Drama · Film Noir

Requiem for Captain Quinlan

Orson Welles is in no mood to talk. Image: Sky Movies
Orson Welles is in no mood for chit chat. Image: Sky Movies

Spoiler Alert!

Hank Quinlan’s death, at the conclusion of Touch of Evil (1958), is not glamorous.

There he is, the celebrated police captain, floating belly up in a pool of wastewater. It’s not the way any of us want to go.

If you’ve seen Touch of Evil, you may not have been surprised by this ending. After all, Captain Quinlan died the same way in which he lived, which is violently.

Touch of Evil is an especially dark noir starring Charlton Heston as a Mexican drug enforcement officer, Janet Leigh as his feisty new wife, and Orson Welles as the corrupt lawman Hank Quinlan.

The film takes place over a period of three days in a U.S.-Mexican border town, while Heston and Leigh are on their honeymoon. When a car bomb is planted on the Mexican side of the border and explodes in the U.S., a troubled investigation arises that tests jurisdictional authority.

We first meet Quinlan after the car explosion. The District Attorney (Ray Collins), who is already on the scene, introduces us to him:

Collins: “Well, here comes Hank at last. I guess you’ve heard of Hank Quinlan, our local police celebity?”
Heston: “I’d like to meet him.”
A Bystander: “That’s what you think.”

We are anxious to see this Quinlan, and he does not disappoint: he’s corpulent, unshaven, and immediately Takes Charge. He asks a few perfunctory questions, rebuffs Heston’s inquiries, and announces the cause of the explosion. Soon he has a suspect in custody.

Given the apparent lack of evidence, we wonder how Quinlan has deduced these things. We are told he works on intuition; he gets a twinge in his leg, “like some people do with the weather.”

Welles shows planted evidence to Heston. Image: Phoenix Critics Circle
Welles shows evidence to Charlton Heston. Image: Phoenix Critics Circle

This film is not just about Quinlan, but we do learn more about him than any other character in these last miserable days of his life.

For instance, he hates Mexicans and “starry-eyed idealists”. He prefers working with crooks because, “You can always do something with a crook.”

We learn his aggressive law enforcement philosophy: Don’t be afraid to plant evidence; frame innocent people if you have to; kill anyone who gets in the way.

Yet we also discover he has suffered a great personal loss years ago when his wife was murdered. As a result, he’s never failed to find and arrest a suspect.

Finally, we realize Quinlan’s time has run out. He visits an old flame, a fortune teller (Marlene Dietrich) who refuses to reveal his fate as per the tarot cards. “Your future is all used up,” she says bluntly.

The enigmatic Marlene Dietrich. Image: bam.org
Marlene Dietrich doesn’t sugar coat the truth. Image: bam.org

There is one small incident in Touch of Evil that illustrates Quinlan’s view of life.

During a discussion, Quinlan examines an abandoned pigeon’s nest that still has two eggs. He takes one of the eggs and holds it in an almost motherly way. But when he accidentally crushes the egg, the liquid runs in thick streams from his hands, like so much blood.

Quinlan has a brief flash of disappointment, but immediately wipes his hands as though he’s wiping away the incident.

This is how it goes with Quinlan. He doesn’t always mean for lives to be lost, but sometimes it happens. When it does, you have to clean up the mess so everyone can get on with Business. This is how you get to be a celebrated police captain.

This, too, is the way of his death. Someone will eventually fish him out of the water and clean up the mess, so everyone can get on with Business.

It’s a sorry end for anyone, even the notorious Captain Hank Quinlan.

Touch of Evil: starring Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Orson Welles. Written and directed by Orson Welles. Universal-International Pictures Co., 1958, B&W, 95 mins.

This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin and yours truly. Click HERE to see today’s fab entries.

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35 thoughts on “Requiem for Captain Quinlan

  1. Orson Welles is iconic in this villainous role–great post! Just watched this again a few weeks ago and loved it more then ever, especially Welles, Mercedes McCambridge and most of all the divine Miss Dietrich. Heston is pretty handsome with a moustache, though he’s not the most credible Mexican native!
    -Chris

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree, the direction is fantastic. I wrote something about it on my blog, I mentioned that people always say that good direction means that you didn’t notice it, but boy, do you notice it in this one! It’s just exquisite.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I like how you said that, about Quinlan being as audacious as the story around him. That certainly is the case!

      This is one of those films that illustrates a double standard I have: I want our borders to be safe, but don’t tell me how that is achieved…

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  2. Quinlan sounds like a perfect villain for this series. Anyone with the philosophy, “don’t be afraid to plant evidence; frame innocent people if you have to; kill anyone who gets in the way,” must be a pretty bad guy! I love how you find the symbolism in films that I would never notice such as the liquid from the egg standing for the blood of his victims. Very interesting post, Ruth! I hope to see this film.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One thing I love about Welles was his absolute commitment in portraying such distinct personalities.
    In this film he’s pretty much disgusting, and he mutteres his lines in such a memorable fashion. Contrast that to the suave criminal in THE THIRD MAN, or the proud figure of the elderly Kane.
    Such versatility in appearance, mannerism, and vocal delivery. He wasn’t afraid to take risks in pushing his performances to the limits.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right. Welles, in Touch of Evil, looks as horrible as his character should. It’s hard to believe this actor is the same one who portrayed Kane, as you pointed out.

      On your site, you referenced Peter Bogdanovich’s 1969 interview with Welles. I’ve since bookmarked it on YouTube to watch later.

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      1. It’s probably not that same interview, but maybe. I was referring to “This is Orson Welles,” the book compiled of his interviews with Welles, which is a treasure trove.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Touch of Evil really is one of the best noirs. I know the studio was getting frustrated with Orson Welles and the time he was taking to set up shots, but what gorgeous shots, no? Thanks for dropping by.

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  4. Quinlan is a wonderful choice for a villain! TOUCH OF EVIL is one of my favorite Orson Welles pictures. Like THE LADY SHANGHAI, it’s a little over the top at times, but that makes it all the more memorable. Plus, Orson gave himself one of his last great roles.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful! Quinlan is fascinating – like most of Welles’ characters. I felt a bit sorry for him in some scenes, and I really like how you put in perspective his professional way of living and seeing life.
    Thanks for co-hosting this great event!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice choice and aptly described. I’d add that when he wipes the egg from his hand, it is only after Vargas gives him s own handkerchief. Quinlan, it seems, has so much blood on his hands he can’t even wipe off the new without staining someone else.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow… I think I got to read through tons of your posts to find some great old movies and then binge watch them till I am soaked in their amazingness. Captain Quinlan is rather colorful character for a black and white movie. Gonna watch this tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hmmm. Imagine Hank Quinlan crossing paths with Harry Lime and the story that could be told. Well, some would say they got to meet eventually (heh), but I’m thinking both pre-demise…

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Now that I think about it, the two personalities together with a few ghost chilies and vinegar left to marinate would get you Ben Kingsley’s hilariously evil character in Sexy Beast. Or a small thermonuclear blast. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

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