Anachronistically, I forever find myself singing the Judas Priest song whenever I think of this movie. Of course, timing aside, this makes no sense: the Priest song is intensely sexual, which is not really relevant here. But the mind does as it will. Nonsensical associations aside, this is hardly an obscure film. I’d heard of the film plenty–the natural trend of remembering a film with a real-life story like this one: the work of an auteur devastated by studio intervention (Gilliam’s Brazil certainly comes to mind). Of course, it’s also Welles, sometimes I could swear spoken of as the film experience that “broke” him–at the least, seemingly stopped him from directing in the U.S. again.
“Mike”¹ Vargas (Charlton Heston) is a Mexican police officer spending time with his wife Susie (Janet Leigh) before the trial of the narcotics-peddling object of his most recent case, the imprisoned crime boss Grandi. However, right before their eyes, a bomb kills two people in a car and Vargas is drawn into the investigation that proceeds–on the U.S. side of the border, though Vargas suspects the precipitating action (the placement of the bomb) occurred in Mexico. This brings him in contact with recovering alcoholic and otherwise grumpy Police Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) and his partner Sergeant Pete Menzies (Josepha Calleia), all while Grandi’s family–his brother Joe (Akim Tamiroff) and possible nephew “Pancho” (Valentin de Vargas–never actually named)–attempt to intervene on the part of their imprisoned comrade.
This is…actually a really weird movie. The cinematography and choices for camera usage are exceptional: the opening scene, in a single pure crane shot cut that follows the car after the bomb is planted it, is referenced fairly often since the film’s release. Handheld cameras are quite a surprise in a studio flick of this age, too. The deep shadows of a film that is occasionally considered the “last classic noir” are both emblematic of that status (real or otherwise) and cleverly used for intense contrast, clever mood-setting, and emphasis of deliberately, explicitly darkened scenes, such as after Susan throws out the only lightbulb in her hotel room. The sound, too, is clever–all the technical elements, unsurprisingly, in a Welles production–making usage of sound not just as “the sounds that the microphone happened to pick up”, or “sounds edited for utmost clarity of plot”, they also set or even significantly modify the tone of various scenes.
Charlton Heston, despite being one of the linchpins of the original production, is hideously out of place. It’s deeply strange to see him “brown-faced” up as Vargas, even weirder to merge it with his natural speaking accent, and in general to just be Charlton Heston–in my experience, more “charisma actor” than “actor”, meaning that I see him as someone who carries a movie via charisma, rather than having extensive acting skill or range. You see Heston to see Heston, which makes vaguely attempting to disguise him but-not-really beyond distracting. This feels like it should have been either an actual Latino actor, or, I don’t know–Horst Buchholz? Vargas reads as a man who does not have the intimidation factor of being 6’3″, which Heston was, and this shows in many a scene. With the contrast of Welles’s fantastic and transformative performance as Quinlan, Heston himself feels half like a studio insert–lets use a big name for this character! Of course, despite the snarky comments in pop culture that followed (akin to the more accurate ones in reference to Wayne in The Conqueror), Welles actually made this decision, which, in terms of the character and not the performance, makes some of the plot work rather well. To make matters worse, as noted, he’s called, if not “Vargas”, then “Mike”, which anglicizes things in further disorienting fashion–nevermind his constant references to Susan as “Susie”, which also sounds quite Anglo.
Maybe it’s just the result of that jarring failure to merge the character and actor, but it ends up feeling like not just Welles, but Calleia, Leigh, Tamiroff, de Vargas, Marlene Dietrich as an erstwhile companion of Quinlan’s operating as fortune teller–basically everyone else–acts circles around our hypothetical protagonist (or maybe co-protagonist, anyway). It might also be the limitations I referenced and tend to see in Heston–but either way, it places an already starkly contrasted actor even further outside of any comfort zone, which is just unpleasant. He’s not alone, though: Dennis Weaver plays the self-professed “night man”–the night manager–of the Mirador motel that Susan stays at, and is insanely over-the-top in his neuroses, causing me to distractedly wonder who the hell hired this guy for this job, and why? He constantly maintains that nothing whatsoever is his responsibility (cleaning, fixing fuses, the registry…), so I’m lost as to what (assuming anything) he actually does there.²
This is a very frustrating film. I found myself thoroughly engaged so long as Heston was not onscreen: how these broken characters would deal with everything collapsing in noir fashion. Menzies’ loyalty to Quinlan. District Attorney Schwartz (Mort Mills) and his flagging faith in the earnest law-love of Vargas. Susan and her boldness with the Grandis, her intelligent suspicions. Quinlan and Tanya (Dietrich) and their history. The craft is evident and excellent–but, good lord, Heston should’ve been someone else. Honestly, even setting aside the weirdo “brown face” bit, this just does not feel like a character who should be a “leading man” to contrast with the collapse around him, even a witty Bogart or something would be wrong–oddly, one of those slight “he’s handsome, let’s try this new guy” kinds of leads could possibly work, considering the way Vargas plays his role in the film–he’s more catalyst than character, in a strange sort of way, less, even as a cop (!) than his wife. He just stumbles around trying to do the right thing by the book, completely oblivious to things collapsing around him and the world he’s in, instead of in the deep end like many a noir protagonist.
In the end, it’s not enough to cripple the film for certain, but it’s a lot more massive a drawback for me than the retroactive rating the film is typically given–though I think there’s an off-balance nature to that stemming from the fact that the most famous elements are craft-oriented, especially with regard to the failed editing over all else. If one can step around Heston, I think the reputation would be justified–but I can’t enough to not hold it against the picture in some measure.
¹Apparently, actually named “Ramon Miguel”, but the “Mike” is one of the many weird parts of this late-game nationality change.
²I can almost hear the, “Ah, but you see, with the plot…”–yeah, but, go back to how the Mirador is introduced. Susan simply goes to that motel, no one shows any reason to direct her there specifically. It doesn’t make sense.