The subtle gay gangster films of the early 1930s – Little Caesar 1931, The Public Enemy 1931 and Scarface 1932
“Criminals should not be made heroes… The flaunting of weapons by gangsters will not be allowed…”
“… the fashion for romanticizing gangsters” must be denounced.
The three films also evenhandedly parcel out social pathology and sexual aberration: homosexuality in Little Caesar. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy from the novel by W.R. Burnett Little Caesar was first out of the gate and an immediate sensation. A diminutive bandit whose single-minded ambition compensates less for his stature than his repressed homosexual desire, Caesar Enrico Bandello is compact, swarthy and tightly wound; his golden boy pal Joe played by the scion of Hollywood royalty Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is tall, patrician and easygoing.
When Joe finds a female dancer and show business success, the jilted Caesar unhinged by a jealousy that dare not speak its name even to himself, makes his first mistakes in judgement. The male triangle is completed by Caesar’s worshipful lapdog Otera (George E. Stone) who gazes up at Rico with a rapturous desire that, unlike Rico, he barely bothers to sublimate. Doubly deviant Rico dies for his social and sexual sins, asking in tight close-up and choked up tones, “mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?”The famous last words inspired an incisive remark from Robert Warshow on gangster psychology:” Even to himself he is a creature of the imagination” from FILMIC – From Sissies to Secrecy: The Evolution of the Hays Code Queer by Mikayla Mislak
“This is what I get for likin’ a guy too much,” Rico ‘Caesar’ tells himself after he realizes he’s lost, Joe. Joe, who he has referred to as “soft” and a “sissy.” The very pretty Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) has decided to give up the racket, to be a professional nightclub dancer. Robinson wisecracks, “Dancin’ just ain’t my idea of a man’s game.”
Joe is romantically involved with Olga (Glenda Farrell). ‘Caesar’ is not only jealous of Joe’s relationship with Olga, but he also appears to have no use for women at all.
In the end, there is a telling close-up, a well of tears in his eyes, a subtle quiver in his face. Rico cannot shoot Joe, even though he needs to keep him from squealing. The image of Robinson coming head-on with his feelings reveals his struggle with the repressed love for his dancing pal. The scene is very effective when the camera closes in on Robinson, capturing his dewy, wide-eyed stare. Behind the scenes what helped the intensity of the look of longing turned out to be a serendipitous moment when Robinson had to fire a pistol while looking into the camera, and was unable to keep his eyes open, each time he pulled the trigger. Eventually, they had Robinson’s eyes held open with cellophane tape. The effect worked perfectly.
Another interesting point in Little Caesar that hints at his latent homosexuality is a scene that highlights his clumsy fussiness. Rico is trying on a tuxedo and gazing at himself in the mirror. Posturing gleefully as he swishes at his own reflection. In this scene, Rico also becomes caught in his effete sidekick Otero’s (George E. Stone) gaze, who joyfully watches his boss flit for the mirror.
In The Public Enemy (1931) there is a noteworthy scene when Tom (James Cagney) goes to his tailor to get fitted for a suit. It’s a hilariously fidgety few moments for Cagney while the flamboyant tailor fawns over his arm muscles. When the movie was re-released, the sequence wound up on the cutting room floor.
According to Mislak In Howard Hawk’s Scarface (1932), it could be seen as having a gay subtext, as Antonio ‘Tony’ Camonte (Paul Muni) shows a repressed homosexual desire for his best friend Guino Rinaldo played by George Raft. Hawk’s film doesn’t work on a blatant exhibition of violence, instead, Scarface’s subtlety draws on the subliminal impression of his sexual impulses.
Through my readings, it has been noted that there is a coded gayness inferred from the character of Camonte in Scarface. Rather than the repressed sexual desire for his close friend Guino, I catch more a wind of an incestuous desire for his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak). Camonte hovers over her with an iron will, not allowing her to have any man touch her. She even alludes to his untoward attentions at one point telling him that he loves her more than just a brother. Camonte (Muni) does focus obsessively over his hair and his wardrobe, which Poppi (Kathy Morely) tells him is ‘sweet’. But there are a few references to Guino being queer. He wears a carnation which is a code for being a gay man in film. Camonte says he’d like a carnation too, takes it out of Guino’s lapel, and tells him “Better no one sees you with this.” He also makes a comment about one of the North Side gang members not being taken seriously because he owns a flower shop! Guino doesn’t show any interest in women until nearly close to the end of the picture, when he submits to Camonte’s sister, Cesca.
“The placement of homosexuality or the real possibility of it in an antisocial context is quite natural. Homosexuality when it is invisible is antisocial. The only condition under which homosexuality has ever been socially acceptable has been on the occasion of its voluntary invisibility, when homosexuality were willing to pass for heterosexuals. Obvious homosexual behavior is reflected onscreen as in real life, only in the ‘twilight world’ of misfit conduct. During the brief period of explicit reference to homosexuals in pre-Code films of the early 1930s. Gay characters were psychologically ghettoized by their routine relegations to a fantasy world or an underworld life….
….in addition to strengthening the Code in 1934, Will Hays reacted to criticism by inserting morals clauses in the contracts of performers and compiling a “doom book’ of 117 names of those deemed “unsafe” because of their personal lives. Homosexuality was denied as assiduously off screen as it was on, a literally unspeakable part of the culture. By 1940 even harmless sex-roles farces such as Hal Roach’s Turnabout were considered perilous in some quarters. The film, about a married couple (Carol Landis and John Hubbard) who switch roles by wishing on an Oriental statue, was described by the Catholic Legion of Decency as dealing with ‘subject matter which may provide references dangerous to morality, wholesome concepts of human relationships and the dignity of man.’ ” –Vito Russo
HITCHCOCK SUBVERTS SUSPENSE!
Hitchcock sensed the ambiguous sexuality in Mrs. Danvers (nicknamed Danny) who embodies the forbidding identity of the coded lesbian in 1940s films. As she strides down the halls of Manderley, there is an element of the angry older woman trope, who is vacant of male companionship by choice, with an added streak of dissatisfied longing. She embodies the sterile matron, showing characteristics of an ‘old maid’ attributed to a repressed lesbian.” Rebecca serves as Fontaine’s idealized mother and that Hitchcock’s films present images of ambiguous sexuality that threaten to destabilize the gender identity of the protagonist.” -(Tania Modleski)
Gay Coding in Hitchcock films
“In typical Hitchcock-ian fashion, the “Master of Suspense” often employed in his films subtle references to gay culture, defying conservative attitudes of the late ’50s.”-Scott Badman & Connie Russell Hosier | February 7, 2017- Editor’s note: The following article, like many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, includes references to sex and violence.
Did Martin Landau play a homosexual in North by Northwest? Did Alfred Hitchcock really show gay sex on-screen in Rope, albeit in an unusual way? Was the whole plot of Rebecca driven by the twisted jealousy of an evil lesbian? And, most surprisingly, did Hitchcock depict a gay marriage way back in 1938’s The Lady Vanishes?”
Alfred Hitchcock was a complicated man, who put a singular stamp on all his films, infusing them with his droll and macabre sense of humor and imbuing his work from the point of view of a satyr. Hitchcock projects his dark and twisted view of the world as at the end of his films there is sort of a perverted release that he leaves us to contemplate. It also appears that he was playful with the use of his gay-coded characters in many of his films.
Nothing Hitchcock did was unintentional, thereby reinforcing proof that there is a gay subtext to many characters in various films. He was very measured in every detail even before the camera captured the scene. But this method of implying a queer pathology and positing queer elements to the narrative. He was ingenious in the way he veiled his ciphers within the cloak of deniability, in order to slip it by the censors in his cheeky manner.
Though Hitchcock would often imbue his pictures with coded gay characters, among scholars it is still speculative as to which side his view fell on. Given that everything Hitchcock constructed was intentional, it’s easy to see why he would be viewed as homophobic, due to his use of stereotypes that eventually led to queerness possibly being as the source of the crimes. But you have to consider that during the time he reigned, it’s a tribute to Hitchcock that he even embraced the complex issue of homosexuality. It shows me that there was a conscious level of understanding.
In his life, Hitchcock surrounded himself with gay culture be it in England or Hollywood, and he worked with many gay writers and actors. Ivor Novello who starred in two of Hitchcock’s silent pictures was good friends with him and Alma. Hitchcock was also friends with Rope stars John Dall and bisexual Farley Granger who played coded gay characters in the film. Granger also had the lead in Strangers on a Train, co-starring Rober Walker who plays another of Hitchcock’s coded gay characters, Bruno. Anthony Perkins who struggled with his sexuality in real life, plays the ambiguous, stammering, Norman Bates in Psycho. According to Jay Poole, Robert Bloch was interested in ‘abnormal psychology’ and was familiar with Freudian theories on sexual identity. His novel was more suggestive of the taboos, in terms of the incestuous relationship with Norman’s mother and his confused sexual identity.
The assessment of ‘camp’ and queerness can be seen as negative. More contemporary audiences might perceive Psycho as more campy than lurid or scary. Norman’s appearance in the fruit cellar might register with audiences as if he’s a big ugly ridiculous drag queen with a knife. The rest of the film is darkly humorous. (Doty cites Danny Peary)
In contrasting these male characters, one representative of sexually suspect psychosis, the other of gendered and sexual normalcy, Hitchcock blurs the lines between them, creating effects that will inform future depictions of American masculinity… While Lila Crane has been read positively as a lesbian character, and also as Carol Clover’s prototype for the ‘final girl” I demonstrate here that Lila is a more ambiguous figure, tied to social repression and the law. […] (Norman’s voyeurism and Lila’s examination of Norman’s room as pornographic) Infusing these pornographic motifs with addition levels of intensity and dread was the increasingly public threat of homosexuality within the Cold War context in which Hitchcock’s related themes gained a new, ominous visibility. What emerges in Psycho is a tripartite monster-voyeurism-homosexuality-pornography.” — (Scott Badman & Connie Russell Hosier)
Saboteur (1942) producer/writer Joan Harrison wrote the screenplay and collaborated with Hitchcock on many projects for both film and television. In the period of the 1940s to the 1950s, movies often conflated homosexuality with unsavory characters like Nazis, communists, and terrorists.
Saboteur stars Robert Cummings as plane mechanic Barry Kane who is framed for the terrorist bombing of a military installation’s aircraft hanger where they manufacture planes. After he sees his friend die in the explosion, police assume that it was Kane who filled the fire extinguisher with gasoline. Kane goes on the run, to try and find the man he suspects is the saboteur, Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) who is the real murderer who committed the heinous crime.
Kane stumbles onto a secret group of ‘the firm’, 5th columnists who are plotting to sabotage key targets, military planes, ships, and dams. Kane is dropped into the middle of a cabal of dangerous Americans who have infiltrated positions of power in order to carry out their nefarious plan to disrupt the democratic system and cause chaos. Socialite dowager Mrs. Henrietta Sutton (Alma Kruger) is a New York philanthropist who provides cover for the ‘firm’ run by Otto Kruger as the coldly, sinister Tobin. Kane pretends to go along with the group, and in one scene in a taxi with Alan Baxter who plays Mr. Freeman, there is a queer exchange between the two. Freeman tells Kane about his two little children, one of them is a boy, whom he wishes was a girl. He’s letting his son’s hair grow long and hesitates to cut it. Then he shares his reminiscence about his boyhood when he had glorious long blonde curls. Kane tells him to cut his son’s hair and “save yourself some grief.”
Purely by Hitchcockian fate, Kane is thrown together with Pat (Priscilla Lane) who comes to his aid and at one point tries to distract Fry at the top of the Statue of Liberty. The beautiful Pat flirts with Fry in order to stall him until the police get there, but he isn’t the slightest bit interested in her at all. In fact, he seems annoyed by her presence. He’s a slim effete figure, a swishy loner with a serpent-like grin. Theodore Price, in his book ‘Hitchcock and Homosexuality (1992), has no doubt Fry was gay. (Ken Mogg 2008)
Saboteur climax prefigures that of North by Northwest between Thornhill (Cary Grant) and the sinister Leonard (Martin Landau) who is also a gay Hitchcockian figure.
We first hear a remark spoken by socialite Mrs. Sutton (Alma Kruger) when Barry (Kane) is taken to the saboteurs’ New York lair, as Barry enters the upstairs room. Mrs. Sutton is addressing a couple of her male colleagues, whom she reprimands: ‘I have to hover over you like an old hen.’
This is precisely the line Hitchcock uses in Rebecca to characterize the somewhat de-natured estate manager Frank Crawley (Reginald Denny) – nearly all the men in the film are so afflicted – and will be used again in The Paradine Case to characterize the gay Latour (Louis Jourdan).
Frank Crawley is ‘as fussy as an old mother hen’; Latour, we’re told, had been ‘like an old mother hen’ to his beloved master, the blind Colonel Paradine.- Ken Mogg (2008)
In North by Northwest (1959) Martin Landau’s character Leonard, displays an undercurrent of homosexuality, that is subtly implied. He’s a devoted bodyguard whose gaze on his boss, Phillip Vandamm, seems to be bubbling with a refined sensibility, romantically fixated on Vandamm (James Mason), a communist spy being hunted by the CIA. For a 1950s film, Leonard’s immaculate fashion sense and his fastidious swagger are a cue of his being queer. Nearing the climax of North by Northwest, the telling scene set in a mid-century modern house reveals Leonard’s love for Vandamm. Hitchcock even sets up the motive for Leonard shooting the object of his affection, jealousy, and rejection. In a notable line toward the end of the movie, Leonard remarks, “Call it my woman’s intuition” affirming the effete stereotype of a feminine gay man. Vandamm is genuinely flattered (contrary to homosexual panic) by Leonard’s feelings, which hints at his motivation for killing the thing he loves. Vandamm (Mason) tells him in that coldly sober tone of his, “I think you’re jealous. I mean it, and I’m very touched. Very.” As Scott Badman & Connie Russell Hosier point out, Hitchcock’s direction shows a “progressive perspective for its time but so brief that it doesn’t fully register with most viewers. Much later, Landau acknowledged that he played Leonard as a homosexual, albeit subtly.”
From the opening of Strangers on a Train (1951), Hitchcock frames the entranceway to the story with a close shot of the main character’s shoes walking to catch the train. Bruno wears elaborate wing tips with high heels and Guy wears a more toned-down fashionable pair of shoes, which are in opposition to each other and illustrate the contrast between the two main characters.
Robert Walker’s Bruno is a menacing, creepy guy with flashy ties, who positions himself after a chance meeting on a commuter train, to assert his influence over famous tennis player, Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Bruno begins to flatter Guy and insinuate himself by sharing his knowledge of Guy’s personal life. He is very proud of the tie that his mother gave him. It is a garish accouterment dappled with lobsters. Like his silken smoking robe and another tie with the name, Bruno embroidered on it. Bruno also spouts a lot of ‘ideas’ he has in that ever prompted mind of his, when talking about Guy’s upcoming divorce and bigamy scandal, “I’ve got a wonderful theory about that.”
Bruno insists on Guy having lunch with him, “sent to my compartment… You see you’ll have to lunch with me.” It is obvious, though Hitchcock is very subtle about broadcasting the cues, that Bruno is wooing Guy. Bruno is very effeminate in his demeanor, you could say that he has a ‘flaming’ air about him, always dropping hints about his sexuality. “My father hates me”, insinuating that he is not the kind of man he expects of him. “I’ve got a theory that you should do everything before you die.” He tells Guy amorously, “I like you, I’d do anything for you.”
Bruno Anthony’s plan is for both men to exchange for each other’s murders. There are several scenes that scream Hitchcock’s gay coding. Initially, when the two men meet each other on the train, Bruno is flirtatious, dressed in ‘flamboyant clothes’, which to gay audiences, is seemingly clear to be a gay pickup. Bruno’s not only attracted to the handsome Guy, but he is in fact stalking him as an ‘object’ to fulfill his needs and be his ‘partner’ in his deranged homoerotic plot.
His mother, Mrs. Anthony (the wonderful character actor Marion Lorne) does Bruno’s nails and dotes on her son. As Bruno tells his mother, he wants his nails to look right.
Homosexuality is not explicitly stated, but there is too strong an import for critics and audiences in the know, to ignore. And, considering Hitchcock’s fascination with homosexual subtexts, it’s not a stretch to read into various scenes this way.
There is also the insinuation that Bruno has some serious mother issues, which is one of Hitchcock’s points of reference for his gay coding, such as his use of it with Norman Bates in his film Psycho. Bruno amuses himself by antagonizing his mother (Marion Lorne) who is completely in the dark about the twisted pathology of her homicidal son.
Bruno has set up a visit from Guy who finds himself talking to the sociopath, who’s been waiting for Guy while lying in bed in his silky pajamas. Is this actually arranged as a bedroom seduction?
Another brief sequence takes place at the end which centers around a carousel, a possible symbol of fluid sexuality, and sexual foreplay. The scene shows Bruno and Guy wrestling with each other, the movements could be read as Bruno really achieving what he wanted, to have sex with Guy. Hitchcock even cut different versions of the movie for Britain and the U.S., toning down the implied homosexuality in the American version — proof positive that he was fully aware of the gay implications in his movies. –(Badman and Hosier)
Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) is based on the play by Patrick Hamilton Rope’s End is perhaps one of the more obvious coded gay films with homosexual subtexts in his canon. Arthur Laurents, who eventually came out of the closet and wrote the screenplay, said during a commentary “What was curious to me was that Rope was obviously about homosexuals. The word was never mentioned. Not by Hitch, not by anyone at Warners. It was referred to as ‘it’. They were going to do a picture about ‘it’, and the actors were ‘it’.” The original British stage play was loosely based on the sensational true crime committed by Chicago students Leopold and Loeb in 1924, who killed a fellow student, just to see if they could get away with a motiveless crime. The script was penned by Arthur Laurents in collaboration with Hume Cronyn and Ben Hecht.
Brandon (John Dall) and Philip (Farley Granger) are entitled, affluent snobs, who are self-aggrandizing psychopaths with a Nietzschean superiority. Hitchcock arranges a taut stage play, around a case of Folie à deux. Brandon and Philip are implied coded lovers, who used the crime of murder to stimulate each other as if it were a sex act. The intellectual discourse they have at the beginning of the picture is overshadowed by the sexual banter that precedes what ultimately will become the act of committing a murder. Rope from the beginning of the picture inaugurates a very feverish sexual undercurrent.
In real life, John Dall was gay but died in 1971 without talking openly about his homosexuality. Farley Granger was bisexual when making the movie and then was in a lifelong gay relationship starting in 1963. Alfred Hitchcock was well aware of the sexual orientations of both actors and was reportedly pleased with what is now called the on-screen “chemistry” between the two.
He coded Brandon and Philip as gay by their “sex scene.” It occurs at the very beginning of the movie, which is also the murder scene. Hitchcock is strongly equating murder with sex. The murder-sex occurs behind curtained windows. The death scream corresponds to the orgasm. Now visible, the murderers Brandon and Philip quickly put the body in a cabinet and go into a postcoital exhaustion. Philip doesn’t even want the light turned on. In an inspired touch, Hitchcock has Brandon light a cigarette, a standard Hollywood indicator for “we just had sex.” – (Badman and Hosier)
The unorthodox murderers throw a dinner party with the victim stuffed inside an antique trunk. The film was initially banned in Chicago and other cities, because of its implied homosexual relationship between the two killers. In 1959, the story was revised as Compulsion directed by Richard Fleischer scripted by Richard Murphy, and based on the novel by Meyer Levin. Compulsion remains closer to the actual true-life crime, and the implicit queer undertones are brought more to the surface, with less of Hitchcock’s cheeky innuendo.
Hitchcock employs many homoerotic symbology and allusions, as the couple reenact the murder, with the director conflating violence and sex. For instance, Brandon gets a bottle of champagne still invigorated by the murder, while Philip the weaker of the murderous pair, is nervous. Brandon fondles the bottle of champagne as the two stands close together very intimately. He grasps the champagne bottle as phallus and flirts with the top of the bottle, yet not releasing the cork. All this is stages as foreplay. Philip finally takes the bottle from Brandon and liberates the cork. They then toast to their victim. Film Critic Robin Wood asserts, in The Murderous Gays: Hitchcock’s Homophobia, that these films could be made as more positive or sensitive to homosexuality rather than “traffic in homophobia” and that it perpetuate the notion that homosexuality leads to violence.
Psycho works as a warped adult fairytale about getting lost and paying for one’s transgressions. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is a Phoenix secretary who embezzles forty thousand dollars from her employer’s client and goes on the run. Marion is also shown to be a fallen woman, a sexual deviant herself with no morals, not only is she a thief but she is also having an affair with a married man Sam Loomis, (John Gavin). Driving in torrential rain, she pulls into the Bates Motel, an eerie, remote motel off the beaten path. The motel is run by a ‘queer’ sort of young man, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) who lives up in the brooding house on the hill, under the dominant authority of his cruel and elusive mother. As Poole puts it, Norman “remains locked in a disturbed world, and, as the film progresses, becomes murderously mad.”
Norman Bates: “A boy’s best friend is his mother.”
Norman Bates: “People never really run away from anything. The rain didn’t last long, did it? You know what I think? I think that we’re all in our private traps, clamped in them, and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and we claw, but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
Marion Crane: “Sometimes we deliberately step into those traps.”
Norman Bates: “I was born in mine. I don’t mind it anymore.”
Psycho, is the first of Hitchcock’s films to break tradition from his usual cultured mystery/suspense tropes. He decided to present this narrative using a pallet of B&W to set up a different tonality. Without the use of the vivid colors that he often used with cinematographer Robert Burks. Psycho deals with a more graphic, monochromatic, psycho-sexual sickness. A sickness that erupts in unprecedented perversity and violence for the director. Hitchcock also kills off his heroine in the first 20 minutes of the film. Psycho, will forever be known for ‘the shower scene.’
It also brings to the screen one of THE most hauntingly intense scenes that will remain in the collective consciousness, for what it lacks in vivid bloodshed, it possesses an uncomfortable voyeuristic gaze that brings us into Norman’s mind with the twists and turns, it assaults us, because of its deeper brutality, a more queasy feeling of psychic angst and inverts our gaze, as Marion stares back at us with her lifeless eyes.
“It’s not like my mother is a maniac or a raving thing. She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?”
In the 1950s into 1960 was a time when Americans were seeking out the American ideal, and cultural conformity. It was also a time when many audiences did not explore alternative sexualities and would have conflated homosexuality with a deviant and dangerous personality. Poole suggests “Hitchcock queers the image of sexual purity but reinforces naturalized heterosexuality as the film progresses… Hitchcock utilizes the Freudian explanation of homosexual development in his explanation of Norman’s development as a psychopathic killer despite Norman’s apparent heterosexual orientation.”
Hitchcock believed he made the perfect choice in casting Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, the homicidal misfit who put on a dress and wig to embody his cruel mother. Norman became a serial killer with a fixation on his castrating mother because she dominated his life and turned him into a monster. Perkin’s himself soft-spoken, androgynous, even perhaps a slightly effete actor. Alfred Hitchcock envisioned another gay character whose inherent corrupted humanity stems from their conflict of being queer. By queer, it can refer to the process of shattering normalcy and vision from the perspective of a heternormative lens. Psycho takes the audience into a place of dis-ease, where seemingly ordinary people are capable of monstrous acts. If Hitchcock’s film is subverting the value of 1950s America, and the transgressive content of Psycho breaks from societal norms, then it can be read as a ‘queer’ film.
[voiceover in police custody, as Norman is thinking]” It’s sad, when a mother has to speak the words that condemn her own son. But I couldn’t allow them to believe that I would commit murder. They’ll put him away now, as I should have years ago. He was always bad, and in the end he intended to tell them I killed those girls and that man… as if I could do anything but just sit and stare, like one of his stuffed birds. They know I can’t move a finger, and I won’t. I’ll just sit here and be quiet, just in case they do… suspect me. They’re probably watching me. Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching… they’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, “Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly…”
As ‘Judith Butler’ Gender scholar, and ‘Hall’ speak of gender as performance, Hitchcock was clear in the way he developed Stephano and Bloch’s central characters in Psycho. In the final scene, the murderer is revealed and his inner monologues keep hidden, the source of a disturbed, untroubled ‘victim’ of faulty psychological development.’ The opening montage sets the scene for the dark thing that takes place inside ordinary towns and inside the minds of ordinary people. (source: Poole)
Psycho was a vehicle that queered what the public had come to expect from Hitchcock films, and,much like its real-life inspiration (Ed Gein), it queered the notion that America was a place where ‘normal,’ was defined as a quiet, safe, small town life, free from the darkness that lurds in modest roadside motels… With Psycho, Hitchcock abetted by Stefano’s script, would shock audiences with sexual innuendo, apparent nudity coupled with a sadistic stabbing scene. Perhaps most shocking of all, he would leave audiences wondering what might lie below the surface of family, friends neighbors and themselves.” (Jay Poole)
Rebecca (1940), was not one of Hitchcock’s favorite films at all. Adapted from the Gothic novel by Daphne du Maurier, the sick soul here is a menacing lesbian. The formidable Mrs. Danvers ( played by the equally formidable Judith Anderson) is the head Matron of Manderley, living in the shadows of the former Mrs. de Winter. She is a lovesick sapphic with an unnourished desire for her dead mistress, Rebecca. Manderley itself is like a hollow mistress that consumes those inside its ominous hallways. ‘Danny’ resents the new Mrs. de Winter and in one revelatory scene taunts her (Joan Fontaine) trying to drive her to suicide through her cruel torments. She parades Rebecca’s lingerie with a lustful smirk on her diabolical face, running her hands under the sheer, delicate fabric as if she were fondling Rebecca herself.
Mrs. Danvers’ jealousy of Maxime de Winters’ new bride is driven by obsession, a lesbian-coded manifestation, one of jealousy and sexual desire. For Joan Fontaine’s character, Danvers reenacts through storytelling, all the attention she used to lavish on her beloved mistress, running her bath, brushing her hair, admiring the finery of her monogrammed pillowcases. Though Rebecca is only seen as the painting of an alluring woman her ghost haunts Manderley and the new Mrs. de Winter.
In Hollywood movies of the 1940s, coded lesbian characters were far less common than coded gay men. Portrayals of lesbians might define them as dangerous and threatening, as is the case with Mrs. Danvers. Mrs. Danvers implies that she had been married. This allowed Hitchcock’s deniability against Judith Anderson’s lesbianism But Mrs. Danver’s eventual demise is brought about by her inability to accept Rebecca’s death or allow anyone to replace her love. And so her desire consumes her literally, in fire.
The Lady Vanishes (1938)
When I first saw Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naughton Wayne) in The Lady Vanishes my radar went off like a firehouse siren during the scene where they are both sitting up together in a small bed, one wearing the pajama tops and the other wearing the bottoms, (giving the appearance of both being naked in bed. It was such a marvelous coded moment and I knew they were a loving married gay couple. I found it so refreshing to see the British comedy duo playing a cheeky proper English couple who are cricket fanatics trying to get back to London while the Hitchcockian espionage is happening under their noses.
I enjoyed their farcical vignette about a pair of golfers, the one comedic entry in an otherwise moody collection of ghost stories- Dead of Night (1945) which like The Lady Vanishes, also stars Michael Redgrave.
Hitchcock excelled at getting fine performances from his supporting cast members. They usually are finely honed characterizations portrayed by perfectly cast actors, fascinating and funny, imbued with his dry British humor. Charters and Caldicott are wonderful examples. Played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, two fine stage actors who reprised these characters in subsequent movies and BBC radio programs, Charters and Caldicott follow a long tradition of comedy duos of older men in British Music Hall, vaudeville and stage performances. Most audiences of the time, especially British audiences, would have interpreted their relationship simply as one between eccentric, middle-aged bachelors. (Badman and Hosier)
Though there are so many elements of the duo that is ambiguous, Hitchcock imbues Charters and Caldicott with an affection and closeness that reads like a positively coded gay pairing. The two aren’t played as stereotypically flamboyant or campy. Later in the movie, Charters and Caldicott are heroic in facing down danger, during an onslaught of gunfire by fascist spies.
Charters and Caldicott are stranded at the only hotel in a tiny alpine village. The desk clerk informs them that they must share the maid’s room. When they meet the voluptuous Germanic blonde, they glance at each other with an expression that appears to be saying they’re not interested. When they follow the maid to her cramped room, Charter cracks “It’s a pity they couldn’t have given us one each” which could be interpreted as each having their own woman, to have a bit of a romp with. But Charters clarifies himself by saying he meant two rooms. One for the maid and one for them. A mainstream audience could read their conduct as two heterosexual British gentlemen, but if you read between the lines, it is suggested that they have no interest in women. In another scene when the maid enters their shared room without knocking, both men act startled by the intrusion. Caldicott moves in a way that conjures up the role of a protective mate. Once she leaves, Caldicott locks the door.
A master of queering the screen, Hitchcock plays with sexuality using his skillful methods of innuendo and artful suggestiveness — In an already masterful way of blurring the lines of reality and adeptly flirting with transgression, Hitchcock’s milieus are perfect playgrounds for coded gay characters.
Continue reading “Chapter 3 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”