The Nature of Evil: Touch of Evil (1958)

touch-of-evilIf an act of evil is intentionally causing harm to an innocent person, then numerous characters in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958) are either guilty of evil or a victim of it. A central theme in the film is the progressive nature of evil: The more a person does what is evil, the less guilt they will feel, and after rationalizing their actions, they may commit even greater acts of evil.

Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), the police captain, wants to punish criminals who are guilty of evil. When his instincts tell him that a suspect has committed a crime, he plants evidence in order to secure a conviction. Hank has violated the most basic principle of justice: innocent until proven guilty. He has not only broken the law, but if his instincts are wrong, he is guilty of evil himself. Innocent people may have been imprisoned or executed.

To conceal his crimes, Hank causes harm to an innocent woman. When Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) discovers that Hank planted evidence in order to arrest Manolo Sanchez (Victor Millan) for the car bombing, he plans to publicly expose him. To destroy Mike’s credibility, Hank has Mike’s wife, Susan Vargas (Janet Leigh), kidnapped and drugged. Later, he commits an even greater act of evil: He murders Joe Grandee (Akim Tamiroff) and tries to frame Susan for it. By doing what is evil, Hank’s conscience has become dulled and blunted.

To avoid feelings of guilt, Hank rationalizes his actions: “a form of self-deception unconsciously used to make tolerable … feelings, behaviors, and motives that would otherwise be unacceptable.”1 When Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) accuses him of “faking evidence”, Hank says he was “aiding justice” because all of the people he framed were guilty. Instead of taking responsibility for his actions, he says, “I blame Vargas for everything.” Hank blames an innocent man.

The irony in Touch of Evil is that Hank, who wants to see criminals punished, becomes a criminal himself. In the climax of the film, he is shot dead before he can murder Mike. Such is the nature of evil: It deceives you, changes who you are, and then leads you into a path of destruction and ruin.

Notes

  1. Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. s.v. “rationalization,” accessed May 19, 2015, http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/rationalization
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