Chapter 4 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

CODED CLASSIC HORROR THEORY “The Uncanny & The Other”

“Scenes of excessive brutality and gruesomeness must be cut to an absolute minimum…”

“As a cultural index, the pre-Code horror film gave a freer rein to psychic turmoil and social disorientation because it possessed a unique freedom from censorship… the Hays Office admits that under the Code it is powerless to take a stand on the subject of ‘gruesomeness.‘(Thomas Doherty)

Horror films in particular have made for a fascinating case study in the evolving perceptions of queer presence; queer-horror filmmakers and actors were often forced to lean into the trope of the “predatory queer” or the “monstrous queer” to claim some sense of power through visibility and blatant expressions of sexuality.- Essential Queer Horror Films by Jordan Crucciola-2018

Though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, they were willing to pay for scripts that dealt with characters that were social outcasts and sexually nonnormative. The horror genre is perhaps the most iconic coded queer playground, which seems to have an affinity with homosexuality because of it’s apparatus of ‘otherizing’ and the inherent representation of difference. The horror genre crosses over boundaries that include transgressions between heterosexuality and queerness. The villain, fiend or monster plays around with a variety of elements that while usually separate, might merge male and female gender traits.

The horror film in particular, found it’s place asserting a queer presence on screen. The narratives often embraced tropes of the ‘predatory queer’ or the ‘monstrous queer’ in order to declare themselves visible while cinematic queers were elbowed out of the way. Filmmakers had to maneuver their vision in imaginative ways to subvert the structure laid out for them by the Code.

As Harry M. Benshoff explains in his book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality in the Horror Film, “Immediately before and during the years of World War II, Universal Studio’s horror films began to employ a more humanistic depiction of their monsters,” and the films of Val Lewton, like Cat People, reflected “a growing awareness of homosexuality, homosexual communities, and the dynamics of homosexual oppression as it was played out in society and the military.” So even though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, during the first true horror boom in American cinema, they were willing to pay for stories about social outcasts and sexually nonnormative figures. Horror fans thus found themselves awash in some of the genre’s most iconic queer-coded characters of all time.

On a Greek Island, Boris Karloff plays Gen. Nikolas Pherides in Val Lewton/Mark Robsin’s Isle of the Dead 1945. Driven insane by the belief that Thea (Ellen Drew) who suffers from catalepsy is the embodiment of an evil vampiric force, is a demon called a vorvolaka. Lewton drew on collective fears, and all his work had an undercurrent of queer panic and a decipherable sign of homophobia.

The Vorvolaka has beset the island with plague. Thea- “Laws can be wrong, and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are both wrong and cruel.”

The Pre-Code era was exploding with American horror films, that reflected the angst, social unrest and emotional distress that audiences were feeling. Personified in films that used graphic metaphors to act as catharsis, the images were often filled with rage, as Thomas Doherty calls it ‘the quality of gruesomeness, cruelty and vengefulness’. Think of the angry mobs with their flaming torches who hunt down the Frankenstein’s monster, eventually crucifying him like a sacrificial embodiment of their fury. James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1931 was a smash hit for Universal. Other studios were trying to ride the wave of the awakening genre of the horror picture. Paramount released director Rouben Mamoulian’s adaption of the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1886. The film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1931 stars Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. During the period of Pre-Code, many horror films proposed grisly subject matter that would shock and mesmerize the audience. For example, actor/director Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932) starring Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks and Fay Wray.

In 1932 Michael Curtiz directed Doctor X starring Lionel Atwill who would become one of the leading mad scientists of the genre.

Michael Curtiz’s macabre horror/fantasy experiment of homosocial ‘men doing science’, crossing over into profane territories and embracing dreadful taboos!

All scenes below from Dr. X (1932)

Fay Wray as Atwill’s daughter who is the only woman surrounded by a group of scientific non conformists.

The adaptation of Bram Stoker’s story of the Eastern European incubus was interpreted by Tod Browning in Dracula 1931, immortalized by Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi with his iconic cape and mesmerizing stare. While his nightly visitations were blood driven and cinematically sexual in nature, there is a very homoerotic element to his influence over Renfield (Dwight Frye) and his gaze of gorgeous David Manners as John Harker.

Bela Lugosi looking down upon David Manners in a scene from the film ‘Dracula’, 1931. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)

Robert Florey directed the macabre Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. And a film which has no connection to Poe’s story but in name, is one of the most transgressive, disturbing horror films rampant with vile taboos, such as necrophelia, incest, sadism, satanism and flaying a man alive, is the unorthodox The Black Cat (1934). The film stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, one of four pictures they would do together. A pair of enemies who have a score to settle, ghosts of a past war, and stolen love all taking place with the backdrop of a stylish Bauhaus set design and high constrast lighting.

Paramount released Murders in the Zoo (1933) with Lionel Atwill a sadistic owner of a zoo, who uses wild animals to ravage and kill off any of his wife’s (Kathleen Burke) suitors. Kathleen Burke is well known as the panther girl in Erle C. Kenton’s horrifically disturbing Island of Lost Souls 1932, an adaptation of master fantasy writer H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Incidentally, Welles, Laughton and wife Elsa Lanchester had been good friends earlier on, before the filming of Lost Souls. The film stars Charles Laughton as the unorthodox, depraved scientist who meddles with genetics and nature. He creates gruesome human/animals, torturing them with vivisection in his ‘house of pain.’ The film also stars Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams and Bela Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law.

And in 1933 King Kong shows a giant ape grasping the half naked object of his affection with unmentionable connotations of bestiality between the ape and Fay Wray. With scenes of Wray writhing in his gigantic paws, he lusts after her, until his desire kills him. It’s almost like fastasy noir, the object of your desire, will ultimately kill you!

The 1930s and 1940s — Fear the Queer Monsters

Re-assessing the Hitchcock Touch; by Wieland Schwanebeck -As Rhona Berenstein asserts, the horror genre “provides a primary arena for sexualities and practices that fall outside the purview of patriarchal culture, and the subgeneric tropes of the unseen, the host and the haunted house.”

By the same token, Kendra Bean concludes that Mrs. Danvers is portrayed as “a wraith; a sexual predator who is out to make Mrs. de Winter her next victim.”

Queer characters in horror films during the early period, reveals similarities between Mrs. Danvers and the staging of earlier sapphic characters, such as Gloria Holdens’s well-known portrayal of Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter 1936. Yet, similiar to the self discipline of Mrs. Danvers, Dracula’s Daughter remains a figure of primacy and pity as Ellis Hanson argues Dracula’s Daughter presents “the possibilities of a queer Gothic” early on in Hollywood history, “rich in all the paradox and sexual indeterminacy the word queer and the word Gothic imply.

There was a revival of the horror craze during the period of WWII. The Hollywood studios, both major and ‘Poverty Row” like Monogram and Republic realized that horror movies were a lucrative business. The studios began to revisit the genre looking for, not only fresh formulas, but they resurrected, the classic monsters, dropping them into new plots. They also envisioned uniting the gangster film with horror films, and this homogenizing, led to a ‘queering’ of the two styles, that demonstrated phallocentric ( guns, scientific penetration) and homoerotic themes and images into a sub-genre.

Public awareness of homosexuality reached a new height during these years, primarily due to the new set of social conditions wrought by war. Slowly , the love that dare not speak its name was being spoken, albeit in ways almost always obscurantist, punitive and homophobic. The linkage of homosexuality with violence and disease remained strong. Monsters in the Closet -Harry Benshoff

Rhona Berenstein in her insightful book Attack of the Leading Ladies, points out that films featuring the mad scientist trope operates with the homosocial principle which speaks of the homo eroticism of males working together in consort subverting science together, as a group of men who hide behind their objectification -the female object of their gaze, are in fact, figures of objectification themselves. They are simultaneously homosocial, homoerotic and homophobic in aspect; … potentially possessing an extra-normative commitment between the two men.

Mad doctor movies are homosocial in nature. The mad doctor movie is a subgenre that below the surface glorifies intimate male camararderie-and male homosexuality, and by the close of the picture, society, the prevailing culture must in turn annihilate, that which is repressed. But it is not exclusively a vehicle to express the homosexuality through homosocial interactions. There is a component not only of male bonding, a world without women, the thrust is a synthesis of misogyny and patriarchal tyranny and oppression of women. Homosocial relationships between men in these science horrors show the man’s desire for connection to other men, even one created by his own hand.

According to (Twitchell) in his Dreadful Pleasures, and Attack of the Leading Ladies (Rona Berenstein) Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein in all three Universal pictures, was at least performing bisexuality. Whale’s 1933 Frankenstein might give way to the homosocial realm of the mad scientist trope, of ‘homoerotic indulgence’ as these men exclude women from the pursuit of their fulfillment. Twitchell views the scientist’s fluid sexuality in order to examine the concept of a man controlling women’s primacy of giving birth. This might explain Dr. Frankenstein’s venture into unnatural reproduction. A process he wants to divert to himself without women’s exclusive right to motherhood. In the scene where he is as close to giving birth to a full grown man, he seems to display a sexual arousal, when his creation comes to life. Henry Frankenstein provokes nature and defies his heterosexuality. As Whale was an openly gay director in Hollywood, it can be pondered whether he knew exactly what he was suggesting. Thesiger’s sexually ambiguous, or okay, not so ambiguous Dr. Pretorius, the mad scientist who pressures Henry Frankenstein to revitalize his experiments and create a mate for the monster. Pretorius is the scientist who insists Henry continue his creative efforts in Bride of Frankenstein. Vitto Russo called Thesiger, “man who played the effete sissy… with much verve and wit.”

George Zucco like Lionel Atwill often portrayed the unorthodox scientist who flirted with taboos. He plays mad scientist Dr. Alfred Morris in The Mad Ghoul (1943) As a university chemistry professor, he exploits medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) with his experimental gas that transforms Ted into a malleable, yielding macabre ghoul, whom Morris directs to kill and remove the victims hearts using the serum to temporarily bring Ted back from his trance like death state. David Bruce’s character is represented as a ‘queer’ sort of young man. Not quite masculine and unable to get his girlfriend Evelyn Ankers to fall in love with him. As the Mad Ghoul he becomes a monstrous queer.

In 1932, director Tod Browning’s Dracula based on Bram Stoker’s story of a fiendish vampire who in a sexually implicit way, violates his victims by penetrating them with his fangs. The story pushed the boundaries of story telling, and there was an inherent subtext of ‘queer’ ravishment when he sucks the blood of Dwight Frye to make him his loyal servant.

In Jonathan Harker’s Journal, the protagonist recounts his impressions of his interaction with the vampire, Dracula “As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which do what I would, I could not conceal.” For (Noël Carroll) the entry in his diary conveys revulsion by the Count’s closeness and offensive presence, that causes him to become sickened.

But it also could be read that Harker’s ‘shudder’ is not about his revulsion, rather, an uncontrolled sexual response to the vampire’s looming over him which could be interpreted not just as hunger for his ‘blood’ but an expression of repressed sexual desire and the fear it causes.

Horror movies have always pushed the boundaries of normalcy, by virtue of the fact that these films are inhabited by ‘monsters’, something ‘queerly’ different. And it is natural to observe two diverging responses to the impact of the horror genre and often, it’s persecution of what is ‘different’ and the source of what causes our anxiety.

Dracula may appear as the image of a man, but the count is far from human. While monsters in classical horror films are based on systems of maleness, they are split from being actual men. Although there are physical interactions and suggestive contact with the heroine, there isn’t the foundation of heterosexuality, but something quite deviant, with in their aggressively erotic encounters and/or assaults. The understanding of sexuality and the most narrow identifications that are assigned to varying orientation in a large sense is not translatable for the deeper layers of the monster and their relationship to their victims. In Hollywood, horror films can be seen as heterosexuality being invaded by an abhorrent outside force, inherent in the underlying message could be racism, classism, sexism and gay panic. Though it can be interpreted as a landscape of heterosexuality that is in full power of it’s universal presence, horror films are perfect platforms that can illustrate the collapse of heterosexuality, and the subversion of sexuality.

The horror genre is a breeding ground for portrayals of the shattering of heterosexual power. This can be seen in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936) starring Gloria Holden as the sapphic vampire who lives in a New Village type artist’s den, it signals her outsider status from dometicity and normalcy.

In White Zombie (1932) Bela Lugosi plays the eerily menacing Legendre. He turns men into lifeless workers who run the sugar mill. Legendre also begins to turn the plantation owner, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) into one of his zombies. What his motivation for his control over people is ambiguous, though there seems to be a sexual reasoning for both the beautiful Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and Beaumont. The scene where Beaumont is nearly paralyzed, Legendre’s control over his male victim parallels the sexual entrapment of the movie’s heroine.

MAD LOVE (1935) I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?

Karl Freund’s Grand Guignol Mad Love (1935) shifts from gazing at the female to gazing at the male. Here the focus is on a Peter Lorre in his American screen debut as Dr. Gogol, who has an obsession with Frances Drake as Yvonne Orlac an actress who works at Grand Guignol Theatre. To Gogol she is the typified defenseless heroine whom he tries to lure away from her husband Stephen (Colin Clive) using his knowledge of scientific alchemy.

Though Gogol tries to become Yvonne’s master, his Galatea, there are critics who read the struggle between the two men, not just as rivalry for Yvonne’s love, but Gogol’s desire for Stephen as well. Gogol is responsible for grafting new hands onto Stephen’s mangled body after a train crash. Mad Love could fit the criteria for the subgenre of the science/horror films where the male gaze is diverted from the female object toward other men, in this case what connected the two was the preservation of Stephen’s hands. Why then is it not possible that the focus could shift from Gogol’s attraction to Yvonne to the homosocial dynamics between Gogol as doctor and his subject Stephen.

Mad Love possesses some of the horror genre’s most tenacious performances of gender play. (Carol Clover) asks us to take a closer look at Freund’s film, it is less about the “suffering experienced by women, but at a deeper, more sustained level, it is dedicated to the unspeakable terrors endured by men.”

In similar fashion to Waldo Lydecker (Laura) and Hardy Cathcart’s (The Dark Corner) pathology of objectifying Laura and Mari, Gogol worships Yvonne – his Galatea, with a measure of scopophilia that lies within his gaze upon the perfection of female beauty. To control and possess it. The pleasure is aroused by the mere indulgence of looking at her.

Gogol pays 75 francs to purchase the wax statue of Galatea. The seller remarks “There’s queer people on the streets of Monmartre tonight.”

Gogol’s maid Francoise talking to the statue,“What ever made him bring you here. There’s never been any woman in this house except maybe me… “I prefer live ones to dead ones.”

A Time Magazine review of Mad Love in 1933 notes this queer appeal directly, even comparing Lorre’s acting skills to those of another homosexual coded actor: I find the comment about their faces rude and insulting to both Lorre and Laughton, both of whom I am a tremendous fan.

Mad Love’s insane doctor is feminized throughout the film… In fact, the same reporter who noted Gogol’s sadism argues for his feminine demeanor: “Lorre, perfectly cast, uses the technique popularized by Charles Laughton of suggesting the most unspeakable obsessions by the roll of a protuberant eyeball, an almost feminine mildness of tone, an occasional quiver of thick lips set flat in his cretinous ellipsoidal face. This reviewer came closer than any other to articulate the subtext of mad doctor movies. He seems on the verge of noting that Lorre, Like Laughton is an effeminate madman obsessed by unspeakable homosocial desire. Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender Sexuality and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema by Rhona Berenstein

Frances Drake’s heroine masquerades as a wife who deludes herself into believing that her husband is more masculine than he really is. Gogol has a curious empathy with Stephen, whom he touches frequently and prolonged. Although Gogol pursues the heroine Yvonne, at the theater, forcing a kiss on her, his focus is primarily manipulating Stephen’s body, rejoining his hands and massaging them to stimulate life back into them. When he realizes that Stephens hands cannot be grafted back successfully to his wrists, he turns to another man, the hands of a knife thrower who was executed as a notorious murderer. Once Stephen recovers from the surgery, he can no longer continue as a concert pianist, but does develop the desire to throw sharp knives.

On the surface the plot of Mad Love appears to be a heterosexual obsession, the most unspoken context is the connection between Gogol and Stephen. As is true of Frankenstein’s labor of love in Whale’s first film, Gogol sews men’s body parts together and the result is a monster of sorts. (Berenstein)

In the film’s climax, Yvonne hides in Gogol’s bedroom, and pretends to be the wax statue of Galatea. When Gogol touches the statue, she lets out a scream. In a euphoric daze (as in the origianl story) he believes that he has the power to bring the statue of Galatea to life. Yvonne begs him to let her go as he tries to strangle her.

Stephen then rushes to his wife and holds her in his arms. With his eyes fixed on the offscreen space in which Gogol’s body lies, he croons: “My darling.” The homosocial desire is destroyed when Stephen murders Gogol who intones “each man kills the thing he loves”— echoing on the soundtrack.

In the film’s closing moments, the secret desire is finally spoken out loud…Has Stephen killed the man he loves. Given that the phrase that Gogol mutters was written originally by Oscar Wilde, whose homosexuality scandalized the British social and legal system in 1895, reading the homosocial desire into Mad Love’s within the very last moments we are left to decipher the suspended cues. We are left with Stephen’s gazing at Gogol’s face and his knifed body as he lay dying, he speaks the words, ‘My darling” what the camera frames the two men sharing that moment in the closing scene.

The mad doctor narrative is particularly predisposed to homosocial impulses. “intense male homosocial desire as at once the most compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds” – Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick)

Sedgwick investigated early fantasy/horror novels, Shelley’s Frankenstein 1818, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1886 and Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau 1895. In the beginning of the 1930s, these stories centered around mad doctors who delved into unorthodox, profane explorations, were all adapted to the screen. All of these nefarious or scientific, inquisitive men, cultivated secret experiments, challenging the laws of nature. What Sedgwick found was that the Gothic literary representations of men performing homosocial collaborations, were ‘not socially sanction and shunned.’

It was considered a necessary narrative element as well as a monstrous possibility that threatened to subvert the status quo. The combination of these two attitudes is expressed in homosocial narratives- male bonding is both horrifying and guaranteed, entailing the simultaneous introjection and expulsion of femininity. (Sedgwick)

“My darling”….

James Whale was a gay auteur who often imbued his work intentionally or with the ‘intentional fallacy’ of a ‘queer’ sense of dark humor. This comical, campy absurdity, was always on the edge of his vision of horror and subtle profanity. In his picture The Invisible Man (1933) adapted from H.G. Wells story and starring Claude Rains, it was classified as a horror film by the Code.

Dr. Jack Griffin (Rains) the antihero, is a frenzied scientist, addicted to his formula as he seeks the ability to make himself invisible. His sanity begins to ‘vanish’ as his hunger for power, delusions of grandeur, and bursts of megalomania grow out of control. He plans on assassinating government officials, and he becomes more belligerent the longer he turns invisible. The idea that he displays radical ideas and runs around in the nude didn’t seem to arouse the censors, In 1933, a letter from James Wingate to Hays states, “highly fantastic and exotic [sic] vein, and presents no particular censorship difficulties.”

What’s interesting about the presentation of the story, is that the coded gay leitmotifs were paraded out, right under the Code’s noses, and didn’t stir any indignation for it’s ‘queer’ humor.

Gloria Stuart and Claude Rains in James Whale’s The Invisible Man 1933

The Invisible Man perpetrates campy assaults on all the ‘normal’ people in his way. With intervals of sardonic cackles and golden wit, and at the same time, a menacing reflection of light and shadow. Claude Rains is a concealed jester who makes folly of his victims.

“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and wreck, and kill.” –Dr. Jack Griffin (The Invisible Man)

Claude Rains plays Dr. Jack Griffin an outsider (a favorite of Jame’s Whale’s characters) who discovers the secret of invisibility which changes him from a mild yet arrogant scientist into a maniacal killer. The film bares much of Whale’s campy sense of humor, with Griffin’s comic shenanigans abound, until things turn dark and he becomes uncontrollably violent. “We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, Murders of great men, Murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. I might even wreck a train or two… just these fingers around a signalman’s throat, that’s all.”

According to Gary Morris (Bright Lights Film Journal) ‘The film demands crypto-faggot reading in poignant scenes such as the one where he reassures his ex-girlfriend, who begs him to hide from the authorities: “the whole worlds my hiding place. I can stand out there amongst them in the day or night and laugh at them.”

Though Griffin’s (Claude Rains) character is unseen at times, there are potent moments, when he is animated as he skips to the tune, “Here we go gathering nuts in May” flitting around like a fairy. It is suggested that The Invisible Man is a metaphor for the way homosexuals are seen/not seen by society – as “effeminate, dangerous when naked, seeking a male partner in “crime”, tending to idolize his fiance rather than love her, and becoming ‘visible’ only when shot by the police…monitored by doctors, and heard regretting his sin against God (i.e., made into a statistic by the three primary forces oppressing queers: the law, the medical establishment, and religious orthodoxy” (Sedgwick)

The Invisble Man [undressing] “They’ve asked for it, the country bumpkins. This will give them a bit of a shock, something to write home about. A nice bedtime story for the kids, too, if they want it”

Continue reading “Chapter 4 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”

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:”

🚀 “Keep watching the skies!” Science Fiction cinema of the 1950s- The year is 1951- Part 2

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CONTINUED!

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AND DON’T FORGET TO RE-VISIT THE FABULOUS CLASSIC MOVIE HISTORY PROJECT BLOGATHON 2016!

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Click Here for the original introduction to the series!

X MAN, trips to MARS, Lost Continents, Men in White Suits, the man in red silk underwear-SUPERMAN, a Super Intellectual Carrot– plus lots more!

Flight to Mars

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Flight to Mars _1951

Fligth to Mars 1951

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The Earthlings…

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The Martians…

Fifty Years Into The Future!–The Most Fantastic Expedition Ever Conceived by Man!

Director Lesley Selander with a screenplay by Arthur Strawn  (The Black Room 1935, The Man Who Lived Twice 1936) Selander it seems is more known for his work with westerns both on the big screen and television set. The film stars Marguerite Chapman as Alita, Cameron Mitchell as Steve Abbott, Arthur Franz as Dr. Jim Barker, Virginia Huston as Carol Stafford, John Litel as Dr. Lane, and Morris Ankrum as Ikron who became an incredibly familiar supportive player in many of these fantastic films of the 1950s, (Rocketship X-M 1950, Red Planet Mars 1952, Invaders from Mars 1953, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers 1956, Beginning of the End 1957, Kronos 1957, The Giant Claw 1957, Zombies of Mora Tau 1957, Half Human 1958 and How to Make a Monster 1958.)

With special effects and art direction by Edward S. Hayworth, Jack Cosgrove, and cited by Fantascene Irving Block (matte artist for Invaders from Mars 1953, Forbidden Planet 1956, Kronos 1957, The Giant Behemoth 1959) was responsible for the impressive design and over all look of the picture with cinematography by Harry Neumann (The Land of Missing Men 1930, Vanity Fair 1932, The Thirteenth Guest 1932, When Strangers Meet 1934, The Mysterious Mr. Wong 1939, The Fatal Hour 1940, Doomed to Die 1940, The Face of Marble 1946, The Maze 1953 in 3D!, A Bullet for Joey 1955, My Gun is Quick 1957, The Wasp Woman 1959)

Flight to Mars telescope

Flight to Mars 1951 lobby card color

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After the reception that Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M got at the box office it’s no big leap to see why there would follow a film like Flight to Mars (1951) though 1951 and the rest of the 1950s decade wasn’t more jam packed with other films that forayed into space voyage. What became more noticeable was that the aliens–came here! Most likely to to budgetary constraints filming on location on Earth seems to make a lot more sense as it was cheaper to pull off. Along comes Monogram pictures, that became Allied Artists, who ventured into the landscapes of Mars, with a story filled with the sub-plot of earthly melodrama and cliché battle of the sexes on board.

flight_to_mars_1951 arthur franz

Flight to Mars offered little pesky problems, like weightlessness, meteor showers, a contemplative pipe smoking Arthur Franz as scientist Jim Barker who spends so much time calculating their trip to Mars that he can’t see that Carol Stafford (Virginia Huston) is hopelessly in love with him. Cameron Mitchell plays newspaper man Steve Abbott, who is the ‘man’s man’ there to act as brawn and counter-balance to the intellectual egg-headedness of the brainy types on board including Dr. Lane (John Litel) and Professor Jackson (Richard Gaines) also scientists on board.

Flight to Mars brain and brawn

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“You listening Carol, I think you are a prize package and VERY feminine… {…} I sure do Mr. engineer and I don’t have to look in a test tube to find out.”– Steve

Flight to Mars Cameron Mithell "close enough to the man in the moon to talk to him"

The extent of Steve Abbott’s philosophizing “Close enough to the man in the moon to talk to him.”

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As Bill Warren writes, “It’s as if a law (the law of the box office) was laid down for makes of science fiction films of the 1950s; a man could not be both brilliant and amusing ; he couldn’t be both a genius and a lover, both a scientist and a sinner.; both skilled with his brains and with his fists. Wisecracks, sexual drive and heroics were usually allotted to one or two other characters. The scientist was almost always a loner with the faraway look of dreams in his eyes., never also a down to-Earth regular Joe who was also a brilliant researcher.

It stands to reason then that Carol would run straight into the arms of the hero, Steve Abbott, who notices that she’s “really feminine.”

Flight to Mars crash land orange sky

flight to mars the orange sky and towers

When the ship crash lands on Mars, and the sky burns a brilliant orange things get pretty exciting for the crew and us when they spot strange structures as part of the landscape. Enter steady science fiction player Morris Ankrum as the duplicitous Martian named Ikron, who not only looks very human but is quite eloquent with his use of the English language due to the fact that he has studied us from our radio and television broadcasts, and have know of their impending arrival. Ikron takes the earth men underground to their city dwelling with cars and air ships (animated) to show how advanced their civilization is.

flgiht to mars animated underground technology

Flight to Mars

OSA MASSEN Character(s): Dr. Lisa Van Horn Film 'ROCKETSHIP X-M' (1950) Directed By KURT NEUMANN 26 May 1950 CTW88028 Allstar/Cinetext/LIPPERT PICTURES **WARNING** This photograph can only be reproduced by publications in conjunction with the promotion of the above film. For Editorial Use Only.
OSA MASSEN
Character(s): Dr. Lisa Van Horn
Film ‘ROCKETSHIP X-M’ (1950)
Directed By KURT NEUMANN
26 May 1950
CTW88028
Allstar/Cinetext/LIPPERT PICTURES

Incidentally Alamy has mis-marked this photograph as Osa Massen when clearly it is Flight to Mars…

Flight To Mars 1951 B&W lobby card

Flight To Mars

The truth is that the Martians are running out of their precious resource of Corium and without the planet will become uninhabitable and they will perish. The Martians plan on hijacking the Earth rocket, use their technology to produce more rockets like ours and then conquer the Earth! But among these nefarious Martians are those who want to help them escape, like Tillamar played by Robert Barrat (Captain Blood 1935, The Life of Emile Zola 1937, Relentless 1948, and his last appearance as the kind father Stoney Likens in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour’s incredible episode Return of Verge Likens 1964) and his beautiful daughter Alita played by Marguerite Chapman  (Charlie Chan in the Wax Museum 1940, Appointment in Berlin 1943, Strange Affair 1944, The Green Promise 1949, The Seven Year Itch 1955)

Marguerite Chapman

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Ikron finds out about the little insurrection taking place as he has a pretty spy Terris (Lucille Barkley) who alerts him to everything that is going on. Alita who has also fallen in love with brainy boy scientist Dr. Jim Baker (Arthur Franz) is a true heroine and helps the crew lift off Mars and away from her treacherous father and his evil plans.

Flight to Mars the spy

Steve Abbott: Dr. Lane, I once heard of a man who climbed a higher mountain than anyone else alive, but he was never able to get down again. What’s left of him is still up there.

Dr. Lane: The point is, Steve, he made it.

Flight to Mars the ship

Steve Abbott: [looking at the Earth through the port hole of the spaceship] Ah, the Earth seems so big when you’re on it… from out here so small and nothing. It’s like closing your eyes in the dark and suddenly you’re alone with your soul.

Lost Continent

The Lost Continent

Directed by Sam Newfield (The Terror of Tiny Town 1938, The Mad Monster 1942, Dead Men Walk 1943, I Accuse My Parents 1944) starring Cesar Romero as Maj. Joe Nolan, Hillary Brooke as Marla Stevens, Chick Chandler as Lt. Danny Wilson, John Hoyt as Michael Rostov, Acquanetta as ‘Native Girl’, Sid Melton as Sgt. Willie Tatlow, Whit Bissell as Stanley Briggs and Hugh Beaumont as Robert Phillips. Cinematography by Jack Greenhalgh and Augie Lohman (Barbarella 1968) in charge of visual effects and stop motion animation.

Let’s just get Hillary Brooke out of the way now, as she doesn’t crash land on the Lost Continent, as Marlashe only gets to dance with Cesar Romero before his flight leaves for parts unknown!

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Lost Continent 1950 lobby card dinosaurs

Somehow dinosaurs seems to go along with rocket ships and exploration of lands without and within. So naturally a lot of fantasy/adventure films are considers little lost continents amidst the Sci-Fi genre. According to Bill Warren, dinosaurs were actually a potential plot mechanism thought of by Robert Lippert for Rocketship X-M, thank the space-gods that the film maintains it’s integrity with just a civilization of savages wiped out by nuclear holocaust.

As Bill Warren cites in his bible for the 1950s genre there was a “tradition of blending phony Old Native Legends with some new, science fictional story elements.”

Lost Continent lobby card

Lost Continent lobby card

An atomic powered rocket craps out over the South Pacific, and so a rescue mission led by Maj. Joe Nolan (Cesar Romero) is sent out to find the crew, aided by his co-pilot Danny (Chick Chandler) and cracking wise Sergeant Willie Tatlow played by Sid Melton who adds the comic-relief (Sophia Petrillo’s smart-alecky Sal, ‘May he rest in peace til I get there’) Along is Ward Clever, no wait he was a Sea-Bee, teehee Hugh Beaumont as top scientist Robert Phillips and scientists Michael Rostov played by the other ubiquitous supportive actor John Hoyt and Stanley Briggs played by the other very familiar face Whit Bissell who is terrified by a giant lizard one night and falls off the side of the mountain.

Major Joe Nolan: Look at the size of that footprint! I’ve never seen anything like it before!

Robert Phillips: I have. Once… in a museum.

Lost Continent Brontasaurus

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The crew crash lands just coincidentally in the same spot as the prior ship, and they find themselves on an Island (tinted in glorious green at the mountain top ) not only filled with volcanic activity but is radio-active AND it’s inhabited by the sultry Acquanetta (Captive Wild Woman 1943, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman 1946) a native girl who remained after all the others fled when they saw the great fire-bird fly over head and made the earth tremble.

Acquanetta born Mildred Davenport of Ozone, Wyoming.

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Here she is in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman 1946

Lost Coninent -Acquanetta

She also warns them not to climb the mountain as it is a ‘sacred mountain taboo’ which is the home of her gods. The crew is also getting a bit mistrustful of Rostov after all he is a Russian ex-patriot and has ice water in his veins. Joe gives him a dig after Briggs falls to his death pondering if he in fact just let the poor man fall, “another one of your–unpredictables?”

Lost Continent crew

The island or Lost Continent is a pressure cooker of vapors, clouds, greenery and uranium fields that might just blow! All this radioactivity must have been what brought down both rockets. and as one of them points out as “powerful as a stockpile of hydrogen bombs…”

The crew shoot a flying reptile minding it’s own business, there’s a gratuitous dinosaur fight between horned beasts and a brontosaurus ( which I thought were leaf eaters hhm, I’ll have to look that up) chases Phillips up a tree. The crew is befuddled by the presence of prehistoric dinosaurs, but Hollywood isn’t so they’ll just have to deal. Phillips asks,  “Who can explain it?… it’s an impossibility, yet here we are right in the middle of it!” 

The film even gets to stick some anti-red sentiment in there as the stranded crew from the rocket-ship come to find out that Rostov not only didn’t sabotage the rocket but is a regular ‘Joe/Mike’, who lost his wife in a concentration camp and considers some of his Russian countrymen ‘villains’ who he wants to go back and fight against them ‘pushing buttons on more rockets.’

Finally they find their ship nose down in the earth, but they can’t get near it because there is a large brontosaurus and a triceratops hanging around, and Willie winds up getting gored to death. Then the earthquakes begin but the survivors make it out to sea on a raft just as the whole mountain blows up!

The Man from Planet X

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Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer (People on Sunday 1930, The Black Cat 1934, Detour 1945, The Strange Woman 1945, Ruthless 1948, Daughter of Dr. Jekyll 1957, The Amazing Transparent Man 1960)

Written by Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen (The Secret of Convict Lake 1951, Captive Women 1952, Port Sinister 1953, The Neanderthal Man 1953, Five Bold Women 1960.)

Stars Robert Clarke as John Lawrence, Margaret Field as Enid Elliot, Raymond Bond as Prof. Elliot, and William Schallert as Dr. Mears.

Though this is a very low budget film, I have an affection for it’s unassuming and atmospherically charming tone and I actually had an action figure of the alien as part of a series released in the late 60s, early 70s which included the winged angel from Barbarella!

Man from Planet X jpg

Okay enough meandering down nostalgic Warren Drive, Long Island USA.

The sets were left overs from Joan of Arc (1948) at Hal Roach Studios. Ulmer designed the ship that resembled less of a space craft and more like ‘diving bell that was lowered into our dense atmosphere -Bill Warren. The film’s use of low lighting hides that fact that set and the interior ship design was constructed out of plywood. Inside the alien suit it is suggested was a little person or person of short stature actor possibly Billy Curtis. According to Warren, as described in the script, his face had the look of being distorted by pressure, or as if similar to a ritual mask belonging to a primitive tribe. The lighting adds to the unique quality of his expressionless face.

The_Man_from_Planet_X_ enid sees the ship

The film opens with American reporter John Lawrence (Robert Clarke-The Astounding She Monster 1957, The Hideous Sun Demon 1959) narrating in voice-over his panic over the well being of both Professor Elliot and his daughter Enid who have been taken back to a space craft by the alien from planet X. As he paces the observatory tower floor he begins to relate the strange story that has unfolded in the past few days. He fears for their lives as well as his own.

Lawrence was sent to a remote Scottish Isle Burray in the Orkneys, to see Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond) after a wandering planet called ‘X’ is spotted in our solar system and is approaching Earth, estimated coming close to the Orkneys. John Lawrence stays with Dr. Mears played by extremely likable and oft seen William Schallert, although in this film he plays a rather suspicious and brooding character who has a mistrust of Williams. John Williams also meets his lovely daughter Enid played by Margaret Field. This science fiction gem has a sub-plot as most do where love gets to blossom, as Enid and John they take a foggy drive then a cozy walk along the moors, they encounter a small metallic object and eventually stumble upon an object that they establish is a probe.

The Man from Planet X a fine british love story

As Anthony Newley sings from his and Leslie Bricusse’s song from their award winning musical The Roar of the Greasepaint –the Smell of the Crowd“Look at that Face, just look at it!”

Man from Planet X looks at Enid

Later that night Enid gets a flat tire and walks back across the moors in the shrouded mysterious late night fog where she comes upon a sphere with an observation glass and she looks in, a strange face peers out at her!

X-shows his face

Enid runs and gets her father, and when they arrive back at the ship to inspect it, a light shines in her father’s face and becomes temporarily submissive. The laser gun creates a calming light zone where people not only comply, but can understand the droning language of the alien from X. When Lawrence and Mears go back to investigate the Man from Planet X comes out once again to greet them. In a very interesting scene, this adorable alien attempts to judge whether these earth men can be trusted, so he turns off his air supply until Lawrence realizes what he is doing he turns his air back on and from that point he sees that Lawrence can be trusted.

Dr. Mears is another matter entirely. The Man from Planet X has not come to Earth meaning any harm, and only turns defense and hostile after the greedy Mears bares his viciously aggressive teeth–bad scientist, bad bad scientist!

The Man from Planet X Enid and Dad get zapped by beam

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The Man From Planet X 1951

The Man from Planet X

The Man from Planet X Enid is scared

The Man from Planet X alien follows them home

The alien follows both men back to the tower where they’re staying, but he’s left with the greedy Mears who only wants to exploit the poor little gray guy in the cutest little space suit ever. He discovers great cosmic secrets from Mr. alien X conversing within the universal language of mathematics. The nasty Mears tries to subdue him by turning his oxygen source on low but once he revives and takes Mears and Enid with him back to the ship, later taking Professor Elliot and several villagers along with him putting them in the same hypnotic trance forming a wall around his ship.

The man from planet x Dr Mears intimidates x

Dr. Mears: [to the Man from Planet X –laughing] Dr. Mears: To think – a fantastic gnome like you had to hurdle out of space to put this power in my hands. Well, now that we’ve made contact, I’m gonna tear out every secret you’ve got!

the-man-from-planet-x dr mears is dangerous

man_from_planet_x he comes in peae

the-man-from-planet-x-LAwrence and the alien

The Man from Planet X dr under light

the man from planet x villagers and contsable

Planet X is drawing nearer to Earth… Roy Engle as Tommy the Constable calls in the military. John Lawrence manages to awaken the sleep walkers and get them safely away from the ship, while the evil Dr. Mears runs back in the direction of military fire. The space craft and sadly, the alien are blown to smithereens. Planet X in it’s wake creates terrestrial winds, and bright lights — and then disappears into the vastness of outer space once again, perhaps dooming Earth to bad weather?

the man from planet x bad weather

Whether or not The Man from Planet X was an innocent drifter who found himself in a kerfuffle on Earth just trying to survive being in the wrong place at the right time or as Lawrence feared might have been trying to invade the planet… because of his ‘otherness’ he had to be destroyed.

Dr. Mears-” How may we know what processes of thought run through his head? How may we assume he thinks as we do? How may we anticipate what a bizarre and fantastic organism might or might not do?”

The Man from Planet X oxygen tank testing humanity

Down on the ground Alien X has turned off his oxygen to test the earthling’s response. He’s about as aggressive as a kitten going belly up! John turns his air back on.

I have to admit that I am one of the ones who finds Edgar Ulmer’s work fascinating and worthy of it’s cult following as he’s done everything from moody b horror films to film noir. Some more lavish budgets like The Black Cat 1934, and Bluebeard 1944, to film noir masterpieces like Detour (1946) Some poverty row flicks with titles like Girls in Chains, Isle of Forgotten Sins and Jive Junction all made in 1943.

In an interview with film maker Peter Bogdanovich in Kings of the Bs, Ulmer said that he had to do it all for the sake of the money, “I admit to myself that I was somehow schizophrenic in making pictures. On one hand, I was absolutely concerned with the box office and on the other, I was trying to create art and decency with style. I could not completely get out of the commercial though I knew it limited me.” 

The Man from Planet X a diving bell

the man from planet x dr and john look inside the ship

But as Bill Warren says, what ultimately wound up happening because of Ulmer’s hand in The Man From Planet X resulted in ‘the first science fiction gothic horror film.”

An Austrian implant who had a knack for set design. And the lustrous and atmospheric demur of The Man From Planet X  just sets this curious and obscure little gem apart from all the other Sci-Fi films of the 1950s.

Enid Elliot: When I got close to it, it looked like a giant glass ball girdled with something like a steel belt. Three of them, I think. When I got close enough to look in – there it was.

Professor Elliot: It? What?

Enid Elliot: That face! Right on the other side of the glass looking right into mine! I was terrified!

Professor Elliot: A face? A human face?

Enid Elliot: A ghastly caricature like something distorted by pressure. I can’t think how else to describe it – a horrible, grotesque face looking right into my eyes!

Professor Elliot: Your statement has the tinge of fantasy.

the man from planet x diving bell

Enid Elliot: You know, I think that creature was friendly. I wonder what would have happened if… if Dr. Mears hadn’t frightened him.

 John Lawrence: Who knows? Perhaps the greatest curse ever to befall the world, or perhaps the greatest blessing.

The Man from Planet X a curse or blessing

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Continue reading “🚀 “Keep watching the skies!” Science Fiction cinema of the 1950s- The year is 1951- Part 2″

Film Noir ♥ Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter: From Shadowland to Psychotronic Playground

“Unexpressed emotions will never die. They are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.”
Sigmund Freud

“Ladies and gentlemen- welcome to violence; the word and the act. While violence cloaks itself in a plethora of disguises, its favorite mantle still remains sex.” — Narrator from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Faster Pussycat
Tura Satana, Haji, and Lori Williams in Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! 1965
Cul-de-Sac
Françoise Dorléac and Donald Pleasence in Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac 1966
the Naked kiss
Constance Towers kicks the crap out of her pimp for shaving off her hair in Sam Fuller’s provocative The Naked Kiss 1964
Shock Corridor
Peter Breck plays a journalist hungry for a story and gets more than a jolt of reality when he goes undercover in a Mental Institution in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor 1963
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Bobby Darin is a psychotic racist in Hubert Cornfield and Stanley Kramer’s explosive Pressure Point 1962 starring Sidney Poitier and Peter Falk.

THE DARK PAGES NEWSLETTER  a condensed article was featured in The Dark Pages: You can click on the link for all back issues or to sign up for upcoming issues to this wonderful newsletter for all your noir needs!

Constance Towers as Kelly from The Naked Kiss (1964): “I saw a broken down piece of machinery. Nothing but the buck, the bed and the bottle for the rest of my life. That’s what I saw.”

Griff (Anthony Eisley) The Naked Kiss (1964): “Your body is your only passport!”

Catherine Deneuve as Carole Ledoux in Repulsion (1965): “I must get this crack mended.”

Monty Clift Dr. Cukrowicz Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) : “Nature is not made in the image of man’s compassion.”

Patricia Morán as Rita Ugalde: The Exterminating Angel 1962:“I believe the common people, the lower class people, are less sensitive to pain. Haven’t you ever seen a wounded bull? Not a trace of pain.”

Ann Baxter as Teresina Vidaverri Walk on the Wild Side 1962“When People are Kind to each other why do they have to find a dirty word for it.”

The Naked Venus 1959“I repeat she is a gold digger! Europe’s full of them, they’re tramps… they’ll do anything to get a man. They even pose in the NUDE!!!!”

Darren McGavin as Louie–The Man With the Golden Arm (1955): “The monkey is never dead, Dealer. The monkey never dies. When you kick him off, he just hides in a corner, waiting his turn.”

Baby Boy Franky Buono-Blast of Silence (1961) “The targets names is Troiano, you know the type, second string syndicate boss with too much ambition and a mustache to hide the facts he’s got lips like a woman… the kind of face you hate!”

Lorna (1964)- “Thy form is fair to look upon, but thy heart is filled with carcasses and dead man’s bones”

Peter Fonda as Stephen Evshevsky in Lilith (1964): “How wonderful I feel when I’m happy. Do you think that insanity could be so simple a thing as unhappiness?”

Glen or Glenda (1953)“Give this man satin undies, a dress, a sweater and a skirt, or even a lounging outfit and he’s the happiest individual in the world.”

Glen or Glenda
Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda 1953

Johnny Cash as Johnny Cabot in Five Minutes to Live (1961):“I like a messy bed.”

Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) Island of Lost Souls: “Do you know what it means to feel like God?”

The Curious Dr. Humpp (1969): “Sex dominates the world! And now, I dominate sex!”

The Snake Pit (1948): Jacqueline deWit as Celia Sommerville “And we’re so crowded already. I just don’t know where it’s all gonna end!” Olivia de Havilland as Virginia Stuart Cunningham “I’ll tell you where it’s gonna end, Miss Somerville… When there are more sick ones than well ones, the sick ones will lock the well ones up.”

Delphine Seyrig as Countess Bathory in Daughters of Darkness (1971)“Aren’t those crimes horrifying. And yet -so fascinating!”

Julien Gulomar as Bishop Daisy to the Barber (Michel Serrault) King of Hearts (1966)“I was so young. I already knew that to love the world you have to get away from it.”

The Killing of Sister George (1968) -Suzanna York as Alice ‘CHILDIE’: “Not all women are raving bloody lesbians, you know” Beryl Reid as George: “That is a misfortune I am perfectly well aware of!”

The Killing of Sister George
Susannah York (right) with Beryl Reid in The Killing of Sister George Susannah York and Beryl Reid in Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George 1960

The Lickerish Quartet (1970)“You can’t get blood out of an illusion.”

THE SWEET SOUND OF DEATH (1965)Dominique-“I’m attracted” Pablo-” To Bullfights?” Dominique-” No, I meant to death. I’ve always thought it… The state of perfection for all men.”

Peter O’Toole as Sir Charles Ferguson Brotherly Love (1970): “Remember the nice things. Reared in exile by a card-cheating, scandal ruined daddy. A mummy who gave us gin for milk. Ours was such a beautifully disgusting childhood.”

Maximillian Schell as Stanislaus Pilgrin in Return From The Ashes 1965: “If there is no God, no devil, no heaven, no hell, and no immortality, then anything is permissible.”

Euripides 425 B.C.“Whom God wishes to destroy… he first makes mad.”

Davis & Crawford What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford bring to life two of the most outrageously memorable characters in Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 1962

WHAT DOES PSYCHOTRONIC MEAN?

psychotronic |ˌsīkəˈtränik| adjective denoting or relating to a genre of movies, typically with a science fiction, horror, or fantasy theme, that were made on a low budget or poorly received by critics. [1980s: coined in this sense by Michael Weldon, who edited a weekly New York guide to the best and worst films on local television.] Source: Wikipedia

In the scope of these transitioning often radical films, where once, men and women aspired for the moon and the stars and the whole ball of wax. in the newer scheme of things they aspired for you know… “kicks” yes that word comes up in every film from the 50s and 60s… I’d like to have a buck for every time a character opines that collective craving… from juvenile delinquent to smarmy jet setter!

FILM NOIR HAD AN INEVITABLE TRAJECTORY…

THE ECCENTRIC & OFTEN GUTSY STYLE OF FILM NOIR HAD NO WHERE ELSE TO GO… BUT TO REACH FOR EVEN MORE OFF-BEAT, DEVIANT– ENDLESSLY RISKY & TABOO ORIENTED SET OF NARRATIVES FOUND IN THE SUBVERSIVE AND EXPLOITATIVE CULT FILMS OF THE MID TO LATE 50s through the 60s and into the early 70s!

I just got myself this collection of goodies from Something Weird!

weird-noir
There’s even this dvd that points to the connection between the two genres – Here it’s labeled WEIRD. I like transgressive… They all sort of have a whiff of noir.
Grayson Hall Satan in High Heels
Grayson Hall -Satan in High Heels 1962
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Gerd Oswald adapts Fredrick Brown’s titillating novel — bringing to the screen the gorgeous Anita Ekberg, Phillip Carey and Gypsy Rose Lee and Harry Townes in the sensational, obscure and psycho-sexual thriller Screaming Mimi 1958
The Strangler 1964 Victor Buono
Victor Buono is a deranged mama’s boy in Burt Topper’s fabulous The Strangler 1964
Repulsion
Catherine Deneuve is extraordinary as the unhinged nymph in Roman Polanski’s psycho-sexual tale of growing madness in Repulsion 1965

Just like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, Noir took a journey through an even darker lens… Out of the shadows of 40s Noir cinema, European New Wave, fringe directors, and Hollywood auteurs, brought more violent, sexual, transgressive, and socially transformative narratives into the cold light of day with a creeping sense of verité. While Film Noir pushed the boundaries of taboo subject matter and familiar Hollywood archetypes it wasn’t until later that we are able to visualize the advancement of transgressive topics.

Continue reading “Film Noir ♥ Transgression Into the Cultural Cinematic Gutter: From Shadowland to Psychotronic Playground”

EDGAR G.ULMER’S: THE BLACK CAT (1934) “ARE WE BOTH NOT… THE LIVING DEAD?”

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“The phone is dead. Do you hear that, Vitus? Even the phone is dead.”

Karloff and Lugosi promo shot

THE BLACK CAT (1934)

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THE BLACK CAT (1934) U.S. (Universal) runs 65 minutes B&W, was the studio’s highest grossing picture in 1934. The film was also ranked #68 on Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movies. Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and written for the screen by Ulmer and Peter Ruric.
Also titled: House of Doom; The Vanishing Body (the alternative British title was used in it’s re-release in 1953 as a double bill with The Missing Head an alternative title for the “Inner Sanctum’s” offering Strange Confession.

Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula
Tod Browning’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi
Boris Karloff in Jame's Whales Frankenstein
Boris Karloff in Jame’s Whales Frankenstein 1931

With the success that Universal Studios garnered from Tod Browning’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1931 starring Hungarian born actor Bela Lugosi, and the equally sensational popularity of Mary Shelley’s adapted Frankenstein 1931 directed by James Whale starring Boris Karloff, it would seem only natural for the studio to harness the cult popularity of these two stars, creating horror vehicles to pair them together in. This is the first of the collaboration between Boris and Bela. Also both stars were equally billed in terms of their leading roles. In Lew Landers The Raven 1935, Lugosi dominated as Dr. Richard Vollin and in Lambert Hillyer’s The Invisible Ray 1936, the emphasis was more on Karloff’s complex character Dr. Janos Rukh. The Black Cat was a huge success for Universal and opened up the flood gates for seven more films featuring the collaboration of Karloff and Lugosi; Gift of Gab (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Black Friday (1940), and You’ll Find Out (1940).

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BlackCat Poelzig cat Shadow

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Edgar Allan Poe

Although The Black Cat 1934 claims in it’s opening credits that the film is ‘suggested’ by Edgar Allan Poe’s story from 1843 the film bares no resemblance to his short story, nor did Poe ever pen a single word about Satanism in all his volumes of the curiously macabre. The film does evoke the spirit of Poe’s fixation with morbid beauty, the preservation or perseverance of love after death, the suggestive ambiance, conflation of beauty and death and the unconscious dread of the uncanny. The architectural lines seem to also evoke the nihilistic sensibilities of Jean-Paul Sartre‘s ‘No Exit’ or a Kafka-esque fantasy of entrapment, with a mood set forth of futility and hopelessness. It also represents a cultural aesthetic that was emblematic of WW1.

Ulmers The Black Cat is melancholy poetry that articulates its substance within a half-light dream world. There are overcast clouds of menace, with modern Gothic gloom and impenetrable dark spaces. A wasteland of lost hope, it is a land of the dead.

Karloff is driven by his profane lust and twisted faith and and Bela is a ghost of man n a deadly excursion into vengeful rage.

Bela climbs the stairs

“Don’t pretend, Hjalmar. There was nothing spiritual in your eyes when you looked at that girl.”-Werdegast

Poelzig and his women in death

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‘the beast’ or the wickedest man in the world Aleister Crowley

Karloff’s character Poelzig is actually based on the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley. Ulmer and Ruric were inspired by an odd news story circulating in the world press shortly before the making of the film. Stranger than fiction, it seems a naive young couple who were visiting a remote home of a magician, became entangled in the occult rituals involving an unfortunate animal sacrifice, a victimized black cat named Mischette. The magician was Aleister Crowley, and the isolated location was his Abbey of Thelema in Sicily. The press got wind of this when Crowley accused one of his writer friends Nina Hamnett of libel in a London Court. Hamnett had mentioned Crowley in her 1932 autobiography Laughing Torso.

The passage that incited Crowley’s vengeful wrath was Hamnett’s description of his days at the Abbey of Thelema “He was supposed to practice Black Magic there, and one day a baby was said to have disappeared mysteriously, There was also a goat there. This all pointed to Black Magic, so people said, and the inhabitants of the village were frightened of him.” Crowley became known in the public’s perception as ‘the wickedest man in the world.” It was from this story that the seed of sensationalism gave rise to the idea for The Black Cat which emerged as a tale of savagery and horror for Ulmer.

So, in actuality the title has nothing to do with Poe’s short story at all, as it merely alludes to Dr.Vitus Werdegast’s (Lugosi) all-consuming fear and dread of cats. A more faithful adaption would be The Living Dead (1934) directed by Thomas Bentley, and Tales of Terror (1962). The Black Cat (1941) starring Basil Rathbone was more of an old dark house mystery.

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Roger Corman directs Peter Lorre in Tales of Terror 1962

This mysterious and decadent tale was directed by Austrian born Auteur Edgar G.Ulmer’s who was part of the vast succession of émigrés of high-art who came to America, Ulmer passed away in 1972.

It is one of the darkest films of the 30s.The Black Cat is an effusive, atmospheric and brutal masterpiece of decadent horror among some of Ulmer’s other interesting contributions (People on Sunday 1930, Bluebeard 1944, film noir classic Detour 1945, and the wonderfully lyrical science fiction fantasy The Man From Planet X 1951).

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Influenced by the German Expressionist movement, the film lays out a sinister territory, strange and foreboding, unsavory and dangerous, clandestine and provocative. Ulmer worked for Fritz Lang in the early days living in Germany involved on films including Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). He also worked with F.W. Murnau on Sunrise (1927) Ulmer also worked with Max Reinhardt, Ernst Lubitsch in the 20s and Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnermann and cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan,who was responsible for Metropolis’ miniature sky-scapes and vast edifices.

on the set of The Black Cat copy
On the set of The Black Cat
Boris and Bela in Edgar Ulmers The Black Cat
Boris and Bela on the set of Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat

The Black Cat is considered to be Ulmer’s best film, though his career did start to maneuver it’s way downward into poverty row’s fabulous cinematic gutter toiling in low budget features, after beginning an affair with a script girl named Shirley Castle Alexander who was married at the time to one of Carl Laemmle’s favorite nephews. At the time Laemmle was head of Universal Studios, and so Ulmer was essentially blackballed by the mogul from Hollywood. Another factor might have been Ulmer’s unwillingness to sacrifice aesthetic sensibilities over commercial profits.

Ulmer and Shirley got married and wound up moving to New York City spending many of his years working on low-budget films. He began this part of his career by making bargain-basement westerns under the pseudonym John Warner directing a series of cheap ethnic-market movies incorporating groups like Ukrainian,Yiddish and African Americans, before he moved onto the more stylish low budget thrillers.

Edgar Ulmer in the directors seat

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Edgar G. Ulmer

The Strange Woman poster

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By the 1940s Ulmer wound up back in Hollywood but had already resigned himself to making poverty row productions. All of which I find thoroughly enjoyable, such as his Bluebeard (1944) starring the ubiquitous John Carradine, Strange Illusion (1945) and film noir cult classic Detour (1945) starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage who’s battered and desolate characters actually fit the noir cannon with an authentic realism despite the anemic budget. I also love The Strange Woman (1946) and another great film noir  Ruthless (1948) with Zachary Scott.

Ulmer still remained a very productive director with PRC, even if it was one of Hollywood’s bastard children. Studio head Leon Fromkess never gave Ulmer enough money to fund his pictures, Ulmer wanted to produce high art films and first class effects as his origin had come from a place where he was such a ”visual artist as well as a filmmaker. The one good by-product of the deal was that it gave him creative license to run with what ever vision he had for a working project of his.

Boris and Bela on the staircase

Director Ulmer also doubled as set designer on The Black Cat to create a work of visual stateliness, beautifully stylish and elaborate with its collection of modernist set pieces, working with the art direction and set design of Charles D. Hall and cinematographer John J. Mescall’s (The Bride of Frankenstein) vision of the striking, uniquely cold and Futuristic Modern Gothic art deco ‘castle fortress’ and it’s interior shots creating the arresting landscape of luxury belonging to the enigmatic Poelzig’s (Karloff) inner-sanctum.

The eclectically sharp and angular camerawork establishes a stylish Machine Age imagery and eerie symmetrical aestheticism. Mescall’s camerawork creates a very non-Hollywood and non-stereotypical horror film, filled with a sense of melancholy responsiveness from the heavily influenced authentic Eastern European films of the period. There’s also a quality of cinematic eroticism with Mescall’s use of muting the focus within the shot to create an added emphasis on suggestive sexuality, as the camera dances through various scenes.

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Boris High Priest

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Poelzig down the spiral stairs

The stark use of light and shadow, the well defined contrast of light and dark with it’s cold black spaces and diffuse whites constructing margins that pay homage to the expressionistic lighting used by German Expressionists film makers of the 1920s and early 30s. The atmosphere is oppressive as well as claustrophobic with an added air of perversity that effervesces within the elegant framework.

Ulmer co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Ruric (who used the pseudonym Paul Cain for his hard edged detective novelettes for pulp magazines, with screenplays such asGrand Central Murder 1942 and Mademoiselle Fifi 1944). Their script for The Black Cat deals with a deadly game of chess, ailurophobia (fear of cats) rather taboo and provocative subjects such as war crimes, ‘Satan Worship’, human sacrifice, being flayed alive, drug addiction and the underlying perverse fetishism of necrophilia.

Heinz Roemheld’s blustering classical score, with the pervasive use of work from classical composers, all set the stage for a mélange of sadism, decadence, erotic symbolism, torture and hedonist themes of pleasure pain and death. The underscoring of this deliberate use of slow, solemn and imposing classical music emphasizes the atmosphere of entrapment and hopelessness.

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Boris Karloff as the imposing Hjalmar Poelzig

Karloff’s character, Hjalmar Poelzig’s morbid and unwholesome preservation of his deceased wife whom he stole from Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), having manipulated Werdegast’s wife into marrying him telling her that her husband died in the war, ultimately murdering her and then forcibly marrying Werdegast’s daughter is all very salacious material. Werdegast’s wife’s body is kept in a state of suspended animation like a sleeping doll which is visually shocking and gruesome. He tells Werdegast that his daughter too is deceased but in actuality she is Poelzig’s new young bride. a drugged sexual slave. The film possesses so many strange and disturbing elements. The allusion to incest, sacrificial orgies and the heightened presence of music drawing heavily from Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B and Schumann’s Quintet in E Flat Major, op.44, Tschaikowsky and most notably for me, Beethoven’s movement no.7, a personal favorite of mine.

The film was made just prior to the strictly enforced production guidelines of The Hayes Commission that policed all the sin and immorality on the silver screen. Allegedly there were various edits to the production that Universal insisted upon, but the film still bares a very deviant and erotically depraved tenor to the narrative’s mise en scéne.

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When Universal executives both Carl Laemmle Jr and Sr. screened the film they were horrified by Ulmer’s rough cut, they insisted that he edit the film and so they hacked it up and toned it down. And actually Bela Lugosi himself was unsettled at the thought of his protagonist showing lusty desires for the very young American girl Joan. Ulmer reluctantly went back and edited some of the harsher scenes out, including the infamous ‘skinning’ sequence, A comparison to the original script from the final version shows that many of the most disturbing elements, including a more unabashed orgy at the black mass, were quickly snipped away and scenes which were more violent and containing more suggestive elements were exorcized like the devil.

But in a subtle victory of wile, Ulmer added a few more scenes showing Karloff taking Lugosi through his historical dungeon artifacts of the encased suspended beautiful women in glass, the posed dead bodies in perpetual lifelike form as if by taxidermy, collecting them as his fetish, the idea of possessing them eternally as an ‘object’ in a state of death, the theme of necrophilia must have slipped by the Laemmles.

Women in glass cases

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Poelzig’s women in glass cases preserved. The imagery is reminiscent of Poe’s fixation with death and beauty, and the conflation of the two

The subject of contemporary Satanism had only been dealt with on the screen once before by Lugosi in his supporting role in the long forgotten and believed to be lost The Devil Worshipper (1920 German) Die Teufelsanbete.

Universal’s marketing department downplayed the aspect of Satanism in the picture, nervous that the idea of devil worship might not be acceptable to the public theater goer as entertainment. So in actuality the original version must have really pushed the boundaries farther and been even more sinister. British censors found the film so offensive and unacceptable that the British print of the film, entitled House of Doom replaces any reference to black magic, using less disturbing references to ‘sun worshipper’, (silly) which essentially obliterates the entire transgressive significance and it’s impact.

Carl Laemmle had given Ulmer a free reign on the story’s content, but kept a close eye on the director in other respects. Ulmer had not been given the larger budgets that either Dracula or Frankenstein had been endowed with. He was also given a very short span of time to shoot the film, a mere fifteen days. This did not deter or side track Ulmer at all who was used to working with small budgets, and knew how to construct a film that looks as elegant as any largely budgeted project. He began imagining the story, scrapping many scripts that Universal had been collecting. Any pretext associating the picture with Poe’s short story was cast to the wind. And so he created an entirely new vision. At the core, the film works thematically as a revenge piece. But of course there is so much more bewitching the film’s narrative.

Gustav Meyrink novelist The Golem Prague Jew
Prague Jew Gustav Meyrink novelist The Golem
The Golem
Paul Wegener in the adaptation of Czech writer Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem

In the 1960s Peter Bogdanovich interviewed Ulmer in ‘The Devil Made Me Do It‘ who recalled another theme that influenced The Black Cat. He had been in Prague… and met novelist Gustav Meyrink the man who wrote The Golem as a novel. Like Kafka, Mayrink was a Prague jew who was tied up with the mysticism of the Talmud. They had a lot of discussions, contemplating a play based upon the Fortress Doumont which was a French fortress the Germans had destroyed with their shelling during World War I. There were some survivors who didn’t come out for years. The commander who ultimately went insane three years later was brought back to Paris, driven mad because he had literally walked on a mountain of bodies and bones. “The commander was a strange Euripides figure.Ulmer told Bogdanovich. (Euripides being an archetypal figure as a representational mythical hero, an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. Also Euripides voluntarily exiled himself, rather than be executed like his colleague Socrates who was put to death for his perceived dangerously intellectual influence.)

Much of the ambiance of this historic incident is reflected in Bela Lugosi’s dialogue in The Black Cat.

Werdegast-"I can still sense death in the air"…
Vitus Werdegast– “I can still sense death in the air.”

“And that hill yonder, where Engineer Poelzig now lives, was the site of Fort Marmorus. He built his home on it’s very foundations. Marmorus, the greatest graveyard in the world.” – Vitus Werdegast

Within The Black Cat is there an aesthetic tension between Expressionist Caligarism and The New Objectivity movement or Neue Sachlichkeit, which begin in Habsburg Central Europe at the dawn of the Nazi era? The New Objectivity espoused a new attitude of public life in Weimar Germany with it’s art, literature, music and architecture created to adapt to the changing mood of the culture. It was characterized by a practical engagement with the world, which was regarded by Germans to be an inherently American style or the cult of objectivity, functionalism, usefulness, essentially- Americanism. While the film injects a modern wholesome American couple into the plot, they are mired down in the decaying ghosts of the past atrocities and sins perpetrated not only on the land, but by presence of the vengeful and malignant atmosphere. An atmosphere represented within the framework of a very Caligarian milieu. This creates a friction or contrast by injecting the fresh American presence into the plot, surrounding them within an environment of an arcane and non-naturalist landscape.

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The Expressionist Caligarism was started by director Robert Wiene who’s surreal masterpiece Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Das Cabinett des Dr. Caligari will always be remembered as the iconic ultra-expressionist watershed moment of the genre. ‘Caligarism’ Painters turned set designers Walter Röhring and Walter Reimann were responsible for the brilliant expressionist style which influenced other films with both the ornamental patterns transfixed in the dysmorphic repertoire of shapes and configurations that permeated the set designs for 20s science fiction films like Andrew Andrejew’s AELITA – Queen of Mars 1924.

Aelita Queen of Mars
AELITA- Queen of Mars 1924

The use of the color black or more accurately, the absence of light, can also been seen as part of the symbolism in The Black Cat: We are the voyeurs to this claustrophobic madness, as spectators we see the horror as highlighted by the stark blackness of the clothes, the black trees which are filmed in silhouette against a blackened sky. Poelzig is often silhouetted in distinctive blackness. This use of the color black or again more accurately in lighting it with the absence of any color or ‘light’, is used thematically as a way of installing a sadistic marker of the imagery.

expressionist black Poelzig

Cast of Characters:

  • Boris Karloff is Hjalmar Poelzig
  • Bela Lugosi is Dr. Vitus Werdegast
  • David Manners is Peter Alison
  • Julie Bishop is Joan Alison (as Jacqueline Wells)
  • Egon Brecher is The Majordomo to Poelzig
  • Harry Cording is Thamal Werdegast’s faithful servant
  • Lucille Lund is Karen Werdegast
  • Henry Armetta is Police Sergeant
  • Albert Conti is Police Lieutenant
  • John Carradine plays the Organist (uncredited)

Boris Karloff plays Haljmar Poelzig who is perhaps one of his most impressively darker characterizations. His all black attire, strangely androgynous hair style, and exaggerated use of make-up accentuates his features giving him the appearance of extreme and austere wickedness. Karloff’s eyebrows arch, his eyes flare and the use of his black lipstick make him almost deathly. Jack Pierce (The Man Who Laughs 1928, Dracula 1931,Frankenstein 1931 White Zombie 1932, The Mummy 1932 Bride of Frankenstein 1935 ) was responsible for the subtle yet dramatic make-up.

Karloff’s voice, his wonderfully lilting voice is typically modulated within the drift of his dialogue. He is remarkable as the incarnation of profane evil, with his icy cold reserve and detachment from the world.

Both protagonists are enigmatic, Karloff’s Poelzig’s utter malevolence and Lugosi’s hero Dr. Vitus Werdegast who is sympathetic yet also damaged, callous and obsessed by his lust for revenge, make both these disparate figures, magnetic archetypes that are equally compelling.

Game of Death chess match key on table
Boris and Bela in a high stakes chess match, a game of death

The film takes place in Hungary, starting out with scurrying masses boarding the grandeur of the Orient Express. The Allison’s are on their way to Budapest,Visegrad for their honeymoon. American Newlyweds Peter a mystery writer and his new bride Joan Allison board the opulent train. David Manners who plays spare hero Peter Allison had portrayed Jonathan Harker in 1931’s Dracula opposite Lugosi, and again appeared as the leading man with Karloff in The Mummy 1932. Jacqueline Wells plays Joan. At first the young love birds have their compartment all to themselves until Dr. Vitus Werdegast, psychiatrist and veteran of World War I, a captive who has just been released from a prisoner of war camp after 15 years imprisonment, (Ulmer himself was a refugee of Hitler) enters the compartment due to a mix up needing a place to sleep. He tells the young couple that he is on his way to visit an ‘old friend.’

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Vitus Werdegast -“So you are going to Visegrad”
Peter Allison- “Yes to (sounds like) Gaermbish by bus.”
Vitus Werdegast– “Gaermbish is very beautiful, I too am going very near there.”
Peter Allison– “for sport?”
Vitus Werdegast (raising his eyebrows, looking down and speaking more to himself) perhaps… I go to visit an ‘old friend'” (spoken with a dark unpinning of hatred)

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While Joan and Peter fall asleep the gentle yet peculiar Werdegast becomes fixated on her, stroking her hair while her husband Peter who is now awake watches silently for a moment. Werdegast explains that his wife and daughter were left behind when he was sent away to prison.

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Vitus Werdegast- “I beg your indulgence my friend. Eighteen years ago I left a girl, so like your lovely wife… To go to war. Kaiser and country you know… (serious look, deeper inflection) She was my wife. Have you ever heard of Kurgaal? (Peter quietly nods ‘no’) It is a prison below Amsk. Many men have gone there… Few have returned. (taking in a deep breath) I have returned. After fifteen years… I have returned.”

Out in the rain let's share a ride

On their way

Bus Crash

In a premonitory monologue the driver had spoke of ancient malevolence in Marmorus during the years of the war. “the ravine down there was piled twelve-deep with dead and wounded… the little river below was swollen, a red raging torrent of blood”

Joan injured in crash

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When the honeymooners get off the train, it is pouring rain… they agree to share a bus ride with Werdegast , but there is a storm and the desolate rain soaked roads are treacherous, causing the bus to crash. The bus driver dies, and Joan is injured in the wreck. Needing to seek shelter Dr. Werdegast recommends that they join him at his friend’s home, the Castle Poelzig, so he can take care of the young bride.Werdegast treats Joan’s injury, injecting her with a powerful hallucinogen called hyoscine.

The name Poelzig is an homage to Hans Poelzig set designer/architect of the 1920s who’s version of Der Golem was stunning. Real life Poelzig was responsible for the astonishing Prague set that underpinned the mythic mood of The Golem.

In Hans Poelzig’s own words, “The effect of architecture is magical.” And he meant that literally as he believed that every building was a living thing, had it’s own musical rhythm and a mystical sound that could be ‘heard’ by the those who were initiated into the world of magic. Though a very private man it was known that Poelzig dabbled in magical arts, holding spiritualist seances with his wife at their home and using their daughter as a medium.

According to Poelzig’s biographer, Theodor Heuss, his library was “filled with the works of mystics, the occult sciences and astrology”  he was in the pursuit of the mysteries of eternal forms that he erected and revered through his sacred work constructing his grand style architectural designs as his ‘magic’ medium. Poelzig also found cinema to be an environment for his magical sensibilities, jotting in his notebook “Film… the magic of form-the form of magic… Devil’s Mass…” 

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Architect Engineer Hans Poelzig who indulged in the magical arts and believed that buildings had a soul…

Poelzig intrigued a lot of people with his mysterious persona. Director Max Reinhardt hired Engineer Hans Poelzig to build sets for his theatrical stages. Ulmer was one of the architect’s junior assistants who later worked on the set of The Golem as a silhouette cutter for Paul Wegeners monumental production. Ulmer had studied architecture in Vienna and so carried that knowledge with him which sheds light on his sense of set design.

Hans Poelzig had a grand imagination, a creative fortitude and a host of eccentricities, one of which was to be at times a very overpowering presence and domineering personality.

Architect Engineer Hans Poelzig

This left an impression on Ulmer, who took those memories from Germany to Hollywood and created a cinematic resurrection of designer Hans Poelzig’s persona in the image of Karloff’s shadowy devil worshiper Hjalmar Poelzig, creating the shades, shadows and the template for Ulmer’s mystical engineer sadist of The Black Cat’s.

F.W. Murnau’s Faust 1926 too, definitely bears it’s influence on Ulmer who worked as a crew member on the film. Faust, in terms of cinema of the Satanic, was a major studio production who’s main protagonist was the Devil and who was a complex character, and not merely a vehicle for a simple horror themed picture, it sprung from a confluence of intellectualism and metaphysical ponderings.

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Murnau’s Faust (1926)

DEVILS OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION IN CLASSICAL FILM

Stefan Eggeler-illustrations for Gustav Meyrink-Walpurgisnacht-(1922)
Stefan Eggeler-illustrations for Gustav Meyrink-Walpurgisnacht-(1922)
Dante's Inferno
Dante’s Inferno

The Black Cat does seem to be one of the earliest illustrations of the Satantic cult film. While the era of Silent Film had a slew of films that dealt with the devil and black magic, (Dante’s Inferno 1911,The Student of Prague 1913, Henrik Galeen’s The Golem 1914 Thomas Edison’s The Magic Skin 1915, The Black Crook 1916, The Devil’s Toy 1916,The Devil’s Bondswoman 1916, Conscience 1917, Murnau’s Satanas 1919, Der Golem 1920,The Devil Worshipper 1920, Dreyer’s Leaves of Satan’s Book 1920, and 1921’s Häxan, Nosferatu 1922. The Sorrows of Satan 1926 and  F.W. Murnau’s Faust 1926 ) After the economic crash of 1929 these very recognized landmark films seem to disappear.The 30s had The Black Cat 1934 and The Student of Prague (1935), both these films might be the protracted essence of the Satanic Expressionism of 20s German cinema.

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Dante’s Inferno 1911
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Director F.W. Murnau’s expressionist extravaganza Faust 1926

The ‘devil worship’ film or ‘Satanic’ cinema evokes our primal fears, paranoia and unconscious dread that is implicit toward the ‘Other’ As was in Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ira Levin’s brilliant portrayal of this very paranoia. Satanic films trigger our fears of the intrusion of an outsider who infiltrates society, or rather the comfortability of our moral landscape. It also sign posts our secret pleasures which are derivative or surrogate as catharsis by way of the horrors of satanic power. In the 40s the few offerings were, William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster 1941, Maurice Tourneur’s Carnival of Sinners (1943) and Mark Robson/Val Lewton’s literate and intensely woven The Seventh Victim (1943) and Thorold Dickinson’s imaginative masterpiece The Queen of Spades 1949.

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director William Dieterle’s The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)
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The 7th Victim (1943) a shadow play about a devil cult by Val Lewton
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Thorold Dickinson’s story about a pact with the devil  The Queen of Spades 1949

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Black Cat Lobby Card

While Universal had successes with both Dracula and Frankenstein, The Black Cat is a more intensely layered film with it’s hidden and not so implicit meanings. It has a depth that explores the undercurrent of the 1920s aestheticism and fascination with magic. There are heterogeneous elements that run through both compelling performances by Karloff and Lugosi’s characterizations.

Manning, Karloff and Bela

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Poelzig enters Peters room

"Next time I go to Niagra Falls"
“Next time I go to Niagra Falls”

karloff and lugosi at the desk

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Werdegast “You sold Marmorus to the Russians… scurried away in the night and left us to die. Is it to be wondered at, that you should choose this place to be your house. A masterpiece of construction built upon the ruins of the masterpiece of destruction… the masterpiece of murder. (he laughs) the murderer of ten thousand men returns to the place of his crime. Those who died were fortunate. I was taken a prisoner to Kurgaal, Kurgaal, where the soul is killed… slowly. Fifteen years I rotted in the darkness. Waited… not to kill you, to kill your soul… slowly. Where is my wife Karen and my daughter?!!!!”

Poelzig“Karen? Why what do you mean?”

Werdegast“I mean you told Karen I had been killed, I found out that much in Budapest. I mean you always wanted her in the days at Salzberg before the war, always, from the first time you saw her. I mean that after you saved your own hide and left us all to die in Marmorus, you took Karen and induced her to go to America with you. I traced the two of you there. And to Spain and to South America and finally here. Where is she?”

The film is also powerful in it’s evoking of the horrors of World War I, which was still a very haunting specter in the public psyche. Most Universal films offered escapism, in contrast The Black Cat confronts the viewer with a bit of historic retelling of the nightmares of war, more penetrating than the usual concocted monsters the studio was proffering.

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“Where is she?”
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Poelzig- “Vitus.. you are mad”
Poelzig “She died two years after the war”
Vitus Werdegast -“How?”
Poelzig “Of pneumonia, she was never really very strong you know.”
Vitus Werdegast- “(crying) And the child… our daughter?”
Poelzig “Dead…”

Karloff’s aloof and restrained malevolence guided by the subtle intonations of his melodious voice tethered to Lugosi’s sympathetic and often poignant performance as the broken Vitus Werdegast, in particular the scene when he first sees his dead wife Karen exhibited as if in a museum, suspended in death, evoking authentic tears, Why is she like this?” All set to the maudlin Ludwig Van Beethoven’s ‘Symphony no. 7: Second Movement.’

Beethovin’s symphony no. 7 often used in films and a most powerfully contemplative piece underscores Karloff’s soliloquy as the camera glides through the dark and dank dungeon of Marmorus taking us on a tour of the decaying deathly oxygen of the place.

Poelzig leads Werdegast through the subterranean enclosures of Marmorus. It is here that Werdegast sees his wife who had died two years after he was in prison, and that his Karen (Lucille Lund) is now encased in glass.

Poelzig reveals the perfectly preserved body of his wife in necrophilic stasis, that he’s encased in glass like an immoral specimen of his unholy fetishism. This might be the only other reference to Poe and his morbid preoccupation with beauty in death. He reveals the dead body of ‘their’ beautifully angelic wife, encased in her crypt like glass vessel. Poelzig lies to Werdegast telling him that his daughter is also dead.

Werdegast is devastated and demands retribution but Poelzig insists that fate must wait until the ‘outsiders’ are gone. Of course Poelzig intends to kill the Americans, sacrificing Joan, but forces Werdegast to play a diabolical game of chess the outcome for which the lives of the young couple hinges upon. Werdegast loses and Joan is then taken to another room to await Poelzig, as she is to be his next sacrifice at the black mass ritual during the dark of the moon, in his Bauhaus ceremonial inner sanctum of worship, his sepulcher of debauchery, his sadistic sanctuary, the archaic shrine to the devil.

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“Very well Vitus I’ll shall take you to her”
Being led to the bowels
The camera focuses on the darkened spiral staircase heading downward toward the dungeon and then again as Poelzig and Werdegast ascend from the subterranean nightmare.

Taken to the bowels

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Poelzig “Come… Vitus… come are we men or are we children? Of what use are all these melodramatic gestures. You say your soul was killed, that you have been dead all these years. And what of me… did we not both die here in Marmorus fifteen years ago ?… Are we any the less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder. Are we not both, the living dead? For now you come to me playing at being the avenging angel… childishly thirsting for blood. We understand each other too well. We know too much of life. We shall play a little game Vitus. A game of death if you like. But under any circumstances, you shall have to wait until these people are gone. Until we are alone.”

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Werdegast, Poelzig and the Karen under glass

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“You will find her almost as beautiful as when you last saw her… Do you see Vitus I have cared for her tenderly and well.” Is she not BEAUTIFUL… “
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“I wanted to have her beauty always”-

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“Why’s she… why’s she like this…?”- 

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Poelzig has finished his nihilistic sermon. The camera as spectator angles back on the two men walking slowly again. What ever remained of the man, Vitus Werdegast has now been annihilated.

The essence of which makes the film as disturbing and queasy as any in this contemporary age of violent horror films. Ulmer convinced Laemmle Jr to let him make a film in the European Caligari style, surreal, post modern and artistic. The one condition was that he use Poe’s title for the picture. The story line is hallucinatory, dream like and nightmarish, framed within the architecture of a set that becomes part of the character of the plot. Poelzig it is revealed is the High Priest of a Satanic Cult, there is a scene where we catch sight of him reading a book entitled The Rites of Lucifer, which promotes the customary sacrifice of virgin blood while Werdegast’s beautiful blonde daughter Karen believed to be dead, sleeps next to him most likely kept in a drug induced cataleptic state, to maintain her appearance of a morbid deathly slumber in order to feed Poelzig’s penchant for conflating sexuality with death.

Poelzig and Karen bedroom scene

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