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.
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.”
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.
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.