Screen Gems

Bathe in the last great performance by one of the first openly queer stars

Touch of Evil

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Masterpiece: Touch of Evil

God bless Marlene Dietrich, the sex bomb screen star who never felt shame over her sexual liberation, or her sexual conquests. In a career that spanned almost a whopping 70 years, Dietrich became famous for her iconic performances on stage as screen, as well as for numerous lovers of both genders. When pressed about her liaisons with women, Dietrich famously quipped “In Europe, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman – we make love with anyone we find attractive.”

We’re tempted to list Dietrich’s most famous lovers here, but we fear we’d never recover from that digression–she had many. Instead, we’ve come to highlight Dietrich’s final great performance as a fortune teller in the crime thriller Touch of Evil.

Touch of Evil follows a Mexican narcotics officer, Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his new, American bride Suzie (Janet Leigh) on their honeymoon. A time bomb detonates in a US-Mexico border town, prompting an investigation by Vargas and the local police chief Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles, who also directed). Once lauded as a hero, Quinlan has become an old, fat alcoholic that doesn’t hide his racism and contempt for Mexicans. That puts him at odds with Vargas, even as the pair uncover evidence that the Grandi Family–a drug-running gang under investigation by Vargas–planted the bomb. Vargas also uncovers evidence that Quinlan has been framing suspects in a string of cases. In a panic, Quinlan strikes a deal with the Grandi Family to have Suzie kidnapped.

We’ll not reveal more than that here, as Touch of Evil achieved legendary status for its wild plot twists, reversals, and revelations. We will, however, add that Dietrich has a pivotal, scene-stealing role as the fortune teller/madam Tanya, a woman who once had an affair with Quinlan. The movie hints that the two still carry torches for one another, or would, if Quinlan could control his demons. Dietrich conveys this to the audience with quiet use of her charisma; observe the way she moves her eyes, or holds her shoulders in her scenes opposite Welles’ Quinlan. Tanya is a woman awash in sadness, but not regret.

Touch of Evil comes off a bit dated at times–despite a terrific performance, it’s hard not to roll our eyes at seeing Heston as a Mexican. In an era of border walls, migrant surges and Homeland Security, we also giggle at the ease with which characters cross back and forth between Mexico and the US. Those quibbles aside, the movie still holds up not just as one of the great noir-thrillers, but also as one of the greatest movies ever made. Though Heston and Leigh get the top billing, the real star here is Welles, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Quinlan, and whose spellbinding direction has upped the ante on camera tricks and mise-en-scene ever since. The film’s iconic opening shot runs a full three and a half minutes, and features the camera swooping down alleys, over rooftops, through traffic, and around corners–a feat modern directors would have trouble pulling off, even with a trunkload of computer tricks.

Movies don’t get much better than Touch of Evil. It’s a must-see for cinephiles or LGBTQ folk searching for queer figures in movie history. Featuring ethical dilemmas, labyrinthine plot, and stellar performances, the film doesn’t just have everything we’d want in a thriller; rather, it has everything that makes us love movies in the first place.

Streams on Amazon, YouTube & VUDU.