Touch of Evil
Set on the border between Mexico and America, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil tells the tale of a murder investigation that pits two determined men against one another: Miguel Vargas, an official in the Mexican government, and Hank Quinlan, an American police captain.
Vargas is an articulate, young, handsome, wealthy, educated, straight-shooter with a bright future. Quinlan is ill-mannered, mature, ugly, lower-class, street-smart, and corrupt. The two dislike each other almost immediately, and when Vargas thinks he has caught Quinlan framing a suspect for the murder, their conflict escalates to dangerous extremes.
Welles refuses to pain this conflict in straight black and white; for all of Vargas’ uprightness, there are times where he seems almost ignorant of the corrupt cesspool around him, and the film's narrative forces him to pay for his naïveté.
On the other hand, Quinlan, diabolical though he is, remains a tragic figure; unlike Vargas, Quinlan has spent some time in the darker corners of the world and knows them for what they are, and the experience has left him forever changed. Quinlan is fallen hero, a man who has spent far too long living in a world where justice rarely shows its face and has succumbed to its dark influence.
The film’s structure, quite unusual for the time (too unusual for the studio’s taste, which re-cut the film for its original release, although a new version of the film, released in 1998, attempted to honor Welles’ wishes and restored it), cuts between multiple storylines and vignettes, creating a suspenseful narrative build-up out of a network of characters and their own interests where mistakes and misunderstandings are permitted to have distant repercussions.
These repercussions ultimately catch up with Quinlan, and that marks the difference between himself and Vargas. Vargas has a future, but Quinlan has made a lifetime out of deception and fraud, and it swallows him whole. As one character famously tells him, his “future’s all used up.”