The Cathode Ray Mission: Touch of Evil and Law and Order

Jake Dihel
12 min readAug 15, 2022


To start with Touch of Evil, it is obvious and necessary to start with Orson Welles, and to understand the anxiety that surrounded his career that found its way into the film. A brilliant career in theatre and radio led to Welles at age 26 to direct Citizen Kane (1941), consistently regarded by critics and directors to be one of, if not the best film ever made. Watching it today, it may be difficult to see why that is, but that speaks more to how deeply ingrained its advancements are in our modern film grammar than to any sort of academic inertia that could be keeping its status afloat. With a murderer’s row of hall of fame craftsmen on board (editor Robert Wise, cinematographer Gregg Toland, co-writer Herman Mankiewicz, composer Bernard Herrmann, not to mention the Mercury Theatre actors that followed Welles from stage to screen), Kane’s non-linear storytelling, deep staging, dramatic and mobile camera, expressive lighting, and more all helped to forcefully pull cinema into a new era as an art form, which we can still see to this day.

Welles proved to fly a little too close to the sun with Kane, though, and industry forces turned on him. The film’s title subject, Charles Foster Kane, was a thinly veiled stand-in for William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate and one of the most powerful men in the country. Hearst didn’t take kindly to Welles’s depiction of him as a self-deluded, emotionally broken tycoon, and directed his resources to undermine the director, sabotaging the film’s release by banning coverage. Elsewhere, though it proved to be a huge critical success, Kane was seen by Hollywood studios as setting a bad precedent for production. No director had ever been given as much control on their first feature as Welles was, and artistic liberty couldn’t hold up to the profit motive. Welles’s next film was The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), a project with deeply personal resonance for Welles that was disfigured beyond recognition in the cutting room while he was in Brazil on a separate project. The relationship between Welles and Hollywood would never improve; for the rest of the decade, his projects would either fail to find a base for production or his vision would be compromised by studio meddling, until he found himself outside of America completely and struggling to piece together projects. His own association with left-wing politics also put him under the microscope during the Red Scare era; though he was shielded from personal consequences by virtue of being primarily in Europe at the time, it further alienated him from Hollywood studios that were bending over backwards to purge their industry of anyone painted red. Taken holistically, one of the greatest talents to ever work in the medium was marked frequently by failure due to circumstances outside of his control, with only a small handful of films completed to his personal sensibilities.

To jump ahead a bit, Touch of Evil found a similar fate: even after a positive production, Universal recut the film contrary to Welles’s desires, as were outlined in an extensive memo sent to producers and which was later the basis for the “restored” cut in 1998. Before all that, Welles found himself back in an uneasy alliance with Hollywood, though a much different Hollywood than the one he left. The production code was breaking down, new formats were introduced, new genres had flourished, a small but growing independent scene was active, etc. Welles’s spot in the director’s chair had come about almost by accident; Charlton Heston, at the height of his popularity as an actor, had learned of Welles being cast in the film and made mention of his wish to be directed by him, a wish that Universal executives scrambled to fulfill. In 1958, Touch of Evil released, closing the book on Welles directing in Hollywood and on the classic film noir.

Touch of Evil starts with its most iconic and perhaps most written-about feature, a three and a half minute tracking shot of unprecedented expertise, charting through complex crane maneuvers the layout of the film’s setting, the principal characters, and the scheme that gets the ball rolling — a timebomb planted in a wealthy American entrepreneur’s trunk, killing him and the stripper he was seeing as they cross over the border from Mexico to America. Along the way we are introduced to Miguel Vargas (Heston, unfortunately donned in brownface) and his wife Suzie (Janet Leigh) strolling across the border together, their kiss violently interrupted by the car’s explosion. Apart from being a flashy display of technical skill, the opening shot indicates the kind of visual style that Welles and his cinematographer, Russell Metty, employ throughout the rest of the film: long takes, fluid and forceful movement, jarring edits, confrontational close-ups. The one prominent element missing are low-angle shots; this is something Welles really trailblazed the usage of with Citizen Kane, and pushes to the absolute max in Touch of Evil, throwing every subject into distorted, grotesque proportions.

The subject most susceptible to this treatment is Welles himself playing Hank Quinlan, a corrupt policeman with a famous intuition and gimpy leg who arrives on the scene to crack the case. By this point in his life Welles had gained a tremendous amount of weight, and his self-depiction is startlingly without any sense of ego-preservation—Quinlan is often framed from below and in the foreground, adding extra emphasis to his physical size especially in comparison to the other characters, as well as providing a recurring visual indication of his social standing, a man of immense power literally dwarfing those that are his nominal equals or superiors, dominating the space around him. When he first arrives in the moments following the bomb exploding, he emerges with a flock of bureaucrats and subordinates hovering around him like paparazzi, practically offering to lie down in front of him so he won’t get his shoes dirty. Vargas, himself being a lawman in Mexico but unfamiliar with Quinlan’s reputation, is perplexed by this display, by the seeming reverence this cop commands, and the seeds of the film’s main conflict are planted in the inevitable discrepancies between Vargas’s and Quinlan’s methods of policing and how they bear out on the case at hand.

A complicated web of shifting allegiances and unearthed histories follows, as over the course of 24 hours Vargas and Quinlan hurtle at one another through plots of assassination, terrorization, drug trafficking, organized crime, and cover-ups, until at last the initial perpetrator is behind bars and Quinlan floats dead down the river. Film noir cohered as a genre in the years immediately following World War II, a genre demarcated by its flirtation with darkness, especially notable given the strict moralism of the Hays production code at the time which necessitated that the bad guys couldn’t win, lending these darker stories an air of inescapable fatalism. Cops and criminals trade shadowy, violent blows with each other and come out looking indistinguishable, women seduce upright men into performing villainous acts, reformed crooks try to go straight but can’t quite break old habits, innocent men are caught in a frame, and so on. Touch of Evil slots right in to the classic noir tradition, and in particular it follows a genre trend of some of the best noir representatives of casting aside plot incidents in favor of a realization of a mood (The Big Heat, Double Indemnity, In a Lonely Place, The Killers, etc.). The plot’s scrutability is effected by which cut you’re watching, but its details are head-spinning to follow regardless; the whiplash-inducing nature of the plot’s movement creates a constant feeling of destabilization, even on repeated viewings. This movement of the film is unlike any other, totally gripping from its first moment and jerking in strange directions as plots stack on top of plots and it becomes hard to tell at any given moment what is actually happening. It’s an effective simulation of Vargas’s perspective, as he functions as a sort of eye of the hurricane, a respectable man who is often oblivious to what is really happening around him. This feeling of disorientation is not the result of poor filmmaking but the opposite, Welles being in such complete control of the form that he is able to transform this pulpy dimestore paperback story into a carnivalesque fever dream, an extended stay in limbo, both figuratively and geographically, a feeling we might associate with David Lynch in contemporary evaluations but which finds this to be one of its great progenitors.

This feeling is informed in a major way by the setting of the story. “All border towns bring out the worst in a country,” Vargas tells Suzie at one point, and the film is infused with a sense of porous corruptibility that matches the treatment of the border. The film occupies a no man’s land of both location and morality; even the professional obligations of the law enforcers is thrown into flux, the inciting crime belonging to a strange in-between area of American and Mexican jurisdiction that leaves both Vargas and Quinlan professionally entangled, though increasingly at odds. The layers of civility peel away rather quickly, as Quinlan and his cohorts express an open disdain with having Vargas involved in their work, informed partly by racial resentment, building to a point that Quinlan turns the destruction of Vargas into his main priority, directing the local Grandi crime family to drug and kidnap Suzie in a scheme to professionally discredit Vargas. Quinlan thrives in this pseudo-lawlessness (or maybe more accurately he thrives in his role as the de facto authoritarian wielder of force), but Vargas, for as comfortable as he is dealing with street criminals like the Grandis, is consistently out of his depth and caught lacking when his opponent has institutional sway that can match his own. When Quinlan reveals the planted evidence to frame Sanchez (Victor Millan) with the bombing, Vargas confronts him openly and discredits the finding, a naively noble action that effectively paints a bright target on his back that he is more or less unaware of and that Quinlan takes aim at for the rest of the film. For a long time, he takes his difference with Quinlan as a matter of ethics, finding himself particularly disgusted with the officials that continue to vouch for Quinlan and take his side against the claims Vargas makes against him, and makes it his mission to gather evidence of Quinlan’s professional transgressions and bring them to light. Quinlan takes the same mission, and proves to be a far more ruthless and dangerous enemy than his foil, going so far as to murder Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff) and frame Vargas for it, along with the aforementioned terrorization of Suzie. Vargas carries on completely blind to these machinations, even at one point driving right past Suzie screaming for help on a hotel balcony to continue his tunnel-vision procedure of proper policework. Will Sloan sums it up in his Letterboxd review: “[…] two characters say of Quinlan: ‘He was a great detective…’ ‘…and a lousy cop.’ With Vargas, it is vice-versa.”

In accordance with this quotation, the film’s ending dramatically complicates our perception of these two characters. Vargas wires up Quinlan’s longtime crony Sergeant Menzies (Joseph Calleia) to get definitive, taped proof that Quinlan has an evidence of forging evidence and killed Grandi to frame Vargas. The scene is a thrilling cinematic spectacle of competing sightlines and information acquisition that would make Brian de Palma blush, finding its conclusion with Quinlan and Menzies killing each other. The villain defeated, justice prevails, Vargas jumps in a car with Suzie and drives off. But a brief exchange follows between the DA Al Schwartz (Mort Mills) and Quinlan’s old flame Tana (Marlene Dietrich) wherein we learn that Quinlan was actually correct, that Sanchez was the one to set the bomb at the beginning (fittingly, Vargas seems to have no awareness of this development). His famous intuition proves correct in this case, begging the question of how often it has been correct in the past, and more importantly whether the ends justify the means. The answer, spelled out through the preceding 90+ minutes, is a fairly decisive “no”, but the issue it poses accumulates into the film’s ongoing critique of law enforcement. The police are presented through three different representatives in the film: Vargas, who is well-meaning and follows the rules but entirely ineffectual, failing to protect his wife or make any headway whatsoever into the bombing; Menzies, who is almost wholly subservient to authority, finding himself working against Quinlan only when the latter’s self-destruction progresses to the point of harming his personal relationships; and Quinlan, a corrupt and violent abuser of power who is institutionally shielded from consequences for his actions. I don’t need to spell out the resonances that these critiques continue to have.

Though he is positioned unambiguously as the villain of the piece, Welles provides a surprising amount of shading to Quinlan that ultimately reveals the film to be reinterpreted away from Vargas’s limited perspective and into a stealth story of Quinlan’s downfall. The 1958 release cut removes some important exposition about Quinlan’s background, but the studio editors unwittingly left enough suggestions to leave an almost-impressionistic picture behind. We come to learn that his ruthless policing method is borne out of a deep wound resulting from the death of his wife and her killer’s failure to be captured, a failure Quinlan takes ownership of. His conversations with Tana are infused with a regretful history of alcoholism and depression, which he can’t help but romanticize even as she tries pushing him away (even his weight suggests the side effects of a long fight for sobriety: “You should lay off the candy bars.” “It’s either the candy bars or the hooch.”). His limp even finds a meaningful history, apparently the result of a bullet intended for Menzies (“That’s the second bullet I stopped for you,” he tells the dying Menzies at the film’s end). Through the ellipses in his background and gestures, what at first looks like a familiar-if-exceptionally well-realized noir villain becomes instead the brutal tragedy of a man wrecked by loss who finds incomplete resolution in the easy application of power on those that cannot stand against him. Being correct in his assumptions is entirely incidental, what matters is the control a badge gives him. What takes it further is Quinlan’s own unquestioning attitude towards his work. Menzies, despite being Quinlan’s closest companion and a frequent collaborator on his previous frame jobs, struggles to get anything resembling an admission of guilt out of Quinlan when he’s wired, because Quinlan lacks any sort of introspection towards his job, he does not fess up to his wrongdoings because he does not perceive them as wrongdoings, only methods to achieve justice. The ends do justify the means to him, and it warps his perception to such a point that he doesn’t even recognize his own manipulation of facts as being manipulative, simply another case of the famous Hank Quinlan intuition being correct. Vargas inspires his breakdown by refuting his unlawful methods, stepping up as the first person to challenge him from within his profession, and revealing by implication that the institutional apparatus that Quinlan has operated from within for his career has never once provided friction for his methods. He has been insulated, and upon the first puncture of his protective sphere, he spirals down into desperate violence to try and protect his own fragmentary, conditional sense of self.

Touch of Evil is often cited as the unofficial conclusion of Hollywood’s classic film noir cycle. As the Eisenhower postwar years gave in to the ’60s and the dramatic changes in culture and politics brought different attitudes, film noir’s cynicism and nihilism had become outdated and its style was relegated to an association with an older period of filmmaking. The genre was taken hold of by French and Japanese directors and reconfigured into new forms before returning stateside under a “neo-noir” designation. Touch of Evil was one of the last entrants before the wave broke, and apart from the chronologic breakpoint it anticipated, it saw the style’s conventions pushed to their highest forms, transforming its cop-vs-cop drama into an outsized battle of wills over sovereignty in a liminal land. “He was some kind of man…. What does it matter what you say about people?” Tana says at the end as she watches Quinlan’s body float away, and the line is the only sense of melancholy found within the film, but in retrospect there is a sadness to the whole affair. Welles would never have the kind of budget or productive stability that he would find here again, and it’s only fitting that his last completed effort in Hollywood would be him shepherding the breed of film he helped to invent, stylistically, to rest. He would continue to make masterpieces, of course, but, despite the brilliance on display even in the semi-compromised release cut of the film, Touch of Evil can’t help but feel like a promise unfulfilled, one last blinding glimpse at a career that should have been.



Jake Dihel

recreationally writing about movies and other media