At the end of last week, Netflix removed the film Touch of Evil from their streaming offerings. This is a 1958 film noir piece by Orson Welles. It takes place on the U.S.-Mexico border and tells a tale involving the nature of honesty and corruption among police. It is (slightly) based on the novel Badge of Evil from 1956.
There is a story that Welles obtained the script from a producer when he asked that he be given the worst script available. Welles claimed he wanted to prove he could make a great film out of a bad script. Another set of stories involve the post-production intrigue. After the initial showing, the studio re-edited the movie even going so far as to re-shoot some of the scenes. Welles has claimed that he was locked out of the editing process, although versions of events suggest he was simply unavailable, in Mexico, working on another project. Whatever the truth, Welles was not satisfied with the final product and wrote a memo to the studio detailing his grievances and how he would fix them. Based on this memo, a 1998 re-editing took place in an attempt to make a “Director’s Cut” corresponding to Welles vision. The original Welles version has been lost.
It was this 1998 version that was on Netflix.
Welles was, of course, know for his directorial innovations. A number of the actors in this film worked for a reduced rate simply for the opportunity to work with Welles. Star Charlton Heston recalled that Welles was originally only to act in the film but Heston insisted that making him the director might be a condition of Heston’s getting on board as the lead actor.
Welles plays an aging policeman and is made up to look old, fat, and well-past his prime. The costume is so convincing that I wasn’t sure I was even looking at Welles (although, as Orson Welles himself aged, he came to look more and more like his 1958 character). Somewhat implausibly, Heston plays a Mexican law enforcement officer, costumed in a Mexican-style mustache. Several character question why he doesn’t have a Mexican accent when he speaks English, and acting decision that Heston later regretted.
The story is so-so and parts definitely don’t age well. I took a film class in high school that covered, among other works, Citizen Kane and, while watching Touch of Evil, recognized some of Welles’ signature techniques throughout. Perhaps what impressed me the most was the opening tracking shot, described as the longest tracking shot in film-making at the time. More interesting than its technicalities, however, is the tension that it creates.
As the film opens, we see an assassin placing a bomb in the trunk of a car. Shortly thereafter, an old man and a stripper walk out from a nightclub and get in to the now-wired car. We in the audience tense up, wondering if the car will explode as starts. It doesn’t. Instead, it drives through the empty parking lot, through an alley, and then out onto a crowded street. We are now left hanging on every nuance of the camera’s focus wondering when the bomb will explode and whom might be the collateral damage. Quality stuff.
For me the craft saves what would otherwise be something not going out of your way to watch.
It’s also worth watching for its commentary on current events.
The story involves cross-border criminality and drug gangs. Orson Welles, himself, had no serious problem with marijuana use but felt heroin was akin to “suicide.” The script reflects these sensibilities of his in a rather over-the-top manner, blunting the films ability to contribute sensibly to the “opioid crisis” debate. But on other subjects, the film is amazingly topical.
Welles made the decision to transform the lead, Heston’s character, from a U.S. District Attorney to a Mexican cop. Heston is also the exemplary “honest” cop in the story, which makes for some interesting dialog. Heston expresses some traditional, dare we say, libertarian themes about government and policing but they come from a foreigner. He often precedes his commentary, phrased as inquiry, with speculation about how things are “in your country.”
A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.
So says Heston’s character. Is he criticizing only those whom he is coming to see as unethical policemen or is this a criticism of American policing as a whole? Taken as a 2019 statement, one would almost certainly suspect the latter. In 1958, did this portrayal of Mexico as the less corrupted government make sense? Was it meant to be ironic? Or was Mexico, to American audiences, just some unknown country to the South about which, well, pretty much anything might be believable?
Since the Second World War, Mexico had entered a relatively peaceful and prosperous phase, which would extend until the 1970s when the effects of long-term one-party rule became ever-more damaging. In 1958, the country was still considerably poorer than the U.S., but it wouldn’t have been seen as a failure.
Heston also comments on the nature of the criminal justice system with a message that could bear some repeating in our age. Welles’ police captain suggests that the job of a cop is to lock up criminals perhaps, he implies, by any means necessary. Heston objects,
Putting criminals behind bars, no! In any free country, a policeman is supposed to enforce the law and the law protects the guilty as well as the innocent.
We’re rapidly approaching an absurdist dystopia where the English common-law maxim “Everything which is not forbidden is allowed” becomes T. H. White’s “Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory,” his definition of totalitarianism. But it is a tyranny of good intentions. So many among us expect that the purpose of law is to guide us in our good behavior, a path on which we all would anyway want to remain. We have forgotten that the law is there to protect the guilty, not to avenge the victim. Or worse, avenge society against non-conformist thought, even in the absence of a victim.
Heston doesn’t stop there. He also weighs in on the border wall debate. Interestingly, he doesn’t side with the post-Heston, pro-Wall NRA.
Susie, one of the longest borders on earth is right here between your country and mine. An open border. Fourteen hundred miles without a single machine gun in place. Yeah, I suppose that all sounds very corny to you.
The open border of 1958 perhaps didn’t impress Americans, like Susie, one way or the other. We took it for granted that as a free country at peace, with neighbors who are friendly to us, we had no need to guard our borders like some kind of police state.
The film shows the characters dashing back and forth across some fictional border crossing willy-nilly. Yes, there are agents at the border but their duties seemingly consist of asking travelers whether they are American before letting them pass (an experience that I’ve had, myself, at the border crossing in Tijuana). It wasn’t that long ago that this was normal, proper, and entirely unalarming.
The ideal 1950s that conservatives long for with their construction of a wall simply didn’t exist. The reason your grandmother immigrated to America “by the rules” was there just wasn’t any real incentive to do otherwise. If your wait for official approval is twenty-years (or, perhaps, forever, as it is in some situations), the risks of bypassing the whole immigration process don’t seem that terrible anymore.
The world has changed since 1958. Maybe fourteen hundred miles without a single machine gun is, today, a pipe dream. The only solution on offer is our current arms race between bad and worse. I wonder if it would, instead, be possible to address the underlying problems?