Movie Reviews - 1950s postsThursday August 13, 2015
Movie Review: How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Here’s how dumb I am: I kept waiting for the “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number. As the movie began (interminably, with an overture), I also wondered, “Wait, isn’t Jane Russell supposed to be in this?” Of course, I was thinking of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Marilyn Monroe’s other 1953 hit; but to my credit, “Diamonds” does fit better with this title.
And I did get “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”—just not as a song.
Halfway through the film, at a private fashion show, Pola (Monroe) is modeling a red swimsuit in front of Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell), a gas-pump-jockey-looking rich bastard who is really interested in Schatze Page (Lauren Bacall), and the woman hosting the show says, as Monroe poses, “You know, of course, that diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” Which has got to be one of the quickest pop-cultural-reference turnarounds in history. “Blondes” was released in August and “How to Marry a Millionaire” in November. Did the song get released first? Did screenwriter/producer Nunnally Johnson (“The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Dirty Dozen”) see an early clip and figure it would be an indelible cultural moment?
The movie is actually full of such sly winks. When Schatze is trying to convince aged Texas oil man J.D. Hanley (William Powell, the least-likely Texas oil man in movie history) that she likes older men, she references Bacall’s real-life husband: “Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella, what’s his name, in ‘The African Queen.’” Ditto Loco (Betty Grable), stuck in a picturesque Maine cabin and listening to big-band music on the radio.
Loco: Good old Harry James.
Waldo: Is it? How can you tell?
Loco: How I can tell is because it is Harry James.
James was Grable’s husband. The punchline is that the bandleader they’re listening to is really Ziggy Colombo. Are these girls ever right? Oh, girls.
No means yes
They don’t come off well, do they? Set aside the gold-digging aspect for a moment. Loco mistakes the “lodge” comment of Waldo Brewster (Fred Clark) for an elk’s lodge rather than a romantic tryst, then mistakes forest ranger Eben’s “my trees” comment for vast wealth rather than enthusiastic job responsibility. Schatze, the one who dreams up the scheme of three fashion models subleasing a swanky Upper East Side apartment in order to scam rich husbands, can’t even see the rich man beneath Brookman’s lack of necktie. She thinks he’s a gas-pump jockey like her ex. She doesn’t even question what he’s doing as the sole audience at a private fashion show. She also keeps verbally resisting him (“As soon as I finish this, I never want to see you again”) even as she keeps giving in to him. She’s a “no means yes” girl. Fun times.
Monroe’s Pola, who’s the dingiest of the trio, comes off best by being sweetest. Schatze keeps selling furniture to pay the rent, and dissing Brookman while leading on Hanley; Loco carps the entire time she’s surrounded by beauty; but Pola is nice to everyone. She’s that classic Monroe character: oblivious to her stunning impact. She finally falls for the man who owns the apartment, Freddie Denmark (David Wayne), because he tells her she looks great wearing glasses. (She does.) She’s also the best actor of the three.
It really was Monroe’s moment, wasn't it? Grable, 37, the biggest pinup of World War II, was about to end—she would only make two more movies, then a bit of TV, then nothing—and Bacall, still only 29, never did anything as long-lasting as her work with Bogart in the 1940s. But Monroe, 27, second-billed, became white hot afterwards and never cooled down.
The Greeks have a word for it
The movie is mostly interesting as cultural artifact. You get New York in the early 1950s, America before rock ‘n’ roll and Brown v. Board of Education, and the movie industry doing everything to compete with television. “Millionaire” was the first movie filmed in Cinemascope (but released second, after “The Robe”), and it’s saturated in Technicolor. So it’s wide, colorful ... and flat. And not just the characters. The first act takes place almost completely in that Sutton Place apartment, so you sensed right away that it was based upon a play—specifically “The Greeks Have a World for It” by Zoë Atkins, which debuted in 1930 and was made into a 1932 movie starring Joan Blondell, Madge Evans and Ina Claire, where it was retitled “Three Broadway Girls” to avoid Atkins’ innuendo. It also became a syndicated TV series in the late 1950s, starring Lori Nelson, Merry Anders and a pre-“Jeannie” Barbara Eden.
Could you make the film today? Doubtful. You’d need a different spin. The girls couldn’t be such gold-diggers, not to mention dumb. Not to mention girls.
Movie Review: Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)
“Superman and the Mole-Men” is less movie than intro to the TV series “Adventures of Superman,” starring George Reeves. It only last 60 minutes, I mean. It just seems to last as long as a movie.
It’s an odd intro for the series. We’re never in Metropolis, we never see the Daily Planet, we never meet Perry White or Jimmy Olsen. It’s just Clark and Lois visiting the town of Silsby, Texas, population 1430, to write about the deepest oil well ever drilled: six miles deep. Except, as they get there, the well is being shut down. Why? I would’ve guessed because they drilled six miles deep and never struck oil but apparently there’s another, more sinister reason for the shutdown. Hideous things are emerging, mole men, who cause old men to have heart attacks and young women to scream, and who bring out the vigilante in the small-minded and intolerant. That’s what the movie’s really about. If the villains in the first two “Superman” serials were megalomaniacs bent on world domination (Spider Lady and Lex Luthor, respectively), the villains of “Superman and the Mole-Men” are your next-door neighbors, preaching intolerance and vigilante justice.
Preventing this, standing in the doorway of injustice, as it were—in a move which prefigures other doorway stands (see: Atticus Finch)—is the Man of Steel, Superman, who, as the opening intro tells us, is “a valiant defender of truth, justice and the American way.”
Interesting sidenote. For most of his career, Superman had just been about truth and justice. That’s it. Only briefly, during a few years of the radio series in World War II, did he also fight for “the American way.” Why did the phrase return here and now? I’d always assumed a Cold War scenario, the American way vs. the Russian way, but according to Glen Weldon in his book, “Superman: An Unauthorized Biography,” it was a defensive salvo against another kind of intolerance. By this point, comic books and superheroes were seen as gateway drugs to juvenile delinquency and homosexuality and everything post-war America didn’t want to know about. Public bonfires were even held to burn the things: Batman, Superman, Action Comics, Captain America. That's why, here, Superman fights for the American way. What are you going to do? Burn the American way? It’s patriotism as the last refuge of the witch-hunted.
Superman vs. the Second Amendment
The theme of small-town intolerance is particularly fascinating, since, in this movie, Superman himself is rather intolerant. If Kirk Alyn played Superman with wide-eyed bombast, amazed at the amazing things he can do, Reeves takes it down a notch. Or two. Or 10. Growing up in the mid-1970s, Reeves’ was considered the touchstone performance, the one and true Superman (until Christopher Reeve came along), but I was never a fan, and I’m even less of a fan now. Reeves’ indifference to the role permeates the character. His Clark Kent is strong and smug, his Superman vaguely disgusted and contempuous. Maybe that’s the American way.
This is never truer than in the movie’s key scene, its climax, which involves the aformentioned standing in the doorway.
Two Mole Men—midgets with low-budget furry costumes and bald wigs—have emerged from the well to creep around the small town of Silsby. To what end? I guess they’re just exploring. But they cause a heart attack and a scream, and they’re trailing radium, so rabble-rouser Luke Benson (veteran character actor Jeff Corey, doing good work) gathers a mob to capture them and string ‘em up. One is shot atop a bridge, but Superman, or at least a shitty animated version of Superman, catches him and carries him to the hospital, then seems to forget all about the other one, who is pursued by bloodhounds into a shack. The shack is then lit on fire. What to do? He worries for a bit and then crawls to safety. I’m sure someone probably wanted him to dig his way out—mole man: hello?—but there was probably no budget for it. So he crawls.
Back in town, Benson and the mob hear that the first mole man didn’t die after all, some nut in a cape saved him, and so Benson incites the mob with a speech that sounds straight out of the Sarah Palin/Tea Party canon:
Now them two reporters from back east … they’ll try to stop us, like as not, but we ain’t gonna be stopped. This is our town. We don’t need any strangers telling us what to do.
And off they go to the hospital to lynch the little guy. Who’s there to stand in their way? Not Atticus Finch reading a book and using words to deflect the anger of the mob. No, it’s Superman, purveyor of a truer version of the American way. It’s right through might.
The mob doesn’t know who they’re dealing with yet.
Mob guy: We’re running this town. Maybe we want to string you up, too!
Superman: I’m going to give you one last chance to stop acting like Nazi stormtroopers!
They blow that chance. A gun goes off and Superman has to shield Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates) from the bullet; then he urges her inside and away from the door, and says the following to the mob:
Whoever fired that shot nearly hit Miss Lane. Obviously none of you can be trusted with guns. So I’m going to take them away from you.
Which he does. He beats up a bunch of Texans and takes the guns from their cold, not-so-dead hands. How delicious is that? From the perspective of 21st-century political debates, in which the Second Amendment is viewed as sacrosanct, and nutjobs everywhere are worried that Pres. Obama is “coming for their guns,” this is a laugh-out-loud moment. What used to be entertainment is now a nightmare scenario for the paranoid. Who knows? Maybe Superman put the fear in them in the first place.
Defender of truth, justice and sensible gun control laws.
Superman vs. the First Amendment
That's how this Superman deals with the Second Amendment. He's not much better with the First Amendment.
When the presence of the Mole Men becomes known, we get this exchange between Lois and Superman:
Lois: I’ve got to get to phone. Why this is the biggest story of the century!
Superman: I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Miss Lane.
Lois: And why not?
Superman: You know what’ll happen. Screaming headlines. Monsters Invade Western Town.
Lois: I’m a newspaperwoman and I have an obligation to report the facts.
Superman: That’s true. But these facts would start a nationwide wave of hysteria. You saw what happened here tonight. No. If we’re going to stop this thing, it has to be stoppped here and now.
PR dude: He’s right, Miss Lane.
Lois (deflated): I guess so.
Oh, Lois. Where’s our feisty girl from the Fleischer cartoons or the Kirk Alyn serials? Or the comic book or comic strip? This is part of the tamping down of Lois Lane in the 1950s. She can’t hear the scoop for the wedding bells in her head. She promises to love, honor and obey even though there ain’t no ring on that finger.
So what happens after Superman dispenses with Luke and the mob? The escaped mole man returns with two others and a big ray gun, which they train on Luke, who screams in pain until Superman steps between him and the gun.
Luke: You saved my life.
Superman (sneering): That’s more than you deserve.
Eventually the mole men return underground and blow up the well. “It’s almost as if they were saying, ‘You live your life and we’ll live ours,’” Lois says, amazed. Superman nods.
Believe it or not, that’s the end.
“Superman and the Mole Men” is a dry, little black-and-white movie filmed in a dry, little backlot somewhere. Its main action consists of a midget in bald wig and furry suit being pursued over nondescript brush and hills. The whole thing makes me vaguely nauseous. It’s like something you’d only watch when you were sick in bed; and it would only make you sicker.
But it’s worth it for the gun scene.
Ferocious mole man cornered. Was Stan Lee thinking of this guy when he started writing FF #1?
Movie Review: Atom Man vs. Superman (1950)
At some point I began to feel less antipathy toward, and more sympathy for, the people who made “Atom Man vs. Superman.”
Tough gig. With a miniscule budget and B actors and little time, you have to create a 15-chapter story about a super-powered being, Superman (Kirk Alyn), battling an evil scientist, Lex Luthor (Lyle Talbot), where, at the end of each chapter, the hero, or the hero’s friends, are in grave danger. You have to figure out the trap and you have to figure a way out of the trap that—most important—maintains the status quo. Everything has to stay the same but there has to be tension, conflict, and peril throughout. The rhythm of the series is thus: clash, separate, regroup; clash, separate, regroup. Until the final chapter when the hero captures the villain and we get to see the loveliest of words onscreen: The End.
How do you do this? How do you offer constant conflict and resolution while maintaining the status quo?
You make your characters pretty dumb.
The dumbest character
The characters in “Atom Man vs. Superman” are pretty dumb. No thug of Luthor can ever shoot Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane. They have to leave them unconscious in a van that gets blown up or in a warehouse filling with gas or in a barn filling with exhaust.
Superman, meanwhile, can use his amazing powers to get out of predicaments but never to capture anyone important. At the end of Chapter 4, for example, “Superman Meets Atom Man!,” Superman is forced into “the Main Arc,” which teleports its occupants into “the Empy Doom,” a kind of proto-Negative Zone, where one’s “lost atoms will roam forever.” At the same time, Lois is placed unconscious in a car hurtling toward a cliff. How will she be saved? By Superman, of course! But, wait, wasn’t he transported into the Empty Doom? A little too pleased with himself, Superman explains:
His machine didn’t affect me! My atomic structure is different than that of human beings. … I just moved so rapidly I became invisible to the naked eye!
Every kid in the audience: “So why didn’t you just grab Atom Man while you were at it? Or why don’t you go back to his hideout now? You know where it is, dude. You just left it.”
Instead, he gets in the car and drives Lois back. You read that right. Plus he forgets all about the hideout. Until he needs to find it again. But he can’t find it because it’s lead-lined. Which would seem to be a giveaway even if he hadn’t been there before.
Lex Luthor? Brilliant scientist, etc. Here, he actually invents the transporter beam 16 years before “Star Trek.” “This apparatus,” he says, “can accomplish the transmission of matter over short distances. Its secret ray breaks down the component atoms and reassembles them here.” He’s got ray guns that start fires and cause earthquakes, and he’s got the main arc, and he’s got a spaceship, a fucking spaceship in 19-fucking-50; and yet after he’s successfully transported Superman into the Empty Doom, and Superman’s image appears on TV, he buys into the scam that the image is live rather than taped, and he sends a lacky into the Empty Doom to make sure Superman is still there. Guess what? He is! And Superman uses the open channel to return to return to Earth! D’oh!
Even so, there’s no contest about who the dumbest character in “Atom Man vs. Superman” is. Perry White (Pierre Watkin) gets everything wrong:
- When Luthor demands money or he’ll destroy Metropolis River Bridge, Perry is sure nothing will happen.
- When Jimmy reports on one of Luthor’s men disappearing into thin air, Perry complains, “You can’t even cover a routine fire without getting hallucinations. … It’s a plain case of hysteria or hypnotism!”
- When Lois tells Perry about Superman’s secret messages from the Empty Doom, Perry says, “You were probably hypnotized!”
- When Jimmy himself is transported to Luther’s hideout, and even has the coin with which they did it, Perry refuses to print the first-person account, saying they can’t print it if they can’t prove it. But when Clark Kent disappears along with Superman, and both Perry and Lois wonder if they were the same man, Perry tells her to write that story. “If I don’t publish the story someone else will!” he says.
- When Luthor hires men to frame them and divert attention from himself, and Clark suggests as such, Perry says, “Sounds like the plot of a cheap detective story!”
- When Clark suggests that there’s a connection between Luthor and the villainous Atom Man, Perry responds, “Luthor is running a legitimate television station. I’m sure he’s on the level!”
Great Caesar’s Ghost, dude.
Does Perry White get anything right in this series?
The frightful, pointless Atom Man
According to Glen Weldon in his book “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography,” the movie is actually based on a storyline from the Superman radio series. What’s the story? I guess Luthor wants money and power, and I guess Superman does what he can to foil him, and I guess the Planet reporters are after a scoop.
In many ways “Atom Man vs. Superman” feels cheaper than the previous Kirk Alyn serial, “Superman” (1948). We get more stock footage (floods, fires). We get redos from the first serial: Clark Kent ducking behind a file cabinet and emerging, a second later, with a dancer’s lightness and a triumphant blast of music, as Superman. An entire episode is devoted to Lex Luthor telling his assistant, Carl (Rusty Wescoatt, who also played a henchman in “Batman and Robin”), the story of Superman’s origins on Krypton, which lets the producers re-use that footage.
Sure, for the first time, we get close-up shots of Kirk Alyn as Superman flying, steadying his arms, looking down with concern; but when he flies Superman is still mostly a cartoon. As is the flying saucer. That’s right. Luthor also has a flying saucer. Forgot to mention that. He winds up shooting it at the Daily Planet airplane to blow it up. You’d think flying saucers grew on trees.
Luthor has a secret identity in this one, too: the titular Atom Man, a frightful being in a … Naw. He’s just wearing a mask that looks like a totem-pole head. It looks like they took a jug, cut in eyeholes and a mouthhole, sprinkled on glitter, and plunked it on Lyle Talbot’s poor head. You know the scene in “Duck Soup” where Groucho gets his head stuck in a pitcher and Harpo draws a Groucho face on it? Like that.
So what’s the point of Atom Man? Why ever be Atom Man when you’re Lex Luthor? I’m not sure. Maybe they needed the character for the title. Maybe the atom bomb was all the rage in 1950, the year after the Soviet Union detonated theirs, and that’s why exploding atom bombs dominate the opening credit sequence. Was this the first use of A-bombs as entertainment? Is this how we reduce what’s fearful to us? By letting Hollywood producers have a go?
Atom Man is also necessary because, for much of the serial, Luthor pretends to go straight. He’s caught in Chapter 1 and paroled in Chapter 3, where, outside the prison, he tells the waiting press, “I’ve invested in a television studio. My inventive genius will revolutionize the business!” He then uses the TV truck as a means of spying on the city. He even hires Lois Lane as a woman-on-the-street reporter, asking passersby questions such as, “Is city life more exciting than country life?” I.e., revolutionizing the business.
Luthor’s investment, by the way, makes total sense given the genre and the year. “Atom Man” was the 43rd Columbia serial. They would make 57 of them, the last in 1956. What killed the serial star? TV, of course. Superman may fight Luthor here but the serial’s producers knew who the real enemy was.
For some reason, Lex Luthor (top) turns himself into the jug-headed Atom Man (middle). Superman (bottom) can't figure it out, either.
Is that a missile between your legs or are you just happy to see me?
Other changes? Noel Neill’s Lois is less of a grump. She smiles so much, particularly when Superman is around, that my cheeks hurt just watching. Jimmy (Tommy Bond) is the same, Perry is dumber. Alyn’s Clark feels subtler this time around—he plays the nerd and the coward more often—but his Superman is a bit stiffer, his voice more stentorian. He says everything with an exlamation point! Like a comic book character!
For all its cheapness and stupidity, though, “Atom Man vs. Superman” presages many things in the Superman cinematic ouevre:
- The shot of the dam breaking and about to flood the town is a forerunner to the Hoover dam sequence in “Superman” (1978).
- Lois draws glasses on a picture of Superman to see if he’s Clark Kent, as in the opening to the Donner cut of “Superman II.”
- Lex Luthor creates synthetic kryptonite here; Gus Gorman (Richard Pryor) does it in “Superman III.”
- Superman gets trapped in The Empty Doom (or Phantom Zone) here, as does Supergirl in 1984’s “Supergirl.”
Even this headline, from when Supes fights his way back from the Empty Doom, presages things to come:
The serial also presages the ending of one of the darkest comedies ever made: Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” We all know that ending even if we haven’t seen the movie: Maj. ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) riding the a-bomb out of the bay-doors of the plane and into the Russian night, wa-hooing it up, Texas-style, as the world moves inexorably toward its doom.
Here, Lex Luthor shoots a nuclear missile at Metropolis. Instead of forcing it into space, a la Chris Reeve in “Superman” (or “Superman II,” or “Superman IV”), Alyn rides it out to sea, where it explodes harmlessly. Or “harmlessly.” It is a nuke, after all:
What to make of a man with a nuclear-powered missile between his legs? This looks like a job for Freud.
Movie Review: The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)
“The Jackie Robinson Story”is a cheap production filled with movie clichés. The young black boy who happens upon an error-prone group of white kids playing ball; he demonstrates what he can do bare-handed, and, as a reward, the white coach gives him a beat-up old glove. This glove follows him through his life. His brother comments upon it: “You always have that glove with you, Jackie.” Baseball is presented as Jackie's favorite sport, when, in reality, among the college sports he played, it was probably his least-favorite. Jackie himself, played by Jackie himself, is presented as dutiful son to a mammy-type (Louise Beavers), sexless suitor to a pretty, light-skinned girl (Ruby Dee), and almost without personality on the ballfield.
At only one point do you get the idea of the volcano simmering beneath the polite facade: When Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (Minor Watson) gets in Jackie's face about what kind of abuse he'll face in the Majors; the abuse he'll have to take in order to make it in the Majors. The rest of the film is dreary, long-distance baseball shots, and heavy-handed back-patting pronouncements about equal opportunity. “The Jackie Robinson Story” is supposed to enlighten us and it does. It makes us realize how far we've come by showing us the inanities that passed for racial enlightenment in 1950.
-- November 22, 1995
Movie Review: Touch of Evil (1958)
WARNING: TOUCH OF SPOILERS
Who do we like in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”?
Yeah, I know. It’s such an amateur question to ask of such an auteur filmmaker. But it’s not a bad way to begin a discussion of the film.
Normally we like the protagonist. Normally he’s handsome and brave and the object of our wish-fulfillment. Here, Mexican cop Mike Vargas is, yes, handsome and brave, but, no, he’s not the object of our wish-fulfillment. For one, he’s played by Charlton Heston and that’s a sore point for cineastes 50 years on. “Touch of Evil” only got made the way it got made because Heston insisted upon Welles as director, so we should be grateful. We’re not. Because it’s still Heston: wearing dark make-up and a thin moustache and annunciating lines as if they were chiseled in marble.
Even so, shouldn’t we at least like Mike Vargas? Isn’t he the moral exemplar of the film? Isn’t he so upstanding, so dedicated, that he delays his honeymoon to tag along on a criminal investigation to make sure no innocent is railroaded by corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Welles)? And doesn’t he get Quinlan in the end? And isn’t that admirable?
No. Here’s why.
What’s the matter with Vargas: Betraying Susie
“Touch of Evil,” follows two storylines: Quinlan’s investigation into the death of Linnekar, whose car is blown up at the Mexican border; and the stalking and eventual assault on Vargas’ American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh), by the Grandis, who are after Vargas because he put one of their own behind bars. Vargas immediately recognizes the first danger but never the second. Fearing for Susie’s safety, he pushes her away ... and into the arms of men who do her harm.
Let’s cut to a scene halfway through the movie. By this point, Quinlan and his toadies are grilling their No. 1 suspect, Sanchez (Victor Millan), in his apartment, and Vargas goes across the street to make a phone call. The proprietor of the store is a woman, blind, with a sign that reads “If you are mean enough to steal from the blind, help yourself.” When Vargas finally gets through to Susie at the Mirador Motel, they have the following conversation:
Vargas: Darling, the news is bad. Quinlan is about to arrest that boy Sanchez,
Susie: Oh Mike, is that why you called—to tell me somebody’s been arrested?
Vargas: No, that’s not really why I called. (Turns away, whispers) It’s to tell you how sorry I am about all this. And how very much I love you.
Susie: I’m still here my own darling Miguel.
Vargas: Oh, I thought you’d fallen asleep.
Susie: I was just listening to you breathe.
This latter part of the conversation could be any couple on their honeymoon. But they’re not on their honeymoon. The wife is ready:
But this is who Vargas is spending his honeymoon with:
The woman is as blind as justice, which is what Vargas is pursuing; but Welles also makes her ugly, which is the kind of justice Vargas will find. The discrepancy between the two women—the one Vargas should be with and the one he chooses to be with—is so great that, watching the movie a second time, I burst out laughing. Vargas doesn’t seem admirable here for keeping an eye on Quinlan and ignoring his wife. He seems a fool.
Then it gets worse. After Susie is terrorized, kidnapped, and possibly gang-raped by the Grandi gang, Vargas finally shows up at the Mirador Motel. The place is empty except for the night manager (Dennis Weaver, overacting). Presented with overwhelming evidence, Vargas remains uncomprehending. These are among the things he says:
- “The lights seem to be out in all the cabins.”
- “Party? What party?”
- “Brawl? You mean there was some kind of a fight?”
- “This can’t be my wife’s room.”
He’s not even concerned about Susie until he finds the briefcase with his gun missing. That’s what really sets him off: Not the missing wife but the missing, Freudian gun. Only then does he react.
Or overreact. He goes on a rampage, careering around on the Mexican side of the border and tearing up bars, in search of Susie. He basically goes from being a blissful idiot—thinking the world is all chocolate sodas—to being a malicious idiot. At one point, when a helpless Susie waves at him from a nearby balcony, he’s too busy looking for her to find her. In the end, she winds up in prison, charged with Quinlan’s murder of Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). When he visits her, she says what she’s said to him throughout the movie: “Don’t go!” So what does he do? He goes. In pursuit of justice, which is blind and ugly.
As bad as all that is, he’s even worse in the final act.
What’s the matter with Vargas, part II: Betraying Menzies
At the prison, he convinces Quinlan’s best friend, Sgt. Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), to wear a wire to entrap Quinlan for the greater good. But as Menzies is doing this, betraying his best friend for the greater good, Vargas, skulking around and under a bridge, gets too close with the receiver, and Quinlan, hearing echoes of his own conversation, realizes he’s being recorded and betrayed. So he shoots Menzies with Vargas’ gun. It’s a great image: When Menzies goes down, the man figuratively behind him, Vargas, is literally revealed. This shooting sets up another great image: Quinlan stumbling down the riverbank to wash his blood-soaked hand in the river, which is also filthy. Nothing comes clean in Welles’ world.
At this point, Vargas has several options. While Quinlan is occupied with his hand-washing, he could, 1) take his gun back; 2) knock out Quinlan; 3) grab his transmitter/recorder and run away. But what does he do?
Earlier in the movie he had needlessly lectured Menzies in the Hall of Records. “What about all the people put in the deathhouse?” he asks in that marble-shitting voice of his. “Save your tears for them.” Now he needlessly lectures Quinlan. Doing so, he wakes a sleeping giant:
Vargas: Well, Captain. I’m afraid this is finally something you can’t talk your way out of.
Quinlan: You want to bet? [Pauses] You killed him, Vargas.
Vargas: C’mon, give me my gun back.
That’s actually funny. In a second, Vargas goes from sounding like an arresting officer to sounding like the smallest kid on the playground. C’mon, give it back. It’s up to Menzies, with his dying breath, to kill Quinlan for him.
Just think of what Menzies has done here. He betrays his best friend for the greater good. Then he gets shot by his best friend because Vargas screws up with the transmitter. Then after Vargas screws up yet again, allowing Quinlan to get the bead on him, Menzies shoots and kills Quinlan before dying himself. Now that’s a man who deserves a good eulogy. But when assistant D.A. Al Schwartz (Mort Mills) arrives with Susie, this is the eulogy Vargas gives him:
That’s Menzies. He’s dead.
At which point he rushes to his wife. It’s the one time in the movie he rushes to his wife and it’s the one time he shouldn’t.
But there’s more. Consider it the movie’s gloriously cynical punchline.
Throughout, Vargas has basically jumped storylines to pursue a greater good. He’s trying to prevent Quinlan from using his so-called intuition as a means to railroad another innocent—Sanchez—with false evidence. But in the end, in a by-the-way manner, Schwartz informs us that Sanchez actually confessed to the crime. He did kill Linnekar.
Quinlan’s famous intuition—which beats Vargas’ intuition, which suggested going after poor Eddie Farnham (Gus Schilling)—was right again.
By jumping storylines, Vargas creates tragedy out of both storylines. If he’d stayed with Susie, she wouldn’t have been terrorized and assaulted. And if he hadn’t tagged after Quinlan, Quinlan wouldn’t have died, Menzies wouldn’t have died, and the right man, Sanchez, would have been railroaded for the right crime.
Vargas isn’t the hero of “Touch of Evil.” He’s what causes everything to go so horribly wrong.
“You killed him, Vargas.”
What’s the matter with Quinlan: Murder and railroads
So who do we like in this movie then? Vargas’ opposite? Quinlan?
Welles certainly has a habit of playing likeable scoundrels: Kane, Harry Lime, Falstaff. Some are more charming in their rise (Kane), some more sympathetic in their fall (Falstaff), but all are usually smarter than the characters around them.
As here. Quinlan’s introduction reminds me of one of the most famous introductions in movie history: Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in “Casablanca.” First we hear everyone talking about him; then we’re allowed to see him. Rick Blaine, though, is obviously a hero: resplendent in tux, smoking a cigarette, exuding cool. Quinlan, in contrast, is repulsive: chomping a cigar, swaddled with extra weight, barely able to lift his girth from an automobile.
There’s something hunted and haunted about him, too. He’s so haunted I assumed—when I first saw this movie back in the late 1990s—that he blew up Linnekar. Turns out he’s haunted by his reputation. He knows his famous intuition is built on a pack of lies and every new case is a chance for that reputation to be tarnished. You could say he’s haunted by the man he pretends to be. Or maybe he’s haunted by the man he used to be.
But he’s still a pig. He still greets Menzies by calling him a “jackass,” and he still revels in the attention and power of his position, and he still railroads the innocent, or not-so-innocent, to preserve his rep. He’s not only morally unrecognizable from the upstanding cop he used to be, he’s physically unrecognizable, too. When he shows up at the brothel of Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), we get this exchange:
Quinlan: Have you forgotten your old friend?
Tanya: I told you we’re closed.
Quinlan: I’m Hank Quinlan.
Tanya: [Pause] I didn’t recognize you. [Pause; she looks him up and down.] You should lay off those candy bars.
Quinlan: It’s either the candy or the hootch. Must say I wish it was your chili I was getting fat on. Anyway, you’re sure looking good.
Tanya: You’re a mess, honey.
He is. He plants false evidence, conspires with Uncle Joe Grandi to abduct Susie, then kills Uncle Joe Grandi with his bare hands only to pin the murder on Susie. Later he kills Pete. He would’ve killed Vargas, too, if not for Pete.
So that’s two railroadings, two murders, and one attempted murder in a 24-hour period. Likeable or not, Welles’ famous charisma—like Quinlan’s famous intuition—only goes so far.
“You're a mess, honey.”
What’s the matter with Susie: Street dumb
So if not the protagonist or antagonist, who’s left? The girl?
It helps that Susie looks like Janet Leigh. It also helps that in the beginning there’s something pleasantly brassy about her. But we judge characters by the choices they make, and Susie makes some lousy choices.
Early on, she’s about to walk into the path of a pickup truck when a leather-jacketed hood, quickly dubbed “Pancho” (Valentin de Vargas), saves her. When a few locals inform her that Pancho wants to give her something, she responds, street smart, “I know what he wants.” Except he doesn’t want that. (Not yet.) He wants to give her a note: “Follow this boy at once. We have something very important for Mr. Vargas.” She looks around and shrugs. “Well, what have I got to lose?”
After that, she’s about as street-smart as June Cleaver.
She follows him. She gets her picture taken with him. She goes into a hotel with him. Sure, she takes on Uncle Joe Grandi with her exclamations of “Yeah!” but why follow the boy in the first place? For the thrill? Because she thinks she’s helping Mike? Because the boy has “pretty teeth”?
Whatever her rationale, for the rest of the film she’ll be followed by the gang, and the camera, both licking their lips. At the Mirador Motel, she’s taunted, cornered, surrounded on the bed. “Lemme stay, I wanna watch,” says the lesbian gang member (Mercedes McCambridge), in one of cinema’s most chilling lines. It’s particularly chilling because she speaks for us, too. We’re there to watch, after all, and part of us wants to watch this. We don’t get to. “Close the door,” Pancho says, and they do, on us. In a sense, they close the door on Susie, too. She’s a non-entity in the second half. The movie treats her the way men tend to treat women after they get what they want. It forgets all about her.
The early, brassy Susie (Janet Leigh), not letting a phallic cigar get in her way. Her opposite is actor Akim Tamiroff, immortalized in J.D. Salinger's “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.”
And the rest
So is there anyone left to like?
There is. They’re my two favorite characters in the movie and they’re both minor. One is cynical and gives us the movie’s final line. The other is the real hero of “Touch of Evil.”
The cynical one is, of course, Tanya, who has an authenticity about her. She looks you straight in the eye and speaks the world-weary truth, as she did to Quinlan at the brothel, and as she does in the end by the river. She seems a little saddened by Quinlan’s death and offers up a better eulogy than Vargas offers Menzies: “He was some kind of a man.” A second later, as if even this simple line is too much for her, but without a qualifying signifier, she adds, “What does it matter what you say about people?” It’s one of the more famous last lines in movies. It also gives lie, if you believe it, to my entire exercise.
But I don’t quite believe it. I believe it does matter what you say about people. At the least, it matters what film critics say about characters. And that brings us to the hero of the movie.
If the hero is the one who gets the bad guy, then Sgt. Pete Menzies, who gets Capt. Hank Quinlan, is the hero of the movie. If the hero is the one who sacrifices himself for the greater good, then Menzies, who sacrifices himself for the greater good, is the hero of the movie. If the hero is the one who makes the most progress, then Menzies, who starts out a toadie only to redeem himself twice, only to become a man of honor, is the hero of the movie.
In a dirty world, with dirty jobs and dirty rivers, where it doesn’t matter what you say about people, we don’t need the dull, hectoring, chocolate-soda-drinking likes of Mike “C'mon, give it back” Vargas, who causes more problems than he solves. We just need someone with a touch of good.
The toadie with a touch of good; the cop with a touch of evil.