Race and Appearance in Orson Welles’ ‘Touch of Evil’

September 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

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Encased in pounds of excess fat and brandishing an uncharacteristically nasally voice, Welles is nearly unrecognizable here, especially in lieu of his strikingly prim self-reimagining in Mr. Arkadin just three years earlier. From this strange mask alone—or lack of one, since it’s really his lack of beard that completes the illusion—the audience can be altogether certain from the start that something is seriously wrong with Hank Quinlan. Why else would Welles take the effort of creating such a revolting visual monster?

But while Welles’s face is all too evilly blurred, Heston’s portrayal of the Mexican detective Miguel Vargas is all too sharply un-Mexican—largely a consequence of his classically American, distinctly Lincolnian facial features. This is especially evident when displayed alongside actual Latino unknowns like Val de Vargas as the incredibly fearsome Brando-posing Pancho. It is not that he succeeds at being some kind of standard Mexican role, but rather, he is an embodiment of the cultural paradox inherent to the borderlands themselves. Though the cross-racial portrayals in this film are certainly not limited only to Heston’s role, it would be safe to say that his pretense is the least convincing of all.

It does not seem especially important for Heston’s character to be Mexican either. Only a few lines are ever exchanged about the issue, and most of them are racial epithets from Quinlan about Heston’s jurisdiction. As far as the story is concerned, the racial device most likely exists for the sake of pure expediency in establishing Quinlan as Vargas’s foil. And here the issue of race itself emerges in the film’s rather poor depiction of Mexicans. Indeed, without Vargas, there are no Mexican characters in the film that could be considered anywhere near moral. Even if Quinlan is the ultimate agency behind the so-called “evil”—here we needn’t even argue about the ambiguity of this term, since just about every sin or crime ever said to be unforgivable is associated with Touch of Evil‘s Mexicans—of the film’s title, his “dirty work”, so to speak, is still being carried out by solely Mexican conspirators. One can even argue in an ironic way that Vargas’s goodness stems from the mediating effect of his beautiful white-skinned girlfriend, played by Janet Leigh.

If one didn’t know any better, it might even seem that Welles’ rather crude facsimile of a Mexican around Heston was intentional, if only to call attention to the implied ridiculousness of the existence of an actually moral Mexican. It could be said in this case that Heston’s blackface is of the strictly “minstrel” variety. In other words, his smooth, distinguished position as a detective would be reversed into that of a farcical parody, an ultimate contradiction in race. It follows then that Welles’ equally distinctive Quinlan figure is a parody of white racism. The same message is held in Quinlan’s case as in Vargas’s: their roles should be reversed in order for the picture to be proper. At the same time that the artifice of Vargas—the good, moral Mexican cop—is drawn into focus, the impossibility of Quinlan’s evil, unjust American cop is also implied, with the latter acting largely as a response to the former.

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