The 30th entry in an on-going series of audiovisual essays by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin.
As is well known, Donald Trump is a big fan of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941). But, as Errol Morris pointed out (having interviewed him for an unfinished TV documentary segment in the early 2000s), Trump tends to read Kane askew: when prompted by Morris to offer Charles Foster Kane some life advice, Trump confidently replied: “Get yourself a different woman.”
Our agitprop audiovisual essay, started on the day of Trump’s recent “declaration of emergency” and concerning the border between Mexico and America, begins from this wild speculation: if Trump, in his announced Welles fandom, has ever seen Touch of Evil (1958), what mangled trace of it could remain embedded in his imagination?
We are not equating the mindsets of Trump and Welles here. Touch of Evil is a complex film. As many intelligent B-movies (by Samuel Fuller, Phil Karlson, or Joseph H. Lewis) do, Welles began from frankly sensationalist depictions of race, sex, law, and crime. The film features blackly comic, verbal jokes about death and dismemberment; and racist slurs—such as Susan (Janet Leigh) indifferently referring to any Mexican male she encounters as “Pancho”—abound. Welles was unafraid to evoke situations of violation, drug abuse, “wild parties” of every kind—even though, in the fine detail of the plotting, almost all of this is a type of theatre, faked for incriminating show by a network of conniving characters. Some viewers routinely recall the film as being more shocking and graphic than it actually is, always a sure sign of effective cinematic craft.
Touch of Evil knowingly plays with fire because it deals with transgression and abject confusion on at least three levels simultaneously: geographical (constantly passing back and forth across the Mexican/American border), bodily (not only the frightful specter of drugs and rape, but also a repertoire of corporeal states such as obesity that are rendered in a deliberately grotesque fashion), and ideological (tortuous paradoxes of law and justice, innocence and guilt). Perhaps Welles’s most daring gamble was in investing the unlovely anti-hero that he himself incarnates—the crooked cop Hank Quinlan—with a tragic, Shakespearean aura. No less a critic than André Bazin, in a possibly delirious moment, even found Quinlan to be both “weaker and stronger” than normal citizens, “stronger because directly in touch with the true nature of things, or perhaps one should say, with God.”
As that example shows, no film, however brilliant, can hope to control all the projections it prompts. Touch of Evil, accessing with a vivid, melodramatic flair the state of hysteria and paranoia known as “border panic,” can imaginably trigger both progressive and reactionary responses. If Trump believes (as he gleefully boasted in his speech) that declaring an emergency for “virtual invasion purposes” is “a great thing to do,” did he have Welles’s spectacular images of “drugs, traffickers, and gangs” lodged somewhere obscurely in his memory? And is Hank Quinlan the fantasy-solution to the problem?