Directed by Orson Welles
I suppose that what makes Touch of Evil so good is that it’s a story about a corrupt cop that focuses on the cop. Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) isn’t just there to move the plot forward, he’s there to underscore the thematic degradation of… something. This film is a lot of things, but upon a single viewing, it’s a little hard to nail down.
The whole picture is moody, with sinister low and wide angle shots, a pulsating, rhythmic music that seems to carry everything forward even when nothing is happening, and it starts with a bomb and ends with a gunshot. So on the surface, so much happens, but the most momentous portions of this film are in the planning of one of these crazy, twisted plans and in the reactions to the consequences of those plans.
It’s a film where everything seems to go wrong. This isn’t a place of growth, it’s a place where you’re either dead or dying. Sure, there is a hero to contrast with the villain, but Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) feels mostly out of place in this deranged space, and at best he’s out of his element.
The setting here is right on the U.S./Mexico border. When a car that crosses from Mexico into the U.S. blows up, Vargas, a drug enforcement official in the Mexican government, takes a special interest in the case, knowing that the context of the crime could have far-reaching implications. Now, Vargas just happened to be in the area, on a honeymoon with his wife, Susan (Janet Leigh), but given what we see of this world, it’s a serious mystery why he would ever bring her here.
While Mike tries to help investigate this crime, Susan is put through a series of haunting encounters, followed by a series of criminals straight out of some kind of David Lynchian gangster film. Her safety is constantly in serious jeopardy, and it almost seems like she’s in a completely different film than the one with her husband and Hank Quinlan.
Only a few hours after the bomb goes, off Quinlan celebrates the arrest of Sanchez, a young man married to the bomb victim’s daughter. Though he is certainly a suspicious character, the damning evidence is planted, as Vargas observes. Quinlan doesn’t care because he thinks the kid is guilty anyways.
From there, Quinlan seems to go on a downward spiral only because we didn’t realize how far down this spiral he had already gone. Before we suspect that he’s a corrupt cop, we see see Quinlan as somewhat lovable, at least that’s what it seems. He’s a big, sweaty man, and he seems to be the comic relief for a story that needs a lot of it. Early on he is stunned that Mike’s wife could be white, perhaps illuminating his binary line of thinking. You’re either this or that.
And even if Quinlan comes across as racist, certainly bigoted, he never seems like a character that is meant to be glorified. His shortcomings and regrettable point of view are part of the humor of his character, especially in contrast with Mike Vargas, our shining star or a hero.
The film soon begins to hone in on Quinlan, though, not letting him off the hook. The original investigation into the bombing takes a back seat, even if Vargas has some doubt about their arrested suspect, as Quinlan becomes more of a problem, not to mention the fact that Vargas later learns that his wife has been kidnapped by a family of criminals working with Quinlan to keep Vargas quiet.
I guess this is just a story where the bad tries to surround and swallow up the good, and you start to get a sense that this has been going on for a while. If this weren’t such a stylized, visually distorted movie, you might anticipate the hero winning, but because this movie doesn’t really look like many others, it is genuinely unsettling. There are moments of real horror, such as Susan wakes up to a dead man looking her straight in the eyes, and by the end of the story, the focus isn’t on the specific investigation, but on the types of people who could lose themselves in a lifestyle full of such investigations.
Quinlan has been at this a long time. He deals in good versus bad because his job is to identify the bad guy and bring him to justice. So with Sanchez, even though he turns out to be the man who planted the bomb, Quinlan simply skipped a few steps to bring him in. He has a sense for these things, he says, and he trusts himself more than anything. Quinlan is the villain of the story, but you can understand his way of thinking, at least given what you can assume are his life experiences. While Mike Vargas is a shining idealist, Quinlan is a rugged realist. He thinks he sees the world as it really is, but part of his downfall is his overreach when he tries to save his own ass, sensing that Vargas is onto him.
Quinlan might have some kind of justification for the way he investigates crimes and puts away suspects, but his only excuse for organizing Susan’s kidnapping is that he’s trying to save himself. He’s a character who might not seem able to care about himself, mainly shown through a clear inclination to drink himself to near death, but he has enough fight to give a shit near the end.
And it doesn’t work. Quinlan’s partner, learning about his tampering with evidence, works with Vargas to record a confession, but Quinlan’s too smart to give himself up that easy. He senses they’re onto him, and so an altercation breaks out that ends with both Quinlan and his partner dead, having shot each other. Tanya, a woman who ran a brothel in town and who had a relationship of sorts with Quinlan, says about him, “He was some kind of man. What does it matter what you say about people?”
I’m having trouble trying to decipher what she (and thus the film) means with this last sentence, but what I do know is that this is a film with a movie star hero and a bombing investigation but which focuses on Hank Quinlan. His immorality and fall from (what we can assume was once) grace is the focus of the story, so even though the hero wins, the film chooses to mourn, to a degree, the long ago loss of another hero.
Quinlan was a man who seemed in control but who was chewed up and swallowed by his environment, a dark, nightmarish border town full of evil doers and greed. The Quinlan who floats down the quiet river after getting shot is probably not the same Quinlan that got into this line of work. He lost himself somewhere along the line, and people might speak of them however they like, but they’ll all be wrong… or they’ll be right, and it won’t matter. I’m still trying to figure it out, but all I know is that Touch of Evil should be called Full of Evil. Or maybe it’s saying that all it takes is a little bit of evil, an inkling of wrongdoing, and then that inkling will spread throughout the water, turning it all dark. The film seems to suggest that the same thing could happen to Mike Vargas. He’s just a dead guy who hasn’t died yet.