Touch of Evil: A baroque and wildly innovative Orson Welles masterpiece that came at the end of the golden era of film Noir

Touch of Evil(1958) is one of  Orson Welles’ greatest films and it’s perhaps the last great film Noir from the classic period. The Film  was butchered by the studio at the time of its release, but has since been restored to its intended form.


Everything about me is a contradiction, and so is everything about everybody else. We are made out of oppositions; we live between two poles. There’s a philistine and an aesthete in all of us, and a murderer and a saint. You don’t reconcile the poles. You just recognize them.

Orson Welles

“A policeman is supposed to enforce the law, and the law protects the guilty as well as the innocent. 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?”

These words spoken by Miguel Vargas(Charlton Heston), a Mexican Lawman to Hank Quinlan(Orson Welles), an American Police Captain  is the pivotal theme of Orson Welles’ 1958 film Touch of Evil. Both Vargas and Quinlan are investigating a case of a bomb explosion that took place on the Mexican-American border. While the young Vargas is a honest, idealistic cop who believes in following due procedure in enforcing the law and catching the culprits; The ageing, morally corrupt Quinlan acts as both judge, jury, and executioner. His philosophy of planting evidence on suspects and thus convicting them – an act he refers to as aiding justice – is not acceptable to Vargas . Their argument becomes a turning point in the film in which the character of Hank Quinlan who was this demi-god of a policemen up to this point is going to be brought down by the rookie Vargas, aided in no measure by Quinlan’s own weaknesses.

Circa 1957, Charlton Heston, who was a rising star in Hollywood, receives the script for a potential film project from Universal Studios . Its an adaptation of a crime novel called Badge of Evil by Whit Masterson. Heston reads it and finds it interesting enough to call up the studio top brass and discuss the details. They have not set up a director yet , but informs him that they have locked Orson Welles for the supporting role of Hank Quinlan. Heston tells them, why don’t they give the directing gig also to Welles . he is a pretty good director who made Citizen Kane. Heston later remarked that most probably the studio would have cursed him for making that suggestion. It’s true that Welles was a pretty good director; hell! he was one of the greatest directors and has made Citizen Kane which is considered the greatest film ever made. But he was considered unreliable, troublesome ,profligate and too arty. His films including Kane were all massive flops. He was exiled from Hollywood and he had become an independent filmmaker in Europe, patching together finances for his films from various acting gigs. But the studio gave into Heston’s wishes and appointed Welles the director of the film. It also helped that Welles had a long time acquaintance at Universal who supported this decision. Thus Touch of Evil – the new title for the film – became Welles’ first Hollywood film in ten Years. Welles rewrote the film extensively and brought in a lot of his old Hollywood friends like Joseph Cotten and Marlene Dietrich in to the film. Welles looked upon this opportunity as a new beginning for him in Hollywood and he was determined to make  the best of it by making a great film within the stipulated time and budget.

Touch of Evil begins with one of the most spectacular opening scenes in film history: An extended single tracking shot opening, a dazzling, three minute set-up that sucks you into this neon-lit seedy world of the border town. The shot opens with a ticking time bomb which is then planted by an unidentifiable man in a convertible. Then the  camera crane swoops through the busy night scene and catches hold of  Vargas and his pert blonde all-American bride Susie (Janet Leigh), slumming on honeymoon, stroll across into America in search of a chocolate ice cream soda. Camera follows them uninterruptedly as they move from block to block, we see  pedestrians scurry around and finally they reach the checkpoint and at this moment the convertible with the bomb also reaches the checkpoint. The driver’s floozy companion complains that she’s “Got this ticking noise in my head,”  while Vargas, Susie and the border patrol guard exchange  small talk . The convertible passes them and then explodes in to a ball of fire. Now we have the first cut in the scene as Vargas and the rest runs towards the exploding car. Welles spent a whole day rehearsing this scene without doing any shooting that sent alarm bells ringing at the studio. They felt that Welles was up to his old ways, but once he canned this shot at the end of the day, the film became two days ahead of schedule. Though the studio  head of production at the time – whose main product was Rock Hudson – Doris day films and B movies – felt that Welles was just showing off. which he definitely was. Welles was a born showman and he was a master of all arts ranging from Cinema, theater and magic to politics. But his showmanship had a solid foundation and was based on a clear idea as to what he wanted to do in the selected art form. The same goes for Touch Of Evil as well. this epic first scene sets the template for the film to follow.

In that one shot, Welles conveys a hell of lot. He sets  the mood of the film. he sets up the two leading characters; the heat and sweat of the sleazy town , but more importantly he sets up the plot in which the interracial couple will be the most affected by this bomb explosion. Post this opening scene, we start hearing about this legendary cop called Hank Quinlan, who is the police Captain and  who would be in charge of this case. He is third main character in the film after Vargas and Susie. But as the film progresses, we realize that the film is basically Quinlan’s story.   Finally Quinlan arrives  at the site of the explosion in his police car. He is given a heroic introduction, framed in a low angle shot, with the camera looking up at him reverentially. But he is far from a heroic figure .We see the corpulent Quinlan, disheveled and unshaven,  trying hard to squeeze his giant physique out of the car. Welles who was 42 at the time was heavy, but he used additional padding and an artificial nose to turn Quinlan into a grotesque figure who walks with a limp. He got the limp while stopping a bullet intended for his partner Pete Menzies, who is now an ardent devotee of Quinlan and unabashedly worships him. At this point in the film, Quinlan is at the zenith of his power. the rest of the film will detail his decline . Immediately on Quinlan’s arrival  there is conflict with Vargas as Quinlan makes a racist joke about his interracial coupling with Susie. Vargas, who is a drug enforcement official, has an enemy in town by the name of Joe Grandi(Akim Tamiroff), whose brother he put away on a drug charge. Grandi and his family of thugs relentlessly stalks and attacks Vargas and Susie . Finally Susie decides to go over to a motel on the American side. In a sequence that precedes her iconic meeting with Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates in Psycho by a couple of years, Janet Leigh’s Susie runs into an equally twitchy, nervous and weird motel night manager(Dennis Weaver). She is going to have an equally nightmarish experience in this motel as well, where she would be threatened with sexual violence, drugged , kidnapped and then arrested for murder. All done by Grandi and his thugs at the behest of Quinlan who sort to discredit Vargas by implicating his wife in a drug case. As mentioned in the beginning Vargas and Quinlan has a fallout over implicating a guy named Sanchez, whom Quinlan suspects of being the culprit. He plants evidence to indict Sanchez, which is found out by Vargas and he walks out, not wanting to be part of Quinlan’s plan. To stop Vargas from exposing him, Quinlan hatches the plan with Grandi to implicate Susie.

As the film progresses, we get to know more about Quinlan’s past and we realize that he is more of a fallen angel. He was a good cop until his wife was strangled to death. He tried his best to solve the murder case but he was unable to catch the culprit. Since then he has been planting evidence to catch those whom he believe to be guilty. But now he has gone completely over to the dark side trying to implicate a honest officer like Vargas. Things get even worse, when he double crosses Grandi and kills him by strangling him- an echo back to his wife’s death, as if he is taking revenge for his loss – and leaving him dead by Susie’s bed, thus implicating her in a murder charge also. But in his hurry , Quinlan forgets his cane at the site , which seals his fate and turns even his ardent worshiper Menzies against him when he realizes that it was Quinlan who was behind the murder. He joins hands with Vargas in bringing down Quinlan . In the end, both Menzies and Quinlan kill each other, while Vargas is reunited with Susie.

Quinlan and Vargas , though from different nationalities, different races and different age groups, are almost mirror images of each other. What is happening with Vargas and Susie has already happened with Quinlan and his wife. Quinlan was very much a cop like Vargas in his youth and it is the loss of his wife that pushed him over the edge. We see something similar happen to Vargas. After his wife is taken away from him, he too almost goes over the edge. Contrary to the law enforcement policy he was championing earlier, he breaks the rules himself as he violently beats up the thugs whom he thinks are behind the disappearance of his wife. The nightmare that Vargas is having with Quinlan is inter cut with Susie’s nightmare in the motel. And Quinlan is orchestrating both, like the devil, tempting both husband and wife to succumb to his evil.  It’s the age old biblical tale of temptation and sin that Welles is exploring here.  He is Satan lording over this hell hole of a border town. But Vargas manages to kill the devil by turning one of his own disciples against him. But you could see how morally complex the whole film is. Sanchez finally confesses to his crime. He is indeed guilty of the bomb attack. Looks like all those who were indicted by Quinlan by placing false evidence were also guilty. Quinlan himself is not all black. we see his sensitive side in his interactions with the brothel madam Tanya(Marlene Dietrich) who is also a Gypsy tarot card reader, who tells Quinlan that he has no future as he has already used up all of it. In the end, both Vargas and Susie manages to escape the clutches of the devil, with their life and soul intact.

“I’d seen the film four or five times before I noticed the story,” confessed famous director  Peter Bogdanovich to Orson Welles about this film explaining it was the direction and cinematography that blew him away. I echo his sentiments . I have seen the film countless times and even today, i am not sure about a lot of aspects of the story, nor do i care. The film is such a dazzling audio visual experience that you don’t bother with the main plot. And even for Welles , the main plot was of little consequence. Welles stated that his goal with the film was to infuriate the audience with the plot, in much the same way that Howard Hawks did with his Noir masterpiece “The Big Sleep” (1946).That film was so complex that even the writer and director lost track of it. Here Welles doesn’t even bother to explain a lot of things, something that will get him in trouble with the studio later. But concentrates on the visualization, by digging deep into the Noir elements of the film. Right from Citizen Kane, Welles had been an extraordinary visual artist, who frames , lights and moves the camera like no one else. Then there are those auteurial tics: Wide angled- deep focus photography,  highly improvised acting style, Overlapping dialogue, Sporadic editing where the next scene begins before the current one ends. Touch of Evil is no different. This film too luxuriates in its spatial choreography, effective acting improvisations, and in  the work of expert cinematographer Russell Metty, who has earlier worked with Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons. Apart from the fantastic opening scene, the climax of the picture, where Menzies engages Quinlan in a long conversation and forces him to confess his past and present crimes, which Vargas, tracking the two, gets it all recorded on his tape recorder. Quinlan discovers the deception only after he has finished his confession. In extreme shock and anger he shoots Menzies, and is about to kill Vargas too, when he is himself shot by the expiring Menzies. The entire scene is a great marriage of visuals and sound with the camera moves, sound design and editing cuts heightening the suspense to an unbearable level.

Like much of Welles’s work, the film was taken out of his hands by studio chiefs and re-edited without his approval. The story, that was very complex to begin with , became even more confusing once the studio re-cut the picture. Welles, who had high hopes for the film (and his future career in Hollywood) especially since the production of the film was a very  smooth affair, was shocked by Studio’s reaction to the final film.  He expressed the same in a long, anguished memo that became the basis of the film’s restoration carried out in the late 90’s by the great editor and sound designer Walter Murch . The main change that Welles requested and was made in the restored cut is in the removal of the credits that were superimposed on the famous opening tracking shot. Henry Mancini’s music in this scene is also removed and is replaced by background sounds and source music keeping in with Welles’ wishes. The other main editing change is regarding the stories of Vargas and Susie , which now play out much more in Parallel with far more inter cutting. This version is now considered the definite version of this film.

Welles had a life long fascination with Shakespeare. He has adapted Shakespeare to stage and screen several times.  Even in his non Shakespearean films like Citizen Kane, The Stranger or  Lady from Shanghai, he played characters who could be considered the Shakespearean tragic hero. In Touch of Evil, Welles creates and gives one of his most Shakespearean characters and performances as the ageing, corrupt police chief Captain Quinlan .To associate with Quinlan is to be touched by pure evil and hence the title of the film. Though he often played “villains” or mixture of contradictions as he puts it in the opening quote of this piece, he always brought to such roles a boyish giddiness and exuberance  that grants even the blackest characters a youthful unworldliness. His performance here , though much darker than his other performances, have the same qualities He could find innocence in evil and even make it very attractive. Welles’ artistic self is as big as his physical self. He never shied away from giving a big performance. But he was theatrical without being stagy, unlike actors like Richard Burton or Laurence Olivier . He emanated power and energy on screen effortlessly  and it was impossible to imagine him as anyone weak .   He gives one of his greatest screen performances in this film, perhaps second only to his grand performance as Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight which can be considered his greatest performance.

As a director or Auteur, this film is autobiographical like all his other films. The film is as much about Orson Welles , the man and the artist, as  it is about anything else. Welles  places us inside a world of oppression, where bullies thrive and intimidation is the rule. It’s a noir that is genuinely pessimistic and cynical in its world view, in spite of its youthful star couple of Heston and Leigh riding away happily at the end. Welles’ Hank Quinlan, the good bad cop, the hero and villain of the film, who puts convictions and his hunches over the inconveniences of the law, is very much a mirror image of Welles the anarchic artist, whose independent artistic streak cannot be contained within the boundaries of studio control. He had the Midas touch touch or rather the Anti-Midas touch. Just as whatever Midas touched turned to gold, whatever Welles touched turned into great art. It’s never more evident in this film, which is essentially a B movie about cops and thugs, seedy brothels and dance bars in a pulpy tale set on a sleazy border town . But he managed to turn even that into great art. Of course it cost him dearly in the film business as commercial success eluded him.  The final scene of Quinlan’s death ;After he is shot by Menzies, Quinlan loses his balance and his large body falls backwards into the oily, dark water. He flounders and dies like an animal in the shallow canal, is a reflection of what happened with Welles career. The gigantic artist brought down by his  inherent flaws as a man. At the end of his career , he was forced to do cameos in B grade movies and appear in commercials to raise money for his film projects.

Marlene Dietrich’s Tanya, who is left to watch Quinlan’s body floating in the muddy water , gets to speak the last words in the film. She is describing Quinlan here , but she might as well be describing Orson Welles:

“He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?…Adios!”


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