The Duality of Detection in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”

On April 23, 1958, Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" was released in American theaters. It contains one of the most moving deaths and epitaphs in the history of cinema.
Touch of Evil (1958)

On April 23, 1958, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil was released in American theaters. Known for many things: its acrobatic opening long take; the moral ambiguity of its protagonist; its delight in flipping the stereotypes of film noir on their head; and much, much more. But above all, it contains one of the most moving deaths and epitaphs in the history of cinema. “A lousy cop, but some kind of a man,” says the wonderful Marlene in her gypsy portrayal, as the now-deceased Quinlan floats among the refuse.

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by Lorenzo Pellizzari

Paul-Louis Thirard is right when he states that “Welles is perhaps, with Chaplin and Buñuel, one of the directors about whom most has been written” (Paul-Louis Thirard, Orson Welles o la passione per il cinema, in «Il nuovo spettatore cinematografico»); it is equally certain that, within this critical proliferation, Touch of Evil is one of the films least discussed. Moreover, when it is mentioned, it has been rigorously done so apart from what it originally is, namely a “police procedural,” a mystery. Here are some statements: “The plot here is merely a pretext” (Edoardo Bruno); “At first glance a good mystery film […], but Welles’s film is much more than this” (Cesare Pianciola); “It is a film about Stalin. […] The author of Citizen Kane has returned to depict the character on two levels, one based on images of current American events […] and another plane of moral allegory” (Italo Calvino). Perhaps all this stems from the fact that once again one is seduced by Welles himself: “I have suitcases full of subjects for films never realized, but among these, you would find no thriller. When I direct films of that genre, which I assure you I have no particular interest or inclination, it is not for the money (I make my living as an actor), but because of a wild need to exercise, in one way or another, the craft I have chosen, that of a director.” But perhaps it also stems from the fact that, as the mystery belongs to mass culture, it could not be used as a category to talk about an “auteur” like Welles. It is therefore worth remembering Thirard’s words once more: “It is not because it has a noble subject that Citizen Kane is a great film: the hierarchy that would put The Lady from Shanghai or Touch of Evil, because of their police procedural subjects, beneath Kane or the Shakespearean films […] should be rejected.”

The plot of Touch of Evil (a routine novel by Whit Masterson) was suggested to Welles in 1957, recommended by Charlton Heston who would star in it. Welles accepted, completely rewrote the screenplay in less than three weeks; the production, scheduled for forty working days, took only a couple more. Yet even this tour de force was not enough to change the producers’ minds about Welles, whose difficulties resumed, between unrealized projects and incomplete works, exactly as before.

The “duplicated detection” – From the opening sequence, Touch of Evil presents some of the fundamental characteristics of the mystery genre: “The enigma novel […] does not contain one, but two stories: the story of the crime and that of the investigation […]. The first, that of the crime, is indeed the story of an absence. […] The status of the second […] is equally rigid: the story itself has no importance, it serves only as mediation between the reader and the story of the crime […]. In the enigma novel, there are then two stories, of which one is absent but real, the other present but insignificant: presence and absence explain their coexistence in the continuity of the narrative” (Tzvetan Todorov, The Typology of the Detective Fiction. Crime (the explosion) and detective (Vargas) are immediately on the scene, but are displaced by a second detective figure, Quinlan, who effectively reverses the relationship between the two stories. The detection thus becomes duplicated almost specularly: apparently both Vargas and Quinlan seek, each in his own way, the culprit of the Linnaker murder, but in reality, what Vargas seeks is the guilt of Quinlan, that is, of the other detective; beneath the plot of the first crime (Sanchez-Linnaker) thus exists a second one (Quinlan-Grandes etc.); both are absent stories, hidden, that converge emblematically in the finale (the death-punishment of Quinlan accompanies Sanchez’s confession).

In this duplication, what is the subject of detection in the first story (Quinlan) becomes the object of detection in the second. This is ultimately what also happens in Confidential Report (likewise, the theme of search recurs in works such as Citizen Kane, The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai), in which Arkadin tasks Van Stratten with searching for… Arkadin himself (and the investigation on the object Kane is conducted through the cinematic resurrections of a Kane who thus becomes the subject of the story). This exchange of perspectives is very common in the mystery genre, where the detective-subject puts himself at stake, becoming the object in the specularly reversed perspective of the criminal: here this role is specifically fulfilled by Susan, a heroine in danger who risks transforming into the ‘innocent wrongly persecuted’.

“The interest of the detective novel lies in the dialectic of innocence and guilt. […] Every murderer is the rebel who claims omnipotence” (W.H. Auden): it is no coincidence then that, in the reversal of the dialectic descending from the reversal of the narrative structure, he who “claims omnipotence” (Quinlan) reveals himself as the murderer; just as it is no coincidence that Welles continuously underlines the loneliness of Quinlan (consider his dialogues with Tanya, but above all his acting and those shots filled entirely by his corpulence, where there is no room for others), doubling it with the death of Menzies. Indeed, “it is isolation that makes the culprit” (Franco Moretti, Clues, in Classic Detective Stories), or the one who with his act opposes the order, the very essence of the social; it is in the logic of the mystery the radical opposition between the murderer-individual and the detective-society; it is this second pole that also triumphs here, where it is explicitly configured in the couple Vargas-Susan (who, not by chance, reunite only when Quinlan has been eliminated).

The long take – Naturally, following Brecht, so far we are at the scheme of the mystery, which however only truly becomes such through the ways of the narrative, only through the form that Welles gives it. The long take is undoubtedly, since the time of Citizen Kane, a true stylistic constant of Welles’s cinema. In Touch of Evil, it features three different modes of employment:

  1. Internal editing: uniting within the same shot two separate actions, linked to each other by the narrative situation, but especially by the viewer’s perspective; it is the case of the shots where Vargas “spies” on Quinlan; here the internal editing translates in immediately visual terms the very essence of suspense; we know that Vargas is spying on Quinlan, but Quinlan does not; perspectives, as we have seen, change continuously: on one hand, we wait for Quinlan to realize and thus avoid the trap; on the other, we fear that this may happen. The continuous reversal of perspectives is supported by an ongoing dialogue, thanks to the use of the recorder: thus, an ambiguous space is created, divided by depth of field and united by voiceover (perhaps the Bazinian real ambiguity of the long take itself). The viewer’s point of view shifts continuously from Quinlan to Vargas, with a tearing in the secondary identification that is typical of the mystery and its binary structure and corresponds to that indeterminacy of subject/object we have already mentioned.
  2. Parallel editing: obviously, this is not the same parallel editing discussed by Metz, but a form equivalent to it, resolved entirely within the same shot, in which the presence of two independent narrative lines is recognized. In the opening sequence, the Vargas-Susan couple reaches the border after a long journey parallel with the help of Linnaker; we know nothing about them, but it is the language itself that tells us that a relationship exists. In a sense, it is the style that creates a kind of waiting-question.
  3. Continuous editing: consists of variations in composition within the same shot due to the movement of the camera and characters belonging to a single narrative line. It is the case of the sequences entirely shot in Sanchez’s apartment, in which various characters are gathered. In particular, these two sequences play both on the almost continuous presence of Vargas in the frame and on the equally continuous movement of Quinlan in and out. This establishes a visual form of the tension existing between the two.

The truth of the false – “The direction,” observes Bazin, “seems conceived according to two fundamental directions, one plastic and the other rhythmic: the deformation of space in depth with the 18.5 and the speed. The cutting is truly dizzying, the speed of the characters always moving within the frame, overlaps that of the editing, always connected with the movement.” The space is always devoid of an ordering center: it finds neither in Quinlan nor in Vargas, who are only intent on swapping the roles of protagonist and antagonist. It is an immeasurable space (enlarged, indeed, by the wide-angle lens), “where the characters seem to walk with seven-league boots, when they do not give the impression of sliding on a moving carpet”; but it is also a cramped and closed space, in which a tangle of bodies, lights, and shadows is continuously transforming.

This elasticity of space is accompanied by a similar elasticity of time: the real time of the long takes and the distorted time (the elisions, the alternations) of the intermittences of “Susan’s story” within the dual detection. The story thus continuously moves away from its main guiding line, with a secondary structure that actually enhances its suspenseful nature. Not only that, but it is precisely this other story that allows a more effective masking of the first plot of the crime. It is no accident, then, that the viewer’s interest shifts quickly from the murder of Linnaker to the confrontation between Vargas and Quinlan: Susan is one of the main drivers of this shift, whose form is that of “conventional” alternating editing, or the most radical semantic distortion of time and space, a sort of parallel duplication that increases its ambiguity (as well as the continuous coming and going back and forth across the border).

Suspense, anticipation, tension, ambiguity: these are the fundamental codes of the mystery genre. Starting only apparently as a puzzle-mystery, Touch of Evil quickly configures itself almost immediately as suspense: one can therefore discuss the type of mystery, but not the presence of the mystery as such. Welles himself is under no illusions about the novelty of the underlying theme (the corrupt policeman), which American cinema had already provided other examples of: consider just Webb Garwood in one of Losey’s early films, The Prowler (1951). The revelation of Quinlan’s irregularity is indeed almost immediate; it is clear from the start that he has a plan, his own plot in mind. Among the three perspectives of reading indicated by Guido Fink for the “theme of power” in Welles’s cinema—literal, political, and metalinguistic—it is clearly the latter that appears the most convincing: Quinlan, in essence, is nothing but a storyteller; he is an author of numerous criminal plots; with imagination and intuition, he fills the “gaps” of reality, creating stories that mix truth (Sanchez’s guilt) with falsehood (the evidence). The immediate terms of comparison in this perspective are both The Immortal Story and F for Fake, but also a well-known essay by Dorothy L. Sayers that defines the mystery as “the art of telling the false.” But if the telling of the false produces the true, what is the difference anymore? It is probably only in another form of omnipotence, which suppresses reality (“for me realism does not exist,” Welles himself declared) to replace it with its own fantasy, the only possible truth. For an artist, obviously, more than for a policeman. Even if it then happens that both are recognized as guilty and punished. Quinlan falls, definitively, into the waters next to the dump; Welles rises, if not countless, then many more times still.

Cineforum no. 214, May 1982


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