Touch Of Evil (1958), or El Gringo

1 07 2009

This is a classic movie, and there are a LOT of things to like about it, but the one thing that everyone always brings up about this film (and rightfully so) is that Charlton Heston, the gun-toting, ultra-religious, heavy-handed raisin cake plays a Mexican. Huh? What? A little louder in this ear, please! Surely I didn’t hear you correctly! Yes, the man who made Moses and Ben Hur WASPish comes to us with a character named Vargas, who is our greased-up more-than-slightly offensive hero. While it’s easy to say that the times were an adequate excuse, and that most of Hollywood conducted business this way, hiring whites to play minority characters to make them more identifiable with a Caucasian audience (see The Good Earth) I still feel a little unease when I watch this. I don’t take away any points here, and for the most part I don’t mind too much as it makes for a good laugh, but I still don’t like Heston’s portrayal too much in that aspect.

But if you’ve never seen or heard about Touch of Evil you’re in for a treat. This is vintage Welles, a director so good the first time, Hollywood never really invited him back! Times were tough for Welles by the 1950s, after his career was tarnished by a number of unfortunate setbacks that weren’t really his fault. Touch of Evil was supposed to be his comeback film, actually, but Universal Studios knew not what they had with this gem and relegated it to be the bottom portion of a double feature. It subsequently tanked, and so did Welles’ dreams of making a comeback. But this film stands as a legacy to him, with an amazing plot and a haunting character played by Welles himself that mirrored the tragedy of his unrecognized genius. It’s a marvel, and a movie that you will not soon forget.

It all starts at the border. A narcotics enforcement agent named Miguel Vargas and his beloved wife Suzie witness a car bombing right next to the border between the US and Mexico. Vargas meets with the higher-ups who arrive shortly after the incident, who realize that it might be an international affair and are seeking to snuff this out as soon as possible. Along with the Police Chief and the District Attorney, Police Captain Quinlan and his partner Menzies also arrive and begin interrogating a very suspicious Mexican man at his home. To Vargas’ dismay, however, he finds through sheer accident that Quinlan and Menzies have, without a doubt, been planting evidence, effectively damning the Mexican man, named Sanchez. How long and why are questions that Vargas must contend with as he attempts to shed light on this case and its possible mis-handling by the Police Captain himself. Can Vargas keep himself and his lovely wife from harm as he attempts to stand up to a fellow officer and superior?

This is riveting drama. I was gripping my mouse with anticipation from scene to scene. Welles creates a scenario that is rife with social and moral implications while simultaneously creating a deeply watchable piece of film. There are a lot of things to consider here. Why is Quinlan planting evidence? How involved is Menzies? Has he done this before? More importantly, IS Sanchez guilty? We are forced to ask ourselves these question while also wondering if this is a racially charged issue. Is Sanchez being targeted because of his race? Can Vargas, a Mexican himself, stand up to Quinlan, a white cop, in the public circle? Many things to consider.

Welles directs what might be the last great noir film. I can’t think of a film more fitting to close out the era of crime, drama, sexy dames, and moral ambiguity in the heart of the deep, dark city. It’s gritty, as black as it gets, and completely unpredictable. He pours a lot into this, and even by the high standard of Citizen Kane, possibly the greatest American film, Touch of Evil can hold its head high. It’s made with a passion that speaks volumes, a desire that permeates every frame. It’s a hunger for vindication, a craving for one last shot to be a contender. Welles had everything riding on this picture as far as his career in Hollywood was concerned, so he made something relative to his genius; something large, epic, and impressive.

The characters are piercing. Vargas, played by Charlton Heston, is your typical wide-eyed hero, aghast at the idea that someone like Quinlan could do something like plant evidence. Where Heston leaps ahead as an actor is when there are no words, when it is just him carrying a scene. His presence is impressive, and I like what he represents as a character. But the real star here is the ambiguous Quinlan, played by Welles himself. Everything about Quinlan is intriguing. He has an outlook that makes you think that maybe tampering with a crime scene is a GOOD thing. His corpulence makes him the perfect disheveled villain, the man who doesn’t care what others think of him. And his inner mechanics, along with a shocker ending that changes the character’s role completely, makes him somebody to watch. It’s a role Welles was born to play, considering his long and storied history with being misunderstood by the masses.

Don’t skip this one. If you have to see only 5 movies on this site, make this one of them. Touch of Evil really is an amazing film, one that cements Welles’ status as one of this country’s greatest artists. Outfitted with an incredibly strong script, cast, and crew, I can’t  see too many flaws with this one. What am I still doing talking to you about it? Go watch it! You won’t regret it! I give Touch of Evil 10 Hispanic Hestons out of 10! My highest recommendation!

Tomorrow is the PSA, where I’ll be working on the embarrassment that is Batman and Robin! Yikes!!!

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