Monday, November 10, 2014

Touch of Evil

In TOUCH OF EVIL, Orson Welles’s film noir masterpiece, Hank Quinlan (a corrupt police chief played by Welles in a nameless American town on the Mexican border), is a presence so large, literally (he wore padding on his already outsized body during the filming) and especially metaphorically, that he crowds out the rest of the film—the actors (Charlton Heston in particular), the plot, whatever ‘message’ the film might have—by squeezing it all to the margins or entirely off the screen.

Quinlan is a great man—not a good man, not a moral man—but a man great in appetite, larger than life, more fully immersed in life, suffering more greatly, and living with more courage and intelligence than an ordinary man. That he succumbs to his own pride, that his “touch of evil” becomes a raging infection that devours him, is the fascination of the movie. And seeing Janet Leigh lying around in her underwear didn’t hurt, either.

As I was watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think of the word ‘camp’ and wondered if the movie was intentionally so. It made me think of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 or THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, so grotesquely caricatured were some of the characters. I have come to think this was intentional, except in the case of Heston, who must have gone to the same acting school as William Shatner.

The inflation of the characters into funhouse creations made me think of medieval mystery or miracle plays, where characters are exemplars of human qualities. These characters are necessarily two-dimensional, so that the complexity of Welles’s character stands in bold relief to them. The movie is great—pulp comic, grotesque and voyeuristic, sensationalized and as outsized as Leigh’s (Suzy Vargas, married to Mexican diplomat Mike Vargas, played by Charlton Heston) breasts, over the top, a mystery/morality play with an incorruptible Mexican married to a virtuous American wife, and an American police chief corrupt in a south-of-the-border kind of way. The whole thing is both Shakespearean and Biblical. And Heston’s make-up is so overdone he looks like the make-up girl got drunk, giving him a tan that makes him look almost orange, or at least burnt umber, in the black and white movie.

The unconscious is one of those things we can only know by its effects, like light or Santa Claus or God or Capitalism. For my purposes, I will refer to it as the place, the grimy neglected nightmare basement place, where we store all the fear, desire and rage that we can’t face consciously. These feelings are not defeated by being repressed, however, and influence our behavior in unseen ways, kind of like rich donors perverting the political process. Movie and cultural and literary critics are big on the unconscious, and you can look at TOUCH OF EVIL as expressing our society’s collective repressed sexual and economic fears, our repressed individual desires, and as an interesting study of how Quinlan has perhaps repressed his awareness of his own evil.

I could see the tawdry excesses of Bordertown as both revolting and a thing to be desired, revolting to my conscious mind, and yet attractive because unconsciously the license and the riot of the place compelled me. It was like putting peanut butter on top of chocolate on top of ice cream on top of chocolate cake and closing your eyes unable to look and taking the biggest bite you ever took.

Things in Bordertown are raw and impure, if “made in America,” not homogenized, or pasteurized, chlorinated or fluoridated, not approved by the Hays Code or Emily Post, lacking the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a place where the mongrelized, the bastardized, live, where the stuff left over in the Ivory Soap, the fractional percent against the 99 44/100 percent purity, is. It’s as if the prosperous America of the 50’s, the eager Leave-it-to-Beaver-Donna-Reed industrial juggernaut, was a kind of living organism, and this horrid little place was the flatulent excreta of this too full USA, the byproduct, what was the left over and left out after you made all those Chevy’s and toasters and bombs.

Whatever it is that drives Quinlan, we can see that it is irresistible. And as perceptive as he is, as knowing of the criminal mind, as able as he is to distinguish appearance from reality, the innocent from the guilty, he is unable to see he has crossed the line from good to evil and become the kind of criminal he seeks to bring to justice. Indeed, if he realizes this at all, it is on an unconscious level, which is why perhaps that he seeks the confrontation with Mike Vargas, with part of him wanting to lose. He asks the gypsy Tanya, played by Marlene Deitrich, the character of whom he was once enamored in some sleazy border way, what is in his future, and she tells him he has no future at all. And perhaps he is relieved to hear it, eager on some level to be defeated. He represses the knowledge that Vargas, and Quinlan’s partner Menzies (played by Peter Calleia) , are setting him up. As Quinlan has already set up Vargas, along with scores of others, and is a man who always seems one move ahead, you have to wonder why Quinlan doesn’t see it coming.

Tanya is ambiguous, and you can’t tell if she is a prostitute, a madame, a fortune teller, or the owner of a very seedy bed and breakfast. She is at once self-interested and loving. She says at the end of Quinlan, “what can you say about a man?” as if to dismiss him, but she is not dismissing him, as she is taking the time and making the effort to say anything at all.

This is at the heart of TOUCH OF EVIL and of noir, this ambiguity, and Quinlan possesses it in spades. It is in counterpoint to the characters of Akim Tamiroff (as Joe Grandi, who harasses Suzie Vargas because her husband is involved in prosecuting Grandi’s brother for drug trafficking ) and the Denis Weaver character, caretaker at the hotel where Grandi’s minions inject Suzy with drugs and we come dangerously close to witnessing a gang rape, when all the leather jacketed juvenile delinquent henchman grab a handful of the pure Leigh. Grandi and the caretaker are banal and two-dimensional (although Weaver seems sexually repressed in an extremely weird way, almost a Norman Bates kind of way). Both are cartoonish-ly evil, and cowards, not men with the strength and conviction of Quinlan and Mike Vargas.

And even Mike Vargas is part cartoon, in that his strength and courage have never really been tested, and so is in that way hard to see as any kind of real strength at all. He hasn’t lost a wife to murder, hasn’t had his leg shot up in the war, like Quinlan, hasn’t seen the way that good and evil in Bordertown become entwined in the way of snakes on a caduceus. Tanya is the opposite of Suzy Vargas, without Suzy’s pure and innocent sexuality, more complex, not as arrogant, wiser, knowing the world is ultimately unjust, and youth and strength and innocence eventually give way to their opposites.

Quinlan is a man past his expiration date, branded on his feet, having missed his train, his bus, his plane, the brass ring, a man who rules, but in hell, and the ambiguity of it all, that all the cops are criminals and all the sinners saints, is contained in him, a man who has fallen from a very high place and survived when lesser men would have hit the pavement and just died. The fall injured his soul mortally, the trauma of the kind where you smash a bug and to your horror it begins to try and walk away with what remaining parts of its body still work, like a dog dragging its paralyzed back legs along on a skateboard. Welles has had his wings pulled off for sure.

In the final scene, after Suzy Vargas has been penetrated by hypos and perhaps penises (in order to discredit Mike Vargas who, if he wasn’t so wet behind the ears, would have seen the plot coming a mile away, although perhaps not the evil twist Quinlan works on it), Mike goes extra-legal on the gang, beating them all down in a Los Robles bar (the name of the Mexican town across the border). Mike then gets Menzies (Quinlan’s right hand man, a man that Quinlan saved in the war) to wear a wire in order to get Quinlan to confess his crimes. Vargas is finally stooping low to conquer, and forgetting his decidedly American code of ethics and honor, his boy scout oath. And Welles, perhaps aware at some level what is happening, does admit to planting all that evidence, to coercing so many confessions from so many suspects, yet insists they were all guilty, and revenge for the loss of his wife, and recompense for her killer, the only one, ever, that he didn’t catch.

Quinlan finally realizes he is being gulled and Menzies, who loved Quinlan, and believed in Quinlan as long as he could, is shot by Quinlan, the very man who once took a bullet for him (in the war). Quinlan gets the drop on Vargas, too, but Menzies, in an appropriate kind of fated and fatal symmetry, kills Welles with his dying shot, the figurative and literal last shot in his gun. If there is any redemption at all, it is found by Menzies in death. Welles falls dead into a huge garbage-filled puddle and it’s stunning, and truly tragic, in the sense that tragedy is about the fall of great (if bloated and bleary and filthy and drunk) men.

As Mike and Suzy (what bright All-American names, and kids) drive away the next morning (one of the few daytime shots in the entire movie) you see that the nightmare is over for them, but wonder what has been accomplished, if anything. We have learned that the man Quinlan set up before Vargas was indeed guilty, and we are left to wonder if perhaps Quinlan’s ends justified his means. I don’t think it is because Heston is a good actor, because he always looks this way, but Mike Vargas has a kind of self-satisfied look on his face that you just want to slap off. And you know that life is going to do just that.

© 2014 Mike Welch

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