Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mexico and the Blacklist. Postscript : A 'Touch' of the Red Scare. Part 2


'Touch' of the Red Scare Part 1 here

   Thus, in Touch of Evil, a McCarthy-esque Quinlan bullies, accuses, cajoles and generally hogs the spotlight, but ultimately his fate is that of gradual self-destruction, and by the end of the film he has been duly pilloried and dispatched. And to be fair, the Quinlan/McCarthy resemblance extends to Welles himself, as is witnessed by the frequent critical commentary on similarities between Welles and the Quinlan character [4]. This is underscored further in that Quinlan, McCarthy – and especially Welles – lacked the discipline, plodding methodology, and intellectual rigor for sustained and meaningful results; instead they relied on a few brilliant flourishes buttressed by theatrical bombast, half-baked intuition, and the convenient stage management of facts [5]. All surrounded themselves with fawning toadies who would not dare question their brilliance. (In the case of Welles the admirers continue to this day in the form of critics, academics, and devotees).

   And to be sure, Touch’s flawed hero Quinlan – warts and all in the form of his racial prejudice and physical repulsiveness – on a superficial level fits the stereotype of a Southern redneck sheriff. (Indeed, In the Heat of the Night’s iconic good old boy sheriff of a decade later, played by Rod Steiger, might well have been based on the Hank Quinlan template). But on the other hand Quinlan is, disquietingly, a surprisingly sympathetic character, partially due to his prowess as a detective, but mostly for the fact that it’s his unsavory methods which are objectionable, not his motivations or results. As a contrast we have his nemesis, the Mexican ‘good cop’ Vargas, who despite his nobility and insistence on legal process, remains a curiously unlikeable character, in part because of his methods.

  These multilayered character touches are reminders that there are no easy interpretations or answers in Touch of Evil. Everything about it – especially its look and characters – are posited in innumerable shadings of gray, creating a moral and physical universe that’s ambiguous at best and irretrievably corrupt at worst. With its uneasy synthesis of sordidness, redemption, corruption and compassion, and especially through its themes of border tensions, racial prejudice, and fear of the Other, Touch of Evil has an uncanny prescience, and continues to fascinate and resonate – and grow in popularity – in our own unquiet times.


[1] A counter point of view is provided by Joseph McBride’s What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? : a Portrait of an Independent Career [Lexington, University Press of Kentucky, 2006], which forcefully makes the case for Welles as victim of McCarthyism and the Blacklist, citing Welles’s genuine commitment to social causes in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the FBI files collected on Welles from 1941 to 1954.

[2] In this context we note Eric M. Krueger’s perspicacious analysis of Touch’s garbage and filth-infested motifs, as metaphor for the story’s all-pervasive corruption and ‘touches’ of evil (and perhaps as a metaphor for a touch of the Red Scare?). E. M. Krueger, “Touch of Evil : Style Expressing Content,” Cinema Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1 (Autumn 1972), pp. 57-58.

[3] Kemp points out that it's no coincidence that the decline of the classic noir cycle follows closely on the fall of McCarthy. Philip Kemp, "From the Nightmare Factory: HUAC and the Politics of Noir," Sight & Sound v55, 1986, p270.

[4] By the late 1950s Welles was no longer the dapper figure of his Boy Wonder days. True, he had not quite descended to Quinlan-esque levels of bloated grotesqueness, but he was showing the first signs of the extreme overweight that would make him a self-caricature in his later years.

[5] It’s perhaps no accident that Welles, in additional to being a great director, was also a talented, near professional-caliber magician; herein lies another similarity to the Quinlan character in that both preferred conjuring tricks to genuine craft.