John Parker, July 23
Touch of Evil (1958). Orson Welles’ film noir about a border town was well cast and well set. I’m fine with Charlton Heston as Miguel Vargas with a bad accent and little knowledge of Mexican culture; he is a respected narcotics investigator who is treated with great esteem when he arrives to help the local officials at the crime scene. This is heightened when a Grandi family member tries to throw acid on him. He’s not your typical Mexican, not like real Mexican actors in the film, anyway, but in my mind he doesn’t have to be. His pairing with the (yet another) blond American that gives him yet more prestige, perhaps an important feature that Welles is playing on here. Is Welles saying that “Mexicans are just like us?” The other actors are all convincing in their roles as Mexicans, including Marlene Dietrich. The Americans who live on the border, such as Welles’ Hank Quinlan and his sidekick best friend, have family, friends, business associates, drinking buddies, brothel connections. The girl Nayid mentioned thought she heard ticking in her head was a sex trade worker hooked up with an American businessman. Both will be killed at the beginning of the film on the American side of the border, thus diminishing somewhat the threat of an international incidence. The bomb, of course, was planted in the convertible on the Mexican side. The brothel Madame, Sza Sza Gabor, and several Mexican gang members, were definitely not Latino, but again, saying their minimal lines, they didn’t need to be for the casting to be convincing.
I loved the setting. An imaginary border town, “Los Robles,” perhaps a neutral name to appease Americans, kind of like “Álamo,” like boring street names in Vancouver. Here, two cultures interact daily and exist harmoniously. Americans will pursue cheap labour south of the border and Mexicans will seek employment opportunities in the United States. The border town has brothels and sleazy hotels, drug addicts and dealers, crime families. Welles’ Hank Quinlan is in his niche. He is a loser and, as we discover, evil. He knows the ins and outs of the town so well that he is able to rely on hunches to ease his workload. He therefore plants evidence in support of his hunches; this continues his slippery slope in lawlessness that includes kidnapping and murder. He tries to use Mexicans as accomplices in his scheme to discredit Vargas and it is obvious he despises them. He is a parasite; he exploits Mexicans and is ultimately part of the legal structure discriminating against them. This is Welles’ ultimate aim.
It´s very difficult for a foreigner like me to recognize who is really a Mexican and who is an Anglo, just like at the beginning of the film, it´s difficult to tell which is the US side of the border and which is the Mexican side. But maybe this ambiguity and mixture is exactly the uniqueness and attractiveness of a border area, that you can find A and B, but more of something new, a AB.
The significance of the characters who were bombed in the first scene was something I did not know, so thanks for clearing that up. The setting– the buildings, file rooms and hotel rooms as well as the border essential for the plot. You made a good point there. It is interesting to compare Dobbs to Quinlan. They had their own styles of evil and insanity and their deaths mean different things considering the contexts of the films.