Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

Fear grips a Mexican border town when a time bomb planted in an automobile detonates shortly after entering the United States, killing an influential businessman. Among the people who witnessed the explosion are Miguel “Mike” Vargas, a Mexican drug enforcement officer, and his wife Susie. Police Chief Pete Gould and District Attorney Adair arrive on the scene shortly thereafter. They are then followed by a police captain named Hank Quinlan and his longtime partner, Pete Menzies. Realizing the gravity of a bomb from Mexico exploding on American soil, Vargas volunteers to help investigate the case. In doing so, he discovers a secret that may cause irreparably damage Menzies’s idolization of his superior.

Touch of Evil was conceived as an adaptation of Badge of Evil, a 1956 novel written by Robert Allison “Bob” Wade and H. Bill Miller. Charlton Heston, who plays Miguel Vargas, claimed that after learning Orson Welles was among the cast members, he convinced the executives to have him direct the film. As Universal Studios wanted Mr. Heston as the lead character, and he expressed that he would be far more interested in the film if Mr. Welles were to direct. The studio agreed under the stipulation that he only received his original salary he was to receive as an actor. This, in turn, led to Janet Leigh’s involvement as Susie Vargas. Her agent rejected her participation without consulting her on the grounds that she was offered too low of a salary. Mr. Welles, who anticipated this, sent a letter to Ms. Leigh, expressing that he was looking forward to working together with her. For her part, she was furious at her agent, telling him that the opportunity to be directed by Mr. Welles was more important than a paycheck.

Interestingly, there is an alternate story as to how Mr. Welles ended up in the director’s chair. He had recently worked with Albert Zugsmith on a film entitled Man in the Shadow and was interested in returning the favor by directing one for him. Mr. Zugsmith, in turn, gave the esteemed actor-director a pile of scripts. Mr. Welles, seeking a challenge, asked for the one Mr. Zugsmith considered the worst to prove he could make a good film out of a bad script. He had been directing films in Europe for a decade and was eager to return to Hollywood, which is how he came to accept an acting fee for the role of Hank Quinlan.

Police captain Hank Quinlan’s introduction brings to mind how Orson Welles filmed himself as Charles Foster Kane. That is to say, he is filmed from a lower perspective. Doubtlessly, this was used to give his character presence and to emphasize the authority he controls. It’s especially noticeable when he purposely does not film Quinlan’s partner, Menzies, in such a manner. As an actual character, Quinlan has many similarities with the character Orson Welles portrayed in The Third Man. From the minute he begins speaking, you know he’s the man in charge and you want to listen to what has to say.  However, when you take a step back and process what he is saying, you realize you’re listening to the words of an abhorrent person who has no business being in his position of power.

If by some chance you believe he’s still on the level despite his politically incorrect tendencies, what he does to catalyze the plot in earnest will make you change your mind. His prime suspect is Sanchez, a young Mexican man who is secretly married to the victim’s daughter. When investigating Sanchez’s apartment, Vargas accidentally knocks over an empty shoebox. Moments later, Menzies claims to have found two sticks of dynamite in the same shoebox. Vargas accuses Quinlan of planting the evidence to frame Sanchez. Quinlan denies doing this, believing Vargas to be biased in favor of his fellow countrymen.

Taking this development at face value, one could easily categorize Quinlan as the archetypical corrupt policeman. Though, from a superficial standpoint, this is what his character entails, Touch of Evil provides a markedly more sophisticated take on the concept. I say this because Menzies’s admiration of Quinlan is suggests his superior was once an honest man. Although this film does not make use of flashbacks, there is a plenty of anecdotal and empirical evidence to back up this interpretation. The most obvious proof is Quinlan’s permanently injured leg, which he got taking a bullet for his partner. However, a lifetime of investigating murders and being confronted with humanity’s worst actions on a regular basis has disillusioned him to the point where he is now worse than the criminals he hunts. The murder of his wife and his subsequent inability to bring the killer to justice can be said to have transformed him into what he is now. As Vargas learns when investigating past cases Quinlan worked on, the captain has been planting evidence on suspects he believes to be guilty, believing he can do no wrong.

This ties into what I feel really allows Touch of Evil to stand out from its contemporaries; it begins as a typical film noir mystery affair before turning the tropes on their head. Two wealthy people have been murdered in a violent explosion and it’s up to Miguel Vargas to collaborate with the American police force to bring the perpetrator to justice. As the film progresses, the murder becomes more of a background element until the primary force driving the plot is Vargas attempting to expose Quinlan’s corrupt practices. In doing so, Mr. Welles was given free rein to cover ground he couldn’t by committing to the genre’s ethos. It’s a story that details the subtle nuances involved when both sides of an international crime investigation flaunt their political wills and prejudices. Suddenly, why the original crime was committed in the first place is largely unimportant.

The one thing I find the most interesting about Touch of Evil is how Orson Welles plays the antagonist of the scenario. It’s uncommon, though not unusual, for someone play a character in the film they’re directing. It is, however, exceptionally rare for the director to portray the antagonist of their own film. Mr. Welles was an outspoken critic of racism for his entire life, so it was highly fitting in a roundabout way that he breathed life into such a character. In portraying Quinlan, he embodies the kind of person he felt the world was better off without. This is subtly enforced by how his character is shot in later scenes. Once the audience is fully aware of his character’s true nature and the stress of Vargas’s accusations get to him, Welles stops shooting himself from below. The audience now sees him for what he is, dispelling the powerful mystique he once carried.

Even with all there is to write about him, Quinlan would be nothing without a protagonist to oppose him, and Vargas proves to be the perfect foil. Vargas is the kind of person Quinlan dismisses as a shortsighted idealist. Like Quinlan himself, it’s easy to get that impression of him at first, but actually examining his character in-depth reveals it to be an inaccurate assessment. He is a far cry from the cynical Quinlan, yet he is also not the least bit foolhardy. He knows full well the dangers of his line of work, observing that it would only be easy in a police state. This is punctuated by his decision to record a drunken Quinlan to prove his culpability – a tactic both underhanded and pragmatic.

To this end, he recruits Quinlan’s partner, Menzies. Despite not being a main character, the arc this character undergoes is intriguing. You get the sense that this man has nothing but respect for Quinlan – even during his worst moments. It’s not as though the reasons behind his admiration are invalid, as they are shown to the audience in brief snippets throughout the film. Nonetheless, it is when Quinlan gets a Mexican drug gang to kidnap Susie Vargas, murders their leader, and implicates her in his own crime that Menzies realizes the man he respected is well and truly gone. In his stead is a construct with all the memories and vague affectations of his friend, but none of the moral compunctions that made him who he was. To assuage his own guilt, he feels obligated to help Vargas bring down this construct.

I must also applaud the final sequences for being amazingly suspenseful. Because of the technology available at the time, Vargas has no choice but to tail Quinlan and Menzies in order to record their conversation clearly. When Quinlan eventually hears the echo of the radio, you know he’s putting the pieces together in his alcohol-addled mind, and you’re hoping that he doesn’t notice the deception. He does, and shoots Menzies with the gun he had stolen from Vargas’s briefcase. Just when Quinlan is about to kill Vargas, Menzies uses his last ounce of strength to shoot and fatally wound his idol. In yet another interesting twist, Al Schwartz, the district attorney’s assistant, arrives on the scene and reveals Quinlan’s attempt to plant evidence was pointless because Sanchez confessed to the murder. Vargas is reunited with his now-exonerated wife and the two of them drive away. Schwartz discovers Quinlan’s dead body along with Tanya, the head of a brothel whom the captain nostalgically visited earlier in the film. The assistant comments that Quinlan was a great detective. “And a lousy cop”, Tanya adds. When he asks if that’s all she can say about him, she gives a famous reply.

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

The two part ways and the film ends on that bittersweet note.

I find it appropriate that Touch of Evil was released in the same year as Vertigo because the two films have a very similar structure. Both are film noir classics that radically switch gears around the halfway point, using the premise as a springboard to delve into entirely new territory. However, I have to comment that, in an abstract way, Touch of Evil is the film Vertigo tried, but ultimately failed to be. While Vertigo outright forgot to resolve its more intriguing introductory plot and replaced it with a far less interesting interpersonal drama, Touch of Evil changes its plot while retaining the intrigue built up in the interim. The result is a film that covers a lot of stylistic and artistic ground in a surprisingly short amount of time.

Despite this, I can imagine modern viewers hesitant to give Touch of Evil a chance. It is a forward-looking film that touches upon the rampant corruption and racism in the police force, yet there isn’t a single Mexican in the cast. It can be pretty distracting trying to remember that Charlton Heston’s character is meant to be Mexican when he doesn’t even have an accent and his Spanish lines are horribly mangled. Indeed, despite being satisfied with the film, Charlton Heston would later consider playing a Mexican without attempting to affect an accent or learn his Spanish lines phonetically one of the greatest mistakes he ever made as an actor. Regardless, the crew’s heart was in the right place, and the deconstructive elements found in Touch of Evil allow it to stand to this day both as one of Mr. Welles’s stronger works and as an example of a B-film that overshadows many big-budget efforts.

Final Score: 9/10

13 thoughts on “Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958)

  1. I agree with the previous commenter re: that magnificent opening shot in Touch of Evil. Right from the start, you know you’re in for a different kind of movie.

    Good point re: the original crime. It becomes unimportant with all that follows in the film, especially when we meet Welles’s Quinlan. Another brilliant point you made is this is the film Vertigo tried to be and failed. I like Vertigo, but this film makes Vertigo seem a little silly, no?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it was quite the opening alright. It really grabs your attention like nothing else.

      I did not like Vertigo. It is far from the most disappointing film I’ve seen, but it handled the halfway plot switch much more clumsily in that it completely forgot to finish telling the first story and then it just kind of stops. I have no idea why Vertigo gets more praise than Shadow of a Doubt when the latter is clearly the superior product. And either way, Touch of Evil completely blows Vertigo out of the water. For that matter, I would also say High and Low pulls off something similar far more successfully.


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