Orson Welles’ return to Hollywood after ten years working in Europe is a sleazy border tale in which he takes centre stage as Hank Quinlan – a porcine, psychopathic, Texas-drawling cop, who takes the viewer on a Peeping Tom’s tour of a sleazy Mexican border town.
He clashes with honeymooners Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, as well as a seedy assortment of whores, pimps, narcotics racketeers, and eye-rolling villains played by Zsa Zsa Gabor, Joseph Cotten, Mercedes McCambridge, Keenan Wynn, Akim Tamiroff and Dennis Weaver.
Steeped in sinister atmosphere, the film is still celebrated for its remarkable single tracking shot opening, a dazzling three minutes in which the camera crane swoops through the busy night scene as Mexican narcotics official Miguel “Mike” Vargas (Heston) and his pert blonde American bride Susan (Leigh) stroll across from Mexico into the United States for an ice cream soda.
An unidentifiable man plants a bomb in a convertible, pedestrians scurry around, the driver’s floozy companion complains she’s “got this ticking noise in my head”, the newlyweds and a border patrol guard exchange enough small talk to establish their backstory, and ka-boom – the honeymoon is over.
Police chief Quinlan arrives from the American side of the border to control the investigation while Susan is waylaid by the Mexican drug dealers Vargas has been working to shut down.
Within minutes, the cards have been dealt in a malevolent, deeply perverse game.
To prevent Vargas from exposing him as a criminal, Quinlan will have Susan abducted and drugged by Mercedes McCambridge’s lesbian in leather and her reefer-maddened thugs.
Quinlan is one of the giant noir psychopaths, a bloated figure whose abuse of power has turned him into a monster (the already hefty Welles was expanded with padding and false nose).
The one and only Marlene Dietrich is the madam of a Mexican bordello. She gets the film’s best line when she gives the whale-sized Welles the once-over and sighs “Better lay off the candy bars, honey you’re a mess!”
Charlton Heston as a Mexican is a preposterous idea, but his performance is interesting, his confidence in a sophisticated role sufficient to prevent the satiric Welles from crushing him.
But the most affecting character is the tragic, belatedly ennobled figure of Quinlan’s adoring lackey, Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia).
Ramon Miguel ‘Mike’ Vargas
‘Uncle’ Joe Grandi
District Attorney Adair
Mirador Motel night man
Valentin De Vargas