Touch of Evil a Touch of Genius

Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan in 'Touch of Evil' (1958)

It’s fitting that Orson Welles created his great film classics in black and white. He was a master of shadows—of the human shadow. In his restored 1958 masterpiece Touch of Evil, corrupt cop Hank Quinlan is the slimy quintessence of a human soul fully immersed in that shadow. The crooked cop is aptly, succinctly summarized in the scene with Marlene Dietrich’s bordello madam:

Quinlan: Come on, read my future for me.

Tanya: You haven’t got any.

Quinlan: Hmm? What do you mean?

Tanya: Your future’s all used up.

Not only is it a fitting epitaph for a cop who long ago forfeited any sense of human dignity or integrity, it’s practically a manifesto for film noir leading men. Some consider Touch of Evil to be the last in the genre’s classic period, and it has inspired countless tributes on film.

Marlon Brando's subtly menacing Kurtz in 'Apocalypse Now'.

That Quinlan is so thoroughly repulsive is testament to Welles’ ability as an actor to create the most intense, Shakespearian characters. Despite his reputation as a massive overeater, Welles was padded for this role. Yet the transformation is so complete—in the best tradition of film villains—you can’t help but be mesmerized by the ugliness. It’s a transformation that ranks in film history with Lon Chaney’s unforgettable Phantom of the Opera, Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, or Anthony Hopkins’ psychopathic Hannibal Lechter in Silence of the Lambs. This is the human shadow at its darkest and it terrifies us because a part of us recognizes it. Yet Welles understands that evil is most terrifying when at its most subtle, seductive and suggestive. Like Alfred Hitchcock—and unlike most directors today—he realized that the viewer’s mind is by far the most effective tool for terrorizing. “I want to give the audience a hint of a scene,” Welles once said. “No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you.” It was something the ham-handed studio executives who butchered the original version of Touch of Evil obviously didn’t get.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955) featuring the Mickey Spillane character Mike Hammer.

While it may be argued that Touch of Evil is still a morality play, it’s at a level of artistry far above what most film studios were capable of in the 1950s. The dawning of the Cold War era and the Communist witch hunts of McCarthyism were open wounds on the American psyche, and in classic fashion it sought to gloss over them with either pure fluff or obvious morality tales. The noir genre occasionally succumbs to this tendency, probably for the same reason Touch of Evil was interfered with—to keep the censors satisfied. Even the otherwise hard-edged original Kiss Me Deadly (1955) fell victim to this to some extent, with its broad hints at the Communist demons behind the nuclear arms race. (Though I prefer to see it as an apt modern interpretation of the Pandora myth, keeping consistency with film noir’s tradition of femmes fatale.) The otherwise excellent Pickup on South Street (1953), with Richard Widmark’s harassed, bite-your-face-off small-time crook, ultimately descends to this level as well. This time the film is redeemed by the five-star performance of Thelma Ritter as the poverty-stricken police informant dying in a cheap room. In the hands of a lesser actor it would have been pure maudlin.

Orson Welles as Macbeth (1948): a capacity for intense characters. Courtesy The Holloway Pages

But Welles was never as interested in his female characters as most noir directors, whose approach tended to be somewhat dichotomous—rendering women as either rescuing, virginal angels or damning temptresses. Welles had the Shakespearian fascination with the consequences of bad decisions by powerful men, the steadily accumulating constellation of choices made for the wrong reasons and its corroding effect on the human soul. Quinlan is the ultimate result. His sins literally seem to have erupted on his person—his face is bloated yet deeply lined around the eyes, his body a grotesque balloon about to burst. Welles has turned Quinlan’s soul inside out for all to see and the results aren’t pretty. But his longtime partner Sergeant Pete Menzies, unlike typical Hollywood films of the day, doesn’t immediately turn him in when he learns of his crimes. Menzies must be dragged somewhat unwillingly into working with Mexican investigator Vargas to entrap Quinlan. After all, they’ve worked together for years, probably decades. Even knowing what he’s done it’s no easy job to turn in your best friend. We get a glimpse of the twisted conundrums integrity can present us with.

The historical context within which films are made is too often ignored. This can lead to reviewers of later generations misunderstanding what made great films great in the first place. When Touch of Evil was made in 1957, the Leave it to Beaver mentality of Hollywood held an iron grip on the film industry. It was a politically expedient holdover from the propaganda films of World War II, tailored to the new Nuclear Age. Propaganda has always been directed as much at the home audience as the enemy. And at this time in history, television police dramas like Dragnet carefully portrayed law enforcement officers as the new Boys on White Horses, albeit with a somewhat more quirky approach than the good guys of old.

Original 'Touch of Evil' movie poster. Courtesy Movie Zeal

So for Welles to choose as the main character of his film a thoroughly corrupt cop, and one utterly distasteful to watch, was itself a powerful stroke of iconoclasm during a ‘golden age’ of conformity. From an artistic point of view, as any writer will tell you, the choice of an antihero as the centerpiece of a story is not only risky but extremely difficult to pull off. Audiences have a natural dislike of an antihero so it takes great skill to keep them from deserting the book or film. A successful use of antihero occurs in Stephen R. Donaldson’s fantasy series, The Thomas Covenant Chronicles. The eponymous character starts the multiple-book series by committing a shocking rape yet somehow we never abandon him. Now that’s skill.

About all the antihero shares with the hero is that his character must develop somehow by the story’s end. In either case, typically that character development is toward some illumination or personal growth. But in Touch of Evil, as in many noir films, the trajectory is all downward. Even here Welles avoids cliché. The much-yearned-for release of a bad guy’s repentance or conversion to the good side is never experienced. Instead of building Quinlan’s demise up to a fever pitch with the required climax in the final reel, Welles has him dissolve before us in pathetic degrees. The audience is denied the satisfaction of seeing a bad guy punished for his sins. We almost pity Quinlan rather than shake our fists at him. No wonder the studio executives couldn’t keep their gloves off the final edit.

Orson Welles—Master of Shadows.

At least Welles’ uneasy ghost can finally rest, knowing that his meticulous production notes for Touch of Evil have been honoured at last. (See the story of film’s restoration here: The very thought of some boardroom bean counter messing with an artist’s work is shocking to me, the arrogance hard to imagine. The studio re-cutting Touch of Evil in its own image is like the Catholic Church painting over a fresco by Michelangelo. Inconceivable. Welles is one of those unfortunate artists who—aside from a couple of early successes—must struggle a lifetime to have their work appreciated and are only fully recognized after their death. But then, he’s in good company.


About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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