Orson Welles’s decision to cast the decidedly Anglo actor as Detective Miguel Vargas in his 1958 noir classic Touch of Evil was not the filmmaker’s finest hour. The mistake was only compounded by the application of a quarter inch of ruddy foundation to Heston’s face, as well as his inability to pronounce even such rudimentary Spanish words as “sí” and “no.”
Yet the bit of dialogue with Leigh seems, in retrospect, oddly prescient. Vargas is apologizing to his gringa bride for the tawdriness and violence endemic to “Los Robles,” a rotten little ’burg standing in for Tijuana, and portrayed, for production purposes, by Venice Beach, California. (Not the real Mexico indeed.) He may be saying more than he means; certainly he may be saying more than Heston, in his later role as icon of American conservatism, would have wanted to mean.
Borders have two sides, after all, and on the American side of the U.S.-Mexico line today there lies a town that is not exactly a credit to the great republic. It is not that there’s anything all that bad about the Otay Mesa section of San Diego. It has an IHOP, and an Auto Zone, and a Jack in the Box. It has ready freeway access, and it backs up against the rugged Peninsular Ranges, which form an incongruously dramatic backdrop to the neighborhood’s low-rise office blocks and drive-thrus.
But there is something ineluctably grim about the place—a pervasive sense that something is out of joint—that something is seething—and on an unusually overcast day in the Golden State, this feeling is amplified until it becomes the near certitude that there is, somewhere very close at hand, a touch of evil.