Touch of Evil
Director: Orson Welles
Usually credited as being one of the final entries in the original era of film noir, Touch of Evil stands out as being one the darkest and most sinister noirs of them all. Co-written, co-starring and directed by Orson Welles (known for other noirs including The Third Man and The Lady from Shanghai, as well as a little-known filled called Citizen Kane…), it is a story into corruption and the abuse of power set amongst a Cold-War era backdrop of racial tension and suspicion set in a small town on the Mexican border.
“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?”
This quote aptly sums up the underlying message of the film, with the conflict between the two central leads – Vargas and Quinlan – being used to bring the subject to life. The film begins with a newly-married couple – Mexican police officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his young, blonde American wife Suzie (Janet Leigh), as they witness a car-bombing shortly before setting out on their honeymoon. The police soon arrive, led by Hank Quinlan, a man known for his ability to crack the toughest of cases using his own, seemingly infallible intuition. In reality, his intuition only ever leads to him planting the evidence in a crime scene needed to secure the conviction. Quinlan soon traces a lead and finds his suspect. Vargas, during an interrogation, is witness to Quinlan’s methods and the planting of evidence, setting a conflict between the two men with Vargas determined to expose Quinlan and his methods.
Thanks to his role as a narcotics agent, Vargas is a man closely targeted by a gang of Mexican hoodlums and drug dealers, who are eager to have him killed for his previous arrest of one of their own men. Discovering this, Quinlan enters into a dark alliance with the leader of the Mexican to oversee Vargas’ removal, by kidnapping his new bride and framing her for a murder whilst setting her up as a heroin addict, whilst held in a sleazy motel alongside the young, male members of the gang. Needless to say, the idea of rape and assault is never far from the audience’s mind.
Between the role of Quinlan and the rather brutal sub-plot involving Vargas’ wife, the film oozes with sleaziness and dark sexual undertones, driven by the scenes involving Janet Leigh. Welles and Heston make for great counterparts, even if their characters do come across as a bit black-and-white in terms of morality. Vargas is a squeaky-clean, honest cop who is appalled by Quinlan’s actions, whereas Quinlan’s entire career is suggested as being led to corruption and a disregard for due process.
“He was a great detective, but a lousy cop.”
The story develops as Vargas works to expose Quinlan’s corruption, whilst his wife is left stranded and fighting for her life whilst held hostage by the Mexican gang members, controlled by Quinlan himself as well as the sleazy mob goon working under Quinlan’s thumb. The purpose of this second plot involving Suzie seems somewhat separate from the main Vargas-Quinlan conflict at first, and seems to simply be designed to shock and disturb, but as it develops and the extent of Quinlan’s motives become clear, it stands up as being equally as important as Heston’s scenes, by virtue of showing how corrupt, yet ruthlessly efficient, Quinlan can be in dispensing his own idea of justice, at the expense of the law and the requirements it entails.
The conflict between Vargas and Quinlan is essentially once of law and procedure versus vigilante justice and a ‘end-justifies-the-means’ approach. Welles himself (as can be read in the substantive booklet that comes with the Eureka Blu-ray edition of the film) placed his flag in the idea of the law as the boss, which makes his role as Quinlan all the more interesting. Welles plays him as a truly repulsive figure, presumably to match the opinion that Welles himself had of him. Welles is almost unrecognisable in the role – the character is crude, overweight, unpleasant, abusive, ruthless and is truly rotten to the core. Not that he is without moral depth or redemption – he walks with a heavy limp owing to his taking a bullet in the leg for a friend. More importantly, the morality of his methods is explored in detail. The suspect in question (having already been set up) allegedly confesses to the bombing. Ostensibly, the confession suggests that Quinlan’s methods, though unsound, still have the effect of getting to the truth. Thus the moral dilemma of the film is created. That said, exactly how his confession was obtained – i.e. whether genuine or through force – is left unknown.
It’s not always comfortable viewing, but it is certainly a deep and well-thought out piece. Unfortunately, Welles’ vision might not have been completely achieved – the film was beset by studio interference once filming was finished, and many key scenes were changed or cut at their insistence, causing Welles to finally lose faith in Hollywood and the studio system. In his anger, he wrote a nearly 60 page memo to the studio executives following a screening of their trimmed-down version, outlining his critiques and comments in response to the changes they made. In 1998, this memo formed the basis of a reconstructed version of the film, which is now the commonly available one. This would seem to be the version of the film which most closely matches Welles’ intentions, but unfortunately we will never know his true thoughts on the current, final take. For those interested, the three different versions of the film (the initial advance screening, the main 1958 shortened release, and the 1998 re-constructed version) are all available on the Eureka Blu-ray set.
Studio interference aside, the film does show Welles at the peak of his profession as a writer and performer, and is a wonderful swansong to his directing career. Furthermore it shows that, even in its final years, noir had the power to shock and entertain with unrivalled power. It’s a fitting farewell.