As much as I wanted to enjoy it, watching Touch of Evil in 2013 is a very uncomfortable experience.
No doubt about it, Touch of Evil is a great American classic and perhaps, the last film noir every made. Produced in 1958, this Hollywood crime thriller is written, directed by and co-starring the amazing Orson Welles. Touch of Evil features bombings, murder, slimy thugs and dirty sheriffs. Its convoluted plot is often pushed aside, and Welles’s auteur style comes into the spotlight. At this period, Welles had returned to Hollywood after a six-year stint in Europe. His new-found European film influences can definitely be seen in Touch of Evil.
Welles’s use of moody lighting, an important characteristic of film noir, is stunning. The film’s black-and-white photography plays with the shadows; mysterious shapes are distorted and elongated across the screen. The dark lighting evokes a seedy, dismal atmosphere that is perfect for this thriller. Touch of Evil is best known for its introductory three-minute, twenty-second tracking shot – all filmed in one long take. The camera work is incredible; it feeds off its own kinetic energy and it lucidly weaves its way through the events that are occurring. As said by the late critic Roger Ebert, Touch of Evil is best enjoyed for its striking visual and dramatic flamboyance.
Touch of Evil is a fantastic film, so what’s so wrong with watching it? Well, the Mexican protagonist, Miguel “Mike” Vargas is played by – yes, you guessed it, a white American male. Charlton Heston dons some very tan makeup to play a Mexican drug enforcement official. The 1995 comedy Get Shorty‘s has a line that goes, “You wanna go check it out? Watch Charlton Heston play a Mexican?” (No, I really don’t.) Brown-face refers to the creation and propagation of racist Latino or Hispanic stereotypes and caricatures. It makes no sense since all other Latino characters on the film are played by Latinos themselves. In addition, as a copper, Vargas is the only “good guy” Mexican character. Mexicans are portrayed as thugs, or drug lords in the film. By having Heston don brown-face, it implies that only “good guys” can be played by white men. Looking back at what that could have been a choice role for Latinos reveals a sad parade of brown-face minstrelsy.
It appears that in classic films, racist costumes, like black-face and yellow-face, appear to be the norm. Welles himself stars as Shakespeare’s most famous Moor, in his 1952 film version of Othello. The 1961 classic Breakfast at Tiffany‘s could be an unquestionably flawless film, if not for Mickey Rooney’s poor portrayal of an Asian stereotype, I. Y. Yunioshi. Audiences then were perhaps more comfortable with viewing these racial costumes, and it is still, unfortunately, being used today (Hugo Weaving in 2012’s Cloud Atlas, Johnny Depp in 2013’s The Lone Ranger). The stock characters used by black-face and others, simply reinforces racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. Certainly, Heston’s Vargas goes against the dirty and unkempt Bandito stereotype to play a dignified copper, but the use of brown-face is just plain wrong.
Touch of Evil also consists of an implied rape scene that is never addressed. Vargas’s wife, Susie (Janet Leigh), is alone in a motel room in her nightgown. She is on the bed as a youth gang, the Grandi boys, slowly enter, and shot from a daunting high angle, her face is obscured by a shadow of a figure walking towards her. Later, a butch female character says, “Let me stay, I want to watch” and the gang leader subsequently whispers, “Hold her legs”. The group restrains a struggling Susie as the door is closed with the camera on the outside. Touch of Evil never gives any confirmation that she was really raped, and her attack holds some troubling ambiguity. A couple of gang members later comment that they were just giving Susie “a scare”. Plus, the promotional images of the film (Vargas holding Susie in embrace) also emphasise a damsel-in-distress narrative, that potentially possesses a more acceptable storyline for Susie’s attack (that she was saved). Leigh’s rising stardom in the late 1950s (she would appear in her most memorable role in Psycho two years later) amplified the domesticated character she plays. Any suggestion of rape would defy her “devoted wife” role and her public persona. Nevertheless, as Ebert mentions, the film curiously ignores or forgets any repercussions for Susie. It is immensely discomforting for a modern audience to witness the film’s poor treatment of Susie. Women on screen have always suffered, and Leigh’s Susie is just another overlooked female victim.
Touch of Evil was named the best film at the 1958 Brussels World Fair, where both French auteurs Godard and Truffaut were on the jury – an exceptional feat. The film does properly consider societal problems of the 1950s as it examines issues on juvenile delinquency, drug abuse and corruption in the police force. I still believe that Touch of Evil is a great film noir, but it is difficult for a contemporary audience to digest its misogynist and racist attitudes.
Touch of Evil is tarnished by its conservative values that is now deemed inappropriate and offensive. However, the film has held up for many decades due to its visual feats and remarkable accomplishments in Welles’s authorial style. Through a modern lens, classic films, like Touch of Evil, can be seen as a time capsule of sorts. Welles once proclaimed that “movies are the nearest thing to reality”. Like with classic literature and art, films reflect world views and social problems of that time. Today, a retrospective look back towards these classics might cause certain discomfort, but ultimately, watching these films truly reveal how much cinema and society has progressed, or stagnated, since then.