Elements of Film Thinking: Touch of Evil (1958)

Despite the film not being Welles’ best work, one could see his trademark style throughout. At the same time Welles’ forte is his experimentation and spontaneous innovation. As a result, the film retains Welles’ fingerprints without adopting previously tried techniques. This is true of both the narrative and cinematographic styles. This essay will argue that Touch of Evil is a triumph of style and technique.

Touch of Evil was promoted as a crime-thriller. However, viewing it in its entirety, it is fair to claim that the film overlaps several genres. For example, there are obvious film noir characteristics, most notably in the visualization of shots. Long shadows, angled lighting on characters, dingy settings, the suggestions of secrecy through mise-en-scene all testify to the film noir spirit. Moreover, the pivotal plot element of a murder (through bomb detonation) is consistent with the genre. While the cinematography is novel in this fashion, the core themes of the story are ancient and universal. Some critics have even identified Shakespearean themes in the film.

“European cinephiles, who were quick to enshrine Welles in a pantheon of auteurs, easily incorporated the Shakespeare films into the Wellesian cinema, recognizing in them themes and dramatic emphases present as well the destructive consequence of power, even when employed in a just cause; the inevitability of betrayal; the loss of paradise—all of these films are, in their own way, Shakespearean texts, if in no other sense than in the way they impose a large, poetic intensity on questions of family and domesticity and thus wed the social with the personal.” (Anderegg, 1999, p. 70)

In relation to Shakespearean texts, one can see shades of Othello and Hamlet in the personages of Quinlan and Vargas. While envy was the undoing of Othello, misplaced pride and egoism were the root of Quinlan’s suffering. It is not an exaggeration to claim that the main focus of the film is personal anguish, which, of course, is illustrated through the framework of a crime thriller. Despite the heavy boozing and smoking, a murky past and question marks over professional integrity, Captain Quinlan can still be interpreted as a hero, for he inevitably got the culprits convicted. His methods and means of achieving them are dubious, but the results were fair and just, even by his own evaluation. The famous ‘intuitions’ of Quinlan may not arise from systematic or scientific analysis, but they nearly always happen to be right. Even the framing of Sanchez eventually proves justified, although the planting of evidence (two units of dynamite in the shoe-box) was done by his long-term associated Paul Menzies.

There are many character traits that are exposed visually. For example, the dark-skinned Mexican Miguel Vargas proves himself to be an honest police officer. On the other-hand, the highly stationed American police captain Hank Quinlan turns out in the end to be deceitful. Although Quinlan carries with him a reputation for cracking difficult cases, his unethical practice of framing the culprits is later revealed. It is of little legal consequence whether his targets actually happen to be guilty of the charge, as the case of Sanchez so surprisingly illustrates. These moral ambiguities are cleverly juxtaposed by Welles through characterization. In doing so, Welles is able to mingle the inner turmoil of the troubled Quinlan with the crime investigation.

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