Living on Noir Borders: Race, Sexuality, and Law Enforcement in Touch of Evil and Crimson Kimono

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“It has been argued that Touch of Evil is not so much the end of film noir as it is the beginning of a new kind of border film,” argued Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo in their 2003 work Noir Anxiety.[1] Indeed, much of the classic noir period, spanning roughly from 1941’s The Maltese Falcon to 1958’s Touch of Evil, seemed uncomfortable with borders. Racial, sexual, and moral boundaries all seemed blurred and dangerous.  However, borders change. What once might have been a space seen as problematic or dangerous can, in a short period of time, become normalized. For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, gay rights let alone same sex marriage appeared to have been located on the outer limits of tolerance – Arsenio Hall’s audience even cheered Magic Johnson when he attested to his own straightness after acquiring HIV—but now far fewer Americans would be willing to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.  Support for gay marriage seems to be only growing even if a dedicated but shrinking minority dig in their heels in opposition.

Likewise, early noir may have presented racial and sexual boundaries as inherently dangerous, but by the late 1940s and early 1950s noir pushed back against its own tropes, altering its perception of women, race, and even the purity of law enforcement officials.  Movies like T-Men (1947) and He Walks at Night (1948) depicted Treasury agents, detectives, and police chiefs as steady handed, hard working, resourceful bulwarks against the dangers of the darkened city. These shifts represent not only the trends popular in noir at the time but also the historical forces operating on broader American society. Worries about masculinity, the civil rights movement, and a new ambivalence regarding the police bled into films, moving boundaries and altering perceptions. Then again as the decade moved forward moviess like The Big Heat (1953) and the The Killing (1955) viewed law enforcement with a skeptical, jaundiced eye. Detective Sgt. Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) uncovers police corruption in the former while in the latter corrupt policeman Randy Kennan (Ted DeCorsia) serves as one of several accomplices robbing a Southern California racetrack.  Two films in particular, both coming at the end of film noir’s “golden age”, further demonstrate this shift: Touch of Evil (1958) and the more obscure, Crimson Kimono (1958).

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The Killing’s corrupt Randy Kennan (Ted DeCorsia)

It hardly comes as news that historically, in film and in life, women who traversed sexual borders of acceptability often incurred harsh punishment. In film noir, women occupy a complicated space.  In particular, the character of the “femme fatale” simultaneously embodies feminist ideals of toughness, independence, and intelligence but often ended up punished for her willful ignorance regarding gender roles and  use of manipulative sexuality to convince men like Double Indemnity’s (1944) Walter Neff to commit criminal acts including murder.  Even the good hearted dark ladies of noir, like Pitfall’s (1948) Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), end up in dire straits. Though she saves her married paramour’s skin and family life by breaking off her relationship with a sharp-tongued Dick Powell (as a bored insurance salesmen and wayward patriarch) Stevens later ends up in jail despite being as one critic noted, the only “heroic” character in the film.

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Yet, while on the surface such character arcs appear to uphold female inequality, some observers have argued upon reexamination, film noir offers a progressive view of women. “Even when it depicts women as dangerous and worthy of destruction,” notes John Blaser, “film noir also shows that women are confined by the roles traditionally open to them — that their destructive struggle for independence is a response to the restrictions that men place on them. Moreover, these films view the entire world — not just independent women — as dangerous, corrupt, and irrational. They contain no prescription for how women should act and few balancing examples of happy marriages, and their images of conventional women are often bland to the point of parody.”  In fact the aforementioned Mona Stevens, argues Blaser, reflects a shift in noir attitudes regarding the femme fatale.  Stevens represents, the “nurturing femme fatale” who briefly saves the protagonist from the crushing rigidity of the nuclear family.  In Stevens’ case she goes one step further, actually saving Powell again by murdering Mac, a creepy Perry Mason doing his best version of a perverted private investigator.

As noted, a strain of film noir in the late 1940s and early 1950s, emphasized the positive role played by law enforcement officials. Working and middle class cops demonstrated the professional doggedness and expertise that kept the dangerous city at bay. Consider the aforementioned T-Men (1947) and He Walks at Night (1948).  Indeed, both films operate simultaneously as advertisements for the character, quality, and abilities of law enforcement officials. Both feature “crime labs” where scientific types break down evidence using modern technology of the day to complement the sociological methods of LA detectives and federal treasury agents. In T-Men, one errant piece of paper captured by agents from a counterfeit ring leads to important clues. To paraphrase Chief Carson (Herbert Heyes), “What you guys can find out from a scrap of paper frightens me.” These noirs shifted the audience’s sympathies away from anti-heroes like Double Indemnity’s Walter Neff toward righteous law officials and detectives, the kind of people protecting us from Cold War dangers. Filmed in documentary-style realism, these movies “fetishized the processes of surveillance,” notes Dennis Broe.[2]  The rise of television procedurals like Dragnet only furthered such developments.  Again, while not universally true, this “policier” turn, to borrow from USC’s Eric Avila, represented a developing trope in LA film noir and to a lesser extent the broader genre.

Nonetheless, by the end of the 1950s, coinciding with the hypocritical anti-communism crusades of Joseph McCarthy, the rejection of bourgeois existence by the Beatniks, and the righteous protest of the civil rights movement, a shifting of the proverbial cultural goalposts occurred. Fifty years old this past May, Touch of Evil embodies this new ambivalence toward authority and racial and sexual borders.

In Orson Welles’s classic, doubts about the purity of law enforcement and traditional white female sexuality permeate the film’s core.  The initially pure Mexican narcotics officer Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) tangles with the compromised Police Captain and detective, the corpulent Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), leaving both men’s reputations and their professions tarnished in the end.

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Needless to say, film theorists go to town on this image of corrupt cop Hank Quinlan and the dead bull

Borders – physical, sexual and racial – occupy a central place in Touch of Evil: the legal battle between Quinlan and Vargas standing as one example and the coupling of Vargas and white Susie Vargas (Janet Leigh), the other.  Some have argued that Welles seems to nullify racial prejudice by pointing the blame at female sexuality.  Throughout Vargas, argue film theorists like Oliver and Trigo, displays an obsession with Susan’s “virtue.”  Set up by Quinlan and Mexican crime boss Uncle Joe Gandis (Akim Tamiroff), Susan finds herself clad in only her undergarments, drugged in a Los Robles hotel, and suspected of murder, thereby compromising her good name and purity. When she tries to call for help from the hotel balcony, the crowd below believes her to be little more than a prostitute and her own husband drives by, ignoring her.  “Touched by evil, her half naked and now polluted body is transformed and becomes invisible to her husband,” note the two theorists . Welles films Vargas driving by under a sign that reads “Jesus Saves,” emphasizing his purity and Christ-like nature as contrasted with Susan’s sinful “polluted body.”[3]  “Her family! Her good name! Nothing’s been touched by all this … filth,” an exasperated Vargas tells Pete Menzies, Quinlan’s longtime partner.  Vargas’s own obsession with Susan’s sexual purity drives him to adopt questionable methods, convincing Menzies (Joseph Calleia) to betray Quinlan by tape recording an incriminating conversation between the two men, which of course sets up the climactic scene of epic ambivalence that closes out the film.  Far from the clean shaven well groomed Mexican drug enforcement official at the film’s outset, Vargas appears disheveled and desperate at the film’s conclusion.  The imperious Quinlan doesn’t make it at all.

For Welles, as some critics have argued, the “façade or the myth of the good American girl” represented danger.  Both Uncle Joe Gandis and his young tough “Pancho” (Valentin de Vargas) view Susan with desire but neither ever really touches her as she remains “too desirable and too dangerous” for the two men, both factors driven by her innate sexuality.   Indeed, if the femme fatale stereotype in Double Indemnity led to the fall of the its male protagonist, in Touch of Evil it is the virginal all American girl who diminishes Vargas and to a lesser extent, the corrupt Quinlan. In contrast, Marlene Dietrich’s femme fatale archetype, the brothel Madam Tanya, provides solace and comfort to Quinlan, or at least once did. “Well, when this case is over, I’ll come around some night and sample some of your chili,” Quinlan tells Tanya who replies, “Better be careful. It may be too hot for you.”

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According to traditional film noir logic, Tanya should be the source of danger. As a gypsy, Tanya’s racial indeterminacy and her position as local Madam should make her the fulcrum upon which Vargas and Quinlan battle, yet as Katherine Springer notes, the opposite is true. “[I]t is Susie who becomes the center of violence, as she is Vargas’s weakness and Quinlan’s weapon against Vargas,” Springer points out. Alternatively, “Tanya is the alienated Quinlan’s escape from conflict. She is loyal to and, supposedly, in love with Quinlan.”  If not for her ethnicity, Tanya could be a recently paroled Mona Stevens forced to become a brothel madam. Moreover, the coupling between accused murder Manolo Sanchez (Victor Millan) and Marcia Linnekar (Joanna Moore), “the other Mexican American couple in the film,” further demonstrates this image of corrupted white female sexuality. Even if Sanchez is guilty of the murder, one could argue the film insinuates he took action because of his white wife, who happened to be the daughter of the murdered Ruddy Linnekar. Quinlan’s racism toward Mexicans makes it impossible to see the real villain. After all, argue Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo, “[e]ven if the Mexican shoe clerk planted the bomb (as he supposedly confesses at the end of the film), Sanchez is but a tool of the femme fatale, the true evil force behind his actions.”[4]

It’s worth noting that during the war years of the 1940s, marriage rates reached their highest point in American history, soon followed by “an unprecedented rise in the divorce rates,” notes historian Beth Bailey.[5] While this led some observers to organize marriage education manuals and courses, others worried deeply about the instability of the institution. From 1945 to 1954, attention toward courtship and marriage proliferated, thereby resulting in the publication of 1,034 papers, reports, and texts on the subject. Professionals “declared themselves the new arbiters” of marriage. Perhaps, directors like Orson Welles and Sam Fuller (Crimson Kimono), both known to buck convention, found such developments deeply problematic.[6]

Still, the two men took different approaches regarding the role of women. For some observers, Welles transforms the traditional marrying women into a liability for male protagonists. Film theorists argue Susan acts as a disruptive force in the life of Vargas and Sanchez. After all, Susan exists largely as a liability for Vargas. Welles employs Susan’s vulnerability almost immediately to reveal Vargas’ own faults such as his tunnel vision single mindedness and nearly compulsive aversion to literal and moral messiness.  Whether one sees this as progressive, reactionary, or something in between depends on how an individual thinks about such issues. Certainly, depicting traditional marriage as dangerous pushed back against the forces that often limited women’s rights, but at the same time, it could be argued that Welles sketches an illustration of matrimony with more than a touch of misogyny.  Of course, the point remains debatable. One could argue that Susan was the virginal white woman thrown to the mercies of “predatory brown male sexuality,” thereby casting doubt on Welles own ideas about race.

Generally, on racial issues, Welles displayed an equally, if less ambiguous, subversiveness. As an active member of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, Welles sympathized with Mexicans and Mexican Americans.  “The film’s inversion of the equation between the white race and goodness makes it a film critical of the institutionalized racism that put George Wallace in governor’s mansion in Alabama in 1963, under the platform of ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever,’” note Oliver and Trigo.[7]  Then again others have noted that the film reinforces the genre’s general concerns regarding racial/ethnic anxieties. “[I]t kind of all contributes to this anxiety people felt about Mexicans and the border: It’s a dangerous place, kind of exotic. It’s very sexy,” independent filmmaker Jimmy Mendiola told NPR’s All Things Considered in 2011.  At one point in the film, an exasperated Vargas tells his increasingly worried wife that “This isn’t real Mexico … all border towns bring out the worst in a country,” thereby emphasizing the danger of such liminal spaces.  Don’t forget that in 1954 the United States implemented “Operation Wetback,” a border control program aimed at deporting “illegal” Mexican labor migration even as the Bracero Program encouraged workers to move north into the U.S. One could argue that such a policy institutionalized ambiguity as the government and agricultural industry drew migrants North only to deport them if they came without Bracero approval.

Still, there is also the issue of Charlton Heston, a casting choice that continues to confound. When Chili Palmer’s (John Travolta) asks Karen Flores (Renee Russo) if she wants to “[w]atch Charlton Heston play a Mexican,” in 1995’s Get Shorty, the joke/implication seems pretty clear.  Even Heston, years later admitted his own doubts about his role noting that Welles had to convince him that his playing Vargas might be “plausible enough…”[8] Needless to say, Heston’s Spanish needed work. In the end, however, the film seems to argue interracial mixing is not the problem but rather a transcendent evil that trumps race found in female sexuality represents the real danger; the hidden femme fatale hiding in even the most virginal and whitest of American women.[9]

Less than a year later, B movie expert Sam Fuller brought the world Crimson Kimono, the story of two LAPD detectives—Detective Sgt. Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) and Japanese American Detective Joe Kojaku (James Shigeta)—on the hunt for the killer of burlesque stripper Sugar Torch. What distinguished Crimson Kimono from others in the genre—notably the LA based police noirs of the late 1940s and 1950s epitomized by T-Men and He Walks at Night—was its willingness to push not only racial boundaries but also gender roles.

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Joe and Charlie in their swank digs

When Christine Downs, a pleasant looking USC student and artist, becomes the key to their investigation and requires police protection, she comes to stay with the two detectives in their suspiciously chic apartment/hotel abode. Naturally, the two men both fall for her, but she chooses Joe, which eventually leads to a rift in the friendship between the two men. Undoubtedly, the romance between an Asian American man and white women rejected tropes about Asian immorality and male effeminacy, sexual stereotypes that had long dogged Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Korean Americans to varying degrees. It also flipped what has become the dominant trope regarding white–Asian romances: the exoticized Asian women with the white American male, like that of the 1957 film Sayonara, where Marlon Brando, an American G.I. in post WWII Japan, falls in love with a local Japanese girl.

Adding to the complexity of Fuller’s films, many credit him with what perhaps might be labeled unintentional feminism. Women in Fuller’s films occupied, for the time, unusual occupations. “If Fuller’s female characters weren’t ‘working girls,’ they were women working less traditional jobs as artists, scientists or gunsmiths,” points out Helen Schumacher in a retrospective of his work. “Rare was the housewife or secretary, and this was during post-WWII America, when women were encouraged to leave the workforce to make room for returning soldiers.” Lisa Dombrowski, in her appraisal of the director’s work, If You Die, I’ll Kill You, credits Fuller as a “a great admirer of women” who liked his female characters “smart and tough.” Police informant and artist Mac demonstrates this toughness with her hard drinking and bohemian approach to life. “You’ll fine my murals in skid row’s finest bars and brothels,” she announces at one point. Throughout the film she provides a level of wisdom and insight on love and crime to Downs and the two detectives, while also providing Charlie with a shoulder to drink on. Chris too never shies from her role as informant to Joe and Charlie despite attempts on her life. Even the killer, a caucausian Asian wig maker, to some extent, reflects Fuller’s feminist vision as herself, Downs, and Sugar Torch were all connected to one another since the dancer had been trying to develop a new Asian themed burlesque act with the expertise of the two women. All three occupied unusual roles for women in the period: artisan, artist, and performer.

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Mac (Anna Lee) throwing back a few as per usual in Crimson Kimono

None of this is to say Fuller’s “feminist vision” did not have blind spots. “I love the whole idea of any women on the screen having balls because generally they do have balls,” he once told interviewers. “Unfortunately man’s rule and man’s beliefs, not the Lord’s, have made them the inferior sex and subjected them to slavery in a form without any stripes, in a jail without any cells. That’s why I’m nutty about any situation in which a woman has big balls and waves them and makes a noise like the clanging of two big shells in bells on any street.” As Schumacher acknowledges, not the most PC of responses, but considering the time period, more open minded than most.

Undoubtedly, Crimson Kimono remains a B movie. Cultural historian William Park called it “more dated” than others from the genre, and there is something to this.[10] Charlie and Joe come off as square beatnik hipsters, rankling at the label cop; it’s like calling a woman a broad, Charlie tells Downs, and dropping lingo like “loot,” “on the Q.T.” and “shindig.” Then again, when discussing love with Downs, Joe qualifies his statements with “I’m no long hair.” So the two detectives aren’t Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.  In many ways, Fuller seems to locate the Joe and Charlie between the two poles of police noir—part dutiful public servants like the Treasury agents at the heart of T-Men and part ambivalent every man who sees working for the LAPD as like most other employment.  Both men talk about being police detectives less as a calling or vocation and more just a job.  For the two LAPD detectives, their informants serve as their “scientific types” and the “streets” their crime labs; very little of the film takes place at the precinct.

If anything, the altered racial and sexual dynamics of film noir seemed a marker of future change. The upheavals of the 1960s and cynicism of the 1970s reflected in neo noirs like Chinatown (1974) and The Long Goodbye (1973)—previewed by movies like Touch of Evil and Crimson Kimono—established new borders and underlying tensions. Yet even these only pushed so far. Granted, in Bound (1996) two female lovers, Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Corky (Gina Gershon), drive the action as they scheme to steal a pile of mob money while laying the blame on Violet’s abusive boyfriend.  And in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Easy Rollins (Denzel Washington) navigates segregated 1948 Los Angeles while searching for the whereabouts of Daphne Monet (Jennifer Beals), a biracial women at the heart of a simmering political scandal.  Even now, nearly 55 years later, protagonists like LAPD Detective Joe Shagutu remain uncommon figures.  Some borders take longer to cross.


[1] Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo, Noir Anxiety , (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pg 115.

[2] Dennis Broe, Genre Regression and the New Cold War: The Return of the Police Procedural, Journal of Cinema and Media, vol. 45, #2 (Fall 2004), pg 84.

[3] Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo, Noir Anxiety , (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pg 118.

[4] Ibid, pg. 126.

[5] Beth Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America, (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1998), pg. 120-121.

[6] Ibid, pg. 122.

[7] Kelly Oliver and Benigno Trigo, Noir Anxiety , (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pg. 118.

[8] Ibid, pgs. 135-136

[9] Ibid, pg. 125.

[10] William Park, What is Film Noir?, (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2011).

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  1. […] the end of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, we see Tanya, a jaded gypsy, reflecting on the death of her ex, Hank Quinlan, a corrupt detective […]

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