By now with Parts 1 and 2 under my belt, it’s pretty clear that one theme has emerged. It is my love for three shamefully underrated noir actors that really carry the genre, John Garfield, Victure Mature, and Richard Conte! Victor Mature is a swarthy jewel in his darker noirs, The Long Haul, I Wake Up Screaming, and Kiss of Death. Even in the western noir masterpiece My Darling Clementine 1946 where he plays the brooding Doc Holliday. Conte possesses a sublime brutality, with the lure of a Minotaur charging. Think of him In The Big Combo, Thieves’ Highway, and Brothers Rico. Garfield is deeply vulnerable and edgy, giving off an existential sensuality as in He Ran All the Way, Force of Evil, Body and Soul, and They Made Me a Criminal. I think I’ve fallen in love with all three!
The moody black and white photography is by cinematographer Lloyd Ahern Sr. and the music is by Alfred Newman. Eddie Muller refers to Cry of the City as “Siodmak’s most operatic noir.” It is Siodmak’s most focused work, and the first film noir he shot extensively on location. The film reunited Siodmak with producer Sol Siegel who worked on three Paramount B pictures together after the director settled in Hollywood during the early 1940s. The song ‘Street Scene’, a recurring motif heard in several noirs and written by composer Alfred Newman, plays at the opening of the film. The song can be remembered in I Wake Up Screaming, also starring Mature. It is an urban melody that evokes dreamy nightscapes of the city. Siodmak loves a rain-soaked street in his noir films, with its themes of fatalism and obsession, and the shocking story of the clash between law and lawlessness. The story borrows from a familiar plot device which sets up an opposition between two characters who come from the same background as children, but wind up clashing in their adult life.
Cry of the City is the most ‘operatic’ (Muller) film noir not just stylistically, but the theme its essential that you not hate Marty Rome’s character. The whole idea is that these are two boyhood friends who come from the same neighborhood and it’s just through circumstance one becomes a criminal and one a lawman, but they’re basically the same guy. That’s the whole point of the film. It’s essential that he play someone with that swagger (Conte) and that criminal intent, but he also has a vulnerability you can see in both of them. You can see the boy in the man. It ends so tragically that it feels operatic…You could see that Siodmak is using the street like this huge stage.”
Cry of the City stars Victor Mature as Lt. Vittorio Candella, and Richard Conte as the ruthless Marty Rome. Fred Clark plays Cadnella’s partner Lt. Jim Collins whose tongue is fast on the trigger. Shelley Winters is Marty’s old flame Brenda Martingale. Brenda is Martin’s loyal ex-gal who spirits the wounded Conte around the city, while an unlicensed doctor works on his bullet wounds in the back seat of her car.
Betty Garde is Nurse Frances Pruett, and Berry Kroeger is the unsavory, amoral lawyer W. A. Niles. Debra Paget plays angelic Teena Riconti. Tommy Cook plays Conte’s cop-hating kid brother who worships him, and it’s clear is heading down the same doomed path, as his older brother Marty.
Garde and Emerson worked together in John Cromwell’s Caged 1950. Garde is Conte’s sympathetic nurse And Hope Emerson is the darkly imposing Rose Given. Emerson, a masseuse and a sadist, is the nefarious Amazon who desperately wants the jewels that Conte has lifted from sleazy lawyer Kroeger. One of the best supporting roles in Cry of the City is Hope Emerson as the ‘monolithic’ (Dinman) Rose Givens who dominates the scenes with Conte.
In Robert Siodmak’s sublime noirCry of the City 1948Emerson plays Madame Rose Given who runs a massage parlor, loves to cook, is a pancake eatin’ -looming ‘heavy’… who loves jewels and just wants a little place in the country where she can cook, eat pancakes and fresh eggs… ‘yeah that’s livin’. From her brawny swagger to her grumbling yet leisurely voice, Emerson’s deliciously diabolical performance is the highlight of the film!
“I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land… Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”
—Catholic Legion of Decency pledge
And now here at The Last Drive In, the subject of “The Third Sex in the Shadows of Cinema.”
Clifton Webb as Hardy Cathcart in The Dark Corner 1946 directed by Henry Hathaway. Waldo Lydecker: “I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm.”
“Oh, it’s sad, believe me, Missy, when you’re born to be a sissy without the vim and voive…” -Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Growing up as a gay woman, though gender and sexuality are fluid, there was not a well spring of characters in film or television that I could grab onto as a buoy for my burgeoning self-awareness – I was ‘different than the others.’ Though there are the obvious icons who became heroes and heroines to many of us because of their peerless image. And while films could not overtly represent ‘queerness’ directly, they could posit mixed messages and a whole generation of us could understand the subtext, unsheltered from an array of homophobic language.
We still had Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo, who gave us immortal androgyny– there was no one who could shatter the silence, and ceremoniously ring the bells out in the open. There were no ‘obvious’ gay role models. We had to create that worship ourselves through iconography and a variety of sublime, convention-smashing signals. For those of us who knew how to look in the dark corners, right under your nose, corners, or should I say coded corners.
There’s one thing I want to be very clear about. I am not asserting that the actors themselves were gay in their personal lives, but that what was coded was merely the particular characters they played in the film. Or that the narrative might seemingly be ‘queer’. Which I will go on to explain. Particular actors or directors’ private lives are not up for conversation unless they were clearly open about themselves and their influences on their artistic work.
For instance, I am not saying that I suspect Doris Day is a lesbian, just that the character of Calamity Jane is throwing out messages for those of us ‘in the life,’ to feel a special affinity. Using comforting symbology gives us a place in the universe, especially when the story is presented by the stars we most admire. Not all coded gay characters are portrayed by gay actors, and not all coded comedy, jokes, or situations denotes that the character themselves are gay, just that the humor is cannily made to be queer at the moment. It can be an off-the-center remark that speeds by almost unnoticed except for the sake of the hurried laugh or two. Sometimes it’s all subjective and at times it’s pretty obvious which way the deliberate wind blows.
(Stacey) categorizes her range of material into several kinds of identification broadly dividing them into two categories. “Cinematic identifcatory fantasies” —devotion, worship transcendence, inspiration are proper to the act of spectatorship and appear to be based primarily on difference from the star ideal and “extra-cinematic identifactory practices” —imitation and consumption —attempt to close the gap between subject and star even as they take place outside cinema.
The worship of Doris Day is not surprising, she was one of the top box office draws of the 1950s. Day performs a cross-dressing role in the biopic of a legendary lesbian. Indeed, Day and Calamity Jane in particular in which the star sings both “Secret Love” and a duet with another, feminine character called “ a woman’s touch” are regularly cited by lesbians as crucial cinematic texts. (Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing)
There was a period when Peter Lorre, George Sanders (and his equally effete brother Tom Conway), Anne Revere, Judith Anderson, and Agnes Moorehead played movie villains, fanatics, or oddballs. Each of these actors suggested queerness in their androgynous personas. Each became an iconic character actor of classic cinema.
Characters like Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker in Laura(1944), Judith Anderson in Rebecca (1940), or Gloria Holden as Countess Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), stood out to us, though they were despicable and unwelcoming characters. Although I see Gloria Holden’s character as strangely sympathetic. Usually, queerness that was veiled behind a coded role, exhibited a disturbed or desperate personality. They might be a person who is ambiguous in their maleness or femininity. And at times, they were full-on, deadly.
However, there was so little for those of us who are part of the ‘hidden audience’, we needed to catch sight of something familiar. That meant grabbing onto whatever little crumbs were thrown to us. So whether those characters were inherently insensate evil had nothing to do with our empathy or revulsion. The real power lay in the ability to identify with the essence of ‘otherness’ and more to do with familiarity and belonging. I longed to find that ‘something‘ that signified a relative identification of their sexuality. To see that subtle finger motioning, come closer, you’re in the right place kiddo, you’re one of us. Andrea Weiss writes: “[In the 1930s] for a people who were striving toward self-knowledge, Hollywood stars became important models in the foundation of gay identity.”
The films I have uncovered throughout my endeavor to write this immense blog post, either commonly fall within the queer canon or can be liberally dissected and/or challenged. We can read into any film if we so choose. I am merely putting it out to you that these films do seem to meet the criteria for coded queer paradigms. I also began this piece thinking that in order to understand the evolution of coded characters, you first have to look at the origin of the queer presence in silent and Pre-Code films, and how the Code influenced and constructed the way being queer had to be hidden in plain sight.
I echo Susie Bright, in her feelings that we (the queer community) would hang on to anything close to a hint of gayness, and it would change the whole world of the motionpicture, just to see that famously analyzed moment when Marlene Dietrich plants that sensuous kiss on a woman’s lips in Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco 1930. Or the first cinematic lesbian romance when vamp Louise Brooks slinks on the dance floor with her androgynous female admirer Alice Roberts as Countess Anna Geschwitz in director GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929).
The boldly androgynous Marlene showcased another masculine appearance when she ascends the throne at the end of The Scarlet Empress (1934).
Greta Garbo portrays the Swedish monarch who declares herself not an “old maid” but “a bachelor” in Queen Christina (1933)
Because of the social relationship between non-normative gender and sexuality and the symbology of fashion and the role of work, women only had to dress like their male counterparts and be employed in a man’s job to seem queer. In the movie directed by George Cukor, What Price Hollywood? (1932), the very drunk filmmaker notices a woman having lunch at a fashionable Hollywood restaurant. The drunks inquiry goes like this, “I beg your pardon, old man… who’s your tailor?
In Victor Fleming’s Red Dust (1932), Jean Harlow is adorable as Vantine as she handles the heat and hands out the jibes.
Other members of the lesbian parade inhabit spaces that, as with the men, connote queerness. Consider the lesbian couples in the Greenwich Village dive in Call Her Savage (1932), seated alongside male same-sex couples while pansy entertainers, dressed as maids, perform for their amusement. Mannishly garbed women barflies, sometimes wielding cigars, often pal around with men, or sometimes confuse and emasculate them, in Lawyer Man (1932), Grand Slam (1933), and Blood Money (1933). (Lugowski)
Blood Money (1933) Rowland Brown’s atmospheric jaunt that embraces the gritty underworld, includes racy subjects like sadomasochism, empowered women, and fluid sexuality. Kathlyn Williams credited as the “Nightclub Woman Wearing Monocle”, is a beautiful androgynous off-cut in the film. In one notable scene George Bancroft as Bill Bailey enters Ruby Darling’s (Judith Anderson) nightclub and comes across a young woman at the bar, dressed in a man’s tuxedo and sporting a monocle. Baily offers her a cigar. She smells it and nonchalantly mocks the husky guy, “Why, you big sissy!” and hands it back to him. The nature of this adventurous passage into a subversive world generated a lot of sexual tension. With Blood Money, the subject of homosexuality is a non-issue, belonging to a subculture that invites those who are outsiders.
In Blood Money and Call Her Savage, homosexuality is just another pocket of an underworld that exists outside the law. When George Bancroft warns a timid taxi driver not to betray his destination to the police, he threatens, “Lissen fag”-and is rebuked by Judith Anderson for “scaring the little fellow half to death.”
Keeping along the lines of the connection between women working at men’s jobs, within a wide range of social status, you can see this example in Heat Lightning (1934) starring interestingly handsome actress Aline MacMahon when she, covered in grease, working on cars in her desert garage/gas station wearing a filthy jumpsuit and hair wrapped in a bandana. She sheds her desire to be desired by men, and exudes a solitary quality, as if she has given up on, performing femininity for men. She seems independent and strong and in her ‘male’ attire, you can see her projecting a queer attitude, though the film deposits a past love interest with bad boy Preston Foster as a distraction. The attraction is doomed from the start.
Olga (MacMahon) balances the duality of loving Preston Foster, donning her ‘womanly’ dress when she decides to submit to a heterosexual liaison which goes wrong. Then she shuns the idea of her femininity, re-asserting her hyper-masculine posture in greasy mechanics overalls and once again hiding her ravenous hair under her bandana, to protect herself from performing as a straight woman again.
To be clear it is not my belief that she’s not “all woman,” even using these props to represent masculinity. She is not truly changing her gender but for the purposes of the narrative, in the movie’s time period, it suggests a superficial interpretation of gender for our spectatorship.
In Jame’s Whales’ The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) there is a sophisticated female lawyer Hilda Frey (Jean Dixon) who is stern and stiff-backed, and is dressed in severe clothing, a “new kind of woman” which allows for an undercurrent of lesbianism.
In The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), Nancy Carroll as Maria Held is a career-oriented lawyer, who wears men’s suits and considers herself a “new woman.” There are tinges of heterosexuality, which serve to shield her character from scrutiny. But, she does appraise heterosexuality in vaguely cynical terms. She talks to another woman about a case where the husband has murdered his wife, “At least no one will ever murder me.”She also responds to, “What are you? A lawyer, or a new kind of woman?” by saying, “By day, I’m a lawyer. At night, well, you might be surprised.” Either it went undetected by the SRC (Studio Relations Committee) or they felt that the connotations of her lesbianism were ambiguous enough to slip by an unsophisticated audience.
We learn to watch out for signs that there are ‘others’ out there on the screen – those we can relate to. A young person exposed to old films, as I grew older and dove head first into classic film with a critical eye, I could read those sign posts and cues that led me to become consciously aware of the invisible affinity laid out in plain site for me, and those of us who knew the secret whispers behind the storyline.
Women wearing men’s apparel, like Dietrich’s wonderful drag performance, kissing a woman in Morocco in 1930. Or Clifton Webb’s often effete superiority as with his character, Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944, or his role as Hardy Cathcart’s with a pathological objectification of his wife Mari’s aesthetic beauty in Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner. Greta Garbo in Queen Christina 1933– “I shall die a bachelor!”Gloria Holden’s vampiric desire to embrace the necks of beautiful young female models in Dracula’s Daughter 1936.
Nan Gray and Gloria Holden in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
The Production Code Administration (PCA) saw the obvious connection between vampirism and lesbian sexual desire in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) They only gave two warnings concerning the ‘queerness’ of Countess Zaleska and her thirst for young female victims. Universal, even hyped the idea that women were not safe from unnatural desire using this publicity catchphrase, “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!”
Throughout these films coded lesbian characters, scattered their rose petals of longing for their dead lost loves or the nymphs just out of their reach. There was tragedy within the tragedy of the horror story! As long as these queer women monsters also became victims, the PCA could negotiate its release, being comfortable with the narrative in that form.
The most overt representation of lesbians was her stylized look, a severely tailored suit, monocle, slicked back or bobbed short hair, or staunch, with a strait backed, severely repressive temperament. The coded dyke is typically less seen on screen than the pansy who enjoyed more of a character actor’s trademark in popular films. However, it could be said that covert lesbians are more subtle in their presence than their queer male counterparts – the sissy.
Major female stars could be seen as having indirect lesbian undertones, though their ambiguous sexuality might be camouflaged by their independent streak, their strong spirit or shaded by their exotic, mysterious nature. Thus we find some of our lesbian icons like Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, and Barbara Stanwyck. Lesbian vibes can often be signaled by a playful tomboyishness. And what we have is a diametrically opposed result, the pansy is perceived as failed manhood, but conversely the lesbian performing manhood is perceived as a threat.
And if they weren’t tomboys they could be man-less shrews, castrating viragos, or in need of a man, who can make her come to her senses, and give up her career and her disruptive way of life. The threat of strong women is still equal to the threat. The gay man elicits a laugh.
Thus, discourses about queer sexuality in this period are never purely homophobic against men. To a sizable extent, they have their basis in sexism against women, for it is the power of femininity, the “feminization” of 1930s culture mentioned, and the threat of working women “wearing the pants” that are being policed.
The metaphorical nature of the pants-wearing, money-earning woman attaining independence from men connoted lesbianism as a complete break from the interwoven financial and sexual economies of patriarchy. Thus, if “clothes make the man,” the wearing of pants in and of itself suggested a link to lesbianism that films of the time simultaneously offered as spectacle and punishment. (Lugowski)
In particular classical horror and science fiction films spoke to the sense of “otherness” installed in my psyche. That does not mean that I viewed things through a dark lens, but classical horror and science fiction are effusive metaphors and inherently philosophical. When some of us, like Frankenstein’s monster were figuratively chased with flaming torches, horror, and sci-fi movies afforded us shelter from the angry mob. Their use of mythic undertones and symbolic context provided for so many of us, psychic release and catharsis.
It’s also why I love and identify with the monster in classical horror films. The iconic or tragically fated monster has always been portrayed as the ‘other’. Gay people understand what it means to be an outsider. And filmmakers encoded that sui generis into our beloved classical horror genre. It worked like waving that meaningful finger at the audience, saying, you found us, we’re here.
WHAT IS A CODED GAY CHARACTER?
CODED–verb [with object] 1 convert (the words of a message) into a particular code in order to convey a secret meaning: • express the meaning of (a statement or communication) in an indirect or euphemistic way: (as adjective coded)
films allude to homosexual meanings in more of less coded ways. From today’s perspective, one can view these films as excellent examples of the very discourse of the closet-they employ connotative and symbolic meanings to signify homosexuality for those ‘in the know’ while ostensibly being about something else. Such connotative meanings were the way homosexuality could be signified under the dictates of the Hollywood Production Code.
Although it was continually challenged throughout the 1950s (by films such as The Moon is Blue 1953 and Baby Doll 1956) The Production Code still exerted a profound effect on the content on Hollywood film, especially in relations to homosexual themes. The Production Code Administration (PCA) edited queer backstories and subtexts of the film adaptations of Tennessee William’s plays A Street Car Named Desire (1951) , Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Vincente Minnelli’s film of the Broadway hit Tea and Sympathy… (Jeffrey Sconce)
Life’s Rough: Three Strong Anti-Heroines of 1950 Film Noir
“You see kid, in this cage, you get tough or you get killed. Better wise up before it’s too late!” – Kitty Stark, Caged (1950)
The 1950 film, Caged!, The Damned Don’t Cry, and The File on Thelma Jordon, contain three women performing female masculinity. A common thread these characters possess is ‘metamorphosis.’ They are forged by male institutions and they must adapt to survive. Each woman is thrust into a noir narrative.
In Caged!, Eleanor Parker leaves innocence outside the prison bars and is transformed into a hardened, jaded criminal in order to survive. Joan Crawford, a poverty-stricken mother in The Damned Don’t Cry rises as a high-powered opulent underworld mistress to prevail and support herself. Barbara Stanwyck is predatory, manipulating a weak man to gain access to her Aunt’s fortune in The File on Thelma Jordon — Stanwyck ultimately becomes a fallen figure of remorse and redemption.
Like their noir male counterparts, they become anti-heroines as past actions come back to haunt them.
Film noir of 1950 desired realism, decadence, and transformation. Femme-fatales thrive using sexuality to claim independence from weak, damaged, sexually-obsessed men, unable to resist dangerous influences. These women master patriarchal organizations, taking control of their bodies and identities to avoid gender enslavement in a male hetero-driven society.
In most noir films men are the central figures–isolated from their surroundings, closed in by circumstances beyond control, but married to fatalistic visions with stoic passivity. By flipping this trope on its battered head, these women invoke female masculinity driving their characters. As anti-heroines, they adopt masculine armor to navigate masculine institutions. They’re placed in situations that impose a definition of what a woman is and should be. They adopt feminine masculinity to survive.
“Female masculinity is framed as the rejected scraps of dominate masculinity in order that male masculinity may appear to be the real thing… Masculinity in this society inevitably conjures up notions of power and legitimacy and privilege; it often symbolically refers to the power of the state and to uneven distributions of wealth.” — Halberstam, Female Masculinity
You don’t know women until you know them without men!
Directed by John Cromwell, Caged! is set in a women’s prison and plays out like a savage dance with “unremitting pessimism” (Crowther) with the women performing masculinity to gain power. It is a “Dames in the Hoosegow” film (New York Herald Tribune), indicative of socially conscious 1950s noir. The women are demeaned in prison, and to prevail they appropriate masculine primacy.
Caged! boasts an incredible ensemble. Eleanor Parker’s persuasive performance as Marie Allen, a delicate young woman subjected to cruelty by the sadistic degenerate Matron Evelyn Harper (punctuated to the hilt by imposing 6’ 2” Hope Emerson).
Wonderful character actors include Betty Garde as Kitty Stark, Ellen Corby as Emma Barber, Jan Sterling as Jeta Kovsky (aka Smoochie who loves to kite checks, buys pretty shiny things, and can’t stay out of prison), Olive Deering as June Roberts, Gertrude Michael as Georgia, and Lee Patrick as ‘vice queen’ Elvira Powell.
The film opens with the police van door swinging open —“Pile out, you tramps. This is the end of the line”— to reveal the ‘new fish’ in the fatalistic incarceration cycle. The central figure is a timid, pregnant, and nervous 19-year-old Marie who gets the book thrown at her for helping her husband commit armed robbery- “For that forty bucks I heisted I certainly got myself an education.” Her role as an accomplice, sitting in the car waiting for the bum, lands her 15 years in prison. With a doe-eyed shocked gaze, she is thrown into a primal world. The intake nurse’s examination reveals she is ‘expecting company’ — with her dead husband’s child. Marie, number 93859, is sweet candy for the cold-blooded, menacing Matron Harper.
Marie doesn’t fall for Harper’s charms, thus she is subjected to dehumanizing torture by Harper, the bon-bon-eating, romance novel-reading dyke who enjoys personal comforts and flaunts luxuries (as a grotesque phony femme) to the women prisoners who don’t have any privileges.
Harper brutally beats Marie causing her to lose her baby, thus her motherhood is taken away.
Removing her femininity, and her identity, Harper shaves Marie’s hair. When vice queen Elvira distributes lipsticks at Christmas, Harper cruelly takes them away. Harper, embedded in the masculine system, creates an environment where the weakest women must become predatory cons, shedding their femininity.
Sympathetic warden Ruth Benton (Agnes Moorhead) allows them to keep cosmetics as a connection to the outside world. Believing in rehabilitation, Benton bucks bureaucracy, but her altruism blinds her from the vicious brutality.
The mood at the prison heats up and Kitty kills Matron Harper. Marie is worn down by the inhumanity of prison life and disillusioned by Harper’s corrupting influence over inmates. She changes from a shivering innocent to a smart-mouthed hard-bitten con. Her efforts to go straight are sabotaged by the sadistic Harper. Marie learns the hard way how to earn parole, but she’s already stigmatized and changed by the system.
Jan Sterling, Ellen Corby, Marjorie Crossland, Olive Deering, Betty Garde, and Eleanor Parker in Caged (1950).
Through Marie’s eyes, we experience dehumanization and objectification, from the moment she is processed, to her release. Influenced by other miscreants and malcontents Marie evolves into a criminal by the system constructed to rehabilitate. She sheds her victimhood and takes on a powerful masculine approach, but not with the ruthlessness of a femme fatale. Marie becomes a criminal. She’s independent, as only a man could be in 1950.
When released at the gates, she gets into a fancy sedan with shady characters. She’s become a prostitute for her butch mentor Elvira who has given up on men completely. “If you stay in here too long, you don’t think about guys at all. You just get out of the habit.” –Elvira
Warden Benton keeps Marie’s file open as she watches out the window “Keep it active, She’ll be back” summarizing the Sisyphean absurdity of prison, hardening and transforming women without any hope.
“Call me CHEAP?” Nothing’s Cheap When You Pay the Price She’s Paying!
Directed by Vincent Sherman, with a screenplay by Harold Medford and Jerome Weidman. Cinematography by Ted D. McCord (The Treasure of the Sierra Madres 1948, Johnny Belinda 1948, I Died a Thousand Times 1955, The Sound of Music 1965) (wardrobe Sheila O’Brien who worked on all of Joan’s pictures, Sudden Fear 1952, Flamingo Road 1945, Female on the Beach 1955)
Stars Joan Crawford as Ethel Whitehead, David Brian as George Castleman, Steve Cochran as Nick Prenta, Kent Smith as Martin Blackford, Hugh Sanders as Grady, Selena Royle as Patricia Longworth, Jacqueline deWitt as Sandra, Morris Ankrum as Jim Whitehead, Edith Evanson as Mrs. Castleman, Richard Egan as Roy.
Joan Crawford is Ethel Whitehead/Lorna Hansen Forbes, a woman from harrowing poverty, who leaves her husband, Roy, after their son Tommy is tragically killed. She starts over in New York City first as a cigar store clerk and model for a cheap fashion wholesaler. She eventually climbs to the top of the high society/criminal underworld wearing a facade of respectability. While usually men abandon families, Ethel is the one to leave. Crawford perfectly performs the role of power and masculinity.
The Damned Don’t Cry portrays a bleak, dark, corrupt world. The story is told in flashbacks. Directed by Vincent Sherman (All Through the Night 1942, Mr. Skeffington 1944, Nora Prentiss 1947, Affair in Trinidad 1952, The Garment Jungle 1957) The film co-stars Steve Cochran as Nick Prenta, David Brian as George Castleman, and Kent Smith as Martin Blackford, and Jacqueline de Wit as Sandra.
Ethel begins as an unsophisticated modest woman, married to an oil field worker, dirt poor, plain looking, and beaten down. An oppressed housewife and mother, judged harshly by her misogynist father, and husband Roy who says “You’ll never do enough for her.” She becomes an elegant ambitious society climber who dismisses suggestions her life is corrupt and immoral. Crawford manifests her signature cunning in the ferocious pragmatic transformation.
Ethel lives with her parents and beloved son Tommy, who wants a bicycle but Roy says it’s too much money. Wanting her son to be happy, she makes a down payment on the bike. Furious, Roy demands it is returned. On his way to the store, Tommy rides down the road and is hit by a truck, and killed. His death ends their marriage, and Ethel leaves.
Roy says he’s “done the best he could.” Ethel answers “Well it ain’t good enough.”
Unlike male protagonists with more choices, in this narrative, Ethel can only be a model or prostitute. She performs female masculinity by adopting independence. Ethel creates the power to choose her own fate, possessing what Hirsch calls ‘a lonely man’ trope.
Another model, Sandra, introduces Ethel to a new world, convincing her to go out with wealthy businessmen. She becomes the glamorous mistress of gangster George Castleman, showered with riches— fur coats, diamonds, and haute couture. George helps Ethel’s metamorphosis into a wealthy socialite, Lorna Hansen Forbes, and she enters the inner circle of gangsters.
Ethel now known as Lorna, exploits her beauty, relying on rich men to pay for the privilege of her company. She learns she must selfishly grab for herself. Negotiating her body for wealth is a means to an end. Lorna’s selfishness emerges.
Lorna surpasses Sandra’s petty schemes to aim for the brass ring of ultimate luxury.
She befriends mild-mannered Martin Blackford, an account who falls for her. Encouraging him to become Castleman’s bookkeeper, she uses him to get ahead. Martin brings a dark brooding presence into Lorna’s life which is visually actualized in a scene where Lorna is sunning herself at the pool, Blackford casts a symbolic dark cloud over her light-hearted sexually carefree embodiment. The closeup shows Ethel’s face as the sun’s rays emblematically reflect in her sunglasses. Taking them off, she turns off the sunlight and is confronted with Blackford’s bitterness.
The jaded Lorna tells the neutered Martin “You’re a nice guy, but the world isn’t for nice guys. You gotta kick and punch and belt your way up cuz nobody’s going to give you a life. You’ve got to do it yourself. Cuz nobody cares about us except ourselves… It’s that stuff you take to the bank, that filthy buck that everybody sneers at but slugs to get.” Martin is afraid he’ll lose self-respect. “Don’t tell me about self-respect!”Ethel snaps. “That’s what you tell yourself when you got nothing else!”
Her glamorous life ultimately comes at a price. Castleman wants to use Lorna to spy on Nick Prenta, as he suspects Prenta of killing one of his men Grady (Hugh Sanders), and making it look like a car accident by planting a bottle of alcohol at the scene. Castleman fears Nick Prenta is organizing the men against him. He sends Lorna to insinuate herself with Nick Prenta in order to find out what he is up to and report back to him. Setting him up for a hit. Instead, Lorna starts falling in love with the handsome rogue gangster who has a reputation for his womanizing. Lorna winds up defying Castleman by not staying in touch and actually falling for the guy instead.
Martin then shows up telling Lorna, (though he still refers to her as Ethel out of spite) that George Castleman has sent him to check up on her, he hasn’t heard from her in a while. The moment we see Martin’s scruples have eroded is during the pool scene which illustrates Martin’s own transformation from a nice decent guy to one of George’s thugs, with his smug tone and his dark sunglasses. He warns Lorna not to hold out on George. He boasts about how powerful he’s become and that people listen to him. He offers her some ‘sound advice’ “Has he promised you the world too!?” referring to Nick Prenta and sneaking in a good dig at how she used him at one time. “He means nothing to me, except he’s a human being.” “Don’t tell me that disturbs you.” Martin has become so jaded and embittered.
Later Nick Prenta asks Lorna to marry him, she is moved to tears as she embraces him. Lorna asks, “Do I really mean that much to you?” Nick tells her, “Everything, why is that enough?” Lorna –“Then get out of this, Nick, I’m scared about what you’re doing, what you’re planning, what it will lead to, if you don’t give this up.” “If that’s what it takes to get you, you’ve got a deal. I can get out of this inside a year” “No, it’ll be too late then” “But I can’t get out now Lorna, this is a big jump I’ve got to see it through.”
Lorna begs him to give it all up, but he kisses and sends her back to her hotel room where she finds Martin and Castleman waiting for her. Castelman is sitting in the dark, giving off a sense of menace from the shadows. “Hello Lorna” he puffs on his cigar then rises from the couch. “Aren’t you glad to see me?” Suddenly he begins grilling her about Nick Prenta’s meeting, but she tells him that she doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Castleman tightens his fist and smacks Lorna across the face, his paranoia about the meeting and his gang aided by Prenta out to get him is driving him into a frenzy.
In his fury, even Martin gets worried about Castleman’s sudden violent outburst. Then he hits Martin and knocks him down, and begins beating Lorna brutally as she tries to convince him that she’s not in love with Nick Prenta, it’s just that she doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. She tells Castleman that she’s still in love with him. But he growls at her, “You’re lying, you’re so used to lying and cheating and double-crossing that you almost make it seem good.”
Castleman throws Lorna into the glass window that shatters. Martin tries to defend her, and calm Castleman down, telling him it’s enough. Castleman says “She’s no good, not even to you” yet Martin thinks fast on his feet, “But she is to you, she can still help, she can still be useful.” Castleman tells Martin looking down at the battered Lorna, “There’s only one thing to do with dirt, sweep it up.” Martin tells him, “Listen to me, you want Nick don’t you? She can get him” Castleman responds, “You got a brain Marty, best kind, the kind you don’t get to go out and buy.” As Castleman says this he looks disdainfully at poor Lorna lying in a pile of broken glass all bruised and sobbing.
Martin convinces Lorna to call Nick Prenta and get him over to the hotel room. Prenta shows up already knowing her true identity, he must have heard it from Eddie Hart. She is lost in shadow, beaten down and crying, Prenta sarcastically tells Lorna, “I want to apologize for busting in on you like this Mrs. Forbes, but a friend of yours, Eddie Hart said it would be okay, he said Castleman might not like it, but Ethel Whitehead would go for anything.” But when he sees how badly beaten Lorna is he comes to her side, until he is confronted by Castleman, who emerges out of the shadows and tells him that while Prenta likes to be in the headlines he’s gonna move him over to the obituary column. Prenta turns to Lorna, “You dirty tramp!”
A fight breaks out and Castleman shoots and kills Prenta. In the turmoil, Lorna takes off in her car. Castleman tells Martin that they’ll have to dispose of Prenta first and then “I want her.”
Once Lorna fails to stop Castleman she is transformed once again through resignation and redemption having gone full circle through her own journey of hell.
Martin tries to protect Lorna from Castleman, by telling the police that it was George Castleman who killed Nick Prenta. In the meantime, Castleman wants her dead. And he knows the truth about where Lorna comes from, where she was probably heading and he’s on his way there.
Lorna now home in Bakersfield, arrives at the broken shack with her fur coat and her Ray Foreman coif. Her parents first reject her. The bitter Martin has shed his anger by now, hopelessly in love with Lorna, and he shows up to try and protect her from the vicious Castleman. In the film’s ironic rhythm of fate, she symbolically comes full circle, winding up on the same road where her son died.
Martin tells her that she needs to move on and keep running before Castleman catches up with her, but she’s worried that he’s unfinished business now too since he’s turned on Castleman. He reminds her “We do what we do– what was it you once said?, because we can’t help ourselves.”
Castleman shows up at Lorna’s home. She quietly walks out of the house, so as not to endanger her mother and father and Martin who are talking in the kitchen.
In the brutal climax Lorna calmly, stoically and courageously confronts the vicious George Castleman.
He asks for Martin but Lorna lies and covers up for him, saying she hasn’t seen him. She boldly with new resolve walks right up to George Castleman. He asks if she’s been waiting for him. “Strangely enough George there was a time when I did wait for you. And no one else. but that’s over now.”
In a struggle to take the gun away from Castleman, Lorna gets shot and wounded, lying in the dirt wearing her fur coat, –hows that for symbolism! Then Martin comes out of the house and shoots Castleman down and his getaway car leaves without him, while he’s lying there dead.
The police and the press show up pushing for all the answers to Lorna’s (Ethel’s) involvement.
Two cops outside the house start talking about the case. Cop one-“Pretty tough living in a place like this” Cop two–”Tougher to get out” Cop one– “Wouldn’t you?” Cop two shakes his head “Yes!”
Having traveled through her journey performing the code of female masculinity she has reclaimed herself, found her empowerment, and emerged as her own woman again. We are left wondering what the future holds for Lorna/Ethel, now not only emancipated, if not redeemed, as the anti-heroine of The Damned Don’t Cry!
Thelma Jordon: “I’m no good for any man for any longer than a kiss!”
Directed by Robert Siodmak, written by Marty Holland with a screenplay by Ketti Frings. Cinematography by George Barnes (Rebecca 1940, Jane Eyre 1943, Spellbound 1945, Mourning Becomes Electra 1947, Force of Evil 1948, War of the Worlds 1953) Costumes designed by Edith head
Starring Barbara Stanwyck as Thelma Jordon, Wendell Corey as Cleve Marshall, Paul Kelly as Miles Scott, Joan Tetzel as Pamela Blackwell Marshall, and Stanley Ridges as Kingsly Willes.
Barbara Stanwyck plays Thelma Jordon who uses a gullible attorney to cover up her crimes of murder and larceny, secretly in cahoots with her sleazy husband. As in Double Indemnity,Stanwyck masterfully plays a ‘vice-ridden murderess.’ She performs female masculinity, playing the aggressor— pursuing lovers, greed, and power.
Directed by Robert Siodmak, the film opens with Thelma in a small-town district attorney’s office reporting burglary attempts at the mansion she shares with her aunt. She begins an affair with DA Cleve Marshall (Wendell Corey), who is in a loveless marriage. Thelma is also married to the sinister Tony Laredo. An icy femme fatale who desires danger, she’s drawn to Tony’s equally nefarious nature and devours Cleve who is weakened by her magnetism. Thelma starts out the femme fatale, her fatal flaw is falling in love with Cleve, feeling remorse, and sacrificing herself to become redeemed in the end.
Thelma’s aunt is murdered in an apparent robbery and her emerald necklace is missing. Fearing Tony will be implicated, she cleans up the evidence and calls Cleve to help. Thelma is cold and calculating, casting Cleve as her lover and accomplice known only as Mr. X. Cleve tells her to shut the lights and pretend she was asleep when the police arrive. Cleve leaves, making sure to be seen but unrecognized by the butler who discovers Aunt Vera’s body.
When Tony’s alibi checks out, Thelma is arrested for murder. While the police try unsuccessfully to prove her guilt, she and Tony plan to leave town. By now Cleve has uncovered Thelma’s checkered past.
He accuses her of duplicity and Thelma admits he was part of the plot. When Cleve confronts her, Tony’s dark presence looms. The camera shows both men juxtaposed in the room, Tony’s dark presence looms— he is too irresistible to let go. Cleve is too normal and unselfish to be stimulating for her deviant desires. With both men framed in contrast, Thelma realizes she belongs with the dark and dangerous Tony. Tony beats Cleve to a pulp, leaving with Thelma.
But driving down a winding mountain road, Thelma’s pang of conscience gets the better of her, and she causes the car to plunge off the cliff. It’s a darkly romantic gesture, suicide by a flaming car crash is her attempt at redemption. She hopes with her death, Cleve can repair the ruination of his life. But this is noir, and he cannot wake from the nightmare.
Tony dies but Thelma lives long enough to confess her crimes. She does not give away Cleve as Mr. X, but Miles (Paul Kelly) is suspicious. His career in shambles, Cleve walks off into the uncertain shadows of noir. Thelma dies, redeemed. It’s noir universal justice, Thelma cannot get away with her Aunt’s murder and continue her affair. She must be brought down by fate’s hand.
Miles: ”She’s confessed everything except who her Mr. X is.”
Cleve looks at her “Why don’t you tell him?”
Thelma: “I love him, that’s why. I couldn’t go on with him Cleve. You did that for me. I’m glad I told. All my life struggling, the good and the bad.”
Cleve: “Save your strength darling.”
Thelma: ”Willis said I was two people, he was right. You don’t supposed they could just let half of me die?”
This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying, it’s great to spend time in the darkness of noir’s shadows & under the influence of fate’s pointed finger, but you gotta come out into the light til the next time around!