Anders Larsson

June 13, 2013


The Fluid Borders of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil


The eighth largest city in the United States –San Diego, California—is bidding to host the Olympics in 2024.  On the surface, there’s nothing too unusual about that.  Famous for its coastal location and mild weather, San Diego is an international tourist destination.  It even hosted Olympic equestrian events when the games were in Los Angeles in 1984.  What is unusual is San Diego’s caveat that it co-host the games with the city of Tijuana, Mexico.  This unprecedented bid says much about the way the politicians, business people, and citizens of the border regions perceive their environment. It suggests that the border between the United States and Mexico is at best a blurry one, and certainly not one which can be designated by a wall, fence, or turn-style. On the contrary, the Southern Californian borders are fluid, like those in Orson Welles’ thriller Touch of Evil.

Welles’ 1958 masterpiece delights—and sometimes even boggles--our minds as it plays with location and identity.  The film’s narrative unfolds on the U.S.-Mexico border, and it is often unclear which side of the border is which.  Through character exploration, casting, and music, Welles explores borders of all kinds in the film, including the borders of morality, friendship, national identity, justice, and loyalty.  It is no accident, as Nericcio points out, that a “half-breed” (or to use Nericcio’s language, el mestizo) is at the center of Touch of Evil (Nericcio, 42).  There is the  “half-breed” who apparently killed Quinlan’s wife, but there are also all kinds of other mixes found in the film.  El mestizo can be read as a metaphor for the entire culture of the border—it is neither completely this, nor that. 

Like el mestizo, the characters in the Welles film are neither this nor that.  Uncle Joe is a Mexican with American citizenship, but apparently Italian ethnicity (and is played by an ethnic Armenian).  Quinlan is a detective whose purpose is to facilitate legal justice, but his methods resemble those of a thug.  Vargas is a Mexican law enforcer who, according to Quinlan, doesn’t seem Mexican. Vargas’ wife bears the Mexican surname, but is a blonde American.  Like his colleagues, the Jewish character Al Schwartz (and thoughts of the Jewish diaspora and Wandering Jew strengthen a theme of fluid borders and identity) must cross the actual border and do detective work in both countries.  Besides this, Schwartz must also navigate points of intersection in his own identity: is he first and foremost loyal to the law, or to his friendship with Quinlan? Similarly, we see Vargas at times prioritizing his role of husband over policeman (the bar interrogation scene where he screams, “I’m no cop now!  I’m a husband!”), but more often identifying as a professional more than a lover, leaving his wife to her own devices as he focuses on law enforcement.  All these characters challenge --and are challenged by--borders.

 Additionally, the inclusion of recognizably non-American-born/non-Mexican-born actresses Zsa Zsa Gabor and Marlene Dietrich has the effect of what Deleuze might term “extra-diegetic reference” (Colman, 213).  While some Hollywood actors’ and actresses’ origination from countries outside the U.S. (Bob Hope, Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron) may apparently have little effect on their public perception, these two actresses played heavily on their “exotic” backgrounds while working in the U.S.  Their very presence and personal/professional biographies lend meaning to the roles and film.  We know (and hear) Gabor was born in Hungary, and Dietrich in Germany.  We find ourselves wondering why they are in this particular film, and how their characters ended up in Mexico. These problems further blur the lines of the border by calling into question our preconceptions of who “should” be where.

To punctuate the fluidity of the border, Welles relies heavily on perhaps the most ephemeral of all arts—music.  Henry Mancini—responsible for the film’s music—ingeniously and intentionally created “source music”, which only came from on-screen sources like car radios, jukeboxes, player pianos, and live bands (Adinolfi, 171).  This is an important detail since it means that neither Welles nor Mancini presume to have the authority to supply us with “Mexican-sounding” music or “American-sounding” music.  Instead, it is the neutral assemblage of sound technology and the people working with that technology that supplies us with the sonic landscape of the film. This music refuses to respect the international divide, as evidenced when we hear rock and roll on both sides of the border.

Dr. Emily Hicks’ research suggests that the entire U.S.-Mexico border is (to use Deleuzian terminology) a machinic assemblage.  A complex system of people, vehicles, streets, buildings, documents, laws, professions, and technology constitute the border region, and the action of crossing the border is affected by all these elements.  Welles depicts this complex system in the opening sequence (void of any cuts), allowing us to see the interaction of people, technology, vehicles, laws, and man-made borders.  The conditions for a car explosion originate on one side of the border, but the actual explosion occurs on the other side of the border. We again find ourselves struggling to perceive or remember which country the action is occurring in in a given scene.  These smooth transitions are without a doubt intentional on Welles’ part as a way to highlight the fluidity of the border.

So we find ourselves back in the Olympic-hopeful neighboring cities of Tijuana and San Diego. We can only speculate whether the cities actually think the bid is viable (especially since Olympic rules don’t allow a joint bid), or if it is more a show of solidarity for commercial reasons.  Or maybe it’s two mestizos just wanting to help each other out, since they’re both misfits. Even the native Mexican character of Vargas (played by non-Spanish-speaking American Charlton Heston) refuses to acknowledge the Mexican border town as completely authentic. “This isn’t the real Mexico”, Vargas says to his wife.  Border towns are “half-breeds” of a sort, with little respect for the borders so intrinsic to their identity, and Welles depicts this brilliantly in Touch of Evil.



Works Cited 

Adinolfi, Francesco.  Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation.  Trans. Karen Pinkus and Jason Vivrette.  Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Colman, Felicity.  Deleuze and Cinema.  New York: Berg, 2011.

Hicks, Emily. Fiction and Architecture.  San Diego State University.  Hepner Hall, San Diego, CA.  Spring 2013.  Discussion.

Nericcio, William Anthony.  Text[t]-Mex: seductive hallucinations of the “Mexican” in        America.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Touch of Evil.  Dir. Orson Welles.  Perf. Orson Welles, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh.  Universal Pictures, 1998 director’s cut.