Vargas has been framed!

Vargas has been framed!

In Jacques Derrída’s The Truth in Painting, the philosopher argued that frames don’t exist, but are nevertheless important to our understanding of art. Traditionally understood as something external to the actual work of art, completely peripheral to its content, frames are actually part of the way the work is received by the viewer, and thus are internal to that reception.

The glass around Mona Lisa communicates its value, its fragility, its sacredness, and its lineage within an imagined “Western” society. This frame determines how visitors to the Louvre understand Da Vinci’s enigmatic painting. Frames are the porous border between the imaginary world of the painting and the external, social world, communicating if nothing else the transition between these two worlds. A frame as something outside of the work of art doesn’t exist, and is also the most important part of how we view things.

“You framed that boy!” Charlton Heston’s Miguel Vargas shouts at Police Captain Hank Quinlan [Orson Welles] at the turning point of Touch of Evil. The camera pulls closer—tightening its frame—as Quinlan steps toward Vargas, cane raised menacingly. “Framed?!” he responds in outrage, less [as the film will show] at the accusation that he would commit such a transgression than at the notion that planting evidence on the guilty would be considered “framing.”

The young man, we will be reassured moments before the film ends, is indeed guilty. But from this point, the film is no longer about the spectacular murder that opens it, but about the way that event is framed. In fact, frames proliferate at many levels of Touch of Evil. It is a film that takes place, after all, on a border—that between Mexico and the United States, “one of the longest borders between two countries in the world,” as Vargas pontificates to Susie [Janet Leigh] in one scene.

This geo-political border is an important motif in the film. Although it is shown repeatedly to be a porous, hybridized space—the film’s opening scene illustrates this dramatically, as the camera follows a car with a ticking time bomb seamlessly through the boundary—the concept of it remains important for both the authoritarian Captain Quinlan and the liberal Vargas. Quinlan who uses an ideal “border” to justify his racism and his skirting of the law. Vargas, on the other hand, at one point utters the revealing phrase, “This isn’t the real Mexico, Susie, you know that. Borders bring out the worst in people.”

Vargas’s comment here begs a question that recalls Derrída’s interrogation of meaning in painting: where, exactly, does the real Mexico start? Does the border have a border? And if the border doesn’t distinguish Mexico from another place, what is its function? The border in Touch of Evil is the Derridean frame: inside and outside, vital but also nonexistent.

For Vargas, the border is central to the liberal philosophy he represents—that laws, applied accurately, are our guarantee of order and justice in society. Drawing on his faith in the law, he manipulates Quinlan into confessing to his crimes on the Mexican side of the border, so that Quinlan cannot arrest him. But this philosophy rests on shaky grounds, as the border is not something tangible or real—it’s not something that, in reality, Vargas evidently believes exists.

Quinlan, on the other hand, recognizes that because the border is a construct, someone in a position of control at that border would have immense power. The authoritarian imagination posits that a social orders arises not primarily from the written words of a law, but from the sovereign decision of a man. Quinlan has been able to position himself as the decision-maker, the border-maker, the framer. This is why Quinlan cannot understand Vargas’s accusation: there is no such thing as “framing” when a frame is always an arbitrary object placed by a sovereign decision.

This is not the only way the film explores questions around frames and borders. The way Welles stages his action in depth, and creates frames within the frame is often discussed in relation to this film. The famous opening shot is often spoken about in terms of its visuals—and I have already referred to its function in emphasizing continuity over separation, porousness over borders. This approach often neglects the film’s artful use of sound to extend the opening shot’s frame of meaning. Sounds of traffic, pedestrians, and raucous jazz music fade into one another as the camera glides down the street connecting the two border cities; the ticking of the bomb is lost even as the camera continues following the car.

Undoubtedly, this scene does a lot, but one of the most important things it does is to direct our attention to how profligate sound is. It reverberates from off-screen spaces [in a way that is, of course, tightly controlled by the filmmakers], adding a sense of chaos and contingency to a carefully framed sequence. This quality of sound to extend and exceed the frame will be manipulated by Vargas in the final ruse that catches Quinlan.

While all this discussion around frames may seem a bit abstruse, Touch of Evil’s exploration [one is tempted to say “deconstruction”] of the concept of a frame in the context of a story about the border is a relevant one today. Ultimately, the upshot of the film is that borders, like any frame, are artificial constructs that we use to anchor our view of things. But as such, they are powerful tools that can be manipulated for, well, evil, as we see happening in the US right now—both the “real” one and the borderlands.

Speaking of the many valences of frames in the film, the version of the film most common today is the re-edit, released in the late 1990s, that restores the film to Welles’s original vision. The DVD scrolls a preface across the screen before the film starts, informing us that the producers of this version have hewn as closely as they could to the well-known 58-page memo Welles sent the studio pleading that they restore his original edit. However, a rather scandalous fact is left out of this preface: Touch of Evil was planned, shot, edited, and released in the traditional “Academy” aspect ratio of 1:1.37 [think old TV screens]. Welles’s original vision for the film—its intended frame—is not what you can see today.