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Breaking Badge:
Touch of Evil through the Lens of Breaking Bad

touc [1]7,344 words

Breaking Bad [2] (AMC)
Created and produced by Vince Gilligan.
January 20, 2008 – September 29, 2013 (62 episodes)

Touch of Evil [3] (Universal)
Written, directed, and starring Orson Welles
“Preview” version (108 min., released on DVD 1993); Theatrical release, 1958 (93 min.)
“Restored” version, 1998 (112 min.)[1]
Based on the novel Badge of Evil [4] by Whit Masterson [5]

“Bad” to the Bone; “Breaking Bad” Creator Vince Gilligan Brings More Than a Touch of Evil to a New Season.[2]

“I’m the man who killed Gus Fring.” He wears his conquering of Fring like a badge, as the one thing that should strike fear in their hearts more than any other.[3]

Lead actor Bryan Cranston stated in an interview that: “The term ‘breaking bad’ is a southern colloquialism and it means when someone who has taken a turn off the path of the straight and narrow, when they’ve gone wrong. And that could be for that day or for a lifetime.”[4]

Mad Men and Breaking Bad are sort of the Beatles vs. Stones of the AMC network universe.[5] Constant Readers will recall that I’ve described the Youth Whitopia (or White Youtopia) of Detroit in the ’60s as involving such things a sovereign independence from coastal media driven trends such as Beatlemania and a preference for such working class acts as the Stones or the Who.[6]

Now you might think that this would incline me to Breaking Bad, but you’d be wrong. First, Mad Men’s story arc lead up into and through that very period (making Don’s oldest son my Doppelgänger), while Breaking Bad is all too contemporary. Moreover, I found the whole “White guy proves his manhood by shaving his head and becoming murderous drug dealer” motif to be to be far too “negro” to be of any positive interest.[7]

Recently, however, I obtained the 50th Anniversary release of Touch of Evil[8] circumstantially with AMC broadcasting a multi-week marathon of Breaking Bad, and actually sitting down to watch the latter with the former still in mind, I experienced a sense of imaginal déjà vu.

Having previously suggested that The Gilmore Girls is a seven season long TV version of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons,[9] I may be forgiven for imagining that Breaking Bad is a 5 season long TV version of Welles’ Touch of Evil.

Walter White is a loser of a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Not only is the treatment unaffordable, his inevitable death will leave his family destitute. Walt decides to make lots of money, fast, by turning his skills to the manufacture of meth, and it turns out he’s pretty good at it — both the manufacture itself as well as the related distribution and, inevitably, enforcement. He revels in being good at something,[10] but periodically expresses some concern about his transformation into the criminal genius known only as “Heisenberg.”

I suspect this is what interests the alt-Right; as Jack Donovan would say, Walt was a good man who was bad at being a man, while “Heisenberg” is a bad man, who is good at being a man.

“This is a love-affair story of Walt and his love of science, and [“Blue Sky” meth] was his greatest product — his greatest triumph as a chemist. It wasn’t about Walter White as a criminal or a murderer or an awful person. It was him ending on his own terms. It felt creatively right.”[11]

Walt may love science, but it hasn’t loved him, and that’s why he has no money, and his family will be left destitute:

Once a promising chemist who greatly contributed to the breakthrough of a multi-billion dollar company Gray Matter Technologies, Walt abruptly left the company and sold his financial interest for $5,000. The founders of the company Elliott Schwartz and Gretchen Schwartz later married and made a fortune. Walt harbors animosity and blames Elliot and Gretchen for stealing his hard labor and contributions to become a highly successful foundation, without giving Walt any credit. Walt then bitterly blames Gretchen for his financial problems and his lot in life.[12]

Watching and listening to Walt repeatedly returning to this aspect of his situation, I began to hear another voice: Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan, justifying himself as, unknown to him, the end is near:

Quinlan: “Don’t you think I could have been rich? A cop in my position. What do I have . . . after thirty years, a little turkey ranch — that’s all I got. A couple of acres.”[13]

One difference, since this, as I said, is a movie, not a series, is that Breaking Bad, luxuriating in the kind of time and budget and studio regard Welles could only dream of, presents us with the full transformation of Walter White,[14] while Hank Quinlan, when we meet him, has already become the local Heisenberg:

Adair: “Vargas, you’ve heard of Hank Quinlan, our local police celebrity.”

Vargas: “I’d like to meet him.”

Coroner: “That’s what you think.”[15]

But I see I’ve started talking about Touch of Evil without cluing some of you in. Here’s a neat summary from DVD Verdict:

A car crossing the border from Mexico into the U.S. blows up, killing the driver, a wealthy older man, and his passenger, a blonde stripper. Witnessing this are Mexican narcotics investigator Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh). Soon, the “legendary” local police captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), arrives on the scene and commences the investigation.

Vargas has been running an investigation of his own, bringing down the Grandi family, drug-dealing gangsters headed up by Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). The trial of Joe’s brother is about to start, and the Grandis want Vargas to call it off. . . . Uncle Joe has [an] idea of how to persuade Vargas, and it involves terrorizing Susie. When she goes to an out-of-the-way motel to wait for her husband, the Grandis get their chance.

Meanwhile, Vargas is tagging along on the murder investigation. Quinlan’s fabled instincts tell him that the killer is the Mexican boyfriend of the dead man’s daughter. During an interrogation at the man’s home, some incriminating evidence turns up in a shoebox—but Vargas had seen the shoebox before, and it was empty.

Now, Vargas realizes that Quinlan is corrupt and that his “legend” has been built from planting evidence and framing possibly innocent suspects. But Vargas has bigger problems: the police found his wife passed out and reeking of drugs in a strange hotel room—with a dead [Joe Grandi].[16]

Already we see a metamorphosis: “local police celebrity.” Walt becomes Heisenberg, but Hank is already the Bad Captain.

Pete Menzies: You’re a killer.

Hank Quinlan: Partly. I’m a cop.

Now, talking about “bad,” what I want to be suggesting here is that in both works we find an idea that I’ve called Passing the Buck. It’s the notion, disconcerting to many, that the Enlightened or Realized Man is not necessarily — or perhaps necessarily not — the Good Man. Since the goal of enlightenment is usually thought of as being “beyond the contraries,” including those of good and bad, why should we imagine that the path involves conventional “goodness”?[17] More particularly, perhaps the way to reach the state of freedom from karma is to dump it on some poor sucker and just keep moving.

You could say that this is a metaphysical version of Jack Donovan’s thesis: the (conventional-morally) good man versus the man good at being (the Realized or Universal) Man. Thus, any really compelling dramatic work — as opposed to some “morality tale” — will involve men who are mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

The men of Walt’s world are killers and kingpins and assassins — but at least they are still men. One of the larger philosophical issues raised by this series — too large for me to explore here — is the tension that sometimes exists between masculinity and law and order; or: between primal masculine virtue and the virtues necessary to sustain civilization.[18]

Hence, the curious ambivalence audiences — and creators — feel towards characters like Walter White and Hank Quinlan.

Walt ends up saving the day by beating the big bad neo-Nazis with ingenuity. He goes on to avenge his brother-in-law’s death, releases “old yeller” from captivity so he can personally kill that “Opie dead-eyed piece of shit,” poisons the (other) crazy “bitch” that dared to challenged his potency, gives the original emasculating bitch a get out of jail free card and gets all that money to his estranged son via payback to the couple that wronged him in the first place. Instead of emerging as a defeated anti-hero, Walter White’s evil alter ego somehow rises from the ashes like a superhero.[19]

Again, as music supervisor Thomas Golubić said about the finale:

It wasn’t about Walter White as a criminal or a murderer or an awful person. It was him ending on his own terms. It felt creatively right.[20]

But let’s get back to how this all plays out in the film and TV series under review. Since Sr. Vargas, the “Good Cop,” has implicitly pushed his way into our reflections, just as he pushes his way into Quinlan’s sweet little setup, let’s look him over. Vargas is our nominal hero, not only a gang-busting cop (he’s just put the head of the Grandi gang in jail, a kind of south of the border Tom Dewey) but a romantic leading man, escorting his new, American wife over the border for an ice-cream soda. Everything about him exudes smug rectitude (his “I’m a Latin Lover” moustache actually recalls Tom Dewey), but the first problem is that he’s played by Charlton Heston.

Now, this is a faux pas so legendary that it’s become a pop culture reference point:

Ed Wood, Jr.: Do you know that I’ve even had producers re-cut my movies?

Orson Welles: I hate when that happens.

Ed Wood, Jr.: And they always want to cast their buddies. It doesn’t even matter if they’re right for the part.

Orson Welles: Tell me about it. I’m supposed to do a thriller for Universal. They want Charlton Heston as a Mexican.[21]

Like many such pop cultural memes, it’s more about what pleases current dogmas than historical truth. We “know” that studios are philistines; we “know” that Whites should never play non-white roles (though the opposite is just fine). But in reality, Heston was already cast, and it was Heston who used his star power to force Welles on Universal as director instead of just actor. And that star power is important to the film as well, since, as we’ll see, our nominal hero proves to be so lame, so paper-thin, as written, that only an actor with the screen presence of a Heston could prevent him from fading away entirely, lost in the malignant shadow of Welles’ monstrous Hank Quinlan.[22] And there simply weren’t any Hispanic actors in Hollywood who could act alongside Orson Welles — Caesar Romero, you think?[23]

As for his Spanish, it sounds pretty good to me, although I don’t, like Quinlan, “speak Mexican.”[24] I’m not an expert, just an ordinary movie-goer, and isn’t it all about creating an illusion?[25]

Quinlan: I don’t speak Mexican. Let’s keep it in English, Vargas.

Vargas: That’s all right with me. I’m sure he’s just as unpleasant in any language.

Sanchez: Unpleasant? Strange. I’ve been told I have a very winning personality. The very best shoe clerk the store ever had.

Oddly enough, Heston’s supposedly fractured Spanglish provides yet another link to Breaking Bad, in the person of Gus Fring. For some reason Fring seemed to get most of the supposedly Spanish lines, and I remember trying to follow along, as I usually do, especially with the Spanish cable channels, to try and pick up some of the lingo and test my knowledge thereof. Apparently, Gus was doing the same, earning the show an entry at TV Tropes, right alongside Touch of Evil, for

Not Even Bothering with the Accent [6]: Many people singled out the show Breaking Bad, and the character Gustavo “Gus” Fring, for falling flat on language. Tamara Vallejos writes, “Gus’ Spanish and accent were so painful to listen to, and it made me super angry that such a pivotal and fantastic character would have such a giant, noticeable, nails-on-a-chalkboard flaw.”[26]

Well, I would think that such a delicate flower shouldn’t be watching such a violent show in the first place. And here too Gus provides a link to the film. Another way Touch of Evil reminds one of Breaking Bad is that both, for their own time, are remarkably violent; in fact, even the movie, from 1958, has moments that can match anything in the cable show.

Adair: An hour ago, Rudi Linnekar had this town in his pocket.

Coroner: Now you can strain him through a sieve.

Quinlan: An old lady on Main Street last night picked up a shoe. The shoe had a foot in it. We’re gonna make you pay for that mess.

There’s even that B-movie staple,[27] “acid to the face”:

In an alley outside the club, Vargas is attacked by one of the Grandi gang members who throws acid at Vargas’s face. In Welles’ original script, the acid misses Vargas and hits a cat asleep in the trash. This was changed in the film and the acid instead explodes in a smoky hiss against the poster of the dead stripper.[28]

Speaking of faces, even the TV show’s most infamous scene, where Walt kills Gus Fring with a bomb that leaves him staggering out of Uncle Tio’s room with half his face gone, is matched by this quick shot of another dead uncle, Uncle Joe Grandi:

akimtamoriff [7]

Lending perhaps a new significance to Uncle Joe’s earlier speech, leading Quinlan into the scheme that will, unknown to Uncle Joe, lead to his own death:

Uncle Joe Grandi: “We are both after the same exact thing, Captain. If Vargas goes on like this, shooting his face off . . . Somebody’s reputation has got to be ruined. Why shouldn’t it be Vargas’s?”[29]

Welles was quite aware of how much he was pushing the envelope:

As Welles said in conversations with Peter Bogdanovich (This Is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich) “It was perverse and morbid . . . one of those go-as-far-as-you-can-go–in that kind of dirty department . . . when [Tamiroff] looked at the gun, it was every cock in the world. It was awful, the way he looked at it–made the whole scene possible.” Make no mistake about it, this is an ugly scene. Tamiroff is a much smaller man than Welles, and is just about consumed by Welles. Tamiroff’s character is dragged around the room, his shirt torn at the chest, his toupee knocked off. Eventually Quinlan strangles him with one of Susan’s stockings, leaving Uncle Joe’s face hanging over the bed, eyes bulging out by a nice effect of using painted contact lenses. Welles wanted the shot of the bulging eyes short enough so it would be almost subliminal — something people wouldn’t be quite sure they saw — but the studio added extra frames to that shot.[30]

While we’re on the face, let’s talk about hair. Walt sports the aforementioned iconic chrome dome, first due to chemo, then presumably to cement his “gangsta” image. Is Quinlan bald? Like most men of his era, he wears a hat. But if you stop and think about it, he always wears a hat — that is, we literally never see him without it, from the first time we see him, getting out of his car, to the last, as he floats dead in the river.

We do on one occasion see the hat without him — we see it at Tana’s whorehouse, where Quinlan is presumably off-screen, passed out from his drinking binge; even here, it’s that hat that tells us he’s there somewhere. The hat is effectively the same icon, depriving or at least hiding his hair, a symbolic castration.[31] Uncle Joe is an inept stand-in for the real Grandi boss, whom Vargas has on trial in Mexico, as shown by his constantly lost or misplaced toupee.

The same with his candy bars, which he supposedly gnaws on to avoid drinking, as some people do for smoking. The whole scene is chock-full of sexual defeat:

Quinlan: Have you forgotten your old friend, hmm?

Tanya: I told you we were closed.

Quinlan: I’m Hank Quinlan.

Tanya: I didn’t recognize you. You should lay off those candy bars.

Quinlan: It’s either the candy or the hooch. I must say, I wish it was your chili I was gettin’ fat on. Anyway, you’re sure lookin’ good.

Tanya: You’re a mess, honey.[32]

Quinlan might also seem symbolically un-manned by his cane, but Quinlan, like Ahab, has turned it into a source of strength. He needs it not due to old age but from a heroic act, stopping a bullet aimed for his partner/stooge, Menzies.[33]

Most importantly, the cane/wound gives Hank his power, his “famous intuition,” a twinge that supposedly tells him who’s guilty, which he then “proves” by planting evidence. And when Vargas first suggests that Quinlan planted the dynamite in the shoe clerk’s apartment, Quinlan raises his cane between them as if to strike him dead.[34] One might indeed compare it to Wotan’s spear, and Quinlan’s one mistake is to leave it behind, symbolic of a temporary loss of wits, thus implicating himself as Uncle Joe’s murderer.

So, back to Vargas. As Heston and Welles agreed, Vargas is only the Hero by genre conventions. He’s actually quite inept: no competent cop, certainly not one of Vargas’ supposed importance, would poke his nose into some hick town murder, on the other side of the border, even, and certainly would not have done so with his new bride by his side. When Susie is kidnapped, his only tactic is to go around the bars beating up random people, and when he speeds out to confront Quinlan he roars right past the hotel where his wife is hanging out the window, screaming for help.

In fact, so inept is Vargas that I was reminded of the disgusted crew of the Satellite of Love, faced with the continuing, irritating ineptness of the protagonist of Manos: The Hands of Fate, generally agreed to be one of the Top Five candidates for the worst movie ever made:

“When is this guy going to demonstrate some simple competence!?” – MST3k

The resemblances start with the fractured Spanish title (manos means, as even I know, “hands,” so the title amounts to Hands: The Hands of Fate. Wow, how long did they take to dream that up?) and the Southwest background (the director was a fertilizer salesman in El Paso and shot it on weekends in nearby locales, as Welles did in Venice, California; the main action was filmed at a judge’s decrepit ranch, not unlike Quinlan’s I suppose). In both movies, the supposed “hero” (here played by the director, again like Welles), also named “Mike,” (Heston plays Ramon Miguel ‘Mike’ Vargas) takes his wife (and child, here) on a pleasure trip that turns into a nightmare. Along the way she’s groped in a motel-like room, like Susie, there’s a creepy, oddly gaited “night manager” (here, the immortal Torgo), gunplay at the end, etc.

The two most important similarities, however, are that along the way, our “hero” proves to be immensely incompetent, and, at the “twist” ending, he is apparently (the film is too badly made to make any sense) reincarnated as . . . the new keeper. Both these themes can be found in Touch of Evil, and may help us better understand the Breaking Bad finale.

Vargas, then, is our “good man” who is far from “good at being a man.” Even if we grant that he’s a good cop (he does, at least, have the head of the Grandi gang locked up) he’s a pretty piss-poor husband, either romantically or as a protector. If Menzies hadn’t killed him, Quinlan likely would have succeeded in framing Vargas, and he seems genuinely surprised that Quinlan doesn’t care when he points out that he can’t arrest him in Mexico (if only Vargas had been so wise in the first place!), since he plans to shoot him anyway.

Vargas doesn’t prove himself when he decides Quinlan is corrupt and goes after him (that’s more Ned Flanders bein’ a busy-body and all) but precisely when he realizes Susie has been kidnapped.

Vargas: Listen, I’m no cop now. I’m a husband! What did you do with her? Where’s my wife? My wife! (Grabbing and slapping people around left and right)

But what’s interesting here is that Vargas doesn’t, say, figure out how to use his cop skills to rescue his wife; instead, the only way he knows how to go about rescuing her is to stop being a cop. What he really means, is, stop being a Good Cop and become a Bad Cop. To be good at being a man, and save his wife, he must become Quinlan.

Schwartz: Intuition?

Vargas: Why not? Quinlan doesn’t have a monopoly on hunches.

What’s happened is that our two themes have coalesced: Vargas, a (morally) good cop, to become good as a man (find the killer, stop Quinlan’s reign, save his wife), must become a bad cop, like Quinlan himself.

Schwartz: Well, Hank was a great detective all right.

Tanya: And a lousy cop.

And thereby Quinlan is able to escape his karma, passing it off to the perfect sucker: Sr. Vargas. [35]

Like all genre films that last and become objects of fascination (“cult” films) there’s more going on here than meets the eye, or even than the “auteurs” know. We have at least three levels here:

There’s the superficial plot, which satisfies the studios and the audience, seeking either pastime or reassurance in a cruel world: the Good Guy (Vargas) wins, the Bad Guy (Quinlan) vanquished.

At a more profound level, the audience must get the masculinist message that to be good at being a man may require becoming, however briefly, a Bad Man.[36]

Menzies: You didn’t have to make it dirty.

Quinlan: I don’t call it dirty. Look at the record . . . All those convictions.

Menzies: Convictions, sure. How many did you frame?

Quinlan: Nobody.

Menzies: Come on, Hank. How many did you frame?

Quinlan: “No one — nobody that wasn’t guilty, guilty, guilty. Every last one of them — guilty.” (And indeed, “the last one,” Sanchez the shoe clerk, does confess, off screen).

Vargas and Quinlan are more alike than either (one anti-Mexican, the other anti-corruption) would like to admit. Vargas is famous enough to be recognized by the border guards, and almost immediately he meets “our local police celebrity.”

More particularly, both men’s metamorphoses are tied to their wives (as Walt’s, at least officially, is to his family). At the start of his police career, Quinlan’s wife was murdered — supposedly strangled by a Mexican whom he was never able to bring to justice.

In fact, although I can’t find many critics explicitly making this inference, it seems clear to me that Quinlan was the murderer, and the Mexican, who conveniently died in WWI, is simply a racially-charged alibi. He has dealt with his guilt by a life-long, obsessive pursuit of “justice,” finding and punishing the guilty by whatever means necessary.[37]

All his murder cases have become a replay of his own psychodrama, wherein he plays judge and executioner in the unproven affair of his dead wife and her lover. He strangled his wife . . . and now he hunts the shadows of the border town Los Robles for the surrogates who must pay the price for his ancient trauma.[38]

Menzies: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Drunk and crazy as you must have been when you strangled him. I guess you were somehow thinking of your wife, the way she was strangled.

Quinlan: Always thinking of her, drunk or sober. What else is there to think about? — Except for my job, my dirty job.

Menzies: You didn’t have to make it dirty.

Quinlan: I don’t call it dirty. Look at the record . . . All those convictions.

Menzies: Convictions, sure. How many did you frame?

Quinlan: Nobody.

Menzies: Come on, Hank. How many did you frame?

Welles’ genius was such as to allow him to view his characters objectively. Though Welles was a hard line com-symp, Quinlan gets more than enough sympathy as portrayed by Welles himself. The eye-rolling he gives Vargas’s little speech about a police state[39] is intensely funny (Welles the ham is in his element) but it also meets the audience’s eyes, thus implicating them as well — “Can you believe this guy?”[40]

screen-shot-2013-07-30-at-6-05-15-pm [8]

And finally, at the most profound level, it is insinuated that to reach Realization, one must find a way to offload one’s karmic attachments, and given a demonstration of just how to do it.

Now, I mentioned just now (see note 35) Vargas use of a wire to entrap Quinlan, and that reminds me that I should give some attention to the Other Hank, TV’s Hank,[41] Walt’s brother-in-law, and half-witted Holmes to Walt’s Prof. Heisenberg.

Is Walt White Hank Quinlan? The most natural doubling is Hank Quinlan/Hank Schrader. Both are Southwestern border-town lawmen, named Hank — duh! Hank matches Welles’s bulk, and like Welles speaks no Spanish (or rather, “I don’t speak Mexican”). Unlike Welles, he’s a basically honest cop, but not above roughing up a suspect — his beating of Jesse matches up with Welles’ “third degree” of the shoe store clerk (but smarter — Welles knows how to not leave a mark, while Hank’s beating of Jessie gets him in some hot water).

Quinlan (off camera): What’re you scared of? I’d only slap you again if you got hysterical. Wouldn’t be brutal. Even in the old days, we never hurt people in the face. It marks ’em up. We gave it to ’em like this. [Blow landing, Sanchez grunting]

Movie Hank walks with a cane, the result of a bullet intended for Menzies:

Quinlan: That’s the second bullet I stopped for you, Pete.

TV Hank is also crippled, temporarily, by a bullet. Movie Hank’s cane will betray his presence at Grandi’s murder. TV Hank’s medical bills are secretly paid by Walt, which enables Walt to stymie Hank’s subsequent investigation.

Most interestingly, Hank delivers the line that most directly links the two works:

While wiring Jesse for audio surveillance in the scene at the plaza, Hank instructs him, “Don’t cross your arms, if you can help it.” In Touch of Evil (1958), Charlton Heston as Vargas delivers a similar line, “Now remember, don’t cross your arms,” while wiring Sgt. Menzies to record Orson Welles’ character Hank Quinlan.[42]

The line is Vargas’, though; this emphasizes that TV Hank stands for a generalized notion of the Good Cop, what Movie Hank was but now can only perceive as a threat. Movie Hank is both TV Hank and Walt; by making Movie Hank himself a cop the film helps fit Walt’s story arc into 100 minutes, and intensify the story, by absorbing TV Hank’s story as well. Movie Hank shows the corruption of TV’s Hank/Walt combo.

It’s at the end, appropriately enough, that we witness the transfer of karma, and find the clearest similarities between the two works.

Touch of Evil, of course, opens with a legendary three-minute uninterrupted crane tracking shot, that covers four blocks from start to finish. But it is implicitly connected to the end, where Vargas crossing the Mexican border on foot with his wife is echoed by Vargas running over the bridge from Mexico[43] and jumping into Susie’s car and then roaring off, forgotten by the action and ignored by the camera.[44]

Breaking Bad ends with a crane shot, frequently discussed not so much for its technique, which is run of the mill today, as its emotional implications.

“But in came the dailies, with that wonderful crane shot moving over Walter White, and once we played the song, [we thought], ‘Oh, I get it now,'” Golubić continues. “This is a love-affair story of Walt and his love of science, and this was his greatest product — his greatest triumph as a chemist. It wasn’t about Walter White as a criminal or a murderer or an awful person. It was him ending on his own terms. It felt creatively right.”[45]

I’m not sure if a crane was used at the end of Touch of Evil, but Welles is now being shot from above, rather than the previous shots from below that emphasized Quinlan’s menacing bulk. These shots show the similarity of their ends:

Screen shot 2013-09-29 at 10.24.05 PM.JPG [9]

Touch-of-Evil-72 [10]

Conventional movie grammar has these kinds of shots symbolizing the defeat of the Bad Guy, his “fall” if you will. As I’ve suggested many times, this can also be given a positive meaning, at least esoterically. The body falls horizontally, resolved into the elements, (with Quinlan, water) while the spirit is released, upwards, freed from the burden of karma.[46]

Tanya: Isn’t anybody going to come and take him [the corpse] away?

Quinlan, thanks to Menzies’ betrayal, can now find rest; his karmic burden has been passed on to the naïve, inane Vargas, who happily speeds away:

Vargas: It’s all over, Susie; I’m taking you home.

Of course it isn’t; Vargas has changed, and will likely spend the rest of his career enjoying the application of the third degree in Mexico’s notorious jails.

But who, then, is Walt’s sucker? His partner, Jesse.

Like Menzies, Hank Quinlan’s apprentice sucker, Walt takes a bullet for him and, like the second bullet Hank Schrader takes, it kills him. Like Vargas, the ultimate sucker, he jumps in his car and roars away, laughing with glee.

At least one fan has put his figure on exactly why this denouement fails to satisfy:

I thought the ending sucked. What the fuck was Jesse so happy about? He was still destined to be a miserable (and now broke) fuck having to live with his shitty life choices.[47]

Both endings also have music which is “non-diagetic,” as the critics say, meaning it is not natural but presumably conveys a character’s POV. Quinlan’s corpse is eulogized by the gypsy/madam Tanya (Marlene Dietrich!) as the sentimental pianola music from his brothel is, through the magic of the movies, somehow audible way out by the bridge. Tanya had already clued us in on its archeofuturistic significance:

Tanya: The customers go for it — it’s so old, it’s new.

And indeed, Hank — or his karma — is now Vargas.

Also “so old it’s new” is the music of Breaking Bad’s finale, “Baby Blue” by Badfinger. The first line, “Guess I got what I deserved,” is clearly ironic in this context; in terms of the threefold analysis I proposed earlier, Walt has I suppose received his conventional comeuppance, but we know that on the levels of manhood and metaphysics, he has found both true manhood and transcendence.

To those of us of Walt’s generation (I admit to being somewhat creeped out by the realization that I’ve outlived him), Badfinger’s song irresistibly recalls an even older tune, Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which not only seems appropriate enough for a finale, but also literally recalls Vargas’ valediction:

Vargas: It’s all over now, Susie.

As we’ve said, nothing could be more false than Vargas’ naïve happy ending. But if we’re looking for the proper epitaph for both Quinlan and Hank, nothing can beat Tanya’s famous line:

Schwartz: Is that all you have to say for him?

Tanya: He was some kind of man . . .


[1] There’s no room here to even attempt to sort out the deliriously proto-postmodern production history of the film: “It was taken away from Welles during the editing process, and though he submitted an infamous 58-page memo of suggestions after seeing a later rough cut, only some were followed in the version ultimately released. Time has brought change, however, and there are now multiple versions of Touch of Evil for the viewer to choose from; but whereas history often resolves one version of a film to be the definitive article, it’s hard to know which that is in this case. Indeed, it’s so contentious that Masters of Cinema went so far as to include five versions on their 2011 Blu-ray (it would’ve been six, but Universal couldn’t/wouldn’t supply the final one in HD).” There is literally no “director’s cut” since Welles, in his memo, actually agrees with and accepts several of the changes made by the studio, and would have incorporated them into his own “final” version, if there ever had been one. I will avail myself of any shot that seems significant for this essay.

[2] Article by Neal Justin, Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 14, 2012, here: http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/tv/162294376.html [11]

[3] http://www.popmatters.com/feature/174332-go-home-walter-gustavo-fring-as-the-greatest-villain-in-television-h/ [12]

[4] http://breakingbad.wikia.com/wiki/Breaking_Bad [13]

[5] Of course, Don Draper doesn’t “dig” the psychedelic Beatles, unlike his younger second wife. She leaves a copy of Revolver around and suggest Don listen to “side one, last track” — i.e., “Tomorrow Never Knows” — but Don turns it off after a few measures. (Season 5, Episode 8 [14]) Like James Bond, he thinks that “some things just aren’t done . . . like listening to the Beatles without earmuffs”(Goldfinger); Don returns to compliment by listening to the theme to “You Only Live Twice“ on a barroom jukebox (Season 5, Episode 13 [15])..

[6] See my review of Dave McGowan’s Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon: Laurel Canyon, Covert Ops & the Dark Heart of the Hippie Dream, here [16].

[7] See, of course, the title essay of The Homo and the Negro (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2012).

[8] An “outrageously good re-release: Two discs, all three versions of the film, four commentaries, two featurettes — and a print version of the infamous memo, so you don’t have to squint at your screen to read it.” — DVD Verdict [17].

[9] “The Gilmore Girls Occupy Wall Street,” reprinted in The Homo and the Negro.

[10] “He develops a skill set.” — Bryan Cranston on his character, “Walter White,” interviewed during AMC’s 2014 “Breaking Bad Binge.”

[11] “Why ‘Breaking Bad’ Chose Badfinger’s ‘Baby Blue’ — Music supervisor Thomas Golubić explains Walt’s send-off song” by Steve Knopper; Rolling Stone, October 1, 2013, online here: http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/news/why-breaking-bad-chose-badfingers-baby-blue-20131001#ixzz3PU9xCFfm [18]

[12] http://breakingbad.wikia.com/wiki/Walter_White [19].

[13] The turkey ranch, we later realize, is the first thing we hear about Quinlan, right at the start — “Where’s Captain Quinlan? Got him out of bed at his ranch. He’s on his way,” providing a neat cyclicality.

[14] “Vince Gilligan, who had spent years writing the series The X-Files, expressed interest in creating a series in which the protagonist of the story became the antagonist. Gilligan has stated numerous times that his goal was to turn the protagonist, Walter White from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” — ibid.

[15] “You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in: I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No! I am the one who knocks!” ―Walter White

[16] http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/touchofevil50th.php [17]

[17] The Christian might object here, and this indeed divides Christianity, in its original or “purest” form, from the other (or the real) Wisdom traditions. This is why the “good Christian” presents such a sorry spectacle: a goody-goody like Ned Flanders, Hell seems so much more interesting than Heaven, and the Devil has all the good tunes. The pagan notion survives or intrudes into Mediaeval Europe in the form of chivalry and knighthood; the hermit wonders at Parzival: “Never has the Grail been won by violence [until now].” Even Protestantism, rejecting “good works” as a path to salvation, still finds itself obsessed with worldly morality. (“The Church has become a moral regulation society” — Alan Watts). We see the same notion in the Greek mysteries, where the philosophical conundrum arose at why a great criminal, if initiated, could merit a better posthumous fate than a “good man,” and of course in Tantrism. See Evola’s Introduction to Magic (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 2001) for the former, his The Yoga of Power: Tantra, Shakti and the Secret Way (originally titled The Man of Power; translated by Guido Stucco; Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions, 1992) for the latter. “Rascal gurus” (Watts) like Gurdjieff follow the “Way of the Clever Man” and regard their disciples as “Idiots.” Uncle Joe: “Why should I be tailing him [Menzies], he’s an idiot.”

[18] Jef Costello, “Breaking Bad: A Celebration,” here [20].

[19] “Why Do We Feel So Good About Walter White’s Bad Behavior?” by Steven Aoun 7 October 2013, here: http://www.popmatters.com/feature/175686-cop-out/ [21]

[20] Knopper, op. cit.

[21] Ed Wood (Tim Burton, 1994).

[22] After filming wrapped, Heston told Welles he had only made one mistake: there were several scenes that were only there to show Vargas was the hero, but really, “The film is about the fall of Hank Quinlan.” Welles said “I know. So we won’t have any problem with the cutting, will we?” – DVD commentary.

[23] The liberal elite “knows” Heston must be a bad actor, since like Reagan, he’s a “conservative”; asked about his politics, people will say “gun nut” rather than, say, “marched in Washington arm in arm with Martin Luther King” or “gave jobs to blacklisted actors.”

[24] Welles crafted a whole backstory about Vargas coming from a wealthy family, attending Stanford, etc., making him more Anglo than your standard illegal. Mexico, like most Third World countries, is ruled by a caste of light-skinned, European natives, as a look at the last few Mexican presidents would confirm. Speaking of Universal, I understand that when Edgar Bronfman, the Seagram’s heir who “always wanted to own a movie studio,” if I may paraphrase Kane, put together the Seagram’s/Universal/Vivendi deal, he was easily outsmarted by his French counterparts since, though a native of Quebec, he understood French not at all, having, like the rest of the Jewish elite, spent his life entirely among the anglophonic; French was for the peasants.

[25] These are the people who sneer that “wrestling is fake, man”; sure, isn’t Selma too? And I bet Spielberg didn’t “really” kill anyone on Schindler’s List either.

[26] http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/10/04/353516402/does-television-spanglish-need-a-rewrite [22]

[27] Joe Bob Brigg’s intro to the Guilty Pleasures DVD release of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Become Mixed-Up Zombies (Ray Dennis Stekler, 1963; 2004).

[28] http://newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com/2012/05/really-extraordinary-piece-by-dave.html [23]

[29] Done with contact lens and a cow’s tongue. Ironically, Welles had wanted a quick, almost subliminal shot, but the studio, as part of its re-editing, demanded a longer one.

[30] http://newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com/2012/05/really-extraordinary-piece-by-dave.html [23]

[31] Everyone knows the Negro has the worst hair of any race; hence the plethora of “Black Hair” magazines — corresponding to the White man’s self-help literature — the obsession with wigs and barbershops, extensions and weaves (always Asian hair, recognized as the best) and ultimately, for many males and even some females, application of the razor to eliminate the problem altogether. The free, proud White man wears his hair long and wild — the cavalier, cowboy, Gen. Custer, etc. The hair is shorn for boot camp or prison, and hence, like baggy (no belts!) pants, appeals to those degenerate Whites who ape the supposedly “manly” Negro, from skinheads to whiggers. And hence, my aforementioned aversion to Heisenberg as a role model for White men.

[32] Audiences today need to remind themselves that Welles, though no longer exactly boyish, was still a handsome enough Hollywood leading man, not the bloated, shambling talk-show clown he later became. The fat-suit and fake nose are far more convincing than the “old Kane” makeup (although at times, like while thrashing Grandi around in the tiny hotel room, his he recalls middle-aged Kane smashing up Susan’s room — here, it’s Vargas’ wife, Susie), and audiences in 1958 would have been genuinely shocked by his appearance. In a classic Hollywood story, Welles attended a party right after a day of filming, without time to clean himself up. He hadn’t been in Hollywood for a few years, and was created with cries of “Orson, you haven’t changed a bit! What’s your secret, you old dog?” and the like.

[33] Menzies, as befits his stooge role, is truly unmanned when Quinlan finally shoots him at the end: unlike Quinlan, he loses his hat, and even after shooting Quinlan he drops his gun as well, as Quinlan sneers “That’s the second bullet I’ve stopped for you, partner.”

[34] Is “raising Cain” related to “breaking bad”?

[35] Menizies had been, as he himself says, Quinlan’s “sucker” all along, unknowingly helping to plant evidence and build Quinlan’s reputation, but, as Uncle Joe says, he’s too much of an “idiot” to replace him. Instead, like Judas, his role is to betray Quinlan. He switches sides, and when he shows up at the whorehouse, after Vargas wires him up, the drunken Quinlan says “I thought you were Vargas.” After discovering the bug, he shouts “I’m talking to you, now, Vargas, through this walking microphone [Mike-rophone] that used to be my partner.” Menzies is, at best, what Jack Donovan would call a “runt”; see my use of this concept in my review of De Palma’s The Untouchables, reprinted in The Homo and the Negro.

[36] As we quoted Cranston at the start, to “break bad” means to “turn off the path of the straight and narrow, when they’ve gone wrong. And that could be for that day or for a lifetime.”

[37] “He mother never really love him / He crimefighting covers up a basic insecurity” is one of the lines in MST3k’s English “translation” of the Jet Jaguar theme song’s Japanese lyrics in “Episode 212: Godzilla versus Megalon.”

[38] http://www.culturecourt.com/F/Noir/TEvil.htm [24]

[39] Quinlan: Our job is tough enough.

Vargas: It’s supposed to be. It has to be tough. A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state. That’s the whole point, Captain — who’s the boss, the cop or the law?

[40] On the other hand [25]: “Amusingly, Bazin is indeed forced to admit that ‘in the interviews which he gave me . . . Welles challenged this interpretation. He maintains that his moral position is unequivocal and he condemns [Quinlan] absolutely.’ ‘The personal element in the film is the hatred I feel for the way the police abuse their power . . . The things said by Vargas are what I would say myself . . . that’s the angle the film should be seen from; everything Vargas says, I say.’ You can get pretentious about it all you want, and bring to bear political views that the film doesn’t support (after all, within the film Quinlan is punished for his crimes and the ‘mediocre’ [Truffaut’s word] moral hero triumphs), but sometimes a spade is a spade; sometimes a villain is a villain; sometimes your disgusting moral perspective isn’t being covertly supported by a film that seems to condemn it.” Of course, I will argue that Quinlan isn’t “punished” at all (death being a successful release from a realm of material futility), Vargas hardly “triumphs,” and Welles’ second-hand ACLU platitudes are irrelevant to what the film actually presents. Pretentious, moi?

[41] Not to be confused with TV’s Frank of the MST3k cast.

[42] IMDB on Breaking Bad: Rabid Dog [26] (2013) (TV Episode).

[43] Border and bridge are archetypal liminal locations, appropriate to such alchemical procedures; see my De Palma review referenced above.

[44] As the car chase starts up at the beginning of The Beast of Yucca Flats (another Southwest epic) the camera “incompetently” lingers on the second car while the first roars off-screen. “Off-camera excitement, the Coleman Francis way.” – MST3k, Season 7, Episode 21.

[45] See note 11, above.

[46] The finest example of this I know of is the last scene of the last movie of supposedly “bad” director Coleman Francis. Here, in Red Zone Cuba, Francis, like Welles, stars as the, literal, heavy. He runs across a field (the warp and woof of the material universe) and is shot down from a helicopter (a Francis trademark, replacing the crane shot and allied to shamanistic themes of flight); as he falls, he spins around (the whirl of manifestation, symbolized by the polar symbol of the swastika). Is this “the end of Rico” (as in the iconic end of Little Caesar)? No! A narrator suddenly appears for the first time, and it Coleman Francis himself, his character obviously delivering the epitaph — “Griffin. He ran all the way to Hell” — from a higher realm. I intend to explore the entire Shamanistic oeuvre of Coleman Francis in an upcoming essay.

[47] http://www.theburningplatform.com/2014/10/16/either-youre-the-butcher-or-youre-the-cattle/ [27]. This fan also “was never sold on Walt being a badass tough guy so that never worked for me. He was more of an extremely lucky, bumbling idiot!”