Sunday, May 24, 2015

Touch of Evil

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Charleton Heston as a Mexican? Well, if you can see past that bit of obscure casting, you will be able to look into the noire of this film as it explores the darkness inside individuals on both sides of the law and on either side of the border between two countries.

The story takes place near the Mexican border town of Los Robles, which reminds one of Tijuana. Mexican narcotics law officer Mike Vargas (Heston) tells his newly married American wife, Susan (Janet Leigh) that “All border towns bring out the worst in a country.” Why do you think that is the case? Maybe because it is the area that physically and thus symbolically is the farthest from the moral center of a country’s ethical code.

The film is shot in black and white, but it’s more like black and shades of gray. The sleazy nature of the Mexican town is emphasized by the cinematography. We see the dirty decadence of the setting in the long nonstop opening which uses crane shots to show us right away that we will be immersed in unpleasantness. Ironically, one of the clubs shown is called the “Paradise,” and the welcoming sign for the town calls it “The Paris of the Border.” The first image shown is that of a bomb. It is placed in a convertible which we find belongs to a wealthy American businessman who exploits the Mexican workers and indulges his lust by picking up a blonde stripper. The camera reveals trash, neon lights, dark alleys and street vendors to accentuate the low-life nature of the town. We then see Vargas and his wife in a happy mood since they are newlyweds. But then their walking path ironically parallels the motion of the doomed convertible as they head toward the American side. As the married couple kisses, we hear and see the explosion which takes place on American soil. It’s as if the evil spreads like a virus from one country to another, and to the two individuals trying to bridge the cultural divide.

We are introduced to Captain Hank Quinlan (writer-director Orson Welles). Now here is a complicated character. First off, he looks disgusting. He is unshaven and bloated, munching on candy bars, looking like a diseased animal ready to explode from the inside from toxins. His hugeness is accentuated by low camera shots looking up at his looming body. (Actually, there are a number of low shots in the movie from the point of view of victims looking up at those in control. There is a shot from the point of view of the dead victims of the car bombing and also from where Susan is being victimized in a hotel bed.) Quinlan squints and slurs his speech even though he has been on the wagon for a dozen years. He uses a cane because of a limp. We learn that his leg problem stems from taking a bullet for his partner, Pete Menzies. He’s a well-respected policeman because he has hunches about criminals that have paid off, which he attributes to his “game leg.” When he forgets his cane in the course of the narrative, it’s as if he loses his inner moral support which allowed him to perform a heroic act in the line of duty.

Quinlan heads up the American investigation into the bombing. Quinlan uses this assignment to visit an old flame, Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), who is a gypsy fortune teller. She doesn’t even recognize him at first because of his altered appearance. There is a sad  hankering for the past on the part of Quinlan. But, Tanya shoots him down, saying he should “lay off those candy bars.” He says he would like to “come around some night and sample your chili.” She implies that he might now be impotent by saying, “Better be careful. Maybe too hot for you.” Later we find out the source of Quinlan’s anti-Mexican bigotry. His wife was killed by “a half-breed.” She was strangled, which Quinlan says leaves no fingerprints on the string used as a weapon. He is haunted by the fact that the killer was not caught.

As Vargas joins the investigation, he tells his wife to go back to the hotel. She makes a statement that implies that it’s safer on the American side. Quinlan also talks about going to the American side to get back to civilization. But, this story shows that there is plenty of danger to spread around on both sides of the border. Susan is confronted by tough-looking young Mexicans who bring her to the American side where she is confronted by the sleazy drug boss, “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). Vargas is well known for clamping down on the drug trade and put Uncle Joe’s brother in jail. The new Grandi kingpin tries to intimidate Susan so as to thwart her husband’s drug trafficking investigation. To her credit, Susan is not cowered. There is a great deal of phallic cigar poking and tongue licking of lips in the scene. Uncle Joe is bug-eyed and wears a bad wig, emphasizing his unattractive nature. Here, you can read a book by its cover.

The suspect in the bombing is a man named Manolo Sanchez (Victor Millan). He turns out to be having an affair with the dead man’s daughter, with whom he struck up a romance after her father fired him. Quinlan has a hunch that Sanchez is guilty. Brutal interrogation of the Mexican ensues. Vargas pushes for evidence from Quinlan, not trusting the latter’s “hunch.” Vargas knocks over an empty shoebox while washing his hands. When he is told later that dynamite was found in the shoebox, he confronts Quinlan and accuses him of framing Sanchez. Grandi wants Vargas out of the way and realizes that he can have an ally in Quinlan. They plot to frame Vargas and his wife. When Quinlan falls off the wagon while drinking with Uncle Joe, it is evidence of how his corruption has become complete.

Quinlan confronts Vargas because the Mexican lawman has investigated Quinlan’s dynamite purchases and past arrests to show how others were framed. There is an exchange between the two which presents the main theme of the film. Quinlan says that Vargas’ “by-the-book” methods show that he “seems to think it doesn’t matter whether killers hang or not, so long as we obey the fine print.” He adds that a policeman’s job is tough enough. Vargas says “It has to be tough. A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state … who’s the boss, the cop or the law?” For Quinlan the cop and the law are the same.

Susan is visually violated by a Peeping Tom at the honeymoon hotel which allows Quinlan to recommend her staying at another motel. But, the new place is owned by the Grandi family. There, Susan is terrorized by Grandi’s gang. She is drugged, brought to Grandi’s Ritz Hotel, and left half-naked in a room with drugs and clothes strewn about. Earlier a photograph was taken of Susan with the young handsome Grandi nephew. All of this is to show her as a drug and sex addicted woman. Quinlan starts to set the frame-up by telling his partner that Vargas and his wife are “a couple of junkies. Course he’s using the job as a cover-up.” But Quinlan doesn’t like Uncle Joe nor does he trust him. He goes to the room where Susan is drugged and strangles Grandi with one of Susan’s stockings. He symbolically is getting revenge for the escaped murderer of his wife. But, he is actually becoming like that killer as he commits homicide and uses the same technique of strangulation with a weapon that will not be traced to him. Also, he is making it appear that Susan is the culprit.

Before he finds Susan, Vargas goes on a rampage, busting heads while looking for his wife. He is like Quinlan at this point, ignoring what is legal, because “I’m no cop now. I’m a husband.” Once he discovers what has happened to Susan, he says he can’t leave until his wife’s name is “clean.” Trying to be clean of the metaphorically dirty world of the film is his goal. Vargas presents evidence to Pete, Quinlan’s partner, which shows how the police captain has been framing suspects for a long time. The partner is easily convinced because he found Quinlan’s cane at the scene of Grandi’s murder. Pete wears a wire as he gets his partner to confess. But, Quinlan hears an echo created by the recording device while Vargas follows the two under a bridge. Quinlan shoots Pete with Vargas’ gun which he stole earlier, and almost kills Vargas, who he can then frame for Pete’s death. But, he is killed by Pete just before he dies. Quinlan, appropriately, drops dead into the town’s filthy water. A final irony is that Quinlan’s hunch was right – Sanchez was the bomber. His strengths and failings are summed up when he is called a “great detective” but “a lousy cop.”

The movie’s title can be taken a couple of ways. When someone is touched by evil, when there is contamination by this darkness, a destroying madness ensues – touched in the head means being crazy. A “touch” can also mean just a small amount of something. But, when it comes to evil, just a “touch” can be devastating.

Next week’s film is Blue Velvet.

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