The three-minute-long continuous take that opens Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil is easily one of the most famous, technically impressive, and important scenes in the history of cinema. It’s been honored in homage by everyone from Robert Altman in The Player to Paul Thomas Anderson in Boogie Nights. At this point, the film’s place in the canon is unquestionable. But when those first three minutes roll past and it fully unfurls, we’re forced to confront more than just directorial mastery; we’re forced to confront America’s legacy of racism.
It’s more than just the fact that Mexican cop Miguel Vargas is played by white conservative Charlton Heston, layers of dark-brown makeup caked onto his face in an offensive and embarrassing Latino twist on blackface. Add to that the fact that the only Mexican characters in the film played by actual Latinos are vile, amoral, and even sadistic, and you have a film that’s a good deal more than merely “problematic.” Over the course of 95 minutes, we see Mexicans defined solely by their criminality. They harass, drug, and assault Vivian Leigh’s doe-eyed Suzie, Vargas’s wife, and work for crime boss Grandi (who’s played by Russian actor Akim Tamiroff in another instance of brownface). In fact, Vargas is the only moral character of color, and here he is, played by a white man, like the special exception to the rule.
But the context of Touch of Evil muddies these already murky waters even further. Orson Welles, a lifelong liberal who was staunchly anti-racism and anti-segregation, invented the heroic character of Vargas specifically to highlight the complexities of interracial relationships, Mexican-American relations, and racism in America. In the book the film is based on (Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson), Vargas’s character is actually a white cop named Mitch. In 1958, this change isn’t something that can be easily dismissed.
In a 2011 piece by Claudio Sanchez for NPR, Sanchez spoke with a film professor from the University of Texas-Austin, Charles Ramirez Berg, who described his relationship with the film like this: "I know Heston is not Latino and he has to play a Mexican and all that stuff, but still, the idea that you have the leading star in this film playing a Mexican—and the Mexican who's the hero—that's Orson Welles changing things up and making it that much more powerful."
I can’t argue against Ramirez’s interpretation here. If he was able to find validation and representation in Heston’s character, then I’m not interested in deriding that. However, as important as it is to put Touch of Evil in historical context, it’s just as important to re-contextualize it for today. In the same way that it’s impossible to undercut the importance of Hattie McDaniel’s historic win for Best Supporting Actress in Gone with the Wind (the first African American to ever win an Oscar), it’s also impossible to look at the role of Mammy today and not see its racist construction. “Mammy” is its own subsection of racist archetypes for a reason.
With that in mind, it’s hard to argue the film deserves praise for its efforts when we’ve finally started making real headway when it comes to Latinx representation. Between Diego Luna starring in Rogue One and the overwhelming success of shows like Jane the Virgin and most recently Netflix’s Cuban-American re-imagining of One Day at a Time, applauding Touch of Evil for treating a grand total of one Mexican character like a nuanced human being feels pathetic if not upsetting.
So what we have in Touch of Evil, ultimately, are some good intentions that fail utterly on execution when viewed in a modern context. Echoes of Amos ‘n’ Andy send a shudder down the spine any time you see Heston on screen or hear his stilted, overly American attempts at Spanish. His foil and the film’s villain, Quinlan (Welles), a clearly crooked and racist man, would seem to be the perfect way to soften Heston’s performance.
“Sure,” the film wants us to say, “Heston’s not really Mexican, but look at Quinlan! He’s a prime example of the evils of bigotry!” This is a weak justification, but it ultimately can’t even succeed here because the final moments of the film undercut this point completely.
By the end of the film, Quinlan has framed Sanchez, a young Mexican man, for the car bomb that killed two people in the opening shot. Vargas, disgusted by this and later by the ugly truth that Quinlan regularly frames suspects to solve his cases, has finally exposed him, capturing his confession on tape. A shootout between Quinlan and his former partner leaves Quinlan dying of a gunshot wound in the dirty riverbank. Was the film to end there, we’d have a neat little morality play where the celebrated cop is outed and punished for his crooked ways and smart, savvy, and honorable Vargas has saved the day.
But the film doesn’t stop there. Instead, it has another white cop, who arrives on the scene just after Quinlan’s death, announce that “the kid confessed!” Meaning that Sanchez was actually guilty all along, proving only that Quinlan’s methods were wrong, not his instincts—not his assumption that Mexico is full of murderous hoodlums. No. Except for Vargas, he gets to be right about that.
While there’s certainly no question about whether Quinlan is the film’s villain or not, by allowing him to be right on this point the straightforward condemnation he deserves is needlessly muddied. In fact, it almost opens the door to sympathy for him, as if the real tragedy was merely that he was a once great cop that drank too much and shouldn’t have shirked the rules, not that he presumably sent innocent people to jail based off of nothing but his own prejudices.
Where does that leave Touch of Evil? Still in the canon, but it’s there with a caveat: discussion and examination of race in this movie is crucial to viewing it. There is no room to simply let Welles’s mastery of the artform wash over you; it demands a conversation. It deserves to be criticized for its failures just as much as it should be celebrated for its technical and historic success.