Touch of Evil and the Hero problem

I have liked Touch of Evil since before it became fashionable in 1998, at the time of its rerelease. Recently I watched it again with some students and came to an interesting conclusion: it is not a Film Noir.

by Karel segers

More importantly, for me the film re-opens the discussion about the difference between Hero, Protagonist and Main Character. But let’s look at the genre aspects of Touch of Evil first.

Even in its loosest definition, Film Noir usually involves a main character who goes down because of his own flaw, often pushed towards his demise by a ‘femme fatale’.

Touch of Evil doesn’t have a femme fatale. The main two female characters in the story are Suzie (Janet Leigh) and Tanya (Marlene Dietrich). Neither really do anything to bring either of the key males down.

Film Noir usually involves a main character who
goes down because of his own flaw,
often pushed towards his demise by a ‘femme fatale’.

So, if there’s no femme fatale, does the main character go down at the end of the story?

He doesn’t.

The Protagonist

Protagonist technically means ‘leading character’.

In Touch Of Evil I would say this is Mike Vargas. Not only does the movie open and close with him, he leads us into the story and he is played by the biggest star in the movie: Charlton Heston.

Vargas may well be the leading character, he is far from the most interesting character in this movie, in fact he is quite a dull and stereotypical cop.

The biggest and most important character in the movie is undoubtedly Quinlan, terrifically embodied by the director, Orson Welles himself. Quinlan is a character we initially loathe but whom we ultimately get to know and understand so well that we really feel for him when he finds his demise. I would like to call him the Main Character. To me, this character is who the movie is really about.

The Main Character

The tragic character of Quinlan, who fails because of his own actions and moral flaws, is the true film noir center of the movie. I would indeed call him the main character because without him, the movie would have been a standard procedural.

the character who goes down because of his own actions and moral flaws,
is the true Film Noir center of the movie.

In this sense, Touch of Evil is an exception. Most films in het noir genre have a main character who drives the story and who is played by the lead actor, therefore protagonist and main character are the same.

So if Quinlan is the Main Character, then surely Vargas is not only the Protagonist but also The Hero?

He is not.

The Hero

When we speak of a Hero in screenwriting terms, we do this within the context of the Hero’s Journey. This has nothing to do with ‘hero-movies’, let alone the superhero genre. It has to do with the structure of the story and the archetypal functions of the characters within that story.

Because the Hero’s Journey is in essence a transformational model, the Hero character has one essential aspect in addition to the other definitions of central character and that is change. In Touch of Evil, Vargas hardly changes.

One could argue that his final action involves a method he might not have otherwise used but there’s another character who goes through a much greater transformation and this is Pete Menzies, amazingly performed by Joseph Calleia.

The Hero character has one essential aspect in addition to
the other definitions of central character and that is change.

Menzies initially adores Quinlan but he goes through a journey of learning and at the end he chooses Vargas’ side. This is one of the most emotionally powerful moments of the movie and it undeniably labels Menzies as the changing, redeeming Hero of this movie.

It brings us to an interesting conclusion: some movies can have different ‘central’ characters perform functions that are traditionally played by only one character at the centre of the story:

– the Main Character (has most screen time, who the story is about)
– the Protagonist (drives the story, lead actor)
– the Hero (undergoes the greatest change)

Some movies can have different ‘central’ characters perform functions
that are traditionally played by only one character at the centre of the story

The POV Character

Technically we can have a fourth function at the center through whom we experience the story, yet who doesn’t fulfil any of the functions above. We would call this the POV Character.

In Touch Of Evil, I would say that Vargas is the POV character, although the POV does shift quite often in the second half of the story.


No matter how much I love Touch of Evil, I must acknowledge that it was never a success. Not at the time of its original release nor for the re-release in 1998.

The ambiguity around who the story is about may not have helped its commercial success. Check for yourself: most successful films have one main character, who is at the same time the protagonist and the Hero.

When you break up these functions, you are asking the audience to dilute their engagement with these characters. As a result, emotions won’t be as strong as they would be in the case of one central character.

most successful films have one main character,
who is at the same time the protagonist and the Hero.

In the case of Touch of Evil there was no other way of telling the story as Welles’ squarely intended to confuse the audience on the moral level. He didn’t want us to resolutely side with Vargas. On the contrary: he wanted us to love Quinlan.Welles’ squarely intended to confuse the audience on the moral level.

For me personally, he succeeded. He didn’t for the large cinema audience. I am already interested in moral dilemmas. One can ask what the use is of making a movie with a powerful moral dilemma if it doesn’t reach, let alone change the audience it is intended for.

Do you know of other movies where the functions of the central character are split? Does it work? And do you find it useful to make these distinctions as a writer?

– Karel Segers

Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+.

Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia.

Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 5-year old son Baxter and anyone who listens.

He is also the boss of this blog.


11 thoughts on “Touch of Evil and the Hero problem”

  1. I think your definition of noir is far to narrow to encompass all plots in that genre.
    Take The Big Sleep, Marlowe is not brought down by a femme fatale.
    There is a Femme fatale in the Maltese Falcon but she doesn’t bring the hero down.
    You can’t get more noir than Kubrick’s The Killing.
    True there is a femme fatale mussing things up.
    But she is not directly acting on the hero.
    Hayden’s downfall, in the end is a whimsical twist of fate.

    • I didn’t mean to say that every Noir needs to have a femme fatale as the cause of the downfall. The character’s fatal flaw is far more important.

      I do need to see The Killing again… Wasn’t his greed the reason for his demise?

      Now, the real question is: what are the absolute essential components of Noir in your view?

      • I would say Noir is “The Poetry Of Failure”.
        Men are foiled by the gods or their own flaws.
        Goals are achieved but prizes rarely won.
        No one ever gets what they really want.
        The schemes of the evil as well as the righteous are set asunder.
        The hero is left standing in the ashes of someone’s dreams.
        The best Noir, serves to point out the folly of men.

  2. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Good Will Hunting both have separate characters who lead the story and who drive the story and change.

    I’d say it definitely works, but you better know what you’re doing before you start.

    Anytime you have a lead without a goal, make sure you have someone else with one.

  3. Great article and to keep in mind developing stories. Some things that came to my mind:
    Was “Touch ov Evil” not just ahead of its time? In more recent – and successful – films, these different functions are often divided between characters. “The Silence of the Lambs” and many thriller / crime flicks are featuring a counterpart of the protagonist with the theme`s focus on him. In “To Live and Die in L.A.” Willem Dafoe`s character is more fascinating than the cops. And to be honest, the most interesting character in “Star Wars” (if there is any) is Darth Vader. Isn`t “Apocalypse Now” more Kurtz than Willard? This is an extreme example, as Kurtz is just appearing in the end, but he is Willard`s target from the very beginning …
    Another “ahead of its time” film is Laughton`s “Night of the Hunter”. Isn`t it a film about Mitchum`s character? But who is the protagonist? The kids are. Hero? none at all. Welcome, unsuccessfulness box-office-wise.

    It is always challenging to split the audience`s concentration and emotional engagement between more than the “one” main character. But today, people seem to be much more aware of their own ambivalence and ambiguity – superheroes are not “supermen” anymore, but rather “split personalities”, and so on. To break with the “hero” as a single concept to lead through all main aspects of a film, seems to reflect a certan point of view about human nature and how it should be represented in a piece of art becoming more and more complex in the last decades.
    One of the main “scandalous” movies – and a huge success – also connected to all this, is “Psycho”, with the death of the (we thought so far) heroine, protagonist and main character after not even half of the film!
    Well, seems to be a lot to think about – at least for me. Thanks for your input! :-)

  4. The central idea in noir is the moral corruption of the protagonist. This corruption often comes from inside the character and from external forces such as the femme fatale. You can also consider the context of noir. It comes after World War II where ordinary men have done immoral things. It puts into question every man’s ability to stay pure and good.

    ‘Touch of Evil’ is usually classified as a neo-noir. It has elements of noir but doesn’t fulfill what became the definition of noir. The ‘Maltese Falcon’ is the same. Spade adheres to the code. He is not corrupted.

    The concept of ‘hero’ confuses the drama. The protagonist is the one who has the central goal in the film and the audience should want to see him succeed in achieving the goal. Vargas is the protagonist. Without Vargas the film has no reason to exist. His goal is to defend the innocent man and take down Quinlan. What is complicated and wonderful about ‘Touch of Evil’ is how Welles makes the villain sympathetic. A great example of a somewhat ‘modern’ film is “Wall Street”. Gordon Gecko is designed to be the villain in the film but he turns out to be a much stronger character with more dimension. Vargas and Bud come come off as earnest and boring compared to their counterparts. If the filmmakers painted these characters with an archetypal brush then we might feel different about them (monsters). Both characters are driven by what they believe is right (Quinlan and Gecko) and they end up overshadowing the righteous and earnest protagonists.


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