The women in Touch of Evil are distinctly different from the typical femme fatales found in the noir genre. Instead of a film that orbits around a woman–or at the very least gives significant importance to–the women of Touch of Evil orbit around the men. They become side characters, used only as props to tell the stories of men, and particularly in the case of Hank Quinlan, to humanize and contextualize his dark mortality.
When we first meet Susie Vargas, she appears to be a femme fatale: masculine, aggressive, and equally beautiful. As the gangsters attempt to use her to call off her husband’s narcotic investigation, she jokes with the gangsters—calling one pancho—and yells at them when she is frustrated, saying “yeah, yeah, yeah!” right in the face of Uncle Joe Grandi. She then tells him, “If you’re trying to scare me into calling him off, let me tell you something Mr. Grandi, I may be scared but he won’t be.” This is a critical inversion—while as a noir viewer, we still believe this may be a good girl act to cover up darker motives—by the end of the film, we recognize that this is the true Susie Vargas: one who admits that she is fearful and openly requires her husband’s protection.
A second inversion occurs during her time at the motel. In the first scene of Susie on the phone, she’s sexed up in a tight white bodice as she lies furtively on her bed talking to her husband–there’s a sense of power in the overt sexuality displayed in this scene. Yet in the scene that follows, we see her in a sweet, covered up baby doll dress. The viewers learn in this scene that the Grandis have captured her motel, unbeknownst to Susie, and are preparing to kidnap her. Visually, Susie is weakened in this scene, transitioning from a sexy woman to a scared little girl.
A femme fatale is slowly revealed to be stronger, smarter, and more deadly than the viewer once believed in noir films. Instead, Susie is slowly weakened by the plot of Touch of Evil. Going from a woman who yelled at gangsters to one who hides in a motel room while the entire plot happens outside her room. There is no retribution for Susie in the end of the film, no gotcha-I-actually-placed-the-bomb moment. We desperately wish her to establish some autonomy, to be the epic, beautiful femme fatale, but instead she becomes a typical damsel in distress—saved by her dear husband, driving happily into the sunset.
There is an ample argument to be made that any femme fatale in a noir film lacks true autonomy, that as films about patriarchy, each and every film orbits the world of the man. That may be true, but there is at the very least attempts at subverting the distressed women trope in these films. Instead, Susie—even in her very name—is a typical, weak, all-American house wife.
Welles uses specific flying shots of trash in Touch of Evil as both a visual and aural motif–in the rear of a club as Quinlan and his crew first investigate the murder or the final scene of Quinlan slowing dying in a garbage dump. Garbage becomes “a reflection of the human condition and the material embodiment of the evil we live with.” It is so very American in its magnitude of waste–a seedy commentary on American capitalism and wealth–made even more poignant by its location on the border. In America, in Welles’ eyes, we waste much and then quickly push the waste toward others, in this case across the border, so that we can consume more. As Eric Kruger says in his paper, “If border towns do bring out the worst in countries, perhaps, then, they are metaphors for what those countries really are.” Welles is saying then that we are a country full of both waste and evil–almost as if he predicts the plastic and consumer revolution that would come largely in the 1960s and make America into the truly consumerist, capitalist country we are so proud to be today.