On Location: 'Touch Of Evil"s Border Showdown In this 1958 film, set in a fictional town on the U.S.-Mexico border, the line between good and evil is rarely easy to trace. But NPR's Claudio Sanchez thought the worst of Touch of Evil's portrayal of the border — until he took a closer look.
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On Location: 'Touch Of Evil"s Border Showdown

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On Location: 'Touch Of Evil"s Border Showdown

On Location: 'Touch Of Evil"s Border Showdown

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. And finally this hour, we go to the U.S.-Mexico border - at least as it's been seen in one famous movie. Orson Welles set his 1958 thriller "Touch of Evil" in an imagined border town. And NPR's Claudio Sanchez was no fan of the film when he began reporting on it. Here's what he discovered for our series "On Location," about movies and their sense of place.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: The first time I saw Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" as a teenager, I hated it. The U.S.-Mexico border, after all, is my home, my true home, a place that "Touch of Evil" depicted in the worst possible light: permissive, sleazy, ominous. Then there's the film's casting: Charlton Heston as a Mexican? Give me a break. Even Henry Mancini's moody Afro-Cuban score is geographically misplaced.


SANCHEZ: Most people on the Mexican border are more likely to listen to norteno, mariachi, even country music. Clearly, setting "Touch of Evil" in Los Robles, a fictional border town, allowed Welles to manipulate lots of things.

JIMMY MENDIOLA: It's what he imagines a border town to be.

SANCHEZ: Jimmy Mendiola is an independent filmmaker who admits to having a love-hate relationship with "Touch of Evil."

MENDIOLA: The opening scene tells us a lot. I mean, it's that scene everybody talks about, which is that three-minute shot.

SANCHEZ: The camera zooms in on a man holding a kitchen timer taped to several sticks of dynamite.

MENDIOLA: The close-up of a bomb being put in a car and then the car drives around. And we kind of get this introduction to the border city.

SANCHEZ: In that shot, considered one of the most audacious, breathtaking tracking shots ever filmed, the camera pulls up and away, panning rooftops and dark alleys as it follows the unwitting victims in the convertible fishtail Cadillac meandering through the streets of Los Robles.

MENDIOLA: And the way it's shot - you know, it's black and white, high contrast, kind of raw. And it kind of all contributes to this, you know, this anxiety that I'm sure people felt about Mexicans and the border. It's a dangerous place. It's kind of exotic. It's very sexy.

SANCHEZ: As the car approaches the U.S. port of entry, Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh walk into the scene. Heston, made up to look darker, with a razor-thin mustache, plays Ramon Miguel Vargas, a Mexican federal narcotics agent. Leigh plays his Anglo wife, Susie. They walk arm in arm, the car with the bomb right beside them. They cross into the U.S. at the same time.


JANET LEIGH: (as Susan "Susie" Vargas) Mike, do you realize this is the very first time we've been together in my country?

CHARLTON HESTON: (as Ramon Miguel "Mike" Vargas) Do you realize I haven't kissed you in over an hour?

SANCHEZ: Heston wraps his arms around Leigh's waist, kisses her, then...


SANCHEZ: ...the Cadillac explodes. Just another murder mystery, another B-movie. Is that what Welles wanted "Touch of Evil" to be? Or was it to prove to Hollywood that he could take a mediocre story and turn it into a great movie - another "Citizen Kane," perhaps? Not quite, says Mendiola.

MENDIOLA: There's two ways to look at this movie, from my perspective: analyzing depictions of Mexican-Americans and Mexicans in the border, and then a more formal level of like, you know, it as filmmaking. You know, he's a great filmmaker, and so he found the subject matter that perfectly fit his stylistic interests.

SANCHEZ: Mendiola raises a good point. Welles did not set out to do a documentary about the border. Besides, Universal Studios didn't want him to shoot anywhere near Mexico. So he settled on Venice, California, because as Welles would later say, it looked convincingly run-down and decayed. In Los Robles, Mexicans are, for the most part, one-dimensional, thuggish, amoral, except for one: Miguel Vargas.

CHARLES RAMIREZ BERG: Once you've changed the protagonist to a Mexican, now you have the Mexican who's basically the hero of the film. And that is very rare.

SANCHEZ: Charles Ramirez Berg grew up in El Paso, Texas. He teaches film at the University of Texas in Austin, and wrote "Latino Images in Film."

RAMIREZ BERG: And I know - I know - Charlton Heston is not Latino, and he has to play a Mexican and all that kind of stuff. But still, the idea that you have the leading star in this film playing a Mexican, and it's the Mexican who's the hero, that's Orson Welles just changing things up, and just making it that much more powerful.

SANCHEZ: I suppose that is powerful. Vargas isn't just a good Mexican. He's an educated Mexican - in a Hollywood movie, in 1958. It also had not occurred to me that in the novel the film was based on, Heston's character is Anglo, not Mexican. In other words, Welles intentionally made Vargas the antithesis of Hollywood's portrayal of Mexicans. The American police captain, Hank Quinlan, on the other hand, is a morally contemptible man played by Welles. He's in charge of the car bomb investigation. Ramirez says the crux of the story is that Quinlan embodies evil.

RAMIREZ BERG: So it's about a dishonest cop, and it's even worse because he's the most celebrated cop, and everybody thinks he's a hero. And yet he is thoroughly corrupt and on top of that, he's racist.

SANCHEZ: That actually was another thing that bothered me about "Touch of Evil." Of course, there are racists on the U.S.-Mexico border, but the underlying racism tends to be subtle, veiled in paternalism, not always blatant or obvious. Back in Los Robles, as Quinlan's investigation into the car bombing unfolds, a lowly shoe salesman named Sanchez - yes, that's right, Sanchez - surfaces as the main suspect. In this next scene, an entourage of law-enforcement types - led by Quinlan and Vargas - shows up at Sanchez's apartment, on the U.S. side, to interrogate him.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (Foreign language spoken)

MAN: (as character) (Foreign language spoken)

SANCHEZ: They rifle through his private letters. Sanchez complains in Spanish. Don't speak Mexican, Quinlan barks. He slaps Sanchez when he does one more time.


VICTOR MILLAN: (as Manelo Sanchez) (Foreign language spoken)

RAMIREZ BERG: That scene, particularly, exposes the vulnerability of minorities in such a situation.

SANCHEZ: U.T. film professor Charles Ramirez Berg.

RAMIREZ BERG: Minorities have no say, no rights, no nothing. And that's the way, you know, Quinlan wanted it. And that's the way it's going to go down.

SANCHEZ: Quinlan has planted several sticks of dynamite in Sanchez's apartment to make it look like he was the bomber. Vargas confronts Quinlan for planting evidence.


HESTON: (as Ramon Miguel "Mike" Vargas) In any free country, a policeman is supposed to enforce the law, and the law protects the guilty as well as the innocent.

ORSON WELLES: (as Police Captain Hank Quinlan) Our job is tough enough.

HESTON: (as Ramon Miguel "Mike" Vargas) It's supposed to be. It has to be tough. A policeman's job is only easy in a police state. That's the whole point, captain.

SANCHEZ: And just in case you've been wondering about the bomber, well, Quinlan's instincts were right all along. Sanchez, the shoe salesman who Quinlan tried to frame, was the bomber.


SANCHEZ: Although when the film ends and credits roll, I think maybe Welles should have ended "Touch of Evil" with a scene in which Vargas tries to explain the Mexican border to his wife, Susie.


HESTON: (as Ramon Miguel "Mike" Vargas) This isn't the real Mexico. You know that. All border towns bring out the worst in a country.

SANCHEZ: From Orson Welles' imaginary Mexican border, Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.


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