“By the middle of the Fifties film noir had ground to a halt. There were a few notable stragglers, Kiss Me Deadly, the Lewis/Alton The Big Combo, and film noir‘s epitaph, Touch of Evil…” -Paul Shrader, “Notes on Film Noir” (1972)
“If observers of film noir agree on anything, it is on the boundaries of the classic period, which begins in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon and ends less than a score of years later with Touch of Evil.” -Alain Silver, “Introduction” to Film Noir Reader (1996)
“Why did the movie [Touch of Evil] straggle into theaters as late as it did? Why did Touch of Evil — a work that stylistically and thematically matches the hundreds of “films noirs” that preceded it — ruin Welles’ professional standing? And why did the producers feel the need to re-work it as they did? … To answer these questions … we should come to realize that Touch of Evil was poorly received and poorly treated because it appeared too late, too long after popular taste for pessimistic crime pictures had ended. By 1958, that is, film noir had become box office poison, a development that Welles, [who had been living and working abroad for a decade,] to his great detriment, failed to recognize.” -Stephen B. Armstrong “Touch of Evil (1958) and the End of the Noir Cycle”
Because much has been written about the history and placement within the noir canon of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, I offer the above quotations to provide a shortcut to the lens through which I watched first Universal’s cut and then the restored version, intended to approximate Welles’ intentions for what was originally to be called Badge of Evil. Expanded length provided clearer transitions between scenes and welcome development of relationships/characters. It also made even plainer the excellent cinematography and mise-en-scene of the picture. And trimming what Armstrong rightly labels Henry Mancini’s “bombastic” score added a more low-key (40s vs. 50s style) noir atmosphere. I did, therefore, appreciate far more the restoration, which was based on a 58-page letter Welles wrote to the studio after the film’s editing was taken out of his hands.
And yet, even as I better appreciated better the film’s ambitions, I still did not enjoy it as I thought I would. It did take me several viewings to groove on Kiss Me Deadly (1955), so it’s not surprising that this equally bloated (if you will) film did not woo me easily. As Armstrong argues, in many ways the film is quite similar to other noirs, from its focus on bigotry and border towns to violent cops who rationalize their actions so thoroughly they are surprised when they’re brought down.
And the picture does an excellent job of invoking typical noir anxieties. As Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo argue in Noir Anxiety (2003), “Not only is the free-floating existential anxiety of film noir as screen for concrete anxieties over arbitrary and blurred boundaries of racial, sexual, and national identity, but the confluence of these concrete anxieties produces the sense of a free-floating anxiety.” Touch of Evil does an exemplary job of engaging with this circular flow of anxiety, presenting the era’s concerns over miscegenation (i.e. pale blonde American married to dark Mexican) and ethnic otherness (e.g. Marlene Deitrich’s culturally unidentifiable Tana, for she combines Mexican with Hollywood-style “gypsy” with her own German accent) within a borderland setting where who and what belong to which country are impossible to say with certainty. Such anxieties are then combined with and displaced onto concerns over drug trafficking and use. I commend the film highly for the complexity of its approach to producing noir anxiety, central elements of Welles’ emendations to the original script.
When Welles’ decided to change the film’s protagonist from American to Mexican, Charlton Heston was already chosen for the part. Why did Welles allow/encourage Heston to perform in brownface and boot-blacked hair as an outstandingly unconvincing Mexican? From his appearance to his dreadful accent when speaking in Spanish (especially in the scene where he demands of the drug-addled denizens of a dive to tell him where his wife is), I don’t credit for a single moment that Miguel “Mike” Vargas is Mexican. (I can’t help but wonder how Valentin de Vargas — the magnetic head hoodlum that Janet Leigh’s Susan calls “Pancho” — felt about sharing his name with Heston’s character.) By contrast, Akim Tamiroff’s “Uncle” Joe Grandi is more a greasy, dandified lump of stereotype, but his performance is engaging, credible in its way.
Because I don’t buy the Heston-is-Mexican premise, I also don’t feel the anxiety over his marriage to Leigh’s “Susie” as I feel the film (in both original and restored versions) wishes me to. Welles plays it entirely straight as Quinlan, showing his contempt for interracial relationships (even disbelief, as he notes that Susan doesn’t look Mexican upon first seeing her); and I appreciate the tension between his racism and his desire (or shadow of past desire) for racial Other Tana. I wonder whether Welles felt he was stuck with Heston and just forged ahead with his Mexican bordertown focus or if he considered this a compromise with Hollywood anti-miscegenation sentiments.
Adding to the disbelief that drives me away from the film despite some excellent scenes and interactions, especially the noir cinematography and settings and the relationship between Quinlan (Orson Welles) and his devoted deputy Sgt. Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) .
Then there’s “Susie.” I’ve seen more thankless roles in noir (Gene Tierney in Night and the City comes to mind), but few more cringeworthy. We’re supposed to like Susan, to find her independent and beautiful and even, in that most detestable but apt word for women in sexist roles, “spunky.” She’s proved herself within the film by marrying Vargas, showing she rejects racism because she hooked herself a tall, dark, honest man. (This is in contrast to the white but dark-haired femme fatale daughter of the film’s first murder victim; as far as we can see, she seems to set up her Mexican loverboy to murder her father then disappears to leave him to pay the price.)
Susie has a showdown with Uncle Joe in which she emerges as haughtily triumphant by insulting him and storming out the door. And throughout the film she pulls a lot of “You just wait until my husband finds out!” lines. Her bravado is based on the patriarchal presumption that a man, especially a big strong detective man, will always protect his wife, and it comes off in several scenes as bratty white feminine privilege rather than as empowerment. Dietrich’s Tana, by contrast, seems quite good at taking care of herself, a pleasure to see, especially as she ends the restored version of the film, walking slowly away from the camera, back to her place as the film’s one-woman Greek chorus
In addition, Susie becomes the film’s ultimate victim, anxiety produced by playing on gender norms and arousing ire through racism (the Grandi men put their hands all over the white woman) and heterosexism (the perverse Grandi girls want to watch).
I do like that life gets out of control in a way and to a degree Vargas can’t control, but the anxiety produced by the treatment of Susan is ultimately reconciled so he and his wife can drive off into the heart of Mexico, where Vargas can be a Real (Mexican) Man and make sure to keep spunky Susie safe forever more. Yet, he chose to pursue Quinlan rather than ensure Susan’s safety from the start. She resists flying out of town, it’s true, but this seems to blame her for her own misuse. Ultimately, to me she’s a pawn, an object to be tossed about and keep anxiety high for viewers rather than a developed character of interest. Ah well, no one ever called Welles a feminist.
I’ll likely watch Touch of Evil again in a few months to see if I continue to feel the same about its creative potential and its serious limitations. For now, I hope my critique is useful to those who have seen and experienced their own intellectual and emotional reactions.