May 8th, 2012
I had the chance to see Touch of Evil in mid-March of this year at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. The print I saw was the refurbished 1998 version, helmed by Walter Murch & relying on Welles’ own famous 58-page memo to his studio urging the restoration of certain elements of his film after it was swiped from him and — as often happened with Welles — re-tooled and “completed” by other parties. This was also to be my first Welles flick. So I felt doubly lucky while queuing up with my friends and girlfriend: to be seeing this much-acclaimed film on the big screen and to be seeing it in a form as close to what Welles envisioned as possible. And so? Simply put, I was stunned.
How in the hell does one write about Welles and Touch of Evil 50+ years later? Ink & typewriter ribbon & keystroke have long been exhausted in tribute to the man and the work. If I’m going to add to the tottering heap, I’ve got to do it aslant… besides, as those of you who follow Snailcrow know, my “reviews”, such as they are, are pretty loose and nonstandard: I don’t go for plot summaries (except inasmuch as absolutely necessary) and helpful contextual prologues & footnotes. For better or worse I like to cover my art immediately, ahistorically and without background-primer. This is absolutely by laziness/selfishness as much as by principle: I’m just goddamned greedy to get to what I truly love about whatever I’m covering. So with that said, what I loved most about Touch of Evil, now that I’ve had more than a month to digest the impact of the film: Hank Quinlan as ethically-instructive non-villain villain & the richness of Welles’ V O I C E. The two go together. I’ll explain.
The sensual first: I loved listening to Welles. Rather, I loved watching Welles talk and matching his voice’s incredibly varied & virtuosic qualities — intonation, pitch, dynamics, murmurs, mumbles, hushes and barks — to the mouth and body onscreen. I had no idea what a mighty presence Welles would be, how commanding he could be, not just with his bulk, but with that fucking voice. It all came together for me while watching: The War of the Worlds broadcast, the Shakespeare, I understood: his power is uttered.
How does this play out in Touch of Evil? Well, in the film Welles plays a collapsing shambles of a police chief in Quinlan, barely able to breathe out an intelligible sentence from his angry, cynical, alco-poisoned guts — & yet we’re magnetized. Why? Just because he’s a big racist brute shot dramatically, an evil pig we can’t tear our eyes from? No — because Welles invests him with more (or perhaps the very strong suggestion of more, which amounts to the same). With subtlety, intelligence, regret, pathos, warmth … even something approaching love (for Tanya that is, played by Welles’ great friend Marlene Dietrich). Welles fully inhabits this degraded elephant of a man, delivering the audience a virtuosity of decay, an engine of self-loathing and guilt but with just enough humanity and nuance that you don’t know what to feel about him. Is he only just a corrupt lunatic? A justified Dirty-Harryesque hero willing to break laws to uphold the true Law? Something in between? The weighing of these questions is momentarily suspended when you watch him all mush-mouthed & tender in Tanya’s presence:
Alco-hippo he may have become, Quinlan moves us here because he’s invested with a vulnerability one doesn’t think possible: witness the charm, bashful flirtation, soft-shoed & humbled poking around at the burnt-out edges of old love. And even when, as the film proceeds, you fully realize Quinlan’s follies and wrongdoings, his evidence-planting ruthlessness, his bigotry and bullying, his cruelty, his self-abuse & self-ruining — all of which I believe to be the sublimated desire he has to punish and put himself away for his having murdered, by strangulation, his wife decades ago (talking here about the bar revelation with his partner Menzies) — you still find him maddeningly sympathetic. Why? How? I think that voice has a huge part to do with it. That voice & the humanity still alive within it, the humanity still invested in Quinlan’s gestures & words, the slightest glimmer of something better in him, the hope it gives us that he can redeem himself. When a villain is this richly, roundly depicted you can’t help but pause and question the villainy.
Make no mistake, I believe Quinlan to be a morally-bankrupt man. He no longer has close to an inkling of insight into his own soul; he thinks himself an absolute power, a God. He dies in Jesus-pose, convinced of his persecution and wrongdoing at the hand of fools and betrayers. No outward sign of remorse about his careerlogn amoral carrying out of the law. The fact that Sanchez is “found” guilty after Quinlan dies (could have just as easy been a false/coerced confession) is simply coincidence, but because people want a hero and legend, the implication is clear that Quinlan will be romanticized as the genius crook-catcher foremost who maybe bent some rules but, well, meant the best. He’s vile and in any sane society would be held accountable for his misdeeds. So yes, this is a bad man by any measure & he’s gone rank inside long before the film begins, but all in a way that makes us think, feel & pause — and that makes all the difference; therein (in part) lies Welles’ genius.
In choosing to portray Quinlan this way, Welles to me seems to be exploring the following — & these questions to me constitute the true heart of the film — : a) How men and women broken down in guilt & gnawing conscience shift their self-hatred outward; b) how men and women who commit evil acts can lie to themselves to maintain their fragile ego and permit themselves to continue wrongdoing indefinitely; c) how such men and women are still capable of warmth, love, longing, remorse and wit and intelligence and must be understood as fully complex humans, not just villainous moralized caricatures; d) how such men and women, because they retain vestiges of their former fully-human selves, are vital to examine because they help us understand our own destructive & wrongful urges. Everyone who’s ever watched Touch of Evil and found him or herself confused about what the film stands for or what Quinlan’s all about has gone through this, & what you’re really asking is: how am I like Quinlan? & how do I overcome the Quinlan parts of me? When art makes us questions ourselves like this it’s an invaluable gift to us all.
And so Quinlan is one of the great film villains because he’s not a stupid wolfman Skeletor Dracula Bad Guy. He’s not even a villain. He’s a fucked up human we learn has done many bad things, who does many more as the film proceeds, who is staggeringly blind to the scope of his own errors & wretchedness, & who is still capable of warm human feelings (however vestigial). Hollywood doesn’t have a place for an anti-hero/anti-villain like that (and at that size? And played purposefully to maximize his repulsiveness? No way). Maybe it never really did: no surprise that this was the last film Welles made for Hollywood.
Welles interviewed by Michael Parkinson in 1974, right here.