erik lundegaard

Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil (1958)


Who do we like in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”?

Yeah, I know. It’s such an amateur question to ask of such an auteur filmmaker. But it’s not a bad way to begin a discussion of the film.

Normally we like the protagonist. Normally he’s handsome and brave and the object of our wish-fulfillment. Here, Mexican cop Mike Vargas is, yes, handsome and brave, but, no, he’s not the object of our wish-fulfillment. For one, he’s played by Charlton Heston and that’s a sore point for cineastes 50 years on. “Touch of Evil” only got made the way it got made because Heston insisted upon Welles as director, so we should be grateful. We’re not. Because it’s still Heston: wearing dark make-up and a thin moustache and annunciating lines as if they were chiseled in marble.

Even so, shouldn’t we at least like Mike Vargas? Isn’t he the moral exemplar of the film? Isn’t he so upstanding, so dedicated, that he delays his honeymoon to tag along on a criminal investigation to make sure no innocent is railroaded by corrupt cop Hank Quinlan (Welles)? And doesn’t he get Quinlan in the end? And isn’t that admirable?

No. Here’s why.

What’s the matter with Vargas: Betraying Susie

“Touch of Evil,” follows two storylines: Quinlan’s investigation into the death of Linnekar, whose car is blown up at the Mexican border; and the stalking and eventual assault on Vargas’ American wife, Susie (Janet Leigh), by the Grandis, who are after Vargas because he put one of their own behind bars. Vargas immediately recognizes the first danger but never the second. Fearing for Susie’s safety, he pushes her away ... and into the arms of men who do her harm.

Let’s cut to a scene halfway through the movie. By this point, Quinlan and his toadies are grilling their No. 1 suspect, Sanchez (Victor Millan), in his apartment, and Vargas goes across the street to make a phone call. The proprietor of the store is a woman, blind, with a sign that reads “If you are mean enough to steal from the blind, help yourself.” When Vargas finally gets through to Susie at the Mirador Motel, they have the following conversation:

Vargas: Darling, the news is bad. Quinlan is about to arrest that boy Sanchez.
Susie: Oh Mike, is that why you called—to tell me somebody’s been arrested?
Vargas: No, that’s not really why I called. (Turns away, whispers) It’s to tell you how sorry I am about all this. And how very much I love you.
Vargas: Susie?
Susie: I’m still here my own darling Miguel.
Vargas: Oh, I thought you’d fallen asleep.
Susie: I was just listening to you breathe.

This latter part of the conversation could be any couple on their honeymoon. But they’re not on their honeymoon. The wife is ready:

Janet Leigh in bed in “Touch of Evil” (1958)

But this is who Vargas is spending his honeymoon with:

Mike Vargas and the blind woman in “Touch of Evil” (1958)

The woman is as blind as justice, which is what Vargas is pursuing; but Welles also makes her ugly, which is the kind of justice Vargas will find. The discrepancy between the two women—the one Vargas should be with and the one he chooses to be with—is so great that, watching the movie a second time, I burst out laughing. Vargas doesn’t seem admirable here for keeping an eye on Quinlan and ignoring his wife. He seems a fool.

Then it gets worse. After Susie is terrorized, kidnapped, and possibly gang-raped by the Grandi gang, Vargas finally shows up at the Mirador Motel. The place is empty except for the night manager (Dennis Weaver, overacting). Presented with overwhelming evidence, Vargas remains uncomprehending. These are among the things he says:

  • “The lights seem to be out in all the cabins.”
  • “Party? What party?”
  • “Brawl? You mean there was some kind of a fight?”
  • “This can’t be my wife’s room.”

He’s not even concerned about Susie until he finds the briefcase with his gun missing. That’s what really sets him off: Not the missing wife but the missing, Freudian gun. Only then does he react.

Or overreact. He goes on a rampage, careering around on the Mexican side of the border and tearing up bars, in search of Susie. He basically goes from being a blissful idiot—thinking the world is all chocolate sodas—to being a malicious idiot. At one point, when a helpless Susie waves at him from a nearby balcony, he’s too busy looking for her to find her. In the end, she winds up in prison, charged with Quinlan’s murder of Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff). When he visits her, she says what she’s said to him throughout the movie: “Don’t go!” So what does he do? He goes. In pursuit of justice, which is blind and ugly.

As bad as all that is, he’s even worse in the final act.

What’s the matter with Vargas, part II: Betraying Menzies

At the prison, he convinces Quinlan’s best friend, Sgt. Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia), to wear a wire to entrap Quinlan for the greater good. But as Menzies is doing this, betraying his best friend for the greater good, Vargas, skulking around and under a bridge, gets too close with the receiver, and Quinlan, hearing echoes of his own conversation, realizes he’s being recorded and betrayed. So he shoots Menzies with Vargas’ gun. It’s a great image: When Menzies goes down, the man figuratively behind him, Vargas, is literally revealed. This shooting sets up another great image: Quinlan stumbling down the riverbank to wash his blood-soaked hand in the river, which is also filthy. Nothing comes clean in Welles’ world.

At this point, Vargas has several options. While Quinlan is occupied with his hand-washing, he could, 1) take his gun back; 2) knock out Quinlan; 3) grab his transmitter/recorder and run away. But what does he do?

Earlier in the movie he had needlessly lectured Menzies in the Hall of Records. “What about all the people put in the deathhouse?” he asks in that marble-shitting voice of his. “Save your tears for them.” Now he needlessly lectures Quinlan. Doing so, he wakes a sleeping giant:

Vargas: Well, Captain. I’m afraid this is finally something you can’t talk your way out of.
Quinlan: You want to bet? [Pauses] You killed him, Vargas.
Vargas: C’mon, give me my gun back.

That’s actually funny. In a second, Vargas goes from sounding like an arresting officer to sounding like the smallest kid on the playground. C’mon, give it back. It’s up to Menzies, with his dying breath, to kill Quinlan for him.

Just think of what Menzies has done here. He betrays his best friend for the greater good. Then he gets shot by his best friend because Vargas screws up with the transmitter. Then after Vargas screws up yet again, allowing Quinlan to get the bead on him, Menzies shoots and kills Quinlan before dying himself. Now that’s a man who deserves a good eulogy. But when assistant D.A. Al Schwartz (Mort Mills) arrives with Susie, this is the eulogy Vargas gives him:

That’s Menzies. He’s dead.

At which point he rushes to his wife. It’s the one time in the movie he rushes to his wife and it’s the one time he shouldn’t.

But there’s more. Consider it the movie’s gloriously cynical punchline.

Throughout, Vargas has basically jumped storylines to pursue a greater good. He’s trying to prevent Quinlan from using his so-called intuition as a means to railroad another innocent—Sanchez—with false evidence. But in the end, in a by-the-way manner, Schwartz informs us that Sanchez actually confessed to the crime. He did kill Linnekar. Quinlan’s famous intuition—which beats Vargas’ intuition, which suggested going after poor Eddie Farnham (Gus Schilling)—was right again.

By jumping storylines, Vargas creates tragedy out of both storylines. If he’d stayed with Susie, she wouldn’t have been terrorized and assaulted. And if he hadn’t tagged after Quinlan, Quinlan wouldn’t have died, Menzies wouldn’t have died, and the right man, Sanchez, would have been railroaded for the right crime.

Vargas isn’t the hero of “Touch of Evil.” He’s what causes everything to go so horribly wrong.

Orson Welles as Capt. Hank Quinlan in “Touch of Evil” (1958)
“You killed him, Vargas.”

What’s the matter with Quinlan: Murder and railroads

So who do we like in this movie then? Vargas’ opposite? Quinlan?

Welles certainly has a habit of playing likeable scoundrels: Kane, Harry Lime, Falstaff. Some are more charming in their rise (Kane), some more sympathetic in their fall (Falstaff), but all are usually smarter than the characters around them.

As here. Quinlan’s introduction reminds me of one of the most famous introductions in movie history: Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in “Casablanca.” First we hear everyone talking about him; then we’re allowed to see him. Rick Blaine, though, is obviously a hero: resplendent in tux, smoking a cigarette, exuding cool. Quinlan, in contrast, is repulsive: chomping a cigar, swaddled with extra weight, barely able to lift his girth from an automobile.

There’s something hunted and haunted about him, too. He’s so haunted I assumed—when I first saw this movie back in the late 1990s—that he blew up Linnekar. Turns out he’s haunted by his reputation. He knows his famous intuition is built on a pack of lies and every new case is a chance for that reputation to be tarnished. You could say he’s haunted by the man he pretends to be. Or maybe he’s haunted by the man he used to be.

But he’s still a pig. He still greets Menzies by calling him a “jackass,” and he still revels in the attention and power of his position, and he still railroads the innocent, or not-so-innocent, to preserve his rep. He’s not only morally unrecognizable from the upstanding cop he used to be, he’s physically unrecognizable, too. When he shows up at the brothel of Tanya (Marlene Dietrich), we get this exchange:

Quinlan: Have you forgotten your old friend?
Tanya: I told you we’re closed.
Quinlan: I’m Hank Quinlan.
Tanya: [Pause] I didn’t recognize you. [Pause; she looks him up and down.] You should lay off those candy bars.
Quinlan: It’s either the candy or the hootch. Must say I wish it was your chili I was getting fat on. Anyway, you’re sure looking good.
Tanya: You’re a mess, honey.

He is. He plants false evidence, conspires with Uncle Joe Grandi to abduct Susie, then kills Uncle Joe Grandi with his bare hands only to pin the murder on Susie. Later he kills Pete. He would’ve killed Vargas, too, if not for Pete.

So that’s two railroadings, two murders, and one attempted murder in a 24-hour period. Likeable or not, Welles’ famous charisma—like Quinlan’s famous intuition—only goes so far.

Tanya (Marlene Dietrich) in “Touch of Evil” (1958)
“You're a mess, honey.”

What’s the matter with Susie: Street dumb

So if not the protagonist or antagonist, who’s left? The girl?

It helps that Susie looks Janet Leigh. It also helps that in the beginning there’s something pleasantly brassy about her. But we judge characters by the choices they make, and Susie makes some lousy choices.

Early on, she’s about to walk into the path of a pickup truck when a leather-jacketed hood, quickly dubbed “Pancho” (Valentin de Vargas), saves her. When a few locals inform her that Pancho wants to give her something, she responds, street smart, “I know what he wants.” Except he doesn’t want that. (Not yet.) He wants to give her a note: “Follow this boy at once. We have something very important for Mr. Vargas.” She looks around and shrugs. “Well, what have I got to lose?”

After that, she’s about as street-smart as June Cleaver.

She follows him. She gets her picture taken with him. She goes into a hotel with him. Sure, she takes on Uncle Joe Grandi with her exclamations of “Yeah!” but why follow the boy in the first place? For the thrill? Because she thinks she’s helping Mike? Because the boy has “pretty teeth”?

Whatever her rationale, for the rest of the film she’ll be followed by the gang, and the camera, both licking their lips. At the Mirador Motel, she’s taunted, cornered, surrounded on the bed. “Lemme stay, I wanna watch,” says the lesbian gang member (Mercedes McCambridge), in one of cinema’s most chilling lines. It’s particularly chilling because she speaks for us, too. We’re there to watch, after all, and part of us wants to watch this. We don’t get to. “Close the door,” Pancho says, and they do, on us. In a sense, they close the door on Susie, too. She’s a non-entity in the second half. The movie treats her the way men tend to treat women after they get what they want. It forgets all about her.

Susie sticks it to Uncle Joe Grandi in “Touch of Evil” (1958)

The early, brassy Susie (Janet Leigh), not letting a phallic cigar get in her way. Her opposite is
actor Akim Tamiroff, immortalized in J.D. Salinger's “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut.”

And the rest

So is there anyone left to like?

There is. They’re my two favorite characters in the movie and they’re both minor. One is cynical and gives us the movie’s final line. The other is the real hero of “Touch of Evil.”

The cynical one is, of course, Tanya, who has an authenticity about her. She looks you straight in the eye and speaks the world-weary truth, as she did to Quinlan at the brothel, and as she does in the end by the river. She seems a little saddened by Quinlan’s death and offers up a better eulogy than Vargas offers Menzies: “He was some kind of a man.” A second later, as if even this simple line is too much for her, but without a qualifying signifier, she adds, “What does it matter what you say about people?” It’s one of the more famous last lines in movies. It also gives lie, if you believe it, to my entire exercise.

But I don’t quite believe it. I believe it does matter what you say about people. At the least, it matters what film critics say about characters. And that brings us to the hero of the movie.

If the hero is the one who gets the bad guy, then Sgt. Pete Menzies, who gets Capt. Hank Quinlan, is the hero of the movie. If the hero is the one who sacrifices himself for the greater good, then Menzies, who sacrifices himself for the greater good, is the hero of the movie. If the hero is the one who makes the most progress, then Menzies, who starts out a toadie only to redeem himself twice, only to become a man of honor, is the hero of the movie.

In a dirty world, with dirty jobs and dirty rivers, where it doesn’t matter what you say about people, we don’t need the dull, hectoring, chocolate-soda-drinking likes of Mike Vargas, who causes more problems than he solves. We just need someone with a touch of good.

Sgt. Pete Menzies and Capt. Hank Quinlan in Orson Welles' “Touch of Evil” (1958)
The toadie with a touch of good; the cop with a touch of evil.

—September 3, 2012

© 2012 Erik Lundegaard