touch of Evil: The greatest moment of Orson Welles.
Why not to watch: It’s sad to see what happened to Welles afterwards.


  1. You can see this movie as the decline and collapse of mightly Hank Quinlan, a victim of his own deceit and that would work plenty on its own. But we get so much more here. Several stories, many characters, an entire microcosmos, and it never feels crowded or out of place. This is a master piece.

    1. That is sort of the main through-line of the film, but I agree. There's a lot going on here and it never gets crowded or stuffy. There's room for all of these stories.