Chapter 3 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

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 night club 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, he appears to have no use for women at all.

At 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 to be 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

Article by Scott Badman & Connie Russell Hosier

“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 imbued his work from the point of view of 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 within 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 manor.

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 he 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)

WARNING SPOILERS:

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 instillation’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 cutting 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 uses 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 of his boss, Phillip Vandamm, seems to be bubbling with a refined sensibility, romantically fixated Vandamm (James Mason), a communist spy being hunted by the CIA. For a 1950s film, Leonard’s immaculate fashion sense and his fastidious swagger is 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. 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 direction shows a “progressive perspective for its time but so brief that it doesn’t fully register with most viewers. Much later, Laundau acknowledged that he played Leonard as a homosexual, albeit subtly.”

From the opening of Strangers on a Train (1951), Hitchcock frames the entrance way to the story with a close shot on 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 his tie that his mother gave him. It is a garish accoutrement 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 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 pick up. 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 over her son. As Bruno tells his mother, he wants his nails to look right.

The 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 point 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’s 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 in 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 stand 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 perpetuates the notion that homosexuality leads to violence.

Psycho (1960)

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 is not a masculine figure, he is a mama’s boy who does his mother’s bidding. He is continually identified with his mother and, according to Freud and his psychological tunnel vision, would probably have evolved into a homosexual because of his Oedipal desires. Hitchcock perverts Freud’s narrow theory, by making sure the narrative shows Norman to be attracted to women, not men. It is when Norman’s arousal of the female body, that he dresses in frumpy dresses to represent his mother, who then takes over and annihilates the object of Norman’s desire. Many viewers assume that Norman is a repressed homosexual because he dressed in women’s clothing when manifesting his mother’s personality. Cross-dressing was stereotypically associated with homosexuality, however, Hitchcock’s film tries to make it clear that Norman is attracted to women from the very beginning with the seductive Marion. The concept of fluid sexuality was not understood in 1960, so conflating cross-dressing with homosexuality was a commonly misleading view.
Another interesting point that Jay Poole (Queering Hitchcock’s Classic) brings out is how the décor of the house is itself, queer. Referring to what he cites Foucault’s theory of ‘We Other Victorians’ which essentially invokes ‘the image of the imperial prude.’ Therefor the Bates house itself with it’s provincial Victorian style from a queer perspective represents the constraints of Victorian sexual expectations, which is — we do not speak of sex, and any relations are to remain between a heterosexual married couple in the privacy of their own bedroom. Norman is surrounded by this oppressive atmosphere, tries to fight his impulses, and his carnal desires. He does this by dwelling in his mother’s house, hoping that she will control the voyeuristic, dirty lustful desire he is having about Marion.

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 his 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 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 the 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. Danver’s ( 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 love sick sapphic with an unnourished desire for her dead mistress, Rebecca. Manderley itself is like a hollow mistress that consumes those inside it’s 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 story telling, all the attentions she used to lavish on her beloved mistress, running her bath, brushing her hair, admiring the finery of her monogrammed pillow cases. 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 (Naugthon 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 positive 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 we’re not interested. When they follow the maid to her cramped room, Charter’s 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 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:”

Chapter 2 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

THE LAND OF MORAL AMBIGUITY: HOLLYWOOD & THE HAYS CODE

“Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex Relationships are the accepted or common thing…”

Prior to the Production Code, LGBT characters were somewhat prevalent, if heavily stereotyped and exploited, in a number of major films. The 1920s especially were a time of shifting societal norms and expanding artistic experimentation. As women rode the first wave of feminism and prohibition was increasingly challenged, filmmakers began to expand their boundaries and feature more controversial plotlines. – Sophie Cleghorn

Pre-Code was a brief period in the American film industry between the dawn of talking pictures in 1929 and the formal enforcement in 1934 of the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC) familiarly known as the Hays Code. Pre-Code was a glorious time in the history of cinema. It was during the Depression Era, before the cultural politics of Clergy and reformer organizations came in and initiated the need for moral governance over the film industry. Their interference evolved into the Hays Code created to oversee silent and talking pictures.

In the late 1920s before the Hays Code, films began to speak becoming audible and more realistic as Hollywood recognized that many Americans knew all about sex. In the early era of talkies during the gutsy cinema of the Depression era, there was nothing stopping the studios from producing daring films. Hollywood movies weren’t afraid to show gay characters or reference their experiences. Ironically, queers were pretty visible onscreen at this time in American cinema. These characters left an impression on trade papers like Variety that called this phenomenon – “queer flashes.”

Also in the early twenties, there were notorious scandals on and off screen. Hollywood’s moral ambiguity was literally in the clutches of the Hays Code which the MPPDA used to wage a moral battle against Hollywood that they perceived would eventually lead to cultural ruination. The priggish William Hays was a deacon in the Presbyterian church, a former chair of the Republican party, and post master general before he was picked to lead the war on decadence in the movie industry. William Hays was appointed chairman of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) from the year it was established in 1922 to 1945, but the Hays Code was not overturned until 1968. Hays and his code regulated film content for nearly forty years. The little worm.

W.C.Fields and Franklin Pangborn- Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)

The Hays Code became a series of self-imposed, perceived-to-be-moral guidelines that told filmmakers and the major studios what was permissible to do in their movies. The Code was established in 1930, and the MPPC set forth censorship guidelines that weren’t yet strictly enforced. And states had their own censorship boards and so their individual standards varied. Hays tried to contain his guidelines without the intrusion of government censorship, so he created his own Production Code that was for all intents and purposes optional for studios.

They felt that the liberal themes of films in the 1920s were contributing to the supposed debauchery infiltrating society. They championed government censorship as the solution to return society to its traditional moral standards (Mondello).

In June 1927, Hays publicized a list of cautionary rules. A construct of ‘Don’ts and Be Carefuls’. The document and empowering legislation spelled out guidelines for propriety on screen in classic Hollywood that became known as the Production Code. It was co-authored in 1929 by Martin J. Quigley, prominent Catholic layman, editor of the journal Motion Picture Herald and Reverend Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit Priest. Their collaboration reflected a ‘Victorianism’ that would tint the freedom of Hollywood’s creative license. “The Production Code was a template for a theological takeover of American cinema.” “No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

“Just Ten of the Thous Shalt Nots”

Homosexuality

While the Code did not explicitly state that depictions of homosexuality were against the Code, the Code barred the depiction of any kind of sexual perversion or deviance, which homosexuality fell under at the time. -Wikipedia

The convict

“The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust…”

Prostitution and fallen women

“Brothels and houses of ill-fame are not proper locations for drama. They suggest to the average person at once sex sin, or they excite an unwholesome and morbid curiosity in the minds of youth…”

Bad girls

“Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing…”

Musicals

“Dancing costumes cut to permit indecent actions or movements are wrong… Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passion are forbidden…”

Adultery and the sanctity of marriage

“Adultery as a subject should be avoided… It is never a fit subject for comedy. Thru comedy of this sort, ridicule is thrown on the essential relationships of home and family and marriage, and illicit relationships are made to seem permissible, and either delightful or daring.”

NOT TO MENTION: GOD COMPLEXES-

Boris Karloff as Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s creation. Make-up by Jack Pierce.

By the time the sequel Bride of Frankenstein was released in 1935, enforcement of the code was in full effect and the Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s overt God complex was forbidden. In the first picture however, when the creature was born, his mad scientist creator was free to proclaim “Now I know what it feels like to be a God.”

‘Don’ts’ included “profanity,” “sex hygiene,” “miscegenation,” and “ridicule of the clergy.” There was a much longer list of ‘Be carefuls’ which indicated it was offensive to “show sympathy for criminals,” “arson,” “surgical operations,” and “excessive or lustful kissing” and of course “HOMOSEXUALITY.”

Hays appointed Colonel Jason S. Joy to be in charge of the supervisory agency, the Studio Relations Committee. Once the first talky The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson was released a newly fired up rebel cry was heard from the hoity-toity do-gooders who raised objections against Hollywood’s immorality. What was once suggestive in silent pictures was now committed to sound, with all it’s risque humor and wicked context.

In 1934 censorship was tightening its strangle hold. Under pressure from the Catholic Church and other religious groups the Motion Picture Production Code made it so that any marginal gay characters became masked in innuendo, relying on queer symbolism instead. Several grassroots organizations were founded in order to pressure the film industry, the most influential of all was the Catholic Legion of Decency.

So, between the Code and state censorship boards, one might expect that films produced after 1930 would be exemplars of wholesomeness and purity. In practice, the men who enforced the Code on behalf of the MPPDA (Jason Joy and James Wingate) were wholly ineffectual, primarily due to the very small staffs they were allotted to keep up with the work of reviewing scripts, treatments and finished films while battling studios that weren’t especially thrilled by the bottleneck caused by the whole operation. The combination of bureaucratic sclerosis and the economic, political and cultural crisis brought about by the Great Depression ushered in a vibrant era of filmmaking and the introduction of many stars whose personas would forever be rooted in their pre-Code films.- Mike Mashon

The Code set in place since 1930 was a turning point in the history of self-regulation. With the strict enforcement of the Production Code, they attempted to influence the discourse in American film without coming out and definitively stating which contexts were strictly forbidden. Instead they issued phrases like “should be avoided” and “should not suggest.” Though a variety of controversial topics weren’t vigorously banned by the Production Code, gay characters WERE strictly prohibited. 

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) directed by Alfred Hitchcock- Peter Lorre

When the Hays Code was adopted in 1930, they articulated that, “though regarding motion pictures primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda, they know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.”

When the MPPDA formally ratified The Code, they demanded that it be followed to the letter but it “lacked an effective enforcement mechanism” – and the studio heads openly defied it’s frame of mind and it’s puritanical spirit.

The movie studios had other pressing issues of concern. It was the Great Depression, and studios were barely making it, on the brink of ruin due to low ticket sales. They were quite ready to fight with states over censorship because sex and violence sells. They wanted to draw in audiences that would be titillated by gangsters, vamps, and racy subject matter. Popular musicals could entertain with disparaging racial clichés and glamorous, intoxicating imagery, with hints of queerness. You could also watch languid prostitutes on screen — everyone seems to long for Shanghai Lil, in the film that has it all, Footlight Parade (1933)

Filmmakers tried to switch around controversial subject matter that would not only push the boundaries but would promote ticket sales, with films that would attract a more sophisticated audience. Breen perceived these films to be less ‘dangerous’ a word he often used. They focused on the ‘gangster’ film with it’s violent content, and when they put their foot on that genre’s neck, Hollywood rolled out the ‘fallen woman‘ films. They tried very hard to get around the scrutiny and so they delved into making horror pictures, and racy comedies. These fare better as they fell under the heading of being ‘unrealistic’ which rendered them as innocuous material to the censors.

During the Great Depression, movies were an escape for audiences in dire need of distraction. The morally-charged stranglehold that was beginning to challenge filmmakers forced them to experiment with movies that were audacious and candid in different ways. Pre-Code actually challenged audiences to watch real life issues on screen. Pre-Code cinema offered some titillating truths coming out of the dream factory. Depression-era cinema exhibited gay characters, but generally in small parts and often used for comic purposes that managed to cue audiences in, with roles that were codified and readable as queer. ‘Queerness’ was railed against because it subverted traditional masculinity which was under attack by the new socioeconomic crisis in the country. Yet somehow, Hollywood found it to be a viable trigger for ideological gossip.

These films illustrated narratives that were thought provoking, worldly, and subversive. Movies dealt frankly or were suggestive of sexual innuendo, sexual relationships between races, mild profanity, drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and of course, homosexuality.

William Wellman’s Safe in Hell (1931) starring Dorothy Mackaill as a call girl in hiding. Prostitution is a no no!

Filmmakers took risks delivering a portrait of America with a punishing realism, and a creative freedom to portray taboo themes like crime (gangs and guns, violence), social dilemma’s (drug abuse, poverty and political unrest). And sexual relationships (adultery, promiscuity, deviance = homosexuality). In the 1930s filmmakers also sought to stir up controversy by screening queer characters, in order to shock audiences and drive up their ticket sales. The result, movies became more lewd, ruthless and vicious between 1930 and 1934. And Hollywood was it’s MOST queer from 1932-1934.

Yet during the silent era to the mid thirties, gay characters were illustrated as stereotypes showcasing the popular tropes established by conventional hetero-normative gender bias. These archetypes were styled to be gender non-conformists. Queer men were fussy, effeminate and flamboyant. With high-pitched voices, the air under their feet and waving hands. Essentially, ‘fairies’ who were deployed as comic relief on the periphery of the drama. Real-life queers of the Depression era and later periods were exposed to cinematic images, the vast majority being caricatures in which gays and lesbians were often presented as targets of ridicule and contempt for their divine decadence. ‘Entertainers play with gender ambiguity in Broadway thru a Keyhole (1933).‘ (Lugowski)

Lesbians were at the other end of the spectrum. They were ‘masculine,’ demonstrating deep voices, cross-dressing in male attire, and were installed in male-dominated professions. They were often invalidated by the straight male characters, and were either played for the uncomfortable humor or shown as baffling to men. The PCA in it’s Hollywood’s Movie Commandments specified that there could be no comic characters “introduced into a screen play pantomiming a pervert.” (Lugowski)

Gender Reversals, Queerness, and a Nation in Crisis.–

In Michael Curtiz’s The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932) Suddenly, queer imagery in film, typically in the form of comical representations of gay men, lesbians, and ambiguous sexuality, did not seem so funny any-more, least of all to those charged with applying Hollywood’s Production Code to film content. By “queer” imagery, I am focusing particularly on situations, lines of dialogue, and characters that represent behavior coded, according to widely accepted stereotypes, as cross-gendered in nature. As played by such prominent and well-established supporting comedy character actors as Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, Grady Sutton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, and Ernest Truex, queer men tended to appear as one of two types.

The queer in his more subdued form appears as the dithering, asexual “sissy,” sometimes befuddled, incompetent,and, if married, very henpecked (Horton), and sometimes fussy and officious (Pangborn). Pangborn, however, was one of the actors who (along with the unsung likes of Tyrell Davis and Tyler Brooke) also played or suggested the other type, the more outrageous “pansy,” an extremely effeminate boulevardier-type sporting lip-stick, rouge, a trim mustache and hairstyle, and an equally trim suit, incomplete without a boutonniere. Although a number of actors played or were even typecast in such roles, one generally doesn’t find a circle of prominent supporting actresses whose personas seemed designed to connote lesbianism (the closest, perhaps, is Cecil Cunningham) lesbian representation occurs frequently as well, and in perhaps a greater range of gradations. At her most overt, the lesbian was clad in a mannishly tailored suit (often a tuxedo), her hair slicked back or cut in a short bob. She sometimes sported a monocle and cigarette holder (or cigar!) and invariably possessed a deep alto voice and a haughty, aggressive attitude toward men, work, or any business at hand. Objections arose because she seemed to usurp male privilege; perhaps the pansy seemed to give it up. -David M.Lugowski: Queering the (New) Deal-Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era Cultural Politics of Hollywood’s Production Code

Filmmakers were encouraged not to promote lifestyles of a ‘morally questionable’ nature, so queers remained as humorous detours away from the central story. It was a subtle defiance that filmmakers were determined to feature queer characters in their films in spite of the ban. Because of the threat of boycotts, this created some maneuvering around the scrutiny. Queer identities were not portrayed with depth or realism, this marginalized group was relegated to one-dimensional stereotypes. They were never shown to be in romantic relationships and filmmakers relied on visual cues to signal the character’s identity.

Censors at the PCA, for example, were very worried about the three female characters in William Dieterle’s Dr. Monica (1934) starring Kay Francis. The film is the story of three women, an alcoholic, a nymphomaniac and a lesbian. In October 1935, Joseph Breen wrote a letter to RKO’s head B.B. Kahane concerned about Follow the Fleet (1936) starring Fred Astaire who gives a dance lesson to all male sailors. “We are assuming of course that you will exercise your usual good taste in this scene of the sailors learning to dance. There will be no attempt to inject any ‘pansy’ humor into the scene.”

Due to a new, stricter Motion Picture Production Code, gays were being swept under the rug in movies. In the late 1930s and 1940s the only way to circumvent the Code was by painting homosexuals as cold-hearted villains (The Celluloid Closet). Now it appeared that gays were committing terrible crimes because of their sexual orientation, implying that homosexuality leads to insanity. In a society where being homosexual was synonymous with being sinful, it is no surprise that Hollywood made the leap to correlating a homosexual orientation with malicious crimes and wicked urges (Weir).

Alfred Hitchcock is a visual magician who rolls out the answers gradually while deconstructing what is explicit to the narrative. He is one of the most measured auteurs, whose eye for detail links each scene together like a skillful puzzle. He has been studied, tributed, and –in my opinion–unsuccessfully imitated. Rigid to conform, he danced around the Hays Code like a cunning acrobat indulging his vision while deflecting the lax regulations. There are arguments that Hitchcock insinuated homophobic messages in some of his films. The queer characters were all deviants and psychopathic predators, who were the ones responsible for some of the most heinous murders on screen. For example, in his film Rope (1948) the two Nietzschian murderers are intellectual companions who get off on trying to perpetrate the perfect murder. They exhibit a romantic friendship with no sexual contact on screen. Yet there are cues that they are sexually aroused by each other’s mutual pleasure at killing a young boy. The Hays Code inhibited the depiction of a queer couple so Hitchcock had to subtly suggest their sexual relationship by dropping metaphors and visual clues. Though, it might be interpreted through a homophobic lens, and their homosexuality might be at the core of their cruel and immoral nature.

According to David Greven, Hitchcock’s homophelia ‘was through a larger conflict that Hitchcock’s cinema that filmmakers conducted their investigation of American masculinity, one that focused on fissures and failures. Homosexuality emerged as representative of these and also as potential new direction for American masculinity to take, not without serious risk but also treated with surprising, fascinated interest… Hitchcock’s radical de-centering of heterosexual male dominance, devising contemporary narratives of heterosexual male ambivalence that allowed for, at times depended on, an investment in same-sex desire as well as an awareness of its dangerous, pernicious seductions. Homophobia in both Hitchcock and the New Hollywood’s informed by an attendant fascination with the homoerotic that emerges from scenes of gender crisis and disorganization that are rife in both the Cold War and New Hollywood eras. 

Any illicit sexual behavior on screen considered as perverse would be demonized and exploited as immoral. Queers were shown as villainous, dangerous deviants who were fated for ruination and/or death.

There were several broad categories the Code was not vague about. Any movies depicting criminality had to essentially illustrate that there would be consequences. The message was clear, any flagrant criminal behavior is abhorrent and audiences should NOT feel sympathy, primarily through the implicit edict of “compensating moral values.”

Authority figures had to be treated with respect, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains. Under some circumstances, politicians, police officers, and judges could be villains, as long as it was clear that those individuals portrayed as villains were the exceptions to the rule.

Clearly there were some productive strategies of circumventing the Motion Picture Production Code. They enabled characters that performed behind the veil, under the radar of social acceptability, while dancing a step closer to the fringe. It allowed for ‘queering the screen’. I find it feasible to consider how Alexander Doty points out that ‘queering’ something implies that you are taking a thing that is straight and doing something to it. Rather it should be considered that it’s less about co-opting or subverting films – making things queer, and more about how something might be understood as queer.

It might be easy to read Zasu Pitt’s and Thelma Todd’s relationship, the brilliantly paired comedy twosome, as lovers. While they perform humorous heterosexual man hunting, they sure seem to be mostly interested in each other and sure look adorable in their pajamas! I wonder, as Big Daddy says, if there’s ‘something missing here’. Below, they are in the film short directed by Hal Roach – On The Loose 1931, with bobbed hair, leaning into each other in bed together, looking awfully intimate.

To be ‘queer’ is also to deconstruct existing norms and ‘destabilize’ them, making it harder to define, so that it is a clear picture of non-normative straight masculinity/femininity.

What was perceptible to those ‘in the life’ were expressions, gestures, of the term often used by the Hays Code, ‘deviancy.’ One of the things that the Code banned was in Clause 6 Section 2 on “Sex” was that “sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.”

Not that films during the reign of the Code were ripe with queer love stories, of course. There were none to be found beyond the foreign offerings of Oswald’s Different From the Others and Mädchen in Uniform. The most prevalent allusion to being gay was the flamboyant man who was the ambiguous bachelor or fussy asexual husband. If there was anything close to a butch woman, she could be an earthy farmer’s wife, a Marjorie Main or Patsy Kelly type (Both lesbians in real life). A tough as nails prison matron, a tyrannical madame or a risque night club owner. Perhaps shes an embittered heavy drinker or just one of the guys who is a faithful friend to the female lead. Maybe she never gets the guy or hasn’t met the right man. Perhaps she was married to a no good bum and is off men for good!.. And just sometimes, sometimes it’s because… well some of us would know why!

Thelma Todd joined up with Patsy Kelly in comedy series. Here’s a lobby card for their Babes in the Goods. The two became very good friends during their collaboration.

Patsy Kelly had started in Vaudeville and appeared in Wonder Bar 1931 centered around a Parisian club. Kelly played Elektra Pivonaka and sang two lively songs.

She is known for her ballsy, straight-forward, no nonsense persona, be it her tough as nails nurse Mac in Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964) or as Laura-Louise, attending to Rosemary (Mia Farrow) in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Kelly played very non-feminine roles, injecting a bit of her ‘in the life’ energy into the characters in every one of her roles. More often that not she had an unglamorous reputation as a funny spunky, brassy, wise cracking gal who played a lot of maids. She was outspoken about being an uncloseted lesbian, which hurt her movie career in the 1940s. But she had been a very successful actress on Broadway, returning to the stage in 1971 winning a Tony Award for No, No Nanette and Irene.

In director/screenwriter Sam Fuller’s sensationalist The Naked Kiss (1964), Patsy Kelly plays Mac the nurse, a hard-edged pussy cat. A no nonsense nurse who lives for helping children with disabilities, but there is no visible sign that she has the slightest interest in men, aside from a smart alecky comment about Grant bringing her back a man from Europe. Kelly might have wanted her role as an independent woman with a more offbeat way of stating that she is a tough dyke and expected Fuller to write her into the script that way. Knowing Kelly that’s a good assumption. The film is audacious in it’s scope for dealing with more than one theme, as taboo as prostitution, abortion and pedophilia.

The Catholic Legion of Decency used their influence to label gays as ‘sexual deviants’, not be depicted on screen. ‘Deviancy’ was used to refer to any behavior deviating from what was perceived to be normal in terms of romance, sex, and gender. Hays even ordered all ‘nance’ characters to be removed from screenplays.

The Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Hays Code tried to make symbolic gestures to maintain decency in films. The Legion of Decency were getting pressure from the Catholic Church. So in 1934 came up with A-acceptable B-Morally Objectionable and C-Condemned. Hollywood promised to observe the rules. Of the various subject matter that was restricted on screen-open mouth kissing, lustful embraces, sex-perversion, seduction, rape, abortion, prostitution, white slavery, nudity, obscenity, profanity.

But all this unsolicited attention caused the studios to be watchful of their off-screen personnel, and they also had to be certain that the Los Angeles Police Department received payoffs to keep their mouths shut. Though lurid and shocking subject matter was no longer tolerated on screen, the studios tried to continue to release their films without the intrusion of the Hays Office, even though from a commercial standpoint, sex sells.

Warner Bros.’ lack of cooperation with the Code until the bitter end and how Paramount, which was cooperative under B. P. Schulberg, decided to be “as daring as possible” under Emmanuel Cohen in 1932 and 1933. At MGM, Irving Thalberg’s resistance only really ended with his heart attack and journey abroad to recover in 1933. As James Wingate, Breen’s SRC predecessor, put things that same year: (Lugowski)

In 1934 Jack Warner ignored Breen’s letter and phone calls about a scene in Wonder Bar (1934) that explicitly demonstrates homoerotic desire. In it, one man cuts in to dance with another man, interrupting a woman who is dancing with her male partner. “May I cut in?”  she responds, “Why certainly,” as the man suitor grabs her chaperone to dance instead. The films stars Al Jolson who exclaims, “Boys will be boys!” Breen would later write, “It is quite evident that the gentleman [Warner] is giving me the runaround. He evidently thinks that this is the smart thing to do.” Wonder Bar  may have added a flash of queer diversion as part of the entertainment, but it is an incredibly offensive and racist film using a cast who are in Black face.

During the ongoing Depression era, sissy and lesbian characters of the period continued to be screened as effeminate and mannish with one change. They became progressively sexualized between 1933-34. As the Depression moved forward, the Code needed to establish a “suitable” masculinity in film that would satisfy the morality police. They wanted this accepted masculinity to mirror the public art imagery that was now being federally funded by the New Deal in the mid-and late 1930s.

Before 1934 the studios were able to ignore the Code’s denouncement and endeavor to censor the movie industry but Hollywood filmmakers could no longer disregard the regulations issued by the Hays Code. The Legion of Decency forced the MPPDA to assert itself with the Production Code and formed a new agency , the Production Code Administration (PCA). The Hays Code was formed in 1930 but it only began to have a profound impact on Hollywood when the Production Code Administration (PCA) began strictly enforcing it in 1934. The crusade to save America’s purity and squash the filth mongers began a cultural war.

It was a system of moral oversight, conservatives lobbied to enforce, using the PCA to compel the industry to drastically adhere to it. PCA is strongest in explaining how the Code tried to at once repress and enable discourse to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of viewers and to offend the fewest. (Lugowski)

And in 1937, the Production Code Administration (PCA), handed down Hollywood’s Movie Commandments that decried “No hint of sex perversion may be introduced into a screen story. The characterization of a man as effeminate, or a woman as grossly masculine would be absolutely forbidden for screen portrayal.”

The Code was detailed in two parts that reflected the foundation of Catholic principles. The moral vision and “particular applications a precise listing of forbidden material.”

The code was divided into two parts. The first was a set of “general principles” which prohibited a picture from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it”, so as not to wrongly influence a specific audience of views including, women, children, lower-class, and those of “susceptible” minds, called for depictions of the “correct standards of life”, and lastly forbade a picture to show any sort of ridicule towards a law or “creating sympathy for its violation.

The second part of the Code was a set of “particular applications”, which was an exacting list of items that could not be depicted. Some restrictions, such as the ban on homosexuality or on the use of specific curse words, were never directly mentioned, but were assumed to be understood without clear demarcation. Homosexuals were de facto included under the proscription of sex perversion.” — Wikipedia

The second part of the Code was a ban on homosexuality. Though it was not specifically spelled out, queers were the subject under review of ‘sex perversion.’ Though the Hays office would not stand for “more than a dash of lavender” as long as the representation (especially a non desirable depiction of homosexuality) was fleeting and incidental. Thus, “Pansy comedy” was tolerable in Pre-Code Hollywood. “Despite the watchful eyes of the Hays Office, the trade paper Variety remarked that Hollywood continued what were called “queer flashes” and “mauve characters” who sashayed through Cavalcade 1933, Our Betters 1932 and Sailor’s Luck 1932.

The industry moguls and business offices finally had to follow the rules, clean up the ‘sinful’ screen and adopt a symbol of moral righteousness, that came along with a seal. The Code would be certified by a Code Seal printed on the lobby cards of each Hollywood film. And the seal would be an emblem that would appear on the motion pictures themselves. Any film without a Code Seal would be fined $25,000.

After some revisions, they agreed to the stipulations of the Code. … negotiated cuts from films and there were definite—albeit loose—constraints, a significant … against homosexuals, all in clear violation of the Hollywood Production Code.

Any sexual act considered perverted, including any suggestion of same sex relationships, sex, or romance, was ruled out.

Thus, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the PCA scrutinized and censored, everything coming out of Hollywood and put it’s seal on each movie released. The Hollywood executives preferred to call it “self-regulation” and feared that censorship by the PCA would be even worse if they tampered with the creative ‘source’ of their product. Because of the studios’ defiance, Roman Catholics formed the National Legion of Decency, which became an influential group who would put Hollywood’s transgressions through the ordeal, of boycotts, picketing theaters, urging Catholics not to patronize these immoral movies or fall “under the pain of sin”, being met by hoards of angry protestors at the gates of the studio. Now religious groups and other moral traditionalists began a warlike campaign for the government to regulate what was shown on the screen.

Mae West: She Done Him Wrong 1933

Also government officials were bent on making gay people invisible from cinematic narratives and the United States Supreme Court handed down the ruling that filmmakers were not protected by the First Amendment in the matter of free speech. They considered Hollywood to be a powerful mechanism that to exploit ‘sinful’ behavior on the screen and influence American audiences. This laid the ground work for local governments that could weigh in and ban films from their theaters, if they considered them immoral. Hollywood could not afford to lose money at the box office from governmental authorities, by negative publicity, or from the threatening boycotts by rabid church groups.

Motion pictures could be regulated and run out of town by cities, states, and by ominous extension, the federal government.

“After all, censorship had been a fact of creative and commercial life for motion picture producers from the very birth of the medium, when even the modest osculations of the middle-aged lovebirds in Thomas Edison’s The Kiss (1896) scandalized cadres of (literally) Victorian ministers, matrons, and other variants of a sour-faced species known as the “bluenose.” By common consent, the artistically vital and culturally disruptive spectacle of the motion picture – an entertainment accessible to all levels of society and degrees of moral temperament, including unassimilated immigrants,impressionable juveniles, and other menacing types – required editorial supervision from more mature, pious, and usually Protestant sensibilities” -from Archives Unbound

Hollywood was in the grip of the Code that saw the ‘dream factory’ movie machine as a Hollywood Babylon. While the powers that be were busy policing the murmuration of taboos, Pre-Code was a brief moment in history, a fruitful period between 1929 to 1934. Hays then appointed someone who could intercede between studio moguls and anti-Hollywood groups, Joseph I. Breen. “The vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is out!”

The PCA had been known as the Hays Office but to those in Hollywood, once the oversight became an operation with teeth, it became known as the Breen Office. Breen came in to take over the weak Studio Relations Committee (SRC). The Code had consisted of thirty-six rules that informed Hollywood filmmakers to limit representation of, or normalization of subject matter considered by religious groups to be “unsavory or morally corrupt.” The SRC and the PCA were the inner mechanism within the film industry, shaping the content of the film and heading off any ethical problems the film might encounter before they reached the local censors.

Dorothy Mackaill Safe in Hell (1931)

Many scenarios disappeared from the movies by mid 1934: for example, audiences would no longer see women’s navels, couples laying in bed together, murderers going unpunished, any illustration of a bedroom that isn’t merely recognized as a bed chamber. The normalization of drug use, the glamourization of criminal behavior, or not following the law, and of course any overtly revealed gay or lesbian character. After 1934, women would not be sporting short haircuts and tailored suits, confidently smoking cigars. Men toned down the gushy gestures that would be interpreted as flamboyant. Gay men and women were transformed into dowdy spinsters and high-strung bachelors.

What we started to see was an ambiguity, a narrative uncertainty that took the burden of responsibility off of the filmmakers and dropped the perception of the content into the laps of the audience. Since the Code asserted that no picture should lower the moral standards of those who saw it, it was a law that bound Hollywood’s accountability for their plots. Ruth Vasey calls the antithesis of this “the principle of deniability” which refers to the ambiguity of the textual vaguery that shifted the message to the individual spectator. Lugowski cites Lea Jacobs, “under the Code ‘offensive ideas could survive at the price of an instability of meaning… There was constant negotiation about how explicit films could be and by what means (through the image, sound, language) offensive ideas could find representation.” The studios would have to come up with a structure of ‘representational conventions’, that could be understood by a more sophisticated audience yet would fly over the heads of more inexperienced spectatorship. Though producers felt the sharp sting of the Code as a mechanism of restraint, in terms of ‘queerness’ on screen, film studios could use the leverage of deniability to argue about the interpretation of certain scenes.

Once the limits of explicit “sophistication” had been established, the production industry had to find ways of appealing to both “innocent” and “sophisticated” sensibilities in the same object without transgressing the boundaries of public acceptability. This involved devising systems and codes of representation in which “innocence” was inscribed into the text while “sophisticated” viewers were able to “read into” movies whatever meanings they were pleased to find, so long as producers could use the Production Code to deny that they had put them there. Much of the work of self-regulation lay in the maintenance of this system of conventions, and as such, it operated, however perversely, as an enabling mechanism at the same time that it was a repressive one.-(Documents from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., 1922 – 1939)

… by assuming that the social crisis over cinematic representation in the early 1930s was caused by the content of motion pictures. The institution of censorship in Hollywood was not primarily about controlling the content of movies at the level of forbidden words or actions or inhibiting the freedom of expression of individual producers. Rather, it was about the cultural function of entertainment and the possession of cultural power. (Tino Balio: Grand Design Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise 1930-1939)

Geoff Shurlock was appointed as acting director of the Production Code in the 1940s and as permanent director in 1954. Over the years, Shurlock would straddle the conflict, appeasing both movie producers, and morality mongers trying to persuade the Association Board that introducing more liberal thinking could protect the PCA from fading away. There were attempts to ease up on the Code, in 1954 he introduced an amendment that would eliminate various taboos, for instance, miscegenation, liquor, and some profane words, but producers felt that there weren’t enough considerations to the amendment and the Catholic Legion of Decency felt that even that much went too far. Shurlock had a tough time making everyone happy.

The 1950s witnessed a weakening of the Production Code to restrict specific representations such as adultery, prostitution, and miscegenation. By the beginning of the 1960s, the only specific restriction left was homosexuality = “sex perversion.”

In the 1960s, filmmakers pressured the Production Code Administration. In the fall of 1961, two films went into production that would deal with homosexual subject matter. William Wyler, who had initially directed Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon in These Three (1936), revealed that he was working on a more faithful treatment of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour; that dealt overtly with the love that dare not speak it’s name. Around the same time director Otto Preminger began to adapt Allen Drury’s political novel Advise and Consent 1962, which delves into the lives of Senatorial candidates that uncovers controversial secret, including Don Murray’s homosexual encounter.

Throughout Preminger’s career he challenged the restrictions of the Code, and eventually influenced their decision to allow homosexuality to be shown on screen. Also fighting to change the stifling rules was Arthur Krim, president of United Artists, who threatened to ignore the Code and release the film without the mandatory “seal of approval” forcing them to amended its ideological strangle hold.

On October 3, 1961, the Production Code Administration backed off: “In keeping with the culture, the mores and values of our time, homosexuality and other sexual aberrations may now be treated with care, discretion and restraint.”

In order to maintain control of the Administration’s power at least in terms of how homosexual’s were portrayed on film, they insisted that the subject be infused with medical overtones, to show it as an ‘illness’. Sympathy or illness in psychological terms, were two key factors. The Code’s changed the use of the word “sex perversion” and replaced it with “homosexuality.”

Don Murray –gay bar scene in Advise and Consent 1962

Another interesting shift was that they owned up to the fact that “mores and values of our time” were changing whether they liked it or not, people were become more in touch with the freedom to express their sexuality, society was becoming more permissive, the love generation was upon them and sexual representation was a fearless exploration reflected by a new generation of film goers.

Otto Preminger was the only major producer able to successfully release films without the Production Code’s Seal of Approval. He defied the Code (Hadleigh) with movies like Advise and Consent (1961) The Man with Golden Arm (1955) Anatomy of a Murder (1959) Wendell Mayes said “Look at the record–you’ll discover that many of the changes in the Code were a result of Otto Preminger breaking the rules”

Though the Code had been revised in 1961 to open up the door for portrayals of gays on screen, the sissy effete and predatory dyke took on a more sinister role. Because they had been hidden in plain sight using symbology that hinted at either failed masculinity or women performing masculinity. When the MPPA ratings system was established in 1968 gays on screen were starting to kick the doors open but what was awaiting them was an even crueler denouement than during the reign of the Code. Queers were now portrayed as suicidal, predatory or homicidal maniacs. And much like the coded gay characters under the Production Code, things moved very slowly in terms of progress for positive representations of being ‘queer.’

DIrk Bogarde and Dennis Price in Basil Dearden’s brave film Victim (1961)

Between January and June 1962, five films were released that dealt with homosexuality, almost as many as in the previous three decades. One did not receive a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration, but was released nonetheless. Even without the seal of approval, British director, Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961) was reviewed in all the publications being considered. The liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal even disagreed with the Production Code Administration’s claim that the film made pleas ‘for social acceptance of the homosexual.’ “63 Still, the consensus among reviewers was that of the Production Code Administration and society at large: films should not and, for the most part, did not condone homosexuality. (Noriega)

This ban applied to all characters attracted to the same gender or characters who differed in their gender presentation or identity. While nudity and violence were quickly reintegrated into film canon following the abandonment of the Production Code, LGBT characters remained taboo. For decades after LGBT characters were allowed to appear in films, their sexuality and gender was shrouded in thinly-veiled innuendos and visual cues. If a character was to be openly same-gender attracted or transgender, they would be gruesomely killed or presented as morally corrupted. (Cleghorn)

Like the Code’s authors, film critics tend to examine the film itself, and not the discursive acts that surround a film and play a sometimes central role shaping its meaning(s). Contemporary gay and lesbian film criticism of Production Code era films operates on the same principle, with the added limitations that historical evidence and homosexual “images” censored. Thus, in order to ensure “the survival of subcultural identity within an oppressive society,” gay and lesbian film critics have employed a wide range of interpretive strategies to recuperate a history of homosexual images from the censored screen. The emphasis, therefore, has been on “subtexting” censored films from a singular presentist perspective. (Sophie Cleghorn)

Sources:

*Mike Mashon & James Bell for Pre-Code Hollywood Before the Censors-BFI  Sight & Sound Magazine (April 2019)

*Archives Unbound (1http://gdc.gale.com/archivesunbound/)

*Sophie Cleghorn: The Hollywood Production Code of 1930 and LGBT Characters.

*Wikipedia-Pre-Code

*David Lugowski-Queering the (New) Deal)

*Chon Noriega

During the period of Pre-Code, queer humor appeared in films such as Just Imagine (1930) and the The Warrior’s Husband (1933). The male characters were feminized because of their affinity for writing poetry. This asserted that they must be queer.

The Warrior’s Husband directed by Walter Lang, is a film primarily cast with women. Yet the air of queerness permeates throughout because the women, featuring a butch Queen, are Amazons. Gender is inverted and several other female rulers cross-dress and exude a lesbian vibe. It is inhabited by independent women and swishy men who camped it up as ‘queens’ amusing themselves by flirting with all the good-looking men.

The Warrior’s Husband image courtesy Peplums Blogspot.com

Like so much self deemed culturally aberrant, the homosexual appears with greater frequency and readier acceptance in Pre-Code Hollywood cinema “The thirties was surprisingly full of fruity character comedians and gravel-voice bulldyke character comediennes” film critic Andrew Sarris observed in his touchstone study The American Cinema “but it was always played so straight that when ((character actors) Franklin Pangborn or Cecil Cunningham went into their routines, it was possible to laugh without being too sophisticated.” Maybe in the later thirties the homosexual was played straight but in the Pre-Code era, he and she was playing queer. No sophistication was needed to read the same sex orientations as gender disorientations.- Pre-Code Hollywood; Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty.

Miriam Hopkins got the part of free-spirited Gilda in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living 1933. This original Noël Coward play actually featured a Ménage à Trois between the three Bohemian lovebirds in Paris of the decadent thirties. The film also starred Gary Cooper as artist George Cooper, and Fredric March as playwright Tom Chambers. The liberated Gilda becomes the girl both men fall in love with. They three make a pact to keep their mutual attractions platonic, but that doesn’t last too long, and they each begin a sexual relationship. When George comes back from a trip to Nice, he finds that Tom has taken up with Gilda. “I can’t believe I loved you both.”

Ben Hecht’s screenplay didn’t have a trace of any Coward’s romantic relationship between George and Tom. Ernst Lubitsch, known for his sophisticated style, directed memorable witty interactions between all four players. Edward Everett Horton as Max Plunkett plays Miriam’s bland suitor. Horton is, as usual, a whimsical idiosyncratic delight to watch. And Franklin Pangborn Mr. Douglas, Theatrical Producer is a perfect theatrical queen who is thoroughly annoyed when Gilda approaches him in the restaurant about Tom’s (Fredric March) play “Good Night Bassington”, as she leaves him with this thought, “There, read it, I’m sure you’ll adore it, it’s a woman’s play…”

Al Jolson “Boys will be boys” Wonder Bar (1934)

Any portrayal of on-screen “sex perversion” or homosexuality, even those connected with various tropes of ‘deviant’ sexual behavior were restricted after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934.

Lending the Code moral authority even within the limits of pure love, asserted the Code delicately certain facts have been universally regarded by lawmakers as outside the limits of safe presentation Father Lord and Mr. Quigley saw no need to defile the document by typesetting long lists of “pointed profanity” or “vulgar expressions” Likewise, the prohibition against homosexuality dared not speak the name, but it didn’t need to spell it out. “Impure Love” the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been named by divine law… must not be presented as attractive or beautiful.”-Pre-Code Hollywood; Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty.

Different From the Others (1919) Conrad Veidt and Fritz Schulz two musicians in love — during the period of Pre-Code.

But, outside of the United States, films were a little more adventurous. Austrian director Richard Oswald’s film bravely shows two men in love. The “third sex” was eventually mocked. One of the earliest films to feature two men in love was the 1919 silent film from Germany,  Different From the Others. Director Richard Oswald’s story of two male musicians in love had a typical unhappy ending, but it depicted gay people in a positive light. The film condemned the German law known as Paragraph 175, which outlawed gay behavior. Different Than the Others was censored soon after it was released. Starring Conrad Veidt it is considered the first pro-gay film.

Joseph Breen viewed any meaningful treatment of queer cinema as perverted. Conrad Veidt also gave an emotionally evocative role in The Man Who Laughs 1928, playing a violinist who falls for his student and is then blackmailed for it. The risking Nazi party in Germany attempted to erase these films from the screen, and this made Oswald to flee to the America.

But, the Hays Code made certain that no films of this type would be seen in the United States. Even books and plays with gay, lesbian or bisexual narratives were reworked and any content related to the subject was erased in order to meet the social code of the time.

Other non-American films included Dreyer’s Michael (1924) and Mädchen in Uniform (1931) directed by Leontine Sagan and again in (1958) with Lilli Palmer as Fräulein Elisabeth von Bernburg and Romy Schneider as Manuela von Meinhardis. And Viktor Und Viktoria (1933) directed by Reinhold Schünzel.

Mädchen in Uniform (1931) was directed by Leotine Sagan, and starred Dorothea Wieck and Hertha Thiele.

William Dieterle’s Pre-Code German film Sex in Chains (1928) stars the director as Franz Sommer a man sent to prison for manslaughter who, though longing for his wife, develops a close relationship with his cell mate. A fellow inmate informs Franz that he’s “lived to see someone unman himself, just so he could finally sleep.”

In 1927, during the Pre-Code period, director William Wellman’s Wings won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and it also depicted the first gay kiss between two men in American cinema.

Wings follows two Air Force pilots in World War I, Jack (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Dave (Richard Arlen) who at first rivals for the affections of the beautiful Mary (Clara Bow) before they discover the underlying love they begin to feel for each other. During a boxing match at training camp gets to rough and Jack knocks Dave bloody and silly. Dave gazes up at Jack with an epiphany and the two walk off arm and arm as close ‘buddies’. The relationship is referred to as friendship, but the film paints a picture of two men falling in love.

Dave is mortally wounded in combat at the end of the picture, Jack embraces his dying ‘friend’ with a tender yet impassioned kiss while Mary looks on, framed with her on the outside looking in. Wellman humanizes the men’s close relationship in this scene when Jack leans into Dave to embrace him as he dies. He lets him know that nothing has meant more to him than their relationship. The moment feels sympathetic instead of exploitative, yet as he mourns Dave’s death. And though it is tinged with homoerotic elements, the case can always be made that it is a story about war, which brought two men closer together.

The Knocking Knees dance. Horton’s homosexuality – comedic, subtle and acceptable in The Gay Divorcee (1934)

In The Gay Divorcee (1934) crossing the threshold is the archetypal ‘Sissy’, Edward Everett Horton. Marginalized audiences were looking to the movies for any indication of the familiar, any little crumbs left as a trail to be picked up. For instance there is a moment in Johnny Guitar, the fiercely burning with sensual brawn, Joan Crawford. Bigger than life up on that screen, androgynous in her black cowboy shirt, strides down the stairs, gun in her holster waiting to confront coded dyke, Mercedes McCambridge. Many women’s chests, mine included, heaved a little with delight. That flutter of excitement hit us again when Doris Day sings the sentimental “Secret Love” in Calamity Jane (1953).

In Myrt and Marge (1934) Ray Hedges plays the flaming stage hand Clarence Tiffingtuffer he’s told “Here put this in the trunk and don’t wear it” speaking about one of the show girls costumes. In his boldly effete manner “If we got the runs on the show, the way the girls got in their stockings, I could put the 2nd down payment on my Kimono.”

Clara Bow, Willard Robertson and Estelle Taylor in Call Her Savage (1932)

From Call Her Savage 1932 purportedly the first on screen gay bar.

In director William Wyler’s These Three (1936) the relationship between Miriam Hopkin’s Martha and Merle Oberon’s Karen was delicately subtle and though to mainstream audiences might be seemingly obvious to interpret as two women attracted to the male lead, Joel McCrea. It revised Hellman’s play that centered around Martha’s love that dare not speak it’s name, for Karen. Sam Goldwyn bought the rights to Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, a story depicting the supposed ‘carryings-on’ of two female teachers at a private school for girls. Though, These Three on it’s face is the story of a love triangle between two women and a man, it could read as Martha being more uncomfortable with the presence of Dr. Cardin (McCrea) because he is intruding on her closed relationship with Karen. The later screenplay adapted to film, The Children’s Hour (1961) directed by William Wyler, was boldly more explicit and revealed the true nature of Martha’s predicament and her struggling with her love for Karen.

These Three (1936) Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins

The Children’s Hour (1961) Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn

Coded characters in film were on the screen relaying messages and signaling to those of us who understand and who are “in the life: that movies can reflect the existence of a queer reality. These representations were not necessarily a positive, but films showed evidence that we exist. You would see it in a revealing gesture, or an air of difference about them, though it would be inconspicuous to audiences that were unaware of the cues.

Continue reading “Chapter 2 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”

Chapter 1: Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

“I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land… Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”

—Catholic Legion of Decency pledge

And now here at The Last Drive In, the subject of “The Third Sex in the Shadows of Cinema.”

Clifton Webb as Hardy Cathcart in The Dark Corner 1946 directed by Henry Hathaway. Waldo Lydecker: “I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm.”

“Oh, it’s sad, believe me, Missy, when you’re born to be a sissy without the vim and voive…” -Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Growing up as a gay woman, though gender and sexuality are fluid, there was not a well spring of characters in film or television that I could grab onto as a buoy for my burgeoning self awareness – I was ‘different than the others.’ Though there are the obvious icons who became heroes and heroines to many of us because of their peerless image. And while films could not overtly represent ‘queerness’ directly, they could posit mixed messages and a whole generation of us could understand the subtext, unsheltered from an array of homophobic language.

We still had Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo, who gave us immortal androgyny– there was no one who could shatter the silence, and ceremoniously ring the bells out in the open. There were no ‘obvious’ gay role models. We had to create that worship ourselves through iconography and a variety of sublime, convention-smashing signals. For those of us who knew how to look in the dark corners, right under your nose, corners, or should I say coded corners.

There’s one thing I want to be very clear about. I am not asserting that the actors themselves were gay in their personal lives, but that what was coded was merely the particular characters they played in the film. Or that the narrative might seemingly be ‘queer’. Which I will go on to explain. Particular actors or directors private lives are not up for conversation, unless they were clearly open about themselves and their influences on their artistic work.

For instance, I am not saying that I suspect Doris Day is a lesbian, just that the character of Calamity Jane is throwing out messages for those of us ‘in the life,’ to feel a special affinity. Using comforting symbology gives us a place in the universe, especially when the story is presented by the stars we most admire. Not all coded gay characters are portrayed by gay actors, and not all coded comedy, jokes or situations denotes that the character themselves are gay, just that the humor is cannily made to be queer in the moment. It can be an off-the-center remark that speeds by almost unnoticed except for the sake of the hurried laugh or two. Sometimes it’s all subjective and at times it’s pretty obvious which way the deliberate wind blows.

(Stacey) categorizes her range of material into several kinds of identification broadly dividing them into two categories. “Cinematic identifcatory fantasies” —devotion, worship transcendence, inspiration are proper to the act of spectatorship and appear to be based primarily on difference from the star ideal and “extra-cinematic identifactory practices” —imitation and consumption —attempt to close the gap between subject and star even as they take place outside cinema.

The worship of Doris Day is not surprising, she was one of the top box office draws of the 1950s. Day performs a cross-dressing role in the biopic of a legendary lesbian. Indeed, Day and Calamity Jane in particular in which the star sings both “Secret Love” and a duet with another, feminine character called “ a woman’s touch” are regularly cited by lesbians as crucial cinematic texts. (Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing)

There was a period when Peter Lorre, George Sanders (and his equally effete brother Tom Conway), Anne Revere, Judith Anderson, and Agnes Moorehead played movie villains, fanatics or oddballs. Each of these actors suggested queerness in their androgynous personas. Each became iconic character actors of classic cinema.

Characters like Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944), Judith Anderson in Rebecca (1940), or Gloria Holden as Countess Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), stood out to us, though they were despicable and unwelcoming characters. Although I see Gloria Holden’s character as strangely sympathetic. Usually queerness that was veiled behind a coded role, exhibited a disturbed or desperate personality. They might be a person who is ambiguous in their maleness or femininity. And at times, they were full on, deadly.

However, there was so little for those of us who are part of the ‘hidden audience’, we needed to catch sight of something familiar. That meant grabbing onto what ever little crumbs were thrown to us. So whether those characters were inherently insensate evil had nothing to do with our empathy or revulsion. The real power lay in the ability to identify with the essence of ‘otherness’ and more to do with familiarity and belonging. I longed to find that ‘something‘ that signified a relative identification of their sexuality. To see that subtle finger motioning, come closer, you’re in the right place kiddo, you’re one of us. Andrea Weiss writes: “[In the 1930s] for a people who were striving toward self-knowledge, Hollywood stars became important models in the foundation of gay identity.”

The films I have uncovered throughout my endeavor to write this immense blog post, either commonly fall within the queer canon or can be liberally dissected and/or challenged. We can read into any film if we so choose. I am merely putting it out to you that these films do seem to meet the criteria for coded queer paradigms. I also began this piece thinking that in order to understand the evolution of coded characters, you first have to look at the origin of the queer presence in silent and Pre-Code films, and how the Code influenced and constructed the way being queer had to be hidden in plain sight.

I echo Susie Bright, in her feelings that we (the queer community) would hang on anything close to a hint of gayness, and it would change the whole world of the motion picture, just to see that famously analyzed moment when Marlene Dietrich plants that sensuous kiss on a woman’s lips in Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco 1930. Or the first cinematic lesbian romance when vamp Louise Brooks slinks on the dance floor with her androgynous female admirer Alice Roberts as Countess Anna Geschwitz in director GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929).

The boldly androgynous Marlene showcased another masculine appearance when she ascends the throne at the end of The Scarlet Empress (1934).

Greta Garbo portrays the Swedish monarch who declares herself not an “old maid” but “a bachelor” in Queen Christina (1933)

Because of the social relationship between non-normative gender and sexuality and the symbology of fashion and the role of work, women only had to dress like their male counterparts and be employed in a man’s job to seem queer. In the movie directed by George Cukor, What Price Hollywood? (1932), the very drunk filmmaker notices a woman having lunch at a fashionable Hollywood restaurant. The drunks inquiry goes like this, “I beg your pardon, old man… who’s you tailor?

In Victor Fleming’s Red Dust (1932), Jean Harlow is adorable as Vantine as she she handles the heat, and hands out the jibes.

Other members of the lesbian parade inhabit spaces that, as with the men, connote queerness. Consider the lesbian couples in the Greenwich Village dive in Call Her Savage (1932), seated alongside male same-sex couples while pansy entertainers, dressed as maids, perform for their amusement. Mannishly garbed women barflies, sometimes wielding cigars, often pal around with men, or sometimes confuse and emasculate them, in Lawyer Man (1932), Grand Slam (1933), and Blood Money (1933). (Lugowski)

Blood Money (1933) Rowland Brown’s atmospheric jaunt that embraces the gritty underworld, includes racy subjects like sadomasochism, empowered women, and fluid sexuality. Kathlyn Williams credited as the “Nightclub Woman Wearing Monocle”, is a beautiful androgynous off-cut in the film. In one notable scene George Bancroft as Bill Bailey enters Ruby Darling’s (Judith Anderson) nightclub and comes across a young woman at the bar, dressed in a man’s tuxedo and sporting a monocle. Baily offers her a cigar. She smells it and nonchalantly mocks the husky guy, “Why, you big sissy!” and hands it back to him. The nature of this adventurous passage into a subversive world, it generated a lot of sexual tension. With Blood Money, the subject of homosexuality is a non issue, belonging to a subculture that invites those who are outsiders.

In Blood Money and Call Her Savage, 
homosexuality is just another pocket of an underworld that exists outside the law. When George Bancroft warns a timid taxi driver not to betray his destination to the police, he threatens, “Lissen fag” -and is rebuked by Judith Anderson for “scaring the little fellow half to death.”

Keeping along the lines of the connection between women working at men’s jobs, within a wide range of social status, you can see this example in Heat Lightning (1934) starring interestingly handsome actress Aline MacMahon when she, covered in grease, working on cars in her desert garage/gas station wearing a filthy jump suit and hair wrapped in a bandana. She sheds her desire to be desired by men, and exudes a solitary quality, as if she has given up on, performing femininity for men. She seems independent and strong and in her ‘male’ attire, you can see her projecting a queer attitude, though the film deposits a past love interest with bad boy Preston Foster as a distraction. The attraction is doomed from the start.

Olga (MacMahon) balances the duality of loving Preston Foster, donning her ‘womanly’ dress when she decides to submit to a heterosexual liaison which goes wrong. Then she shuns the idea of her femininity, re-asserting her hyper-masculine posture in greasy mechanics overalls and once again hiding her ravenous hair under her bandana, to protect herself from performing as a straight woman again.

To be clear it is not my belief that she’s not “all woman,” even using these props to represent masculinity. She is not truly changing her gender but for the purposes of the narrative, in the movie’s time period, it suggests a superficial interpretation of gender for our spectatorship.

In Jame’s Whales’ The Kiss before the Mirror (1933) there is sophisticated female lawyer Hilda Frey (Jean Dixon) who is stern and stiff-backed, is dressed in severe clothing, a “new kind of woman” which allows for an undercurrent of lesbianism.

In The Kiss before the Mirror (1933), Nancy Carroll as Maria Held is a career-oriented lawyer, who wears men’s suits and considers herself a “new woman.” There are tinges of heterosexuality, which serve to shield her character from scrutiny. But, she does appraise heterosexuality in vaguely cynical terms. She talks to another woman about a case where the husband has murdered his wife, “At least no one will ever murder me.” She also responds to , “What are you? A lawyer, or a new kind of woman?” by saying, “By day, I’m a lawyer. At night, well, you might be surprised.” Either it went undetected by the SRC (Studio Relations Committee) or they felt that the connotations of her lesbianism were ambiguous enough to slip by an unsophisticated audience.

We learn to watch out for signs that there are ‘others’ out there on the screen – those we can relate to. A young person exposed to old films, as I grew older and dove head first into classic film with a critical eye, I could read those sign posts and cues that led me to become consciously aware of the invisible affinity laid out in plain site for me, and those of us who knew the secret whispers behind the storyline.

Women wearing men’s apparel, like Dietrich’s wonderful drag performance, kissing a women in Morocco 1930. Or Clifton Webb’s often effete superiority as with his character, Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944, or his role as Hardy Cathcart’s with a pathological objectification of his wife Mari’s aesthetic beauty in Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner. Greta Garbo in Queen Christina 1933 “I shall die a bachelor!” Gloria Holden’s vampiric desire to embrace the necks of beautiful young female models in Dracula’s Daughter 1936.

Nan Gray and Gloria Holden in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

The Production Code Administration (PCA) saw the obvious connection between vampirism and lesbian sexual desire in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) They only gave two warnings concerning the ‘queerness’ of Countess Zaleska and her thirst for young female victims. Universal, even hyped the idea that women were not safe from unnatural desire using this publicity catch phrase, “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!”

Throughout these films coded lesbian characters, scattered their rose petals of longing for their dead lost loves or the nymphs just out of their reach. There was the tragedy within the tragedy of the horror story! As long as these queer women monsters also became victims, the PCA could negotiate it’s release, being comfortable with the narrative in that form.

The most overt representation of lesbians was her stylized look, a severely tailored suit, monocle, slicked back or bobbed short hair, or stuanch, with a strait backed, severely repressive temperament. The coded dyke is typically less seen on screen than the pansy who enjoyed more of a character actors trademark in popular films. However, it could be said that covert lesbians are more subtle in their presence than their queer male counterpart – the sissy.

Major female stars could be seen as having indirect lesbian undertones, though their ambiguous sexuality might be camouflaged by her independent streak, her strong spirit or shaded by her exotic, mysterious nature. Thus we find some of our lesbian icons like Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, and Barbara Stanwyck. Lesbian vibes, can often be signaled by a playful tomboyishness. And what we have is a diametrically opposed result, the pansy is perceived as failed manhood, but conversely the lesbian performing manhood is perceived as a threat.

And if they weren’t tomboys they could be man-less shrews, castrating veragos or in need of a man, who can make her come to her senses, give up her career and her disruptive way of life. The threat of strong women is still equal to the threat. The gay man elicits a laugh.

Thus, discourses about queer sexuality in this period are never purely homophobic against men. To a sizable extent, they have their basis in sexism against women, for it is the power of femininity, the “feminization” of 1930s culture mentioned, and the threat of working women “wearing the pants” that are being policed.

The metaphorical nature of the pants-wearing, money-earning woman attaining independence from men connoted lesbianism as a complete break from the interwoven financial and sexual economies of patriarchy. Thus, if “clothes make the man,” the wearing of pants in and of itself suggested a link to lesbianism that films of the time simultaneously offered as spectacle and punishment. (Lugowski)

In particular classical horror and science fiction films spoke to the sense of “otherness” installed in my psyche. That does not mean that I viewed things through a dark lens, but classical horror and science fiction are effusive metaphors and inherently philosophical. When some of us, like Frankenstein’s monster were figuratively chased with flaming torches, horror and sci-fi movies afforded us shelter from the angry mob. Their use of mythic undertones and symbolic context provided for so many of us, psychic release and catharsis.

It’s also why I love and identify with the monster in classical horror films. The iconic or tragically fated monster has always been portrayed as the ‘other’. Gay people understand what it means to be an outsider. And filmmakers encoded that sui generis into our beloved classical horror genre. It worked like waving that meaningful finger at the audience, saying, you found us, we’re here.

WHAT IS A CODED GAY CHARACTER?

CODED–verb [with object] 1 convert (the words of a message) into a particular code in order to convey a secret meaning: express the meaning of (a statement or communication) in an indirect or euphemistic way: (as adjective coded)

films allude to homosexual meanings in more of less coded ways. From today’s perspective, one can view these films as excellent examples of the very discourse of the closet-they employ connotative and symbolic meanings to signify homosexuality for those ‘in the know’ while ostensibly being about something else. Such connotative meanings were the way homosexuality could be signified under the dictates of the Hollywood Production Code.

Although it was continually challenged throughout the 1950s (by films such as The Moon is Blue 1953 and Baby Doll 1956) The Production Code still exerted a profound effect on the content on Hollywood film, especially in relations to homosexual themes. The Production Code Administration (PCA) edited queer backstories and subtexts of the film adaptations of Tennessee William’s plays A Street Car Named Desire (1951) , Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Vincente Minnelli’s film of the Broadway hit Tea and Sympathy… (Jeffrey Sconce)

 

Continue reading “Chapter 1: Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”

THE BIG VIOLENCE OF FRITZ LANG’S THE BIG HEAT (1953)

“Lang’s almost musical control of violence deferred both apprehension and catharsis” –Carlos Clarens

“The “heat” in this instance is the appalling cruelty; but the “big heat” is criminal slang for a large-scale investigation and an allusion to the hellish state of the city.” —David Thomson

The Big Heat (1953) is perhaps one of Fritz Lang’s most violent noirs. It is an explosive noir masterpiece filled with striking images of the urban milieu that is often the site of Lang’s allegorical urban war. But here there are also themes of revenge, obsession, sexual hostility, and corruption. The nightmare exposed as realism in the everyday spaces of the city.

“Violence is the most consistent motif in the film noir; virtually no noir is without it. Its importance is complicated and often explained in sociological terms to justify its aesthetic power. As a statement in itself, violence in noir cinema a distinctive use. Whereas its purpose in the pure gangster film has often been to explain the sociopathic breeding and greed of thuggish personalities who reach power and control, violence in the noir is less explicable and more arbitrary less a matter of historical cause and effect than an unexpected and intense exercise of rage. […] The Big Heat—each has moments of violence that jar us by their cold-bloodedness, occasionally terrify us in their perverseness. suggest a darker cruel impulse.”
—From Violence In The Noir Street With No Name: A History of the Classic American Film Noir by Andrew Dickos

The film’s cold dimensions come from Sidney Boehm’s script (based on the novel by William P. McGivern) which conveys perhaps the most ferocious rage in the noir canon. It opens with a gunshot. A corrupt police records sergeant, Tom Duncan, blows his brains out, leaving a suicide note which reveals how gangster Mike Lagana (Alexander Scourby) —a first-generation immigrant— has risen to power, holding the city in the clutches of highly organized criminals. Just as Homicide Detective Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) who is a working class family man, Lagana is an upper-class family man, worshiping the memory of his mother and doting on his daughter. In contrast, Lagana made his money through shady dealings. Duncan’s suicide sets forth a chain of events in where the narrative of the film pivots on it’s violence.

JEANETTE NOLAN & GLENN FORD Film ‘THE BIG HEAT'(1953)Directed By FRITZ LANG 1Oct. 1953 CTJ27877Allstar/Cinetex COLUMBIA

Duncan’s widow Bertha (Jeanette Nolan) shows no emotion over her dead husband’s lifeless body and stashes the letter. She telephones Lagana, cleverly implying the implications of her husband’s suicide. Now that she possesses evidence that can expose the syndicate boss who runs the city from his palatial mansion, Bertha proceeds to blackmail Lagana. She is thinking of providing for herself a better lifestyle than a cop’s salary.

When Bannion comes to the door she must pretend to be the grieving widow. Bertha gazes at herself in the mirror, the camera holding mirrors in the background as symbols of deceit. And it’s a premonition of Bannion’s fractured morality as he is about to go on a mission of retaliation. The noir iconography of mirrors depicts duplicity and fragmentation. Charles Lang’s cinematography transforms the ordinary environment, texturing it with anxiety.

Lagana lives against skyscrapers and a starry city night scene, but in his home there are antiques and expensive artwork, a hive of servants and classical music: this riles Bannion. “Cops have homes, too. Only sometimes there isn’t enough money to pay the rent, because an honest cop gets hounded off the force by your thievin’ cockroaches for tryin’ to do an honest job.”

Bannion refuses to drop the investigation into Duncan’s suicide. His domestic bliss is shattered when wife Katie (Jocelyn Brando) first gets an obscene call. This leads him right to the door of Lagana’s opulent home to threaten him. When Bannion insults Lagana’s pride, he plants a bomb in Bannion’s car that accidentally kills his wife. The violent act itself happens offscreen, but the brutal aftermath of such evil becomes the center of the film, a cautionary tale of human behavior and corruption.

The film juxtaposes scenes of the domestic innocence of Bannion’s family yet with the explosive violence he is capable of when he is driven to bringing people down. He’s transformed into an avenging angel. He goes on a personal crusade against Lagana, resigning from the force after he’s warned by corrupt Commissioner Higgins (Howard Wendell) to lay off. He tosses his badge, but not his .38, simmering “That (gun) doesn’t belong to the department, I bought it.”

Bannion’s life is now bleak with his private war to expose Lagana’s grip on the city and the corruption within the police. He leaves the wholesome suburban home he shared with his wife, now empty except for his daughter’s baby carriage in a barren room. With no future before him, he leaves his former home without a trace of his once blissful life.

It is from this desolation that springs the violence to come. Bannion rampages through the screen, threatening and intimidates poker playing bullies as he invades with vigilante fantasy Lagana’s corrupt landscape. Bannion, once an average man, turned into the bitter vision of a noir hero who is being pushed to his capacity for violence. Bannion becomes obsessed with vengeance against the Syndicate boss and his chief thug, the sadistic Vince Stone (Lee Marvin). He roughs up hired gunman (Adam Williams), just short of killing him.

Bannion hunts down Duncan’s mistress, a B-girl Lucy Chapman (Dorothy Green) who knows where the bodies are buried and she tries to salvage Duncan’s reputation. But Bannion accuses her of “a shakedown,” walking out of the bar feeling morally superior to Lucy.

She is found the next day outside of town, tortured and murdered by sadistic criminals. The brutal murder takes place off camera but we still hear the horrifying account in the coroner’s report. The morgue attendant asks “You saw those cigarette burns on her body?”, “Yeah, I saw them. Every single one of them.” As he crushes his cigarette into the ashtray, a nod to his culpability in her death.

Hirsch claims that few film noirs can or even try to sustain the pitch of these intensely violent moments. “These privileged moments are isolated from the rest of the films in which they occur by their special intensity but not by their content: the best film noir thrillers ‘earn’ and can absorb these moments of visual and theatrical virtuosity; the violence and mania that are highlighted in these passages of kinky vaudevillian cinema flow directly from the noir milieu.” – From Film Noir The Dark Side of the Screen by Foster Hirsch

Vicious Vince Stone, a vicious deranged hoodlum who gets off on torturing women, using one of them as an ashtray, burning a cigarette into a barfly Doris’ (Carolyn Jones) hand — a disquieting show of cruelty. Gloria Grahame is sexy, incendiary, and delightful as Stone’s girl, Debbie Marsh. Debbie is a smart-mouthed girl drifting amid the macho posturing of the gang. She becomes an ally of Bannion’s after she realizes her life palling around with criminals is aimless and dangerous. Bannion gives her a gun for protection, “the big heat falls for Lagana, for Stone, and all the rest of the lice.” The big heat purifies Debbie and Bannion in the climax.

As Debbie, Gloria Grahame possesses a sharp wit, moral ambiguity (half of her face is covered with bandages, two distinct profiles she presents) and enigmatic sensuality. “I’ll have to go through life sideways…” “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, rich is better.” Looking around Ford’s hotel room, “I like this. Early nothing.” Debbie’s a positive counterpoint to the materialistic middle-class Mrs. Duncan, who pushed for her husband to lay down with Lagana, and eventually, kill himself.

Debbie becomes Bannion’s agent of death, blasting open the whole corrupt system. She shoots Bertha Duncan at the same desk her husband committed suicide. In this pivotal moment she exposes the depth of evil in the narrative by handing over the suicide letter.

Just before Debbie shoots Bertha, “You know Bertha, we’re sisters under the mink.” Hailing from the gutter, Debbie’s only complicity with Bertha and her corruption is that they share the same symbol of greed and luxury. And they are both marked for a fall, and a noir fate.

The Big Heat has some of the most virulently aggressive attitudes and scenes, not least of which is the iconic moment when Lee Marvin splashes a scalding hot pot of coffee in Gloria Grahame’s face, scarring her for what’s left of her life on screen. After she is savagely injured when in a jealous rage, Debbie retaliates at her ex-boyfriend by scalding his face the same way. In the escalating crescendo of Debbie’s dramatic demise, Vince shoots her in the stomach. Debby dies looking for love and approval by Bannion, her gruesome scars are obscured by her beloved mink coat. As she dies, she is redeemed and her morality is restored.

Toward the end Bannion can’t look at Debbie’s face until their one intimate moment before she dies. He confesses wanting to kill Bertha Duncan, acknowledging his rage and finally seeing her in himself. The shadow patterns projected onto them by the window suggests a symmetry in their relationship. Bannion maintains his moral superiority and doesn’t submit to his murderous temptations.

All of the women in Bannion’s life meet with a tragic end. Bannion is unselfconscious of the victims he leaves in the wake of his mission. Most are women, four dying violent deaths during the film, suggestive of Lang’s streak of misogyny.

“Lang’s almost musical control of violence deferred both apprehension and catharsis. Quiet, intimate moments were invested with characteristic threat through the intrusion in the frame of a lampshade or even a potted plant, empty rooms seemed to lie in wait for people. The tension was so expertly set up that when the picture finally let go with the violence, the viewer was ready—indeed rooting—for it.” — From Crime Movies by Carlos Clarens

This is you EverLovin’ Joey sayin’ stay out of trouble, will ya!

Quote of the Day! Design for Living (1933) A banana peel under the feet of truth!f

It GIVES WOMEN NEW IDEAS in LOVE!

Miriam Hopkins got the part of free-spirited Gilda in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living 1933. A Pre-Code romantic comedy with suggestive dialogue and superb comedic timing. Based on Noël Coward’s play that breaks social moral standards and flirts with sexual taboos, sexually empowered women and features a Ménage à Trois between the three Bohemian lovebirds in Paris of the decadent thirties. The film stars Gary Cooper as artist George Cooper, and Fredric March as screenwriter Tom Chambers. The liberated Gilda becomes the girl both men fall in love with.

Ben Hecht’s screenplay and Ernst Lubitsch known for his sophisticated style, directed memorably witty interactions between all four players. Edward Everett Horton as Max Plunkett plays Miriam’s bland suitor, soon to be husband. Horton is as usual, a whimsical idiosyncratic delight to watch.

Max Plunkett: “I’ve come here to speak to you man to man.”

Tom Chambers: “My favorite type of conversation.”

Max Plunkett: “I wish to broach a rather delicate subject.”

Tom Chambers: “Oh, now don’t let’s be delicate, Mr. Plunkett. Let’s be crude and objectionable, both of us. One of the greatest handicaps of civilization, and I may say to progress, is the fact that people speak with ribbons on their tongues. Delicacy, as the philosophers point out, is the banana peel under the feet of truth.”

Gilda Farrell: “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men. You see, a man can meet two, three or four women and fall in love with all of them, and then, by a process of interesting elimination, he is able to decide which he prefers. But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice. Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks on out.

Tom Chambers: “Very fine. But, which chapeau do you want, Madam?”

Gilda Farrell: “Both.”

Gilda Farrell: Max, have you ever been in love?

Max Plunkett: This is no time to answer that.

Gilda: Have you ever felt your brain catch fire? And a curious grateful thing go through your body? Down, down to your very toes, and leave you with your ears ringing?

Max: “That’s abnormal”

Gilda: Well, that’s how I felt just before you came in.

Max: Yeah? How’d you feel yesterday after your promenade with Tom?

Gilda: Just the opposite. It started in my toes, and came up, up, up very slowly till my brain caught fire. But the ringing in the ears was the same.

 

Quote of the Day! Tony Rome (1967) You’ve got a pussy, and it smiles?

TONY ROME (1967)

Directed by Gordon Douglas, Frank Sinatra takes to the screen as the slick private detective in 1960s Miami, looking for Sue Lloyd’s stolen diamond pin, after she sleeps off a bender in a seedy motel. Her father (Simon Oakland) is the influential Rudy Kosterman, a millionaire construction mogul. He’s married to the lovely Gena Rowlands, who used to be a cocktail waitress in NYC. All three hire Rome to help them locate the missing jewelry. But Rome uncovers a more nefarious plot is underway.

Then there’s the sultry red head Ann Archer played by Jill St. John. She’s a sexually independent woman and proud of it, and is completely aroused by Tony’s playing hard to get. Somehow Tony and Ann can’t seem to wind up together, though there’s red hot passion waiting to ignite.

Tony’s too busy trying to find a lead, getting chloroformed, punched in the guts, and led astray by strippers and fences. Richard L. Breen wrote the screenplay and he makes this 60s crime flick glide like the Miami waves with Sinatra getting off zingers as smooth as his song lyrics. There’s several scenes with film noir lion, Richard Conte as Lt. Dave Santini.

There’s a lot of shiny efficient moments that make Tony Rome worth watching just for the nostalgia of the mod 60s   hairstyles, fashions, dive bars, the look of old Miami with the cars and trendy music.

There’s one scene that left me howling, and I couldn’t resist making it a Quote of the Day here at The Last Drive In. And rather than just transcribe the exchange here, I think this is something you have to see for yourself. It’s a riot and I applaud Templeton Fox and Frank Sinatra who pull off the scene without busting out laughing.

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying I’ve got several pussies and they all smile! Hope your’s does too!

 

“The Laziest Girl in Town”

MARLENE DIETRICH AS CHARLOTTE INWOOD IN ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S STAGE FRIGHT (1950)

Jane Wyman plays Eve Gill an aspiring actress who gets involved with her friend Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) when he is accused of killing his lover’s husband. Marlene Dietrich is Charlotte Inwood a high society cabaret performer whose blood stained dress becomes the flailing truth behind the murder. Michael Wilding is wonderful as Det. Ordinary Smith, and Alastair Sim is equally entertaining as Eve’s quirky father who is recruited to help Jonathon prove his innocence. Sybil Thorndike is Eve’s prickly mother.

Dietrich is glowing with sensuality, emblazoned in Christian Dior, crooning like the sultry Diva she is.

Your EverLovin’ Joey saying these days, it’s alright to be the laziest in town!

70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, psycho-sexual machinations and ‘the self loathing whore’ Part 3

Vanishing Point (1971)

It’s the maximum trip… at maximum speed.

Watch carefully because everything happens fast. The chase. The desert. The shack. The girl. The roadblock. The end.

Director Richard C. Sarafian (prolific television series director, The Twilight Zone ep. Living Doll 1963, Fragment of Fear 1970, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing 1973). With a screenplay by Guillermo Cabrera Infante, story outlined by Malcolm Hart. Cinematography by John A. Alonzo (Bloody Mama 1970, Harold and Maude 1971, Lady Sings the Blues 1972, Chinatown 1974, Norma Rae 1979). Alonzo offers up a minimalist vision not unlike Steven Spielberg’s first film Duel (1971).

Vanishing Point (1971) conjures an image of Americana with it’s dusty realism yet the landscape seems to exist on a desolate otherworldly planet.

The groovin’ sound track is a collection of various artists who create the perfect fabric of seventies resonance. The singer/songwriter (of Bread fame) plays the piano with the J. Hovah singers during the revival scene in the desert. Other songs include Mississippi Queen sung by Mountain, Welcome to Nevada by Jerry Reed, Nobody Knows sung by Kim Carnes and So Tired sung by Eve. Carnes’ most notable song is the cult hit, Betty Davis Eyes.

DJ Super Soul: “And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The vicious traffic squad cars are after our lone driver, the last American hero, the electric centaur, the, the demi-god, the super driver of the golden west! Two nasty Nazi cars are close behind the beautiful lone driver. The police numbers are gettin’ closer, closer, closer to our soul hero, in his soul mobile, yeah baby! They about to strike. They gonna get him. Smash him. Rape… the last beautiful free soul on this planet.”

… speed means freedom of the soul. The question is not when’s he gonna stop, but who is gonna stop him.”

Vanishing Point stars a very gruff and sexy Barry Newman (The Moving Finger 1963, The Salzburg Connection 1972, Fear is the Key 1972, Petrocelli 1974-76) as Kowalski, dynamic Cleavon Little as blind radio DJ Super Soul, Dean Jagger as the prospector, Paul Koslo as Deputy Charlie Scott, Robert Donner as Deputy Collins, Severn Darden, Karl Swenson, Anthony James as 1st gay hitch-hiker, Arthur Malet as 2nd gay hitch-hiker, Gilda Texter as Nude Rider, and although she was deleted from the U.S. version, Charlotte Rampling as hitch-Hiker.

The film has a beautiful bleak vision and atmosphere of “Dead-already-ness” in the narrative that foreshadows Kowalski’s ultimate destiny. The film doesn’t contribute much essential dialogue, in the way The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) thrives on it’s repartee. Vanishing Point is fueled by it’s visual movement.

Vanishing Point seems to reject the sensibilities of a contrived ‘road movie’ that embodies or symbolizes liberation, but in actuality “the road is not ‘open’ but merely a channel through which the vehicle hurtles.” (John Beck)

Vanishing Point is an inauguration of the New Hollywood road/chase movies of the 1970s and one of the most significant cult road movies of the mythic ‘wandering hero’ archetype and ‘the outsider’ roles of that decade. What makes Vanishing Point stand out from other more mainstream Hollywood rebels and road movies is it’s resistance to embrace the glorification of films boasting the (as writer John Beck puts it) “freedom to drive.”

[Warning: SPOILERS]

Continue reading “70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, psycho-sexual machinations and ‘the self loathing whore’ Part 3”

70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, Psycho-sexual machinations, and ‘the self loathing whore’ Part 2

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

 

1:23pm. Grand Central Station, New York. A packed commuter train is hijacked. A ransom is set – at one million dollars. The subway is a closed system. For the four hijackers, surely there is no way out. But they have a deadly plan.

Directed by Joseph Sargent  (Colossus: The Forbin Project 1970, White Lightning 1973, predominantly a director for television series and made for TV movies- Gunsmoke, The Fugitive, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, The Invaders) with a screenplay by Peter Stone (known writer Charade 1963, Father Goose 1963, Sweet Charity 1969) The iconic sneeze which leads to one of the most memorable endings in 70s films was actually conceptualized by Stone. And based on the best selling American crime novel by John Godey.

Stunning visual auteur and cinematographer  Owen Roizman (The French Connection 1971, The Exorcist 1973, The Stepford Wives 1975, Three Days of the Condor 1975, Network 1976, True Confessions 1981) and driving score by David Shire (The Conversation 1974, All the President’s Men 1976, Saturday Night Fever 1977, Norma Rae 1979). Like the score the film itself begins with the sense of a dialogue and characterizations just as accelerated as a runaway train. The initial part of the film is completely immersed underground with it’s murky greens, grays and shadows lit only by the subway lamps.

Director Joseph Sargent instructed Owen Roizman to shoot the picture in Wide Screen, which would create the effect of not having a high ceiling, the over head and bottom of the screen being cut off giving the film a more of the closeness and claustrophobia of being in a subway car. They filmed the picture at The Spike in Brooklyn which was totally closed off at the time. Director Sargent referred to it as “hell on earth” and actor Robert Shaw dubbed it “Dante’s Inferno.” Like The French Connection and 3 Days of the Condor also filmed by Roizman, these were films that were at a defining time in history portraying a gritty New York lensed with a perspective toward realism. The camera’s were lightweight, moved quickly through the streets and utilized natural lighting. The colors are muted browns, faded greens and grays. The film demonstrates alienation of the city and the urban nightmare.

One of the films from the seventies that utilizes the subway as a symbol of the ‘changing nature of the city partly from the perspective of it’s citizens primarily it’s commuters.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) is one of the most definitive films of the seventies that features an all star cast of great character actors with standout performances by Walter Matthau as Lt. Zachary Garber, Tom Pedi as Caz Dolowicz who only gives a damn about his trains running on time.

“Oh, come on. If I’ve got to watch my language just because they let a few broads in, I’m going to quit. How the hell can you run a goddamn railroad without swearing?”

James Broderick as Denny Doyle head motorman, Dick O’Neill as the foul mouthed Correll, Jerry Stiller as Lt. Rico Patrone, Rudy Bond as Police Commissioner, Kenneth McMillan as the Borough Commander, Doris Roberts as the Mayor’s wife.

And of course our four colorful criminals, Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) Mr. Green (Martin Balsam) Hector Elizondo (Mr. Gray) and Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman ) match the primary tones of the film. Their faces obscured by disguises that are caricatures.  An interesting note the color of the men’s hats correspond with their pseudonyms. In contrast to the earthy tones of the film Garber’s wears a banana yellow tie. Quentin Tarantino paid homage to the titular nicknames in his ultra violent Reservoir Dogs 1992.

There is no real set-up, or background relationship between the four hijackers. After seeing Martin Balsam exit a yellow cab, and Shire’s dynamic score comes into play, the film has an immediate tempo of being out of control. The film opens with one of the most popular scores of the seventies, David Shires, driving aural waves of dissonant jazz. With military type snare drum rolls and resounding trombones and electronica. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) is perhaps one of the most iconic action thriller of the seventies era. Opening with the dynamic life force of a pulsing New York City. Cabs, bodies in motion, unique to the city with it’s dialect “Fifty Foist Street” And the mania of people rushing down below in the subways, hot, grimy and anonymous.

When subway line Pelham One Two Three which is a subway car that begins from the Lexington Avenue station is hijacked by four seemingly random criminals Mr. Green, Mr. Blue, Mr. Gray and Mr. Brown all dressed in hats to match the colors of their pseudonyms, overcoats, black rimmed glasses and phony mustaches it throws the New York City transit into chaos. The Transit Authority personnel as well as the subway’s passengers are portrayed as stereotypically New Yorkers, rough around the edges of various ethnicities.

The train’s passengers are represented as a row of assorted stereotypes including the wise-but-kvetchy Jew, the “fairy,” the Black pimp, the hysterical Hispanic woman, the disarrayed mother who has no control over her children, the long haired hippie, the tough as nails whore and the clueless drunk who sleeps through the whole nightmare. What comes off with this device is that the ordeal of the story is just an everyday occurrence on the New York City subway.

And these passengers are actually listed in the credits as The Maid, The Mother, The Homosexual, The Secretary, The Delivery Boy, The Salesman, The Hooker, The Old Jewish Man, The Older Son, The Spanish Woman, The Alcoholic (who sleeps through the entire seizure), The Pimp, Coed #1, Coed #2, The Hippie and The W.A.S.P. One of my complaints of seventies cinema — though it is one of my favorite sub-genres of cinema– is the inherent misogyny and easily permissive racism and homophobia.

Mr. Blue calmly informs them that they want one million dollars or they will execute one hostage for every minute they don’t receive the ransom.

Dick O’Neill’s gruffness is delivered fluently as he grunts over the microphone at Mr. Blue “Keep dreamin’ maniac!”

Walter Matthau, who is the master of owning any picture he’s in, throws out more hilarious one liners which brings the much needed levity to the nervous tension. That is not to say that Tom Pedi and Dick O’Neill veteran stage and character actors don’t supply their share of snarky New York witticisms.

While the commuting passengers are concentrating on getting to where they need to go, one at a time the four hijackers board the train. Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw who plays a very composed and menacing British Mercenary). Accompanying Mr. Blue is Mr. Green, the continually sneezing Martin Balsam (who was fired from the transit department as a motormen suspected of trafficking drugs in the train cars) Later Garber figures out that one of the hijackers must have knowledge of handling a train, “Somebody down there knows how to drive a train. You don’t pick that up watching Sesame Street.”

Mr. Green (Shaw) enters the conductors car and hold a gun on head motorman James Broderick. “I’m taking your train.”

They begin to set up their scheme. Hector Elizondo who plays Mr. Gray is a unstable psychopath whose  infantile outbursts and uncontrollable belligerence show him capable of violence at any given moment. “I’ll shoot your pee pee off.” Later on Mr. Green tells Mr. Blue that he doesn’t trust Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo who is playing to type) and to keep an eye on Mr. Gray “I also think that he is mad. Why do you think they threw him out of the Mafia.”

Lastly Mr. Brown enters with a box for long stem roses. When the time comes, they pull out high powered automatic weapons and announce their plans to the horrified New Yorkers.

George Lee Miles as the pimp and Mr. Green (Robert Shaw) exchanging cutting remarks as commentary on the post Vietnam weariness and racism. “What’s wrong dude? Ain’t you never seen a sunset before?”

While the take over of Pelham One Two Three is underway, we are privy to the pressurized control room where the core of operations happens. Lt. Garber is showing a group of Japanese men who run the subway system in Tokyo, the works while throwing out wisecracks, “In the course of a normal work week, the average TA policemen deals with such crimes as robbery, assault, murder, drunkenness illness, vandalism, mishegas, abusiveness, sexual molestation, exhibitionism… “ means of mocking the four visiting Japanese executive’s assumed that they do not speak perfect English. Garber tells Rico- “Take these monkeys up to 13” Garber is enlightened after these very quietly polite men tell him that it was a most interesting tour.

The film boasts it’s built-in racism and visits it’s bias through a series of faux pas. Garber (Walter Matthau) has the privilege of his comedic traits can get away with lines as when he meets the Inspector Daniels who is black played by Julius Harris. Garber uncomfortable tells him, “I hadn’t realized you were… so tall.”

Kenneth McMillan veteran character actor adds his bellicose bluster to the film!

Of course there is also the prevalent acceptable and misguided jokes in 70s films wielding homophobia. As seen in 70s films for example, the psychopathic drag queen in Freebie and the Bean (1974) and the flaming hitchhikers in Vanishing Point (1971) Garber assures the undercover long haired hippie cop who’s been wounded and lying face down on the tracks, “We’ll have an ambulance here in not time, Miss.”

Along with his colleagues who assume they don’t speak English. Lt Rico ( Jerry Stiller ) adds his comedic genius for instance when he tells the executives, “we had a bomb scare in the Bronx yesterday, it turned out to be a cantaloupe!” 

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is not only a tight moving tribute to the implicit action films that emerged during the seventies, it is dominated by some of the best dialogue of that decade’s action/thriller genre.

Once the hijackers have taken control over the subway train the command center tries to raise them on the radio.

“How come that gate isn’t locked?” “Who’s gonna steal a subway car?”

Once the control center realizes that something is wrong, they watch on the computerized board that tracks all the trains. The four men have disconnected the last set of cars and released a group of passengers with the head motorman leaving the front car, the conductor and 18 passengers.

“For Jesus Christ’s Sake the dumb bastard is moving backwards.”

Meanwhile at the control center they see that the train has stopped between stations. “Well stopped is better than backwards.”

They inform the passengers, “what’s happening is you’re all being held by four very dangerous men with machine guns.”

What the control center sees is that Pelham has powered off their radio and jumped its load. Mr. Green’s nose begins it’s trail of sneezes and eventual Gesundheits which will become part of the plot’s shtick.

Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw) in his usual chillingly sober manner tells Garber “Your train has been taken.” He informs Garber of three essential points. 1) Pelham is in our control 2) We have automatic weapons and 3) We have no scruples about killing. One of the most central forces of the suspense is how Robert Shaw’s unwavering voice sounds so wickedly, deliciously deadpan when he takes up that microphone to talk to Walter Matthau.

They want $1,000,000 for the release of the passengers. Garber asks “Who am I speaking to?”

Blue stiffly tells him, “I’m the man who stole your train.”

The old Jewish passenger asks Mr. Blue “Excuse me sir what’s gonna happen if you don’t get what you want?” “Excuse me sir, we will get what we want.”

Earl Hindman as the more subdued Mr. Brown

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a pragmatic depiction of inured and balsy New Yorkers at that time in the city. One of the passengers, the prostitute tells the hijackers, “What do you mean you’re hijacking the train! I have an important appointment.” 

Mr. Blue doing the crossword puzzle while making his deadly serious demands…

Mr. Gray “Hold it right there, cowboy!”

Caz Dolowicz “Who the fuck are you?”

Mr. Gray “Well you’ll find out if you take one more step!”

Caz Dolowicz “I’m warnin’ you, mister, that’s city property you’re fooling around with!

Mr. Gray “Well that’s too fucking bad!”

Caz Dolowicz Why didn’t you go grab a goddamn airplane like everybody else?”

Mr. Gray “Cause we’re afraid of flyin’! Now get back or I’ll shoot your goddam ass off!”

Caz Dolowicz “The hell with you, I’m comin’ on board!”

Mr. Gray “I warned ya, stupid!”

It is immediately after Mr. Green warns Mr. Blue that Mr. Gray is mad, that he opens fire on Caz Dolowicz. When Fat Caz (Tom Pedi) goes underground and tramples the tracks insisting to get aboard his train, crazy Mr. Gray opens up on him with his machine gun.

Nathan George (One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest (1975) as Ptl. James who is monitoring the siege down in the tunnel. Rico asks if Caz Dolowicz is dead. “Wouldn’t you be Lt.?”

Dick O’Neill as Frank Correll bellyaches throughout the entire film. He does not care that the subway is under siege. He is the epitome of the perceived typical attitudes of an older generation of New Yorkers who only see the hijacking as an inconvenience to him for keeping his trains scheduled on time. “Screw the goddamned passengers.”  “What do they expect for their lousy 35c – to live forever?!”

Garber hears Mr. Green sneeze and there begins the first Gesundheit” “Thank you” replies Mr. Green casually.

The mayor (Lee Wallace) laughably resembles Mayor Koch who wouldn’t become Mayor until 1978-1989, is portrayed as an incompetent bureaucrat surrounded by his nurse, tissues and a trudge of indecision, who needs advice from the real brains in Gracie Mansion his wife Doris Roberts.

Frank Correll (Dick O’Neill) tells Garber “You’re playing grab ass with a bunch of goddam pirates.”

Garber follows his hunch and has them start to go through the files for any motormen discharged for cause. In the meantime, they are told to restore power, turn all signals green and remove all police from the tunnel. With all the details worked out and going their way, Garber figures they also have a plan to make their escape out of the subway tunnels.

Everyone is baffled when Pelham starts to move too soon before Command Central has everything set up, and everyone in the control room keeps asking — who’s moving? Garber responds, “What’s the matter with everybody? How many hijacked trains we got around here, anyway?”

With the green lights on the train will be able to continue on without being stopped, and this doesn’t trouble Garber at first because he knows there is a safety catch involved referred to as “Dead Man’s Feature” which is a handle the train is equipped with in the event the motorman dies while driving the train and they need to come to a stop. Pelham stops below 18th street. They haven’t cleared the tracks yet. Garber orders cops at every point of the tunnel and exits. They figure that the four won’t be able to get off the train without being stopped. What they don’t know is that Mr. Green has constructed a make shift metal bar that acts as an arm to hold down the Dead Man’s Feature and while they sneak off by an exit in the Village the train and it’s passengers are now speeding out of control with all the green lights go and no way to stop it from heading toward a crash.

“No one’s on the breaks!” “There’s nobody driving the fucking train!”

My favorite, Martin Balsam as Mr. Green aka Harold Longman rolling in the cash…

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying hang on to your seats and stay tuned for Part 3 !

70s Cinema: Runaway Trains, Racing toward oblivion, Psycho-sexual machinations, and ‘the self loathing whore’ Part 1


The early seventies witnessed a fertile moment in film-making that reflected a uniquely framed vision of sexual exploration and an ever changing measurement of morality. The studios too were taking more risks with their films conveying realism. What developed on screen was an explosion of symbolic portrayals featuring sex and violence and explicit imagery for American audiences to process. With the arrival of the women’s movement during the mid sixties through the seventies, until it was killed off in the eighties by Reagenism, these films did not push forward an evolved perspective or positive representation of women. Often the suggestion of women’s sexual freedom was portrayed as demeaning and counter-productive to women’s empowerment. As feminist theorist and critic Molly Haskell writes “the ten years from 1963 to 1973 have been the most disheartening in screen history.”

Conversely men were portrayed as rogue outsiders and anti heroes not unlike noir figures but pushing the envelope with a hyper violent masculinity often without the usual fatalistic culmination of judgement and universal law that bound their destiny. When they die, it is their decision, they are in a dance with death, it is not an unmitigated penalty for breaking the rules. In particular these themes are seen within the suspense-thriller.

The seventies offered a gritty, stylized world that enhanced and synthesized focus on the dark underbelly of society, cultural unrest, paranoia, masochism, neurosis and psycho-sexual wiles. From American Cinema of the 1970s: Themes and Variations — Movies and the Exploitation of Excess by Mia Mask “Women Take Center Stage: Klute and McCabe & Mrs. Miller- “For feminist critics and scholars, Alan J. Pakula’s Klute perfectly exemplifies this period’s ambivalence toward women, particularly in regard to its prostitute-heroine Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda). The film recasts and updates conventions of classic film noir by centralizing the investigatory/confessional pattern while making sexuality figure more obviously in the narrative.”

Klute (1971)

One man is missing. Two girls lie dead. …and someone breathing on the other end of the phone.

You’d never take her for a call girl. You’d never take him for a cop.

“There are little corners of everyone that are better left alone.”

Klute (1971) directed by Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View 1974, All the President’s Men 1976, producer To Kill a Mockingbird 1962, Love with the Proper Stranger, , Up the Down Staircase and director of Sophie’s Choice 1982) written by brothers Andy Lewis and Dave Lewis who mainly wrote for television drama series. Cinematography by Gordon Willis nicknamed The Prince of Darkness (The Landlord 1970, The Godfather 1972, The Godfather II 1974, The Paper Chase 1973, Annie Hall 1977).

Pakula on Willis and setting up the framing of the cinematography- “From the visual point of view, I wanted Klute to be a vertical film. And with Gordon Willis, the director of photography, I tried to go against the horizontal format of Panavision, by seeking out verticals. Horizontals open out, create a pastoral feeling, and I wanted tension. Bree’s apartment should have been seen as if at the end of a long tunnel. I framed a lot of shots with the back of another character in front, to mask a part of the screen, or made use of other sombre surfaces as masks, in order to create this feeling of claustrophobia which reflects the life of this girl.” – from 1972

The evocative score adds to the illusory tension and arresting mood of the film. The music is written by Michael Small (The Stepford Wives 1975, Night Moves 1975, Marathon Man 1976, Audrey Rose 1977, The Postman Always Rings Twice 1981, Black Widow 1987). Small’s haunting lullaby blankets the film in a pensive swaddle, with the uneasy tinkling of a piano like a childlike music box and vocalizations. The score awakens a voyeuristic ambience as if someones is watching, which they are– throughout the entire film.

“New York City as a site of, and metaphor for, the extremes of urban existence.

It places them in film history, New York City history, and U.S. urban history more generally, finding that they offer an update on earlier century narratives of the connections between urban areas and deviant sexuality. In this modern version, it is not just a moral tale but also an economic one, where, because of the historical decline of the U.S.city and of New York in particular,sex work becomes a plausible, if unsettling means of support.These films find both narrative and spatial terms for advancing the contemporary anti-urban narrative, envisioning New York as an impinging vertical space and seeing possible redemption only in the protagonists leaving the city.” From Stanley Corkin’s Sex and the City in Decline: Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Klute (1971)-Journal of Urban History

The film stars Jane Fonda (who was coming off playing ingenues in Barefoot in the Park and Barbarella when she had her breakthrough performance in Sidney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses Don’t They? 1969) as call-girl Bree Daniels with a complex inner life, Donald Sutherland as the quiet spectator detective John Klute, Charles Cioffi as psycho Peter Cable, Roy Scheider as pimp Frank Ligourin, Dorothy Tristan as Arlyn Page, Rita Gam as Trina Gruneman, Vivian Nathan as the psychotherapist, Morris Strassberg as Mr. Goldfarb, the nice old Jewish john who works in the garment district, and Shirley Stoler (The Honeymoon Killers 1969) as Mama Reese. With appearances by Jean Stapleton as Mr. Goldfarb’s secretary, Richard Jordan as the young man who kisses Jane Fonda in the bar scene, porn star Harry Reems at the Discothèque and Candy Darling. 

The film brings into play various traditions of film noir as it lays out the search for the missing Gruneman and emphasizes the relationship between the cop and the call girl.

Klute was nominated for two academy awards, best actress and best screenplay, with Jane Fonda winning the Oscar.

From Mark Harris “menace seems to choke every frame, contains almost no violence at all”

The use of tape recorders as visually recurring iconography “finally deployed as a monstrous psychological weapon at the film’s climax.”

“When Alan J. Pakula began preparing for the production of Klute (1971), he screened a lot of Alfred Hitchcock films…{…} instead he came away dispirited at the thought that he was about to make might contradict one of Hitchcock’s central principles: “You don’t try to do a character study in a melodrama” Pakula said. “Klute, of course, is a violation of that.”

Klute features Donald Sutherland as the film’s protagonist John Klute, a Tuscarora Pennsylvania private investigator hired to locate a friend Tom Gruneman who has vanished in New York City and may be living a double life. Obscene letters to a NYC prostitute have been uncovered in his desk at work “written by a very disturbed man”. Gruneman went missing six months prior and John Klute offers to leave his suburban shelter to investigate in the big bad city. The trail leads Klute to a complicated and seductive New York call girl Bree Daniels an “emotionally introspective” prostitute (skillfully brought out by Jane Fonda). Bree is an unwitting connection to a brutal murder and Klute becomes her paternalistic protector/lover. Bree is shut off from her feelings, driven by her instincts of suspicion, ambivalence and low-self esteem. “I wish I was faceless and body-less and be left alone.”

Bree is a complex character who seeks to emotionally remove herself from society through the flawed principle that she is in control of her life and her body. Frequenting a psychotherapist, going on modeling cattle-calls, (similarly she is peddling her flesh, though legally and publicly) studying acting, smoking grass, and reading books like Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs, a primer of the seventies metaphysical movement. Living in her own private world of her Manhattan apartment with her calico cat, Bree surrounds herself with the only space that truly insulates and isolates her from the vicious and people-eating world. A world of sin, glitter and wickedness. A world of voyeurs.

Klute watches as well as listens to Bree’s conversations recording equipment to tap her phone from his little dank room as one of her voyeurs. She tells him “go get those tapes and we’ll have a party.”

“Men would pay $200 for me, and here you are turning down a freebie. You could get a perfectly good dishwasher for that.”

She also admits to him that she’s in the midst of paranoia “I’m afraid of the dark, it’s just nerves I’m a nervous broad.” But this is not paranoia, the fear is real… everyone is watching everyone else.

He watches her when she visits the old Jewish widow where Bree dresses like a cabaret singer, regaling the gentle Mr. Goldfarb of her nights in Cannes with a sophisticated older man not unlike himself. She tells Klute he never lays a hand on her. Klute’s silent, morally superior, unemotional manner seems to provoke Bree’s animosity toward family type men and uptight provincial.

“What’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? Are you a talker? A button freak? Maybe you like to get your chest walked around with high heeled shoes. Or make ’em watch you tinkle. Or maybe you get off wearing women’s clothes. Goddamned hypocrite squares!” When he asks her about the john who tried to kill her and beat her up, “he wasn’t kidding, usually it’s a fake out.”

She shrugs Klute off, “Look, will you please just try to get it from my side? A year ago I was in the life full time. I was living on Park Avenue. It was a very nice apartment, leather furniture… and then the cops dropped on me, they caged me. They started asking me about a guy, some guy, that I’m supposed to have seen a year before that. Two years ago! He could be in Yemen. Gruneman… what does that mean? It’s a name! I don’t know him! And they start showing me these pictures, and they don’t mean anything to me. And then they started asking me if I’ve been getting letters from some guy out in Cabbageville.”

After Bree comes down to Klute’s little room in her pajamas and they have sex, she mocks him “Don’t feel bad about losing your virtue. I sort of knew you would. Everybody always does.” Once Bree starts to feel some kind of emotion toward Klute, she feels the need to destroy it, she had more control with her tricks.

During her various appointments with her shrink, Bree asks her “why do I still want to trick?” Her therapist becomes more forceful explaining that she can’t just fix Bree, telling her she has “no magic potion.”  “Cause when you’re a call girl you can control it. They want a woman and I know I’m good… And for an hour… for an hour, I’m the best actress in the world, and the best fuck in the world.” “Why do you say you’re the best actress in the world.” “Well, because it’s an act.”

There is a bit of not only a slight intrusion of a laugh, in the midst of all the darkness, when Bree is in bed with a john and she’s doing an acting job as if he’s turning her on while he’s on top of her, she coos for him- “Oh my angel! Oh my angel!” looking over his shoulder at her watch… It’s telling of how Bree can cut herself off from being a sex-worker and the men she is with, and how she aspires to be an actress and basically how many women may feel while they are having sex they feel nothing. Bree is great at role playing believes there is nothing wrong with it morally and doesn’t enjoy it physically.

Bree- “You don’t have to feel anything, care for anybody, just lead them by the ring in their nose. In the direction that they think they want to go in. Get a lot of money out of them in as short of period of time as possible. And you control it, and you call the shots, and I always feel just great afterwards.”

Therapist- “And you enjoyed it?” 

Bree- “No”

Therapist- “Why not? You said there’s nothing wrong with it. Why not?”

Bree- “Well there’s a difference. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it morally, I didn’t enjoy it physically. I came to enjoy it because it made me feel good. It made me feel like I wasn’t alone. It made me feel like I had some control over myself that I had some control over my life. That I could determine things for myself.”

We learn about Bree’s impressions of the world, her motivations and hints at past trauma through the scenes involving sessions with her therapist (Vivian Nathan). As a neo-noir film, it follows that the heroine experiences alienation and is punished for her female sexuality and excesses. Even as the film opens depicting a scene at a ‘family’ dinner, the intrusion of Bree’s lifestyle shows the downfall and breakdown of the American family. Invading bourgeois landscape, we see the tableau of desperate junkies, disco dives, the pimp’s flat, — all decadent and corrupt secret underworlds of the city, damned for it’s self-indulgence, materialism and perverted gratifications.

In some ways there are certain divergences from the noir traditions of the 1940s. There is a linear movement in the narrative with the hero retaining control of the events, in contrast to the revolving story, reversals and breaks in the plot. In terms of the investigation and the heroine’s sexuality, Bree’s place is different within the story, she is not the catalyst of Tom Gruneman’s fate she is the signpost to discovering his outcome. Therefore the relationship between John Klute and Bree is very different from what is usually the case in classic film noir. In this way Pakula explores the potential of the genre through a contemporary lens. “The metaphoric power of noir conventions is brought into more conscious play” (Gledhill)

Another consideration of Pakula’s film depicting a feminist backlash is how the women are positioned as ‘objects’ and physical products, emblematic not only by the scenes where Bree is selling her body, but where she sits in a line-up with other beautiful women waiting to be chosen for a modeling job. The agency executives heads are cut off in the scene which accentuates the human disconnection and impersonal enterprise of being picked for profitability and worth. Each one scanned then dismissed because of their perceived faults, both models and prostitutes symbolize the fetishization of desirability and society’s measurement of a woman’s value. If dissecting the film’s symbology more closely there are carefully placed clues as suggested by Judith Gustafson who observes the images behind the models impersonal scrutiny and the wall photos behind them of a face dotted in silver like ‘bullet holes’ on either side depicted by the identical image yet in negative that makes the female face appear as an ‘alien being.’

“Has anybody talked to you about the financial arrangements? Well that depends naturally on how long you want me for, and what you want to do. I know you, it will be very nice. Well I’d like to spend the evening with you if its, if you’d like that. Have you ever done it with a woman before, paying her? Do you like it? I mean I have the feeling that that turns you on very particularly. What turns me on is because I have a good imagination, and I like pleasing. Do you mind if I take my sweater off. Well I think in the confines of one’s house one should be free of clothing and inhibitions. Oh inhibitions are nice, cause its always to nice to overcome. Don’t be afraid, I’m not. As long as you don’t hurt me, more than I like to be hurt. I will do anything you ask. You should never be ashamed of things like that. I mean you mustn’t be. You know there’s nothing wrong. Nothing. Nothing is wrong. I think the only way that any of us can ever be happy is to, is to let it all hang out ya know. Do it all and fuck it!”

When Klute meets Bree she toys with him, flaunting her independence and manifesting a casual attitude about his investigation. Her self aligned liberation dictates contempt for convention and criticism. Hard-edged Bree enjoys her freedom though she is seduced by the need to pick up the phone and maintain her high-class status as a pimp free call girl. Roy Scheider plays her old predatory pimp Frank Ligourin who flashes his Italian silk shirts and his Mephistophelean smile. Ligourin and call-girl Janie McKenna who was jealous of Bree are the ones responsible for sending Bree to the psycho john who beat her up. “put the freak onto Bree.”

Though it’s not what drives the story, in the darkened halls of the film is the sadistic degenerate Peter Cable ( first time actor Charles Cioffi), affluent businessman and friend and associate of the missing Tom Gruneman (Robert Milli) and detective John Klute.

Cable is a psychopathic misogynist who obsessively listens to his secret recordings of his exploits with Bree. He begins stalking her, suspecting that she may reveal his identity as the perverted John who beat her up and murdered her friend Janie and eventually kills another prostitute, a strung out junkie Arlyn Page (Dorothy Tristan).

“Make a man think that he’s accepted. It’s all a great big game to you. I mean, you’re all obviously too lazy and too warped to do anything meaningful with your lives so you prey upon the sexual fantasies of others. I’m sure it comes as no great surprise to you when I say that there are little corners in everyone which were better off left alone; sicknesses, weaknesses, which-which should never be exposed. But… that’s your stock in trade, isn’t it – a man’s weakness? And I was never really fully aware of mine… until you brought them out.”

Pretty much into the beginning of the picture we know who the killer is. The plot-line is more focused on the journey and relationship/character study of silent John Klute and turbulent Bree Daniels, and drawing the killer out into the open. It is the examination of the darker side of human nature, collective disorder and the undercurrent of psycho-sexual machinations as one of the central points to the film.

According to Joan Mellen not only is Klute a study in female sexuality, villain Peter Cable is the “projection of Bree’s self-contempt — a materialization of her fear of the dark.” Though the film presents an atmosphere of paranoia the threat is very real. Cable is “he also represents what she believes she deserves, the all destroying punisher who will make her pay for having bartered herself so cheaply.”

Jane Fonda’s Bree Daniels is shown in her room as Willis’ camera pulls back it informs us that she is afraid of the phone ringing and the menacing breather on the other end. This is when John Klute first shows up. There is an interesting correlation with the two men, cop and killer. 

The idea that this film is feminist in nature because of the sexual freedom of it’s central character is best challenged by feminist scholar Christine Gledhill. “The ideological project surrounding this version of the independent woman stereotype is the same as when it emerged in the 1890s under the guise of the New Woman… However fascinating, different, admirable the would-be-emancipated woman, struggling to assert her own identity in a male world, and professing a new, nonrepressive sexual morality, in the end she is really neurotic, fragile, lonely and unhappy.”

Critic Pauline Kael had a much different experience of the film upon its initial release, she called Bree Daniels “one of the strongest feminine characters to reach the screen” though Fonda’s brilliant performance creates a complexity worthy of analysis, in the end, she is still an object of male fantasy.

While the film’s critics focus mainly on feminist shortcomings there is also the understanding by some that it also shines a lens on masculinity. Klute “lacks dynamism” “sexless” and “out of place” perhaps or virtual psychopaths, and castrated males. Perhaps a commentary on men’s sweeping fear of the women’s movement and the transformations of femininity and masculinity. Also an interesting observation by Mia Mask is how the protagonist John Klute and psychopath Peter Cable though essentially an antithesis of each other’s persona’s there is an element of a ‘doppelgänger motif’. Diane Giddis points at the the threat of Cable, Bree’s potential killer can be seen as the incarnation of the emotional danger she feels threatened by with the emergence of John Klute. From the beginning of the film, “the two men are almost always shown in juxtaposition.” The morning after Bree gets the eerie ‘breather’ phone call from her stalker, Klute appears at her door.

“Like Cable, Klute appears uninvited at her door. He, too, spies on her through windows and from archways. He, too, violates the privacy of her telephone by secretly recording her calls, just as Cable secretly records his session with her. The film even emphasized these parallels by showing the men in similar shots…{…} Ultimately Klute and Cable are two sides of the same male personality. One side punishes women for their sexuality and power plays; the other neutralizes the threat by inviting child-like dependence.” –Judith Gustafson from Cineaste (1981) The Whore with the Heart of Gold

At the time of Klute’s release it gave the appearance as not only a straight suspense story but that of a radical film, filled with contradictions between what feminist critics would say is artifice and what represents women in real situations. Within this ‘new American cinema’ the film purports to be about a ‘liberated’ heroine inhabiting the structure of a thriller with an homage to the femme fatales of film noir. The contradictory implications lie between the film’s ‘modernity’, psychotherapy and the problem of women places it within a humanist realist tradition of European art cinema’ (Gledhill). Yet it also bares the stylistic qualities –a highly detailed visual polish and ‘baroque stereotypes’ in noir thrillers, an atmosphere predominately summoned by American films of the seventies. “The real world and fictional production” Gledhill asserts that stems from the Women’s Movement rather than studies in film theory. The idea of realism and genre are in total opposition with each other. Klute presents as an independent heroine yet each frame reveals the attack on Bree’s free will.

“While realism embraces such cultural values as ‘real life’, truth or credibility, genre production holds negative connotations such as ‘illusion’, ‘myth’, ‘conventionality’, ‘stereotypes’. The Hollywood genres represent the fictional elaboration of a patriarchal culture which produces macho heroes and a subordinate, demeaning and objectified place for women.”

And beyond the constructs of film noir, seventies thriller genre and criticism by feminist theorists of Pakula’s Klute, Bree Daniel’s conflicts are a universal struggle for women ‘the assertion of love vs the affirmation of self-determination. Bree’s uneasy self reflection makes the perspective of a movie prostitute as a breakthrough characterization. She isn’t a tragic figure nor is she weak nor contemptible. Bree explores her compulsion and potential self destructive behavior as a sex worker as an externalized symptom stemming from past mental and internalized physical injury and she strives to uncover the answers in her own way.

Pakula re-invents some of the noir traditions and places them within an examination of the modern world. With his masterful film, he strives not only for visual ecstasy, the dramatic flourish of the thriller genre and though there has been acute dissection of his film, he seeks to the divulge a truth that becomes a revelation of acting by Jane Fonda.

In a 2019 interview with Jane Fonda conducted by Illeana Douglas, Fonda refers to Alan J. Pakula whom she worked in subsequent films, Comes a Horseman and Rollover, as a “still director.” “He allowed time for things to happen.” Jane Fonda explains that she loves films from the seventies because there was time left for things to happen. “more silence, than words.”

During the rehearsal for Klute Jane Fonda in order to prepare for her role as Bree Daniels, arranged to spend a lot of time with call-girls, streetwalkers and madams. Prostitutes on the bottom rung, strung out from the underbelly of the city and very wealthy madams, whom Fonda said made it clear the more money the client the weirder the sexual appetites and fantasies. She also talked about her decade living in France where she got to know the legendary Madam Claude, famous for taking beautiful women and molding them into high price call girls. Jane Fonda got to know many of them. Many she met were tough, often sexually aggressive she she said, and also sexually confident. She had learned that often they were the survivors of sexual abuse. What she referred having their ‘agency taken away’. These women inspired Fonda to model Bree after them. This is why Fonda’s performance pivots so well from self-confidence to vulnerability.

Illeana Douglas compliments Fonda by telling her that there’s “something going on in your eyes” which made Fonda recall that acting instructor Lee Strasberg had told her the very same thing in his class, that something was going on in her eyes that made him think that more is going on.

Fonda also had what she calls a ‘hair epiphany’. She had just come off filming cult sensation directed by husband, Roger Vadim’s Barbarella where she had all those blonde waves. Her friend hairdresser Paul MacGregor who lived in the village worked on what is now her iconic hair style from Klute.

Jane Fonda worried that as a white privileged middle class actress couldn’t possibly bring to life a prostitute and make it believable. She insisted to her director Alan J. Pakula that he hire Faye Dunaway instead. Pakula burst out laughing.

Jane Fonda was allowed to add a lot of her own insight into the character of Bree, little details and director Pakula often took them as excellent suggestions that worked well with the story. For instance, it was Fonda’s idea to live in the apartment for weeks. She lay there at night as if she were Bree trying to get inside Bree’s head and summon up the things she would do within her private time. We don’t know the backstory behind Bree Daniels many permutations. We are only to privy to hints of the damage.

Jane Fonda conceptualized many of the set’s subtleties. What would Bree read, what would adorn her little space. She thought of having a cat, because cats symbolize independence and Fonda imagined that Bree’s persona wanted a companion that would be more like herself. In many ways, Jane Fonda dressed the set with these little introspective details. The film became a very personal experience for her. And one that initiated her feminist transformation. Even when she was smoking the spliff in her apartment, it wasn’t in the script but she spontaneously began to sing that little hymn, it was very natural and emphasized how real her character was. Fonda tells of how this was a very spontaneous improvisation as a plot detail that was not in the script but struck her at the moment.

Illeana Douglas also astutely pointed out that there was a lot of glamour to the film. There were moments where Klute was framed with close ups of Bree. Even with the evocative Cymbalon melody – the Klezmer (traditional Eastern European Jewish music) movement that guides the scene it reminds of the languid strut of Marlene Dietrich, the allure of Greta Garbo and had the flavor of night club singers in Paris and Germany. When I watched the incredibly thoughtful and in-depth interview it hit me how much that was true. I saw it as clear as day, that Jane Fonda’s aura did truly give off that mystique that essence of glamour of the great actresses’ personae. Superb fashion and costume designer Ann Roth chose the alluring dress that Bree wears when she visits the old man, Mr. Goldfarb. 

Jane Fonda also points out that Bree could have been a great actress but within her craft something would have triggered her to return to selling her body, which is a violation to the soul, and it’s very different than acting, as it comes from a deep place of trauma and the need to control and not open up her heart.

[voiceover] “I have no idea what’s going to happen. I… I just can’t stay in this city, you know? Maybe I’ll come back. You’ll probably see me next week.”

 This is your EverLovin Joey saying see you on the tracks! Part 2 coming up!