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Borderline Justice/States of Emergency: Orson Welles' Touch of Evil

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 1, Number 1, Spring 2001
pp. 75-105 | 10.1353/ncr.2003.0044

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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.1 (2001) 75-105

The Anxiety of Transference

Three different versions of Orson Welles's noir classic, Touch of Evil, have been distributed internationally over a 40-year period. (A "director's cut" of the film was produced in 1998 out of the 50-page memo Welles had written to Universal executives after viewing Harry Keller's remake of several key scenes). But the film, which recounts Miguel Vargas's decision to interrupt his honeymoon in the imaginary border town of Los Robles, with his American wife Susan, in order to investigate and thereafter to prosecute the corrupt policing practices of Hank Quinlan, has enjoyed almost no commercial success. Universal refused Welles editorial control over the first release and produced a 93-minute version of the film with little distribution. After a showing at Brussels World Fair in 1958 and a two-year run in Paris, Touch of Evil virtually went out of circulation.

Touch of Evil has recouped its losses at the box office, however, through the symbolic capital it has accumulated in the academy where it has exerted an unprecedented influence in the formation and reconfiguration of various academic disciplines. After a film archivist discovered a 108-minute version in 1975, Stephen Heath conducted a frame-by-frame analysis of the film in two successive issues of Screen that, in consolidating film studies' epistemological rationale, significantly elevated its academic standing. In an essay that he published in Screen eight years later entitled "The Other Question: the Stereotype and Colonial Discourse," Homi Bhabha detected in Heath's argument the symptomatic features of a colonialist fantasy whose critical elaboration subsequently became crucial to the formation of post-colonial studies as an academic discipline. In The Cultural Front published in 1996, Michael Denning articulated Welles's involvement in popular front causes to what Jose David Saldivar has recently named the discourse of the Borderlands when he proposed Orson Welles's role in "the Sleepy Lagoon Case" as the key required to decipher its political unconcious.

The variations in the film's academic reception have turned on the different values that that these disparate disciplinary formations have associated with the cinematic representations of the border laws which pertain at the U.S./Mexican border and the political, social, and cultural strategies mounted in opposition to them. In his pioneering work on what he has called its filmic system, Stephen Heath has proposed that the law operating within the film's narrative should be understood to effect the resolution of the violent disruption in the order of things "with which the film opens, its containment—its replacing—in a new homogeneity."

After remarking that the operations of this law are encapsulated within the separation and subsequent reconciliation of Miguel Vargas and his American wife Susan, Heath arrives at the conclusion that the trajectory of their relationship constitutes the "kernel" of the ideal film narrative: "Ideally a narrative is the perfect symmetry of this movement; the kiss that the explosion postpones is resumed in the kiss of the close as Susan is reunited with Vargas—the same kiss but delayed, narrativized."

But upon observing that Heath's celebration of the formal elegance of this conclusion has uncritically ratified the means whereby the filmic narrative has established and thereby secured the Mexican/U.S. border, Homi Bhabha interrupts Heath's interpretation at precisely the moment in which Heath has restaged the postponed kiss. Bhabha takes issue in particular with the following series of observations that he purports to establish the core of Heath's argument:

Vargas is the position of desire, its admission and its prohibition. Not surprisingly he has two names: the name of desire is Mexican, Miguel... that of the law American, Mike. The film uses the border, the play between American and Mexican... at the same time it seeks to hold that play finally in the position of purity and mixture which in turn is a version of law and desire.

According to Bhabha, these comments reveal Heath's wish to substitute a neocolonialist discourse that would affirm the authority of U.S. national identity in place of an analysis of the resolutely incoherent usages to...

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