Touch of Evil, Citizen Trump, and Countdown to Prez Debate #1

*There will be spoilers.*

So, I’m an Assistant Professor of Film at Hollins University now, in Roanoke, VA. Did I mention?

That probably warrants a post all its own, and I’m getting to it, but new jobs are pretty hectic! Even so, I wanted to post this thought quickly before the first presidential debate in almost an hour.

In class today, I showed Orson Welles’ 1958 Touch of Evil, a film I first watched in college over ten years ago. At the time, I was struck by the dramatic, low-key lighting and the ridiculous premise that Charlton Heston was cast as Mexican. (In fact, for half the movie, I wondered why his character was trying to pass as Mexican and why everyone believed him.)

But for me and for many audiences, the most distinctive moment of Touch of Evil is that long opening shot that seamlessly takes us across the US-Mexico border. Growing up in the Northeast, I never thought much about that border, being a white girl from the Northeast, but now more than ever, I realize how large it looms in America’s public imagination as a space of danger and volatility: a place that needs a wall.

Orson Welles would have had a field day with someone like Donald Trump — just look what he did to William Randolph Hearst, for crying out loud! — and from the grave, it seems, he mocks Trump’s border policy… or is it more of a border catch-phrase?… in Touch of Evil.

In numerous ways, Touch of Evil might and should make a contemporary viewer uncomfortable. It plays into upsetting stereotypes about the Mexican criminal underworld and the menace that these sinister brown youths pose to a lily-white maiden Janet Leigh, an actress whose characters never have any luck picking the right motel. The *good* Mexican, the one whose moral compass is as straight as his shot, is played by Charlton Heston in brown-face.

Even so, this film has an important and pressing lesson to teach: the long shot at the start of the film sets up an argument that the border between the US and Mexico can never fully be closed, and the rest of the film bears out this assertion. Whether it be romantic love or craven self-interest that connects individuals from both sides of the border, it is not only impossible to close off each nation but pointless too. The evil on the Mexican side is more than matched by the diabolical schemes of Detective Quinlan (Orson Welles), a lying racist tyrant favors his own “intuition” over facts and evidence,and is willing to say or do anything to accrue more power. He’s more than a touch evil, if you know what I’m saying, and I am afraid he is more than a touch familiar as well.

The film’s exploration of the US-Mexico border as artificial, ideologically-driven divide together with Vargas’ statement to Quinlan that “a policeman’s job is only easy in a police state,” make this incredibly significant and timely watch. With the rise of Trump, Elia Kazan’s 1957 A Face in the Crowd has gotten increased attention from critics, but Touch of Evil is a worthy companion piece for gaining more insight into this election cycle than what you will watch on cable news.

 

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