In the explosive purgatory between moral boundaries, two men seek Justice by different means: one servant to the Rule of Law and the other...master. This is dynamite in a shoebox. Orson Welles' sweaty and grimy moral epic vivisects seemingly two disparate men, cops who fight with the same sledgehammer conviction of their acts. Vargas is a young swashbuckling detective who is bound to a rigid code of justification who must bring down Quinlan, a shambling mound of a corrupt officer who is suddenly at an end to his means. But is Quinlan touched by evil, or fully embraced? Welles offer no answer to this film steeped in ambiguity and outrage, just the oblique statement that Quinlan was, "some kind of a man".
Welles's direction is beautifully expressionist, from the nearly ten minute opening tracking shot (considered one of cinema's finest moments!) to the dominating low angle caricatures, he signs his celluloid creation with a signature style. Once again, Welles use of mumbling and overlapping dialogue adds a tempestuous realism to the drama. Diagetic sound and Henry Mancini’s evocative score drifts together like smoke in a seedy barroom. In this monochrome world of nebulous boundaries, between both men and their countries, nothing is black and white. Here is a modern world of cyclopean derricks loitering in the darkness, pumping blood from the earth for profit. And Welles is not without humor, twice commenting on Charlton Heston's obviously faux-Mexicana with acerbic wit.
Though visually and aurally striking and masterful, the true focus of Welles’ vision is Shakespearean tragedy, as two men physically embody their respective mortal morality. Make no mistake, Vargas is the democratic viewpoint, idealized but Just, his actions on the higher ground. But the film isn't about Vargas or the crime syndicate he prosecutes, it's about Quinlan and his rationale, a beast of burden who carries the guilt of the damned while protecting the blood of the innocents. Quinlan is caught planting evidence, framing a frustrated lover caught in his own biracial intercourse (a striking parallel to Vargas and his American wife). He is “aiding Justice”, ensuring that truly guilty men are convicted beyond his reasonable doubt, not framing innocents for profit or sadism. This lumbering and emotionally crippled giant sinks into desperate acts and still maintains some legacy of sympathy: it seems his wife's murder set him on his vendetta of just cause. Even as he washes his hands of sin and chokes a final testament, he still feels that convicting evil men at any cost is worth the price. Quinlan has become the abyss. What does it matter what you say about anybody?
Final Grade: (A+)