After Touch Of Evil‘s European premiere at the World Expo ’58, Les Cahiers du Cinema labeled Orson Welles’ film noir an ‘instant classic’. For years, it has been my favourite piece of pure cinema.
[box size=”large” style=”rounded”]We’re going to spoil a thing or two. Like the ending.
My appreciation for Touch Of Evil has certainly nothing to do with its star. Far more interesting than Heston – or even his character of Jim Vargas – is Hank Quinlan. In the film, this morally flawed cop is embodied by Welles himself.
I also really love the film’s moody atmosphere, and its exotic setting in the 1950’s underworld of the Mexican/American border. Henry Mancini wrote a great, colourful score to the movie’s black and white cinematography by Russell Metty. His use of distorting wide-angle lenses reminds me in a way of Gilliam’s Brazil.
Above all, the appeal of Touch Of Evil for me lies in its morality – and its thematic ambiguity. As a result of this, it is not entirely clear who is the real main character in this film.
Two Versions: 1958 – 1998
Touch of Evil usually enters conversation because of its impressive single-take travel-crane opening shot. Few people realise that an even longer take appears halfway the film.
I was a big fan of the original 1958 studio release of Touch of Evil. Then, in 1998 I viewed the virginal print of the restored version at the brand new cinema Pathé during the Rotterdam Film Festival. The picture shot to the top of my film favorites.
The restored version follows the instructions Orson Welles left after seeing the studio release. He was not happy with it, and requested changes to the edit and a major reworking of the sound. Although the sound in the re-release is far superior to the studio version, I prefer the original opening. The classic tracking shot may be cinematically superb, it moves slowly in terms of story. I also miss the great Mancini track over the opening titles.
Touch of Evil is full of amazing scenes, and one makes my heart wrench above any other. Quinlan’s final encounter with Tana. She loves Quinlan, no matter how crooked he may be. And this love is infectious, because we can see the good in Quinlan through her eyes. But more about this in a minute.
Good Cop Bad Cop
The morality of Welles’ character Quinlan may be twisted; his choices spring from the pain of losing his wife. This dramatic backstory helps us empathise with him. It attributes the character with a complex humanity. In fact by the end of the film, personally I’m invested far more in this character than in the hero, Heston’s fairly bland Jim Vargas.
In Touch Of Evil, the conflict between the two cops represents the everlasting question of whether the end justifies the means. Quinlan knows the Mexican boy is guilty. He just can’t prove it. Should he exact justice on him anyway? Or can this even be called justice in the first place?
The conflict between these two cops represents the everlasting question of whether the end justifies the means.
Welles plays Quinlan with spectacular verve. He once said “I’d rather have a murderer be free than have the police arrest him by mistake.” Does this mean he stands with Vargas, on the side of the law? Does he detest cops like Quinlan? His answer: “Morally I find them detestable – morally, not humanly…”
“I’d rather have a murderer be free than have the police arrest him by mistake.”
Some Kind Of Man
The character of prostitute/clairvoyant Tana sees humanity within Hank. Like a loving mother, she feeds him chili con carne in an attempt to stop him from chewing candy bars. Shortly before the credits roll, she will conclude “He was some kind of man… What does it matter what you say about people?” To me this is one of the most moving moments in cinema history.
Welles had created Tana for Marlene Dietrich – one of her final roles of a career spanning nearly sixty years – and she featured in a stand-alone scene in the original screenplay. However, Welles didn’t think it carried the weight he wanted.
So he added a scene earlier in the film, to set up the relationship between Hank and Tana. Now her final words to Hank during this scene embody an overwhelming emotional resonance.
“He was some kind of a man… What does it matter what you say about people?”
Only A Touch Of Evil
In the final moments of Touch Of Evil, we witness how Hank Quinlan is unknowingly betrayed. His best friend Menzies chooses justice over friendship.
Next, during his last visit to Tana, Quinlan asks her about his future. She replies, with intense sadness because of the terrible state of her friend: “Your future is all used up. Why don’t you go home?” No spoiler has ever created greater emotional anticipation.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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