Orson Welles was not long for Hollywood. Every attempt he made at resurrecting his career was masterful, but ultimately rejected by the studio and audiences alike. Like Jay Gatsby, Welles futilely tried to achieve the unachievable: a return to the past when he was the toast of Hollywood and the world, a time before Citizen Kane. His last attempt at a career revival was the violent and claustrophobic noir Touch of Evil.
Arguably Welles’ best film since Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil is micro in scope. The film centers in and around an U.S/Mexico border town. An investigation ensues after a bomb originating on the Mexican side of the border explodes and kills two Americans as they pass the border into the US. Narcotics official. Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his new wife, Susie (Janet Leigh), are pulled into a spider web of corruption and murder.
Welles’ 1958 film seems more modern than ever, not only because of its non-modish editing techniques and camerawork that envelopes you in the tension of every scene. It is the racial tension that boils beneath the surface that pulls in contemporary audiences. The liberal-minded Welles was sure to include the racist viewpoints of whites on display. The tension shows itself both blatantly and furtively. Welles knew well the prejudices that haunted man; prejudices that warped the minds of politicians, lawyers, the police, and the average citizen. Everyone is afraid of something, for some it is his fellow man and the differences borne by skin pigmentation. This was a subject of great interest to Welles. Nearly a decade before Touch of Evil Welles addressed this when he protested the savage beating of an unarmed black veteran that left him blinded.
On July 28th, 1946 Orson Welles the fallen angel of Hollywood read aloud the affidavit of the blinded veteran, Isaac Woodard on his program Orson Welles Commentaries: “I Isaac Woodard…am twenty seven years old and a veteran of the United States Army, having served fifteen months in the South Pacific, and having earned one battle star…while I was in uniform I purchased a ticket to Winnsboro, South Carolina…headed there to pick up my wife.” An hour out from Atlanta Woodard and his driver shared some verbal jabs and in Batesburg the driver called over the police. According to Woodard a policeman immediately hit him with a billy club before Woodard could explain. The policeman “twisted’ his arm and sked Woodard if he had been discharged from the army. Woodard responded in the affirmative. The policeman commenced hitting him on the head. Woodard grabbed the billy club and pried it from the officer’s hand. A second policeman arrived pointing his firearm at Woodard. Woodard dropped the club. The veteran was repeatedly hit with the club in the eyes.
The next morning, the army veteran found that he was blind. Woodard alerted a policeman; “Feel your way out” was the response. The voice was the same as the officer that beat Woodard the previous night. Woodard was led to the Judge and was told to pay fifty dollars or be sentenced to thirty days in jail. Woodard explained that he did not have the money, but was willing to pay the amount at a later date. The policeman took Woodard’s wallet and took forty dollars and four from a watch pocket. They returned him to his cell, where he was offered whiskey, which Woodard politely declined. He was taken to a doctor. Issac Woodard was told to “join a blind school.”
In the rest of the July 28th broadcast Welles rails against “Officer X” (the police officer was later identified as chief of police M.L Shull). Welles’ rhetorical bravado creates a compelling oratory in which he asks, “What does it cost to be a negro?” Outdated terminology withstanding the same question can be asked today. In the case of Woodard it was his sight. In the recent cases of Eric Harris, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray it cost them their lives.
In Touch of Evil the racism is not lodged against blacks, but rather Mexicans. Racism is racism no matter to whom it is directed. Hank Quinlan (Welles) is the local sheriff police captain. He is bulbous—Welles put on a fat suit and a prosthetic nose to make him look fatter than he was—and walks with a limp; a physical manifestation of his moral corruption, just like Arthur Bannister’s crutches in The Lady From Shanghai. Quinlan is outwardly racist towards Miguel Vargas as well as Sanchez the prime suspect in the bombing case. When Vargas and Quinlan show up to ask Sanchez questions about the murder, Quinlan shows his teeth. In a bout of police brutality he slaps Sanchez for speaking in his native language, claiming, “I don’t speak Mexican.” Welles gives Quinlan an origin for his bigotry. His wife was strangled by a “half-breed.”
Welles adds irony to Quinlan’s racism, with the appearance of the Mexican Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) an old fling of Quinlan’s who runs a brothel. She is the only connection the immoral police captain has to his humanity. He visits her twice in the film to remind himself of the man he once was and find a quantum of solace in her presence:
QUINLAN: Come on. Read my future for me.
TANYA: You haven’t got any.
Quinlan’s racism boils to the surface as he plants incriminating dynamite in Sanchez’s apartment and in another bout of well-placed irony Quinlan works with Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff), a local Mexican gangster to implicate Susan and Mike Vargas in a narcotics ring. Quinlan’s corruption is revealed and he dies in a river filled with trash.
Even the heroes of Touch of Evil are not above some prejudice. Susan Vargas shows her prejudice and ignorance. She calls one of the Grandi gang members, “pancho.” She does not speak Spanish and refers to Joe Grandi as a “silly little pig.”
The racism and bigotry interwoven within the narrative is Welles’ way of holding up a mirror to the prejudiced society of the 1950s. The socially conscious Welles switched the gender from the source material, The Badge of Evil. In Touch of Evil, the husband is Mexican and his wife a white female; a more threatening relationship to a conservative America as David Thompson points out in his biography of Welles.
Like Citizen Kane, Quinlan suffers from a moral degradation throughout the course of the film. Both are idealists who are corrupted. Kane is corrupted by greed and power. Quinlan’s racism is propelled for the futile search to find his wife’s phantom killer. Is what Vargas says true: “There are all kinds of policemen, sir. I don’t have to tell you that. A few take bribes…Most are honest, yes, but even some of the honest men abuse their power in other ways.” Can the same be said of Woodard’s assailant M.L. Shull or others like him? Are they good men corrupted by their prejudices or are they “evil?” It is to the films credit and this nation’s detriment that Touch of Evil’s subject matter is still relevant. In the case of Shull he was acquitted and outlived both Woodard and Welles.
To quote William Faulkner.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”