Welles isn’t the only great filmmaker to use himself in many or most of his important films, although it is a little remarkable considering the type of films he was making. From the top of my head, other filmmakers who often starred in their own pictures can be separated into two categories: comedians [Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Tati, Woody Allen] or Shakespearian filmmakers [Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh]. Of course, Welles did direct and star in three Shakespearian films, but most of his work was also written by the director/star.

In his filmography, Welles played a character in every one of his most important works; and he appeared on screen in all but one, The Magnificent Ambersons. He, of course, played the starring role in Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai, Othello, Mr. Arkadin and Chimes at Midnight. A common thread among many of his acting turns is the very austere, often unlikable characters he plays—such as a Nazi hiding out in small town America in The Stranger and, of course, the corrupt, racist cop in Touch of Evil. In these roles, he takes full advantage of their shady characteristics, letting his eyes bulge, use his ever expanding body to their grotesque means, and completely dominate the screen.

While working in others’ films, however, the success rate is a little more erratic. There are two films and performances that are truly acclaimed, Carol Reed’s The Third Man [probably Welles’ most famous performance overall, as the mysterious Harry Lime] and Fred Zinnemann’s Thomas More epic, A Man for All Seasons, in a small but memorable turn as Cardinal Wolsey. But besides these two roles, his over-performances aren’t utilized particularly well in cheaply films that often actively prop themselves up on the legend’s name.

His rock bottom may have come in the long-forgotten Butterfly, for which he was nominated for the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actor [as well as the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, which might tell you something, too]. Or possibly in schlock director Bert I. Gordon’s 1972 classic Necromancy [also known as The Witching] with this brilliant plot synopsis: “Orson Welles plays the head of a witches’ coven in the town of Lilith, where he needs the powers of Pamela Franklin to raise his son from the dead.” And we can’t forget the popular trivia surrounding his last film performance, Unicron in the animated Transformers: The Movie.

Touch of Evil would be something of a comeback for the director and actor, although not fully realized until years after its 1957 release. The film continues Welles’s work in the film noir style while exploring the complex themes of crime, order and the past. As we’ve no doubt gone over this week, it is expertly made and full of deep and complex themes. Luckily, for the purposes of this essay, Touch of Evil may also include the most captivating character in all of Welles’s films. And he just so happened to play him.

Coupled with the style is perhaps the best ensemble cast that Welles ever worked with, including Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston, Marlene Dietrich, Akim Tamiroff, and a parade of interesting faces perfectly inhabiting the dangerous world he creates. It’s Welles’s performance as old-school homicide detective Hank Quinlan that remains the most remarkable in the film, and the most complex performance in his career. As mentioned before, Welles never shied away from deeply flawed and bad men, he actually seemed to prefer it with the likes of a former Nazi war criminal, the murderous Arkadin, Othello, Macbeth and even Charles Foster Kane filling his filmography. And still, Quinlan might be his most despicable character.

On the surface, within our first few minutes with Quinlan, we can see that he is not only an incredibly brash man, he is also a complete racist. Tensions build immediately with Mike Vargas [played, infamously, by Charlton Heston], who shares jurisdiction on the bombing investigation at the heart of the film. While interrogating a possible suspect, a young Mexican man, Quinlan tells him to “stop speaking Mexican”—an obvious shortcut into his ignorance and hatred.

As the film continues and the investigation becomes more and more muddled, so does our view of the police detective. The film begins to explore the possibilities that Quinlan is much more than a simple racist, that he has done even more sinister things in his past. The film doesn’t tell us the extent, but it is heavily implied that Quinlan has planted evidence on many people he couldn’t fairly prosecute. Then, it's even taken one step further, showing us that he is willing to work closely with obvious criminals in order to socially damn an innocent woman, even murder if he has to. Ah, but that is not all, with further implications that he may have even murdered his own wife. As each new piece of information into the psychology of Quinlan surfaces, the man becomes more deplorable and Welles’s performance much more nuanced. Although it's never fully referenced, I look at the film’s title as a proclamation on Quinlan—he isn’t just a bad person, but perhaps has a touch of evil within him.

The reason why this specific performance seems to resonate might lie with the fall of this great man, Orson Welles. Being the first Hollywood film Welles made in eleven years [and the last Hollywood he would make], it may have been a long time since many film-goers saw Welles on the big screen. And the difference between Welles of The Lady from Shanghai and Welles of Touch of Evil is quite obvious and quite great. Touch of Evil poses a once great man who is now a bit behind the times, now respected on reputation. The film is incredibly reflexive on his changes—during the first exchange between Quinlan and his former lover Tanya [Marlene Dietrich], she says, “I didn’t recognize you. You should lay off those candy bars.” This not-so-subtle dig at his own appearance is perhaps a cruel joke and perhaps a sad one, too, but the self-awareness Welles still clearly had is necessary for him to capture this complicated character.