By William Benker
Touch of Evil – 1958 – dir. Orson Welles
A film’s ability to remain timeless nearly fifty years after its release constitutes a work of brilliance that only few films possess. Specifically, in relation to recent political wars of immigration and borders, Touch of Evil divides a fine line between crime and innocence. Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan, at first sight, appears unbreakable – entirely devoid of any sort of empathy, as he strolls onto the screen, off balance from an old wound he obtained defending his friend. But as the classic noir unwinds, the director himself reveals a moral conundrum any and all face when questioned by the notion of “authority.” The overarching theme is never once mentioned, but left to the elaborate set design that the story encompasses within itself. Touch of Evil is a noir that still casts a luminescent shadow on issues that are far from outdated, signifying Welles’ keen insight into the issues of both past and present America.
In what became a trademark of the films of Orson Welles, the highly visual and spectacular stage presents a relationship that envelops the cast. Unlike other films, the design was not intended only as decoration, or a backdrop for the characters to act before, but as a physical element that the actors were entangled with. The small run down town between Mexico and America harkens back to a western landscape tarnished by the sheen of industry and American tourism. From the unforgettable long take of the bomb placed within the trunk to spark the story with a bang, the story careens with successive intensity until the film reaches its thought-provoking conclusion. Each and every piece of set and props reveals itself in one way or another throughout the picture. Be it a tumbleweed newspaper flowing across the landscape, or the oilrigs in the background that describe a more telling message than most. Every scene pushes the limit of incorporating the set that comes to resemble a literal puzzle in itself. It can only flourish once the actors carefully take it apart, constantly insisting on an interaction with their surroundings.
The real struggle is found between longtime, all-American cop, Hank Quinlan, and Mexican Attorney Vargas (Charlton Heston). The two present equal sides to their views on violence, though the dynamic exchange between their two unbridled influences and personal ideals is where the real lightning strikes. While Quinlin plays the bad cop role with intrinsic “intuition” (a theme that surfaces throughout the entire picture), Vargas is propelled by sheer reason. The relationship they share goes even deeper than that, twisting and turning the two in a self-reflexive psychological battle as to whose methods of justice are more legitimate in a world full of crime. While Quinlan’s methods prove unorthodox and inherently evil, the audience is able to grasp the sense that justice, perceived by the bad cop, is no longer in question. His struggle to prosecute the guilty is chalked up to the belief that virtually no one is entirely innocent. Vargas, on the other hand, stands by logical pursuits in exposing Quinlan’s dirty career that ends in the most bloodshed. This dynamic between the two sides of the law (and country) paints an open-ended discussion that still remains a parable today.
While the film rushes through drama and excitement throughout its entirety, the only real dilemma is the short screen time of both Janet Leigh and Marlene Dietrich’s characters. Mrs. Vargas (Leigh) is at odds with her own damsel in distress archetype that she constantly pushes to break out of. Often her naivety and fear are brought to the forefront only to be started back by her sharp wit and unwillingness to be intimidated (for the most part). Nevertheless, her role is most extensively examined through her lonely battle in a desolate hotel, continuously tortured by an unruly party that eventually “intoxicates” her by force. While the narcotic references are fairly outdated, the outcome leaves Mrs. Vargas in a lingering dilemma of delirium, disabling her from expressing her versatility as an actress. Unfortunately for Marlene Dietrich, her role is never fully explored. While the implications reflect a former relationship with Quinlan (and his alcoholism) the audience is never provided with any type of solace to her character’s insights (besides her final words, reflecting upon the body of the ruined cop). Despite the fact, Dietrich plays her short role as best she can, alighting the screen with her cool, cold stare. It’s a perfect match for the model Noir (if only her character were further explored).
While the stand out hero and anti-hero (Heston and Welles) control the screen, the subtle keys left in the larger context of the story keep the film astonishingly contemporary. The local gang of Mexican hoodlums and drug runners remain hidden in the shadows, mirroring a clear resemblance to the lines divided in the music West Side Story. Even the music at times, writhing with charisma in the shots and tempo of the action reveals a hidden kick that permeates the dialogue. Ultimately, however, the set design speaks of the greater message at play. By the strained relationships between right and wrong and innocent versus evil, the oil rigs loom in the night sky – the true divide lingering in a worn bond between the United States authority and more, examining a highly complex frame to embody the context of the film.
Touch of Evil remains a landmark in the film noir genre for multiple reasons. It had nearly everything going for it at all ends, with its complex dynamics between race and the pursuit for justice, to the heavy dependency and camaraderie between partners. However, what makes the film even stronger is the sub-textual analysis it presents, leading the audience to ponder the shadowing ties between the two countries. With this element of mystery, placed in the most furtive ways, Touch of Evil still pushes its audience to wonder, and the question still seeks an answer today.