U.S. Intellectual History Blog

America’s Touch of Evil: The Contained Turmoil Of The 1950s

[Note: This is the fourth in a series of movie profiles at USIH in support the Film Noir Foundation. Please see the first post by Ben Alpers for more information. Click here to make a donation to the Foundation.]


Touch of Evil, one of the last mid-century noir films, suffered the indignity of not even being nominated for an Academy Award in a year, 1958, when Gigi won best picture and took nine awards. To make matters worse, Orson Welles—the writer, director, co-star of Touch of Evil, and a star figure in the noir genre—was not even recognized for editing in relation to one of the most famous long tracking shots in film history.

Welles’ long shot is famous not so much for its length. At 3 minutes and 28 seconds, a great many films exceed it (one recent film, Russian Ark, is 99 minutes of one shot!). Rather, Welles’ shot is admired for its artistry, intricacy, and tension. Here it is:

I love the explosive climax.[1]

Touch of Evil‘s qualities as a film were, at the start, radically underestimated. After many editing controversies, Universal International came to view the film as having low (profit-making) potential. Wikipedia succinctly explains what happened next:

It was released as a B-movie, the lower half of a double feature. The A-movie was The Female Animal, starring Hedy Lamarr, produced by Albert Zugsmith and directed by Harry Keller, whom the studio had hired to direct the re-shot material in Touch of Evil. The two films even had the same cameraman, Russell Metty. Welles’s film was given little publicity despite the many stars in the cast. Though it had little commercial success in the US, it was well-received in Europe, particularly by critics like future filmmaker François Truffaut.

The context of the film’s release and reception mirror, in some ways, prominent noir themes: cynicism, skepticism, and the film as a victim of circumstance. Even Welles, despite his unlikeable role in the film itself, emerges as a kind of doomed hero in relation to his art.

From where does the film’s story come? Touch of Evil is loosely based on Badge of Evil (1956), a novel written by “Whit Masterson”—a compact pseudonym for the authors Robert Wade and William Miller. The central character in that book is an assistant district attorney, Mitch Holt—given the name Ramon Miguel ‘Mike’ Vargas in the film, and played by Charlton Heston (Heston as a Mexican would become a joke in later films). Holt’s wife is named Consuelo in the book, but named Susan ‘Susie” Vargas in the film and played by a sexy Janet Leigh (lower right). Orson Welles plays police captain Hank Quinlan (right) in the film; the character has the same name in the book. Quinlan and his police partner become the primary suspects as the story develops, both in the film and the book. But the film takes a turn from the book’s narrative in that Quinlan is the more powerful (and more guilty) of the suspected partners, the other being police sergeant Pete Menzies, played by Joseph Calleia and named Leron McCoy in the book.

Got it? Just remember that the most important characters are Mike Vargas (Heston), Susie Vargas (Leigh), Hank Quinlan (Welles), and Menzies (Calleia), and you’ll successfully navigate the plot and avoid the “MacGuffins” that David Sehat rightly warned us against. If you haven’t seen the film before, I recommend reading the AMC Filmsite summary here. Indeed, because of that detailed summary, I am going to discuss my idiosyncratic impressions rather than make any attempt at comprehensiveness.[2]

I have seen Touch of Evil only once, but the film’s aesthetic, acting, and general cynicism impressed me as few others films before or since. As usual, scenes and performances leave the deepest marks.[3] First, Orson Welles was fantastic. He effectively played one the most unlikeable, fascinating, monstrous, and despicable figures I’ve seen on screen. The manipulative Quinlan has been described elsewhere as a “tragic figure who has a ‘touch of evil’ in his enforcement of the law.” I also recall the tension of the Grandi family gang members coming to abduct Janet Leigh. I remember vividly the hotel scene where it appears that that the Grandi family gang is going to rape Leigh—again for the tension. I was impressed with the dark mood of the film—particularly the final scenes in an oil production facility (like the one below) near the film’s climax.

The film’s side characters are memorable. AMC’s Filmsite sums up their mood-altering diversity:

Other unusual and seedy characters include a nervous and sex-crazed motel manager, a blind shopkeeper, a drug smuggler, a sweaty drug dealer with a poorly-fitting wig, a terrorizing gang of juvenile delinquents, and an intense good cop – an international narcotics officer who is honeymooning (but ignores his wife), all in a sleazy border town (and a number of dark hotel rooms) within a twenty-four hour period.

Zsa Zsa Gabor (right) makes a short appearance as the owner and madame of a strip club.

As a start toward bringing my impressions together, I offer first this sweeping contextual assessment—also from AMC’s Filmsite:

It was regarded as a rebellious, unorthodox, bizarre, and outrageously exaggerated film, affronting respectable 1950’s sensibilities, with controversial themes including racism, betrayal of friends, sexual ambiguity, frameups, drugs, and police corruption of power.

Indeed, to expand on this, I think something of the significance of film noir, at least in the 1950s, is in the way that the genre captures that slice of the repressed dissatisfaction, always roiling below the surface, of the decade. If the period’s intense anti-communism resulted in idealist visions of America (i.e. as the proverbial “city on the hill”), then noir captures that city’s messy undercurrents. The aesthetic beauty in those films alerts us to their artistry, but their mood reflects what every close-up of the decade reveals: flaws, cracks, and imperfections in the foundational narrative. The affluence and mood of containment in the period could not bottle up the dissatisfaction that emerged later, for instance in Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (published in 1963, and recently re-evaluated by Louis Menand in a New Yorker article titled “Books as Bombs”). But other books, articles, and works of art—as well as movements like the Beats (also known for their dark motif)—belie America’s view of itself as noble, exceptional, and successful. Touch of Evil, then, appears right when Americans were least likely to see the relevance of its themes to their predicament, hence the relative failure of the movie at release.

The cross-border aspects of the film’s plot, as well as the dirty nature of Hank Quinlan’s means, speaks to America’s growing realpolitik in dealing with its imperial interests in the 1950s. The imperative of the time was that Communism must be contained abroad, whether via idealistic public pronouncements like the Truman Doctrine, or by quietly sending “advisors” to Vietnam and secretly placing missiles in Turkey. Covert operations are planned in this period, if not enacted. Quinlan’s character embodies a growing sense of controlling our enemies, communist or no, “by any means necessary.” America uses what George Cotkin (channeling Jean-Paul Satre) calls “dirty hands,” or what Welles labels the “touch of evil,” to keep order.

The anti-imperialist message, I confess, is my gloss. In The Cultural Front, Michael Denning’s brilliant 1997 book about the laboring of American culture, Welles emerges as the pre-eminent anti-fascist of American theater and cinema. Denning first mentions Touch of Evil as an “allegory of fascism.” For Welles, the Popular Front’s fight against fascism “was a matter of politics and aesthetics.” But Denning’s narrative contains other quotes from Welles that allows us to see his repulsive Quinlan character in a broader light. In a 1958 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma, Welles reflected: “Quinlan is the incarnation of everything I struggle against, politically and morally speaking.” Indeed, Touch of Evil was glossed by Welles himself an anti-racist film. At another point, Welles also asserted that Quinlan reflected a “hatred of the abuse of police power.” [4] Finishing the logic of my own interpretation, U.S. military might—despite the rumblings of 1950s domestic ideologues—was pre-eminent in the 1950s. America acted as the world’s policeman and was a de facto, relatively benevolent imperial power. My more particular 1950s gloss, then, goes to Touch of Evil‘s capacious themes.

Though marketed as a B-Film and underappreciated in its own time, Touch of Evil gained critical appreciation by the century’s end. In 1993, the Library of Congress selected it for the National Film Registry, citing the film as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Along with Gigi, however, Touch of Evil did not place in the top 100 of the American Film Institute’s latest list (published in 2007, though Touch did make a 2001 list of the top 100 thrillers).

Unlike Ben Alpers, I have no direct experience either screening a noir in class or discussing a singular example with my students. I show a lot film in my U.S. surveys as a way to enliven material the text presents dryly. I primarily use documentaries (e.g. The Weather Underground, The Fog of War, Roger and Me) or films that dramatically represent materials from an interesting angle (e.g. Band of Brothers episodes, The Birth of a Nation). But observing the discussion of noir this week makes me think that I should reconsider fiction-based film as emblematic of the dark undercurrents of the late 1940s and 1950s. In so doing, I will also have to get over the fear that an outsider observer (e.g. dean, senior professor) or a cranky student will accuse me of wasting valuable history class time with a feature film unrelated to an explicit historical topic.

So, if a noir makes an unscheduled appearance this term in my classes—a direct, tangible result of this year’s Film Noir Foundation blogathon(!)—which film should I show? Touch of Evil is a bit long at 112 minutes (the 1998 version). I could show clips, but I severely dislike this practice in relation to screening. To me, either the whole film is relevant and worthy, or it isn’t (yes, I’m an extremist). Perhaps the best question to ask is this:

Which noir most efficiently conveys the greatest number of noir themes in the least amount of time? – TL


[1] Directors Martin Scorcese and Paul Thomas Anderson have the distinction of being famous for two long shots each: Scorcese for Goodfellas and Raging Bull, and Anderson for Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

[2] AMC Filmsite summaries are awesome. I use the summary for The Birth of a Nation (a film that needs all the aids it can get) with students, and they seem to appreciate it universally.

[3] I’m pretty sure I saw the 1998 version, edited by Walter Murch and produced by Rick Schmidlin.

[4] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1997): 365, 375, 395, 400, 533n29.

7 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for the terrific post, Tim!

    I’m almost embarrassed to admit that, while I greatly admire TOUCH OF EVIL, I actually don’t really like it (and I love a lot of Welles’s films). Having had it on the syllabus of my Film Noir seminar for its last two iterations, I took it off this year in favor of expanding my concluding unit on Neo-Noirs by one week.

    As for an answer to your final question: film noir is very various, and IMO there’s no single noir that captures all the important elements of the cycle (or genre or movement or whatever), not least because, even if we confine ourselves to the run of classic noirs between (roughly) THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), the later ’50s films are in some ways distinctly different from the wartime and immediate post-war noirs.

    If I had to choose a single film as an example of film noir (full stop), I guess I’d go with DOUBLE INDEMNITY or OUT OF THE PAST (the latter is a particular favorite of mine). Even if it were shorter, I wouldn’t use TOUCH OF EVIL, which is both a more difficult film and less typical of noir in many ways (I think the French critics declared it to be the end of film noir in part because it feels like the end of a cycle of films. It’s very mannered and exudes a kind of exhaustion.)

    However, your question, Tim, was somewhat different, as it added a “bang for the buck” aspect: most noir themes in least amount of time. Here I’d look to one of the true B noirs that really were designed as “programmers” and had running times well under 90 minutes.

    Among such films, my first choice would be Edgar Ulmer’s DETOUR (1945), which is only 68 minutes long. It thoroughly deserves its reputation as one of Hollywood’s great B pictures…and great noirs of any price (or length). And it’s slipped into the public domain, so you can view it (perfectly legally) online here (though I’d never have a class watch a film only on their laptops….too much gets lost). There’s also a lot of good secondary literature on DETOUR, which would help you use it in a classroom setting. A good place to start is Noah Isenberg’s excellent book about the film in the BFI Classics series.

    At any rate, DETOUR gives you, among other things, a flashback structure, a morally ambiguous protagonist, voice over narration, some typically noir cinematography, one of the great femmes fatales, and a plot that emphasizes question of fate, free will, and the (im)possibility of the American dream. You want crisis of masculinity? DETOUR’s got it in spades! And it was made by an actual alumnus of the interwar German film industry, in case that’s important to you (critics and film historians like Thomas Elsaesser and James Naremore point out that Ulmer is unusual in that he’s one of the very few directors of noir with an actual personal connection to German expressionist filmmaking).

  2. Ben,

    On loving *Touch of Evil*, well, I understand. I probably love the pre-noir *Citizen Kane* the most of all Welles’ films. As for others, I only admire *The Maltese Falcon*. I’ve seen *The Third Man* once, but it didn’t make the same impression as *Touch of Evil*. I remember really liking *Double Indemnity*, but my memory of it is less clear than, again, *Touch of Evil*. As for my overall sentiments in “old” noir, my greatest love is reserved for Alfred Hitchcock. I’m surprised, however, that none of us tackled *Sunset Boulevard*.

    But most importantly, thanks for the suggestion to use Detour! I’m going to look into it immediately. And thankfully my classroom’s overhead projector is tied to a computer. So, as long as the public-domain Detour is sufficiently clear for viewing, I’d be happy to use it. And 68 minutes is perfect. It uses 1.33 50 minute class periods, and I can use the second part of period two for discussion. Me likey.

    – TL

  3. I have no idea how high quality the Internet Archive’s copy of DETOUR is. Like most public domain films, it’s also available (cheaply) in a variety of DVD editions, which vary in quality. The best of these is the one put out by Image Entertainment, which is available for under $10 on Amazon.com.

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