“Touch of Evil”: Crossing the Line

[Editor’s note: This essay was originally written in 1998, before the re-edited version from producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch, and is based on the 109-minute version that was rescued from the vaults in 1975, generally known as the “preview version. This version had replaced the original 98-minute theatrical version in retrospective screenings and TV showings, but it makes its DVD debut – along with the 98-minute theatrical version – on the new Touch of Evil: 50th Anniversary Edition, which also features the previously released 1998 “restored” version. The essay has never before been published.]

Despite the fact that, like most of Welles’s films, Touch of Evil was the victim of injudicious cutting, it holds together narratively better than just about any film he ever made.  The result is a film even more corrosively insidious than Mr. Arkadin—a film in which we’re never quite sure what’s going on, but are always profoundly aware that, whatever it is, it is far more horrible than it appears. And, in Touch of Evil, that is very horrible indeed.

"intentionally seedy"
Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan: looming in low angle

It’s an intentionally seedy film—you can pretty much smell Hank Quinlan—and Welles, always a better director of space and decor than of actors, creates in his mise en scene a dynamic tension between the rich baroque and the decadent gothic. “Baroque” in the way it uses incidental ornamentation within the frame composition, insisting upon signs, posters, souvenirs and bric-a-brac to provide comment on character and event, as well as to lend atmosphere. Bulky Quinlan, looking up quizzically, belatedly prepares his defense against the lanky Vargas, in a room walled with bullfight posters and photos of the great matadors. We almost expect him to snort and paw the earth. This mise en scene was, in part, Welles’s debt to Karl Freund, neo-Gothic cameraman (The Golem, 1920; The Last Laugh, 1924; Metropolis, 1926; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930; Dracula, 1931) and director (Mad Love, 1935) who combined compositional richness with thematic darkness to create a Cinema of the Grotesque that seminally influenced the look and style of Citizen Kane (1941).

This sense of the Gothic, augmented with lessons learned from Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau, is evident in The Third Man (1949), a film directed by Sir Carol Reed but as closely associated with Welles in our cinematic collective consciousness as any film on which he received directorial credit. Reed had himself quoted the child’s bouncing ball and a few other tones and gestures from Lang’s M in Odd Man Out (1947); and the collaboration of Welles and Reed on The Third Man was one of like minds and visions, learning from each other, and creating, along the way, both a film masterpiece and an enduring document of the shattered physical and human architecture of postwar Europe.

Just as the milieux of Touch of Evil, the dark vaults of the police record depository, the “haunted” rooms of cheap motels and hotels, fit the Gothic tone that Welles adapted from Freund and other German film makers, its characters and relationships owe much to the archetypal model of the Gothic novel: the dark foreigner (Vargas), the fair lady victimized by evil (Susan), the imposing but secretive man of estate (Quinlan), the dark woman with supernatural connections (Tanya). The elements combine to chronicle the transformation of the Gothic into film noir—a path that Fritz Lang had also traveled. (Touch of Evil fits the film noir’s “dark night of the soul” template even better if one recognizes that, despite the character billing, it is about Hank Quinlan, not Mike Vargas.)

Welles fills the screen with details both atmospheric and thematic. An imagistic use of signs and placards prefigures the nouvelle vague and the eventual wretched excesses of Godardism. Vertiginous low angles make even the ineffectual seem menacing. The camera tilts the frame as often as it leaves it alone, keeping us off-kilter in an off-kilter world. The relative placement and movement of people and shadows within the shot is used for maximum suggestiveness: anything could happen anytime.

There is a barrage of sound—overlapping dialogue, over-recorded sound effects, Henry Mancini’s brilliant, brassy, deliberately intrusive music—until the film threatens to engulf the unwary viewer. It doesn’t help that the plot developments and the reasons for the comings and goings of the various characters are often tricky to follow.

The film takes place in an unnamed border town, and characters cross and recross the border with as much facility as their intentions shift from good to evil and back again. Mexico, in U.S. popular culture, has often provided a metaphor for the darker side of the American consciousness. In films, songs and novels, Americans “go down to Mexico” to escape U.S. law and suspend moral order. In so freeing themselves, they test themselves from within, try the limits of the possible, confront evil, tempt chaos, and—for good or ill—discover themselves: Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Vera Cruz, Suddenly Last Summer and Night of the Iguana, The Professionals, The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, Under the Volcano, 10, Marty Robbins’s “El Paso,” Jay and the Americans’ “Come a Little Bit Closer” (Boyce-Hart-Farrell), The Coasters’ “Down in Mexico” (Leiber & Stoller); Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.

Crossing the border in the opening long take
Crossing the border in the opening long take

In establishing this matrix of border crossings, Touch of Evil‘s celebrated opening shot—mercilessly parodied in Robert Altman’s The Player and sometimes vilified as mere Wellesian exhibitionism—is in fact an entirely appropriate bit of audacity, and one that earns its place, more so than such progeny as the opening shot of John Carpenter’s Halloween, the tracking shot from the sidewalk to the stageside nightclub table in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, the elbow-to-the-ribs opening of The Player. These, not without honor themselves, have their own justifications; but any of them might be more readily accused of “showing off” than Welles’s inspired opening to Touch of Evil.

To see why the opening shot is cinematically, stylistically, and thematically necessary, we need only consider how the opening sequence would seem if the opening were not a single take, but a series of briefer shots edited together. The sequence’s—and the film’s—whole concept of time and space would be irretrievably damaged. For if there were cuts between the time a shadowy figure puts the bomb into the car and the time it explodes, we would not know how long the bomb had been ticking, or how long it took the car to get from that parking garage to the border. Nor would we know how far it was from one place to another. And an understanding of the geography of that border town is as crucial to Touch of Evil as is its treatment of the time frame within which the events occur.

The film’s grotesque style and geography are justified by the grotesquerie of theme. None of the black-white relationships of the traditional gothic obtain here. Everything is a shade of gray. The film is about ambiguity, about not knowing, about the symbiosis of good and evil. It is about ends justifying means. It is not about some good in everything, but about some evil in every act—even the good ones.

Quinlan, the master frame-up artist, has pulled himself to a position of respect in the police department by framing the guilty, and his unscrupulous evidence-planting is in a sense vindicated in the ironic denouement to the film, when we learn that the suspect has, in fact, confessed to the bombing that opens the film. Quinlan, an obsessive man with a talent for evil, always uses it to serve good — or at least what he sees as good. And it is only when his judgment is impaired by alcohol and Vargas’s perceived affront to his reputation that he inadvertently frames himself.

But why this night? What sour grape is it that sets Quinlan’s teeth on edge? What knocks him off the wagon? Quinlan’s undoing is brought about by his obsessive and irrational hatred of Vargas—in effect, his racial prejudice. In this, Touch of Evil is reminiscent of other films of the Fifties that address the impact of race-hatred on the consciousness and conduct of otherwise heroic archetypes. The public nobility and private ignobility of Orson Welles’s Hank Quinlan make him kin to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956). In both films, the dark-sided protagonist’s inner turmoil transforms a generic adventure story into a shattering journey of self-discovery; though Welles’s more inward-turning film is far less concerned with the social good wrought by the antiheroic outsider.

Quinlan and Vargas
Quinlan and Vargas

The revelation of the legacy of evil underlying Quinlan’s reputation is counterbalanced by the compromising of Vargas’s own standards of justice. Vargas, the “good” man who stands for justice and mercy, is reduced to subversion via electronic surveillance in order to serve the good of proving Quinlan’s treachery. While Quinlan attacks the ends by framing the guilty, Vargas attacks the means, exposing and condemning Quinlan for the ugliness of his technique, not for the wrongness of its results. In so doing, Vargas himself becomes a kind of Quinlan-in-the-making, and one wonders if similar events might play out if one were to revisit Vargas 20 years on. The comparison is, in fact, invited by the deliberate mirroring of Quinlan and Vargas—a white man with a dark, secret Mexican love, versus a dark man with an open, public marriage to a fair, white American lady. (Of course this would have worked better had someone more persuasively Hispanic played Vargas; Charlton Heston is not without his cinematic triumphs, but Touch of Evil is not among them.)

The patterns of evil are echoed in the film’s cross-hatch of supporting characters. Uncle Joe Grandi is presented as the villain early on, but his smalltime evils are soon so overshadowed by Quinlan’s imposing presence that Uncle Joe finally commands our sympathy as an ineffectual petty crook who falls victim to an enormity he never understands.

Dennis Weaver’s unnervingly off-beat Night Clerk, suspect from the beginning, turns out to be a red herring of an oddball, a scared rabbit; while the Day Clerk is the malevolent and truly deadly Grandi minion “Pancho.” The raucous, partying teenagers are amalgamated from the Grandi kids and a girl gang emblematic of the stereotypical “juvenile delinquents” of the Fifties—reflecting yet another social concern of the film’s era.

Parenthetically, the way Touch of Evil points toward Psycho is one of film history’s odder footnotes. A lingerie-clad Janet Leigh menaced in a remote desert motel, Dennis Weaver’s pre-Norman Bates slim, dark, wacko motel clerk, swinging lights creating crazy shadow effects … Perhaps, since Orson Welles had borrowed a page from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) in Citizen Kane, Hitchcock returned the compliment two decades later.

But there’s nothing quite like Touch of Evil. The look, feel and sound of the film are haunting, at times overpowering. And Welles’s Quinlan finally dominates the memory like few other characters he created. Only Charles Foster Kane and Harry Lime loom larger in the memory. Quinlan’s power may be due, in part, to the fact that he embodies, in one sense, a courageously intimate self-portrait of a possible Orson Welles—cynical, savage, spiteful, disillusioned by the system, an unforgiving, self-indulgent old man. In spite of the film’s corrosive seediness, that courage and refusal to compromise make it virtually impossible to dislike Touch of Evil.

It’s some kind of a movie. What does it matter what you say about films?

(Music up.)

© 2008 Robert C. Cumbow


4 Comments

  • Tony D'Ambra

    October 4, 2008

    A brilliant essay! The best analysis of this difficult film I have read. Thank you.

  • fimstudent

    February 19, 2009

    Wish I had read this piece before my own paper was due… excellent analysis

  • James Byrne

    October 7, 2014

    Exceedingly excellent essay on Welles greatest movie.

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