Leaving the film set of A Touch of Evil, Orson Wells, in full make up and costume, went to dinner at a friend’s house. Looking like a cross between a hung over, down on his luck water buffalo and a former boy wonder nearing the end of his rope, Wells joined the group, ate, talked and, so the story goes, was not asked: Orson, are you alright? You look like death on a stick.
We mention this because the story, if true, works on several levels. Perhaps everyone just thought it would be rude to say something? Perhaps they thought it was a gag and they had to play the part of not noticing or, instead they just didn’t want to give Wells the satisfaction of acknowledging what he had done? Perhaps they were drunk or hungover and getting drunk again? Regardless, there was a conceit at work. Wells, in costume, and the audience, in the costume of those who act as if they are unaware.
Which brings us to a scene in the film cut from the original release because it was considered too much; too sexual, too violent, too much of too many things of which some people did not approve.
The scene is of Janet Leigh being left at a motel by Charlton Heston, who is off to fight crime, or evil, or Wells as a personification of all three – crime, evil and himself. While waiting, Leigh is discovered by a gang led by a butch lesbian with a generic “Mexican” look, and a physique that suggests androgyny but leaning towards the generic masculine.
Taunted, cornered, Leigh, all blonde, voluptuous, tight sweater, constricting and revealing pencil skirt, conical breasts thrusting outward like eroticized missiles, retreats. The camera turns towards the lesbian who is wearing a black leather jacket as part of her dominatrix uniform and persona, suggesting an eroticized sadism, has jet black, slicked back hair and is smoking a cigarette. She leers at Leigh and says in a cartoonish if accurate accent: Du ju mainline?
The camera zooms in in her as she moves in for the kill and then fades as, one is led to believe, Leigh swoons.
The image is lifted from the cover of any number of cheap paperbacks covering a period from the 1940s through to the 1960s all of which depicted images of a nexus between eroticism, rape, sadism, masochism, drug use, and exaggerated ideas of masculinity and femininity, each as we would say today, weaponized so that there is within the frame of these images a secondary set of coordinates indicating subjugation, and therefore control; victim and victimizer as well as potential hero who avenges and rescues.
Consider the theatrical release poster for the film. It shows Heston, swarthy brooding “Mexican” masculinity and sexuality, grabbing Leigh who is passive but yielding, attired in a take me now slip, and in the distance, the vile, porcine, threatening Wells. This positions Leigh as both temptress and innocent and Heston as aggressor but hero and Wells as evil.
Within that of course, and used interchangeably, one finds the fetishizing of those tropes as well as symbols of fascism, misogyny, and bigotry and those issues used as entertainment.
The dominant (sic!) theme being that below the surface of “normality” lurks a vortex of competing impulses that all posses the power to corrupt and seduce. Violence acts both to capture the unwilling but vulnerable, and as the instrument of revenge which, once applied correctly, restores order. Order is of course heterosexual monogamy but through the use of its opposites the narrative system asserts that the other impulses, are constant temptations. That of course is marketing. This is a product. What’s being sold are costumes that establish narrative systems. To be “heterosexual” and “masculine” or “heterosexual” and “feminine” is to be either in direct conflict with threats or to be in a paranoid crouch waiting for the threat to manifest. The indirect dialogue is with the idea, manifest in the different threats – drugs, lesbians, homosexuals, foreigners – that the threat is fun. The scare is a secular sacrament that confirms one’s faith in the identities that triumph over subversion but are always in symbiosis with each other.
This in turn establishes a hierarchy. The authority is of a dominant class which transforms the subservient class into a fetish. The subservient class is utilitarian, and its power is harnessed to the dominant class as a horse to a carriage. As a result any attempt to take the film seriously is treated as ridiculous because, one is told, it’s just entertainment, and if the film is treated as only, entertainment, one is dismissed because, we are told, the film is a work of art.
And so, du ju mainline, spoken with an arch “Mexican” accent, suggesting, the subversive power and allure of “inappropriate” sex, violence and drugs, which in turn are part of the arsenal of the forces that seek to destroy wholesome, blonde, sexuality which, if left alone, will marry, beget children, be supportive of the hetero-masculine husband, who in turn works and is synonymous with work, which in turn echoes the narrative system which casts Leigh’s uber woman, as sexual but maternal, wife-not-woman (as Faulkner would construct it) who does not work and is the totemic manifestation of a solid law abiding patriarchy.
One can contrast this with a thousand images but we choose the defiant nihilism and indictment of Thelma and Louise going off a cliff because, as feminized versions of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, they are out of options. The system, which is corrupt, offers either collaboration, which is criminal, or resistance which requires criminal action but draws the power of the system and, in the end, annihilation. And here, “indictment” is meant as the accusation made by the oppressed towards the system that uses its power to write a narrative that dominates, and leaves the rebel a choice between submission or suicide.
The title, A Touch of Evil, is a seduction; an invitation to a gesture whose allure is that a touch may lead to more. This is the marketing of the fetish, the “gateway drug” of the barrio, the ghetto, the juke joint, the honky tonk, the jazz club with its dreaded, syncopations, the drugs, the breakdown of order which by definition is good because order is power and power defines itself as correct and therefore, good.
The film itself mirrors its setting in a border town as it is itself a gesture with a stance in two worlds. It depicts Heston as a “Mexican” who is a high ranking police officer and who is set to marry a white goddess. He has crossed over the borders between ideas, identities, and places. But of course Heston as a “Mexican” makes people uncomfortable though these are the same people who would be angry if a neo-fascist goon said that, for example, Idris Alba can’t play James Bond because, Bond is “White.” This however reveals the deeper dilemma which is how both sides of what appear on the surface to be opposites are in fact in symbiosis. That the film was taken by Wells from a stack of “b movies” for the purpose of proving that he could turn dross to gold, is itself another echo of the wider system. The need to perform financial alchemy by using “low rent” images to prove (commodify) that “others” – drug users, whores, foreigners – can be valuable again reinforces the authority of the system so that even as a work of art deconstructs itself and its culture, it is reabsorbed back into the machinery that produced the social tensions it seeks to illuminate. As Pierre Bourdieu says in Distinction:
“The same law of mutual lucidity and reflexive blindness governs the antagonism between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘bourgeois’ (or their spokesmen in the field of production). And even when bearing in mind the function which legitimate culture performs in class relations, one is still liable to be led into accepting one or the other of the self-interested representations of culture which ‘intellectuals’ and ‘bourgeois’ endlessly fling at each other.”
This is a story that the system tells itself and uses to create an official imagination, and a system of coordinate points in a map of meaning that is an echo chamber. All commentary, all gestures of defiance, rebellion, and critique, are forced to ricochet off of that which they seek to dismantle and illuminate.
And for all of that the film is a success. It is a work of art if not a masterpiece, with singular moments that mark it as great but flawed. Wells owes no apologies, and the film as a narrative can be read in any number of ways even if the wider context remains certain. It is a communal dream and as such while its meaning is fixed, its interpretations are fluid. In that’s sense once created, it is a genie escaped because there is no rule or law that says you cannot read the butch as the avenging heroine sent to rescue Leigh from her dilemma. The context of its creation does not change but the context of how it is read, does, or can be transformed. The dilemma in that is the extent of self-awareness on the part of those who read it as a text within the frame of its cultural moment. Again to Bourdieu:
“Up to now the sociology of the production and producers of culture has never escaped from the play of opposing images, in which ‘right-wing intellectuals’ and ‘left-wing intellectuals’ (as the current taxonomy puts it) subject their opponents and their strategies to an objectivist reduction which vested interests make that much easier. The objectification is always bound to remain partial, and therefore false, so long as it fails to include the point of view from which it speaks and so fails to construct the game as a whole…Despite the aura of objectivity they like to assume, neither the ‘sociology of the intellectuals’, which is traditionally the business of ‘right-wing intellectuals’, nor the critique of ‘right-wing thought’, the traditional speciality of ‘left-wing intellectuals’, is anything more than a series of symbolic aggressions which take on additional force when they dress themselves up in the impeccable neutrality of science.”
And so, a wounded, burnt out husk of a man, staggers into a whore house he used to frequent. He looks awful, as if every crime he has committed, every act of debauchery, sadism, neglect, and selfishness has been tattooed across his face. He does not wear his heart on his sleeve but his ulcerous soul.
No one says anything. After all, what does it matter, what people say.
There is a long tracking shot, as you wait for the explosion.