Quinlan: Come on, read my future for me.
Tana: You haven’t got any.
Quinlan: Hmm? What do you mean?
Tana: Your future’s all used up.
A grotesquely bloated, corrupt cop stumbling through a self-created mire of lies and death, sick of the world and his own ugly, irredeemable self. Glints and flecks of a better person, far in the past, appear, reflected not in his own time-assaulted visage but in a despised Other, a strong brown man with a beautiful wife, the kind of glamorous woman he used to have. A lowly Other, as he sees it, an inferior creature putting on airs … yet embodying the gritty nobility and thirst for justice that he, the bloated one, the one whose soul is already rotting in its putrescent flesh, once held in his own heart as his ideal. This comes out every time he speaks the Other’s name, in a slurred drawl that mixes loathing and yearning in equal measure: “Vargas.”
Orson Welles’ portrayal of Capt. Hank Quinlan in his 1958 film “Touch of Evil” is perhaps the most courageous self-immolation in cinema history — even Marlon Brando in “Apocalypse Now” makes sure there is a kind of ruined beauty and grandeur in his portrayal of Kurtz. But Welles —himself once a glamorous golden boy of American culture, at one time married to one of the most alluring women in the world, Rita Hayworth — cuts himself no such slack. There is no ruined grandeur in the jowly, sweating, loathsome wretch he pushes at the audience — often in large, intense close-ups. This is what we can come to, he says, using himself as a canvas of human degeneracy. Perhaps, he hints, this what we are — this is all we are — at the core.
To cover up his own long-term corruption, Quinlan tries to frame both the upright Mexican detective, Miguel Vargas, played by Charlton Heston (not a brown man at all, of course; but then again, the Other is always a fiction, generated by a fearful mind) — as well as Vargas’s new wife, played by Janet Leigh. (This “mixed marriage” is another rumbling undercurrent in the film.) In the end, Quinlan is shot by his disillusioned partner, and dies in a pool of industrial wastewater.
Just before this, Quinlan visits a brothel-keeper, with whom he once had a relationship. He’s now so rotten and bloated that she can barely recognize him. She’s played by yet another person once considered one of the world’s most alluring women: Marlene Dietrich. He thinks she’s reading cards for fortune-telling —she says she’s just doing accounts — and he asks her to tell his future. That’s where the dialogue above comes in.
This exchange comes to my mind more and more as I read the staggering farrago of the daily news. In this light — or rather, in this darkness visible — Quinlan increasingly appears not just as an emblem of universal, institutional and individual corruption, but as a prophecy of America’s present reality… and its destiny.
As many have noted, Donald Trump’s presidency does not represent some kind of aberration in the nation’s politics, or in its character; it is much more of an apotheosis. Or perhaps a long-simmering impostume finally swollen to the bursting point, dousing us all with fountains of rancid pus, built up over many generations. Trump has held a mirror up to America’s nature — and shown us, in its reflection, a gigantic close-up of Quinlan.
The chronicle of a nation’s death is oft foretold, of course, without the prophecy necessarily proving true. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that we are now in uncharted waters, with the ship of state fatally holed. Just as Trump is bringing the country’s racist, grifting, shallow, violent, psychosexually disturbed quintessence to the fore, we are also witnessing the collapse of almost every institutional force that once stood as a bulwark — or at least a light brake — against our worst instincts.
The political opposition is utterly enfeebled, clueless, corrupt and compromised. The media is, if anything, even worse: vapid, ignorant, juvenile, and largely in the hands of corporate behemoths and oligarchs; its main act of “resistance” has been the resurrection of a rebooted McCarthyism that paints America as the innocent victim of a Kremlin ogre, while letting Trump skate on the manifold and manifest ordinary crimes this cheap hood and his ilk have perpetrated over decades. Academia? Also on its knees to corporations and oligarchs. The justice system? Forget it. It’s now a killing machine running wild in the streets, combined with a shakedown operation looting the people with fines, fees, bail and confiscation. Hollywood? You mean the industry making movies with the military and the CIA, when it’s not bludgeoning us with vigilante superheroes and mind-numbing CGI spectacles, all of them featuring dehumanized, demonized Others who deserve destruction? (They also slashed up “Touch of Evil,” then relegated it to B-movie drive-in fare.)
No one can see what’s yet to come. But the image we see in the American mirror today – a corpulent, desolate wreck, sinking into poison water, grunting out his last breaths of humanity – makes one fear the nation’s future is indeed all used up.
(This was my column in the June issue of CounterPunch Magazine, which I somehow failed to post at the time.)