Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Touch of Evil (1958)

A car carrying a rich old man and his hot young girlfriend, driving over the US-Mexican border, blows up killing them both. On the scene is Vargas (Charlton Heston), an educated, politically connected (totally non-rapist) Mexican police detective. He works with fat, sloppy American police captain Quinlan (Orson Welles) to solve the murder. At this time his hot anglo wife (Janet Leigh) starts being harassed by family members of the people Vargas has been prosecuting. Things get complicated.

This movie could be about finding the bomber, or about the crime family tormenting the hot Leigh, but it’s really about the culture clash between two nations so close to each other, and the prejudice that permeates their relationship. Quinlan is suspicious of Mexicans and disrespects Vargas, the Mexican crime family has a complicated relationship with America, and the Vargas’ themselves are torn between both worlds. All this in the late 50’s.

Heston agreed to the role because he thought Welles was going to direct. When he found out that the director hadn’t been selected yet, he insisted on Welles, and the studio agreed. It was Welles’ presence that also convinced Leigh to accept the roll, despite the low pay.

Upon completion the studio chopped up the film in editing. Welles was upset, and wrote a 58 page letter to the studio head. The version I saw was a recreation of Welles’ original vision, as can be determined from his letter.

The movie features Dennis Weaver (Gunsmoke, McCloud) in an early role. Zsa Zsa earned a bit part by being the producer’s boyfriend. Marlene Dietrich had a small but important role, and if you blinked you’d miss Welles buddy Joseph Cotten’s cameo.

Touch of Evil is a brave film, confronting racism head on. It’ll be remembered as having a Mexican played by Red Blooded, US ‘Merican Charlton Heston with a US ‘Merican accent, but its message that citizens on both sides of the border can be despicable and honorable alike may have been lost otherwise. The difference between art and craft is that craft needs to know we are ready to accept change while art tells us we must. The problem with putting minorities in lead roles is that studios want established stars, and until there is a large pool of established leading man minorities, it is hard to get the studio on board with hiring them. Catch-22. Maybe, in some small way, Touch of Evil slightly acclimated 50’s audiences to considering a lead minority. Either way, putting an unknown Mexican in the lead may have resulted in the film not being made, or at least not seen very much. At any rate, I find it easy to forgive the whitewash casting because of the its progressive message. AMRU 4.
“She don’t look Mexican either.”

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