Monday, January 25, 2010

Border noir I part 1

  "Think Hitchcock's Psycho with Chicana biker dykes, the desert, and pachucos, and you are ready for Welles's frontera Odyssey.” - William Anthony Nericcio, Tex[t]-Mex : seductive hallucinations of the "Mexican" in America, Austin, University of Texas Press, 2007, p41.

“You people are touchy.”

   Touch of Evil is an irresistible, one-of-a-kind movie; it inspires so many thoughts and associations that there’s the inevitable impulse to want to write them all down. Alas, Touch of Evil is also, with the conspicuous exception of Citizen Kane, probably the most written-about Orson Welles film. Thus the embarrassing fate to offer my proverbial two cents’ worth. But I will, and I’ll do my best to be mercifully brief. Suffice to say that if there is indeed a cinematic subgenre we could call border noir, then present film is arguably the supreme example [1]. I’ll leave it to others to determine whether it’s the last film noir, the first post-noir, or first, albeit proto-, neo-noir.

   Time alters the way we see a movie, and Touch of Evil indeed improves with repeated viewings. My initial impressions of disjointedness and strangeness are a large part of the joys of subsequent viewings of the film. So are the almost caricature-like noir motifs which lard the proceedings: sinister back alleys; sleazy, smoke-infested night clubs; Spanish-deco architecture; flying trash; jagged staircases; dive hotels; off-kilter camera angles. Indeed, the border town universe of Touch of Evil might be seen as the Lady from Shanghai fun-house come to life for a couple of hours. Or as one critic so aptly expresses it : “Touch of Evil is a seedy experience.” [2]

   Looming over all is the malevolent, hulking presence of Capt. Hank Quinlan (played by Orson Welles). Brutal, physically repulsive, and more important, morally so, Quinlan is the type of cop who doesn’t hesitate to plant evidence in the cause of “aiding justice.” A rampant, unapologetic American supremacist [3], Quinlan carries with him an anti-Mexican bias that translates into a guilt-before-the-fact philosophy of law enforcement. Yes, Quinlan is a no-nonsense, realpolitik sort of cop. For him those starry-eyed idealists like Vargas (Charlton Heston) cause all the problems in the world (“they’re worse than crooks; you can always do something with a crook”).

   Yet what makes Quinlan fascinating is that he has several shadings of gray in his professional and personal character. To wit, there's the surprisingly sentimental side, along with a clever if nasty sense of humor. In one scene he reminisces wistfully with brothel madam and former girlfriend Tana about better days as schmaltzy, ersatz Mexican piano music wafts in the background. And for someone who sits atop the power structure, Quinlan has little flair for, even patience with, politics; he chides his nominal bosses, the D.A. and police chief, for their tuxedoed garb which they wear to a steakhouse dinner, which Quinlan, ever the detective, quickly divines is a political event.

   But if Quinlan isn't exactly a heroically tragic figure (then again, maybe he is!), he’s nonetheless deserving of some sympathy from the audience [4]. In his own twisted way Quinlan has a sense of professional integrity. He pushes himself to and beyond his physical limits. And he reminds us that he never framed anyone who wasn’t already guilty. Perhaps even more important, he never personally profited from his work as a policeman, with only a small turkey ranch to show for his 30 years of dutifully taking on the dirtiest jobs. Most of all, Quinlan attaches a highly personal, moralistic righteousness to his work; his capturing criminals is a revenge-laced atonement for the unpunished murder of his wife decades prior. The one silver lining for him in his sordid world is a certain police celebrity status. All in all, one of cinema’s great villains, with a touch of the hero.

Border Nor I Part 2

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