The Criminalization of Homosexuality in Popular Cinema
Summary and Keywords
In the early 1940s, films started to appear where homosexual characters were represented as inherently criminal. These early representations were often subtle or implicit because various production codes operating in the United States and United Kingdom forbade explicit depictions or naming of homosexuality. During the 1940s, homosexuality was associated with disease and sexual deviance. This ensured that these early depictions were unflattering. Gradually, as time progressed and homosexuality became a less taboo topic, representations of homosexual criminality became less coded and more explicit. Filmmakers became bolder in their treatment of the theme of homosexuality and crime. The most fascinating discovery is that, when it comes to popular culture and the cinema, murder is the crime that is typically associated with homosexuality. However, murder has been a mainstay of crime film plots and so it is not surprising that homicide features in films linked to crime and homosexuality. By the year 2000, it is apparent that the cinematic treatment of homosexuality and crime had evolved to become quite sophisticated. Whereas earlier films reviled their homosexual characters such that they attracted little empathy from the audience, these later films have sought to engender a greater tolerance and sympathy for the homosexual killers they depict. Finally, it is important to note that films that depict homosexuals as killers are not an expression of homophobic sentient per se. Crime films have long situated killing as an essential aspect of their plots, and so films that feature homosexuals as murderers are simply a subset of this most popular cinematic genre.
Filmic Interest in Homosexual Criminality
Homosexuality has often been associated with criminality in popular culture. This association, as Berry (1993, p. 39) observes, is itself derived from two profoundly powerful discourses:
The idea of a link between criminality and homosexuality is a persistent theme both in homophobic legal and psychoanalytical discourses … For many decades the medical profession saw homosexuality and criminality as closely correlated mental illnesses.
This chapter embarks on an exploration of how cinema has depicted homosexual characters as being aligned with a criminal subjectivity. Cinema (consumed in public theaters or on the smaller screen at home) is arguably the preeminent mode of visual representation in popular culture, and so cinematic representations form the focus of this article. While television, newspapers, and literature have also contributed ideas about homosexuality and criminality to popular culture, each of these three mediums would require separate exploration, which is beyond the purview of this chapter. Indeed, some of the films explored in this chapter were based on novels. After careful consideration of the totality of black and white and color films that canvass a thematic link between homosexuality and criminality, the films chosen for discussion stood out as being landmark films. That is, they are historically and culturally important in the evolution of cinemas’ depiction of homosexual deviance. A limitation of this approach is that many landmark films that deal with homosexual criminality had to be omitted. For example, the 1968 homophobic New York detective thriller The Detective (Summers, 2005) which features genital mutilation as part of the killer’s modus operandi is a reluctant omission. Another reluctant omission is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) whose plot (based on Genet’s 1947 novel) centers on a handsome Belgian sailor who is a thief and murderer. Similarly, many non-Anglophone (foreign language) films that canvass a link between homosexuality and criminality have also been reluctantly omitted. Often these films screened at film festivals or had very limited releases, so it is challenging to categorize them as “popular.” The importance of these films will be touched upon in the review of literature section.
This chapter cannot explore the totality of cinema that features a thematic link between homosexuality and criminality. Such an approach would lead to the production of a long list of dubious value due to its impoverished engagement with the films.
Each film will be situated by careful reference to the sociocultural context in which it emerged and was received at the time of its release. In this manner the nuanced way that each film represented homosexuality as a criminal subjectivity might be more meaningfully surveyed. To eschew such an approach would be to neglect the richness of plot, characterization, mise-en-scene, montage, and cinematography that each film possesses. The seven landmark films that will be explored are Dead of Night (1945), Rope (1948), Strangers on a Train (1951), Victim (1961), Cruising (1980), Swoon (1992), and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).
Before proceeding, it is worth noting that other sexualities have been controversially aligned with criminality in film. Paradoxically, despite the fact that lesbian sexuality has not been criminalized per se in most countries, a whole genre exists in which lesbians are coded as distinctly violent and/or criminal in cinematic representations. Smelik (2004), Franco (2003), and Hart (1994) have documented that there was a wave of art films in the mid-1990s featuring young lesbian killers that use murder to seal their love. In Smelik’s words, “passionate love leads to ceremonial killings” (2004, p. 69) in films such as Sister My Sister (1994, dir. Nancy Meckler), Fun (1994, dir. Rafal Zielinski), Heavenly Creatures (1994, dir. Peter Jackson), La Cérémonie (1995, dir. Lina Mannheimer), and Butterfly Kiss (1994, dir. Michael Winterbottom). These films depart from the earlier Hollywood stereotypes of the 1940s and 1950s in which dangerous lesbians are invariably killed off as revenge or punishment for their sexual transgressions (Russo, 1987). In these later queer films, the stereotype of “murderous lesbian chic” (Smelik, 2004, p. 77) that decreed that a dangerous lesbian would keep killing is disrupted. For as Smelik (2004, p. 73) asserts:
The women may be psychologically unstable, but they are not criminals who are likely to repeat their murderous acts.
Arguably the most controversial film to ever depict lesbian criminality is Butterfly Kiss. Drawing on audience responses to the film, Vares (2002) documents how many spectators were appalled by the film’s road/buddy plot, which basically centers around two women who go on a nihilistic murderous rampage. Vares (pp. 202, 224) elaborates that the film “provides no justification for the women’s violence, and this made it harder [for a spectator] to understand and accept their actions.”
The theme of lesbian killer is enduring in film. Barnes (2016) has documented that the Australian film maker Jennifer Kent is about to start filming Alice + Freda Forever, a film based on a real-life 1892 event where a 19-year-old Tennessee woman, Alice Mitchell, pretended to be a man in order to marry her 17-year-old lover, Freda Ward. After the discovery of love letters led to their forced separation, Alice slashed her lover’s throat and was committed to an asylum for the criminally insane. The case obsessed the U.S. public at the time “spreading a rash of pop-culture depictions of lesbians that portrayed them as masculine and murderous” (Barnes, 2016, unpaginated).
Bisexual criminality has also been explored in popular film. Bisexual criminal depictions include the terrifying Frank Booth in David Lynch’s menacing Blue Velvet (1986) and the psychopathic femme fatale ice-pick killer Catherine Tramell in the commercially successful Basic Instinct (1992, dir. Paul Verhoeven). Indeed, White (2001) found that bisexual killers were so ubiquitous during 1985–1998 that he classified the period as “Hollywood’s Bisexual crime wave.” And Jonathan Demme attracted much criticism for his depiction of the transsexual serial killer “Buffalo Bill” in Silence of the Lambs (1991). The film was criticized for being transphobic with Bill dehumanized as a monster who is trying to resolve his gender dysphoria by making a woman suit (as FBI agent Clarice Starling puts it) made from the skin of his victims (Halberstam, 1991). As fascinating as these other sexualities are, they have been omitted in this analysis because they stray from a strict focus on more dominant forms of representation related to male homosexuality.
Film 1: Dead of Night (1945)
One the earliest depictions of homosexuality as a criminal disposition appears in the Ealing Studio horror film Dead of Night (1945, dir. Alberto Cavalcanti). The film fails to name homosexuality because of production codes, but conveys its presence through a combination of characterization, narrative, and images that allows homosexual meaning to prevail.1 As Balter notes (2010, p. 753), “The film is structured on two levels: a genteel English country weekend to which witty and urbane guests have been invited; and five horror stories told by guests.” The fifth story can be read as a “bizarre homosexual love triangle” with Sylvester Kee, an American ventriloquist; at one point, Maxwell Frere [also a ventriloquist] at the second; and his dummy, Hugo Fitch, at the third (Hutchings, 1993, p. 33). The dummy is the key to the story, as Balter (2010, p. 772) notes:
He is not only Maxwell Frere’s ‘partner’, in their nightclub act; he also expresses all the masculine aggression, the misogynous scathing and hateful wit, the perky and impudent arrogance that the limp Frere cannot display in his own right. Hugo Fitch is not only Frere’s alter ego; he is also his phallic prosthesis.
Frere and Hugo are identifiable as possibly homosexual by the audience when we see them performing at the Paris nightclub Chez Beulah (Bourne, 1996, p. 17). They wear meticulously neat black suits when performing, complete with matching carnations pinned to their collars. The look is distinctly dandified in comparison to other suited men who appear in the film. They first meet Kee when performing and Hugo makes suggestive comments to him about going into business together. These comments are laden with sexual innuendo and delivered in a flirtatious tone. Hugo says, “You interest me, my man; you interest me quite a lot. We two could make beautiful music together.” Indeed after they have departed the stage, Hugo sticks his head out from behind the curtain and proclaims, “Sylvester … Sylvester, I’ll be waiting for you in my dressing room.”
Sylvester visits Frere in his dressing room. Frere demands that Kee promise that he will not steal his “partner” after Hugo pleads with Kee to “take me with you.” This plea is revealing for we become privy to the internal workings of Frere’s dual personality. It is he, not his inanimate dummy Hugo, who wants to be taken away by Kee. For Frere has split off his homosexual persona into Hugo. What we are clearly seeing is indicative of a divided self. Frere is unable to express his unnatural desires in his natural body—they can only be expressed through the unnatural body of the dummy.
A sequence in Dead of Night shows the subtle ways homosexuality was coded as “unnatural” when production codes prohibited explicit references to it (Hutchings, 1993, p. 24). Dead of Night frames homosexuality as a crime against nature—as something so terrible that it can only be permitted to manifest through the guise of a grotesque effigy of a man: a ventriloquist’s dummy. It is an important film in the evolution of representations of homosexual criminality because it is the first film that presented spectators with the images of homosexuality as intrinsically monstrous in nature. This notion of homosexuality as so unnatural that it will drive a man to murder (and eventually criminal insanity) is conveyed in the latter part of the film dealing with Frere’s breakdown as his homosexual alter ego (the dummy Hugo) becomes dominant. Hugo and Frere meet Kee again one evening in a London hotel and Hugo tells Kee their room number. Morning comes and Kee is woken to find Frere in his bedroom demanding to know where Hugo is. In a state of paranoid jealousy, Frere accuses Kee of stealing Hugo and searches the room for his missing dummy. Hugo is found, tellingly, at the foot of Sylvester Kee’s bed. The audience can only interpret that Frere has unconsciously taken Hugo to Kee’s room as a symptom of his desire to sleep with Kee.2 This is evident from the bewildered expression on Kee’s face when he sees Frere find Hugo. Frere flies into a homicidal rage and attempts to murder Kee by shooting him repeatedly with a revolver in a frenzied attack; his psychosis conveyed by a loud maniacal laugh and the spinning of the last frame that connotes his madness and fury.
Balter (2010, p. 774) observes, “Frere’s murderous attack on Kee brought Dr Van Straaten into the case as a psychiatric consultant.” The doctor visits Frere in prison and places the dummy in his cell, hoping that it will help elucidate some information from him. Frere’s “completeness” of identity is so dependent on possession of the dummy (his “partner”) that he is unable to speak of his crime until it is restored to him (Hutchings, 1993, p. 33). The audience assumes the inquisitive perspective of the psychiatrist as we peer through the cell spy hole and see what he sees transpire. Frere lovingly picks up the dummy and they converse together. This turns into a heated argument when Hugo tells Frere that Kee is recuperating from the gun shots and that he will be needing a “new partner.” Hugo refers to Kee adoringly as a “charming fellow” and taunts Frere by telling him that he intends to leave him in the “loony bin” and “team up” with Sylvester Kee. Frere is so enraged by Hugo’s threats that he takes a pillow and suffocates Hugo. The psychiatrist tries to intervene but the door is locked and so he (and the audience) can only look on as the monstrous dummy is subsequently stomped into pieces having been partially decapitated. Balter (2010, p. 775) describes this development in the film as “a psychological suicide through the destruction of the narcissistic homosexual object.” The unnatural homosexual desires of Maxwell Frere, as expressed through the unnatural body of the dummy Hugo, would appear to be silenced given that Frere’s homosexual personality could only manifest in the form of the dummy, which has now been destroyed.
In the film’s last scene the psychiatrist, Dr. Van Straaten, takes Sylvester Kee to see Frere in the mental hospital in the hope that his visit will release Frere from his catatonic state. Kee reluctantly approaches Frere and greets him. At first there is no response, but Frere gradually looks up at Kee lovingly and struggles to find his voice. His mouth drops open mechanically like a dummy as his scratchy, fledgling voice takes form. It is the once vanquished voice of Hugo: “Hello Sylvester, I’ve been waiting for you.” Bright light illuminates his face and the audience is confronted with the realization that Frere’s second personality (that of the diabolical homosexual “Hugo”) has in fact not been destroyed but has now become Frere’s dominant personality. The homosexual personality is presented as so strong that it has survived the physical destruction (death) of the dummy. And as, Tyler asserts, “the transference is now complete” (1993, p. 298). For the duality expressed through the ventriloquist/dummy dyad has ceased. Frere has assumed a single identity—that of the homosexual Hugo. Homosexual desire is so terrible that it has been forced into expression through an alternative personality that has now monstrously taken over. The transference of these unnatural desires from the unnatural body (of Hugo) into the natural body (of Frere) has terrible consequences. Frere has been declared insane (after the shooting) and his homosexual criminality has been rendered impotent by his incarceration in Broadmoor Asylum for the criminally insane. The spectator is confronted with reawakened homosexual desire, which is shown to be safely contained by Frere being locked in a padded cell. The audience is reassured by the knowledge that these desires will come to no avail as we behold Frere in his solitary cell, condemned to the throes of madness. Dr. Van Straaten concludes his narrative by lending his authority as an expert to his summation of the case: “He’s still there, one of the most complete examples of dual identity in the history of medical science.”
Film 2: Rope (1948)
Wahlert (2013, p. 163) notes that “Rope has a long legacy in gay cinema for being a film that at once explicitly and covertly represents the tendencies of homosexuals as homicidal.” It was made at a time when production codes policed any explicit acknowledgment of homosexuality (Greven, 2012). Screen play writer Arthur Laurents remarked:
Rope was obviously about homosexuals. The word was never mentioned, not by Hitch, not by anyone at Warners [Warner Brothers Studio]. It was referred to as ‘it’. They were going to do a picture about ‘it’ and the actors were ‘it.’
(as cited in Bouzereau, 2001)
In Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous film, homosexuality is framed as an unnatural version of marriage. Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) are Manhattan socialites who host dinner lavish parties in their opulent apartment. But their shared gender mocks the authenticity of their “married” life, rendering it perverse and repulsive. This is conveyed in the film through the character of Rupert representing the heterosexual social order and its norms (marriage and family life). His presence serves to expose Brandon and Philip as inhabiting an abnormally sealed and self-reliant world (their claustrophobic apartment); a world in which “true love” (heterosexuality) does not exist. Having initially positioned the audience to perceive Brandon as the charming, clever, and handsome mastermind who meticulously plans and then executes his murderous plan, a crucially important transference of identification takes place from Brandon to Rupert Cadell. Inaugurated by the functioning of the Hollywood star system (James Stewart taking precedence over John Dall), Rupert seizes the role of metteur-en-scene as he reconstructs how David was murdered. The spectator sees the room from his perspective, and the camera effectively comes under his control, illustrated by its movements with every step of Rupert’s discourse. As his reconstruction of the crime develops we are compelled to identify with Rupert as he invites the audience to (re)visualize the crime and in doing so makes his exposure and denunciation of the crime so powerful (Wood, 1995, p. 214). Having discovered the body and pieced together the boys’ “warped motive” (his words) for the crime, he delivers an impassioned speech: the sort that traditionally provides the spectator with the explanation or rationale for the terrible crime they have been exposed to:
There must have been something deep inside you from the very start that let you do this thing. But there’s always been something deep inside me that would never let me do it … You’ve murdered. You’ve strangled the life out of a fellow human being who could live and love as you never could.
(Miller, 1991, p. 127, original emphasis)
That “something” is the homosexuality of the men, which is invested with the quality of innate evil. Rupert pathologizes this as the very thing that impelled their murderous actions. The “something” that would never let him commit murder is his heterosexuality (implied in the film through his romantically tinged conversations with Mrs. Wilson).
The sense of loss linked to the murder of David Kentley is that he could “live and love” as they never could—his heterosexuality explicitly conveyed in references to his romantic ties to a female character Janet that affords him status as a victim. Brandon and Phillip, in being unable to live and love like Phillip, are all the more repugnant for having murdered a man more worthy of life than themselves. The audience is positioned to embrace Rupert’s condemnation of the impossibility of true homosexual love; since this love is only “an imitation of revered heterosexual love” (Hepworth, 1995, p. 191). Thus Rupert’s speech has achieved the symbolic restoration of the heterosexual male subject (Miller, 1991, p. 128).
In Rope Brandon remarks that it was a pity they had to draw the curtains before strangling David Kentley; the murder should have taken place in broad daylight. Brandon and Philip are so deluded by the Nietzschean concept of the superman that they “believe that David is inferior to them and they can murder him without repercussions” (Greven, 2012, p. 7). Brandon’s perverse desire to have his murder (as work of art) acknowledged is the very reason he organizes an impromptu party. For the murder lacked the essential component that gives a work of art meaning: an audience. This explains why Brandon drops hints alluding to the murder to his assembled guests. For him the party is the “inspired finishing touch to our work” and the “signature of the artist.” Their inability to perceive the boundaries of moral, lawful behavior by conceiving of the crime as a work of art is presented as a symptom of the two men’s degeneracy. That they also derived some sort of sexual pleasure from the murder act is linked to their depraved psyche. Indeed the first dialogue between Brandon and Philip after the murder is laced with postcoital nuances that would have escaped the censors but manages to convey covert reference to sexual pleasure derived from the act:
‘How did you feel during it?’ ‘I don’t remember feeling much of anything—until his body went limp, and I knew it was over, then I felt tremendously exhilarated.’
And as Greven (2012, p. 18) notes, “The gloves that the killers wear lend their perusal of David’s body for any lingering signs of life a fetishistic kinkiness.” But if Rope is a film about two homosexuals who commit murder as an artistic act, the film frames this excessive artistic cleverness as their undoing. This is conveyed in a scene where Phillip berates Brandon for tying up some books with the rope used to kill David Kentley. This is Brandon’s idea of extending the murder as “a work of art” by embellishing the diner party with verbal and visual “clues” to the murder. The reference to the homosexual’s stereotypical neatness lends a sense of irony to Phillip’s fearful comment that Brandon’s foolish actions will be their downfall: “You’ll ruin everything with your neat little touches.” Greven notes (2012, p. 7): “In Brandon’s fiendish master stroke, they decide to serve the meal on the long, rectangular chest in which David’s body lies rather than on the table that has already been set by the housekeeper Mrs. Wilson.” This decision will ultimately be there undoing when Rupert returns after the other guests have left, flings open the “chest-coffin” and, to his horror, discovers David’s body within it (Greven, 2012, p. 7).
The loathsome glances they exchange during conversation offer ample evidence for the audience that these two men are not only detestable, but detest each other. One can interpret these images as each man seeing in the other a reflection and constant reminder of his own sickness and evil (Wood, 1995, p. 211). Their artistic embellishment of the murder (by hosting the party laden with visual and verbal clues) provides the spectator with evidence of their sick, depraved minds. This first artistic act of crime is also their swan song. For Rupert completes the puzzle by deciphering the clues Brandon provides to diagnose that their diseased minds have led them to murder. In doing so Rupert’s character symbolically proves that heterosexual morality will eventually triumph over homosexuality immorality.
In the last scene Rupert opens the window to the claustrophobic apartment and fires a gun. The street noise permeates the room and the audience deduces that the people in the outside world will summon the police, who will ensure that the two morally degenerate homosexual killers face justice, as prophesied by Rupert earlier:
It’s not what I’m going to do Brandon, it’s what society’s going to do. I don’t know what that will be but I can guess. And I can help! You’re going to die, Brandon, both of you. You’re going to die!
The film ends with the protagonists awaiting arrest, and the looming promise that those who reign in the seat of justice will surely send these two pathologically evil gay killers to the electric chair at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.
Film 3: Strangers on a Train (1951)
Perhaps the most sinister representation of the homosexual criminal ever depicted in cinema is that of the deadly sophisticate Bruno Anthony in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951). The nuances of the “sissy” character are evident in Bruno Anthony’s characterization as a spoiled, mentally unstable playboy who lives with his rich parents. During a meeting on a train, he forms a pact with champion tennis player and aspiring politician Guy Haines in which they will “swap murders—‘crisscross.’” Bruno is represented as a decadent man. His opulent tastes and meticulously well attired appearance functions as a metaphor for corruption of a seductive type. He alludes to his very difference himself when he tells Guy, “I’m not like you, Guy.”
This difference is conveyed to the audience in a scene in which the camera frames Bruno’s profile with an amusement park attraction in the background signposted in bold type “INTERNATIONAL ODDITIES.” The image functions to name this “obvious” homosexual as the intriguing oddity that he is. His coldness and perverse imagination combined with his charmingly persuasive manner enables him to seduce Guy into reluctantly becoming entwined in his plans.
The opening scene in Strangers on a Train where Bruno recognizes Guy from the newspapers and insists that Guy join him for lunch in the stateroom marks the inception of the notion of Bruno as Guy’s persecuting insane double. Guy is subjected to what Barton appropriately terms as Bruno’s “hideous glances” (1995, p. 226). This effectively functions as a form of mesmerism whereby Guy falls prey to Bruno’s ability to insinuate himself into the fabric of his life. It is Guy’s exposure to Bruno’s malignant presence that is shown to taint his good character. Bruno forces Guy into becoming complicitous in his evil scheme to exchange murders. Guy tells Bruno that he is returning to Texas to divorce his wife Miriam who is pregnant with another man’s baby (Corber, 1991, p. 70). Bruno offers to kill Guy’s unfaithful wife if Guy will kill Bruno’s father. This act would free Guy to marry his girlfriend Anne Morton. Despite being entranced by Bruno, Guy realizes that he is deranged. He makes the mistake of humoring him, not entirely realizing that Bruno is deadly serious. They depart but Bruno thinks a pact has been established and so he kills Miriam and then stalks Guy to try and intimidate him into returning the favor.
Strangers on a Train contrasts the normal with the abnormal as the audience watches the deranged homosexual villain Bruno stalking Guy. Corber (1991, p. 73) “condenses this scenarization of the ‘homosexual menace’ into one of the film’s most powerful images.” The well-lit public spaces of Washington, DC, are shown as the domain inhabited by Guy as he seeks sanctuary from his monstrous double. Bruno emerges as a dark spectral silhouette on the steps of public buildings. He haunts the shadows (suitably dressed in a black suit) and is filmed enveloped in darkness in a variety of locations (including the shaded stand at the tennis tournament). His presence contaminates these clean public spaces representing the “light” of patriarchal order. The relegation of the homosexual to the shadows and the heterosexual to the light is suitably befitting given the binary oppositions of good/evil, light/darkness, and innocence/guilt that are structured in popular culture and enable the viewer to read a character in accordance to such a code. Similarly, while the essentially good character of Guy is depicted exerting himself through the strenuous game of tennis resplendent in his tennis whites, the entirely bad Bruno is depicted languidly strolling about clad in black on his way to plant a cigarette lighter to frame Guy for Miriam’s murder. The juxtaposition of the active (heterosexual) male engaged in a healthy pursuit (sport) with the relatively passive (homosexual) male endeavoring to apply his sick mind to the execution of another crime (framing Guy) works to construct Guy as an obvious victim and Bruno as an obvious criminal type.
In inviting the spectator to read Bruno as Guy’s monstrous double, Barton has pointed out that the profusion of doubling motifs, which appear in the first scene—particularly the crisscrossed tennis rackets on Guy’s cigarette lighter reinforce this linkage (1995, p. 218).3 Guy’s stable heterosexual identity is subsequently threatened by his encounter with this decadent homosexual whose elegant suits symbolize a veneer of excess and feminine vanity in comparison to Guy’s informal sports coat that signifies practicality and normative masculinity. The most obvious detail of mise-en-scene that immediately displays the sexual difference between Bruno and Guy is conveyed in the opening scenes in which the camera frames the feet of the men as providing dues to their identity before we see their faces. Guy wears inconspicuous brown lace-up shoes befitting his status as an upwardly mobile tennis player. These are the shoes of a mild mannered, inoffensive heterosexual man. His antagonistic “other,” Bruno, wears two-toned patent leather wing-tipped shoes whose semiotics in the film symbolize his decadence (coded as abnormality) and effeminacy. Much has been made about the ability of Strangers on a Train to be read as a cold war allegory about the menace posed by homosexuality: how homosexuals could “pass” as straight men and undermine national security by being targets of blackmail (Corber, 1991). Corber (1991, pp. 71–72) poses the question:
But if homosexuals … could ‘pass’, then how could they be distinguished from heterosexuals at the level of cinematic representation? One way that Hitchcock tries to resolve this dilemma is by adhering to the stereotype of the effeminate male homosexual.
Bruno’s effeminate vanity is expressed through his appearance. In one scene we see him: “lounging in a silk robe in the richly appointed living room of his father’s estate while his mother manicures his nails” (Corber, 1991, p. 71). He is coded as insufficiently masculine and the audience reads this as indicative of his moral corruption: a corruption in which he luxuriates, deriving pleasure from imagining and ultimately carrying out his crime. This is apparent as we witness him seductively luring Miriam to her death on the island near the amusement park. Corber notes (1991, p. 76), “although she has come to the park with two other men, she seems to want Bruno to pick her up. She constantly looks to see if he is still following her.” She blindly mistakes his seductive gaze, as he stalks her, for innocent flirtation. She pays dearly for her inability to see his malevolent true nature. In one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated screenshots, we behold Miriam’s strangulation from the perspective of the mirroring lenses of a huge replica of her unfashionable glasses that have fallen to the ground (Greenberg, 1993, p. 130). As Guy’s monstrous double, Bruno enacts Guy’s spoken desire on the telephone to his fiancée Anne: “I could strangle her little neck!” But the spectator is repulsed by Bruno’s violent behavior because despite the fact that Guy desired his wife’s removal from his life, it is the intrinsically evil Bruno who commits the diabolical act. The message is unambiguous. Heterosexual men may well desire the death of their wives, but the enactment of this terrible desire can only be facilitated by the presence of a deviant man who personifies an equally terrible desire—homosexuality. It is as Greenberg has observed about the representation of homosexuality in Strangers on a Train: “Hitchcock presents sexual disorder and perverse wishes through a glass darkly, concealed in the cloak of criminality” (1993, p. 130).
Bruno’s flagrant disrespect for the law and those who uphold it is conveyed in a scene where he brazenly provokes a judge at a party he has intruded upon: “Tell me judge, after you’ve sentenced a man to the chair, isn’t it difficult to go out and eat dinner after that?” In contrast, Guy’s friendly, respectful behavior toward the police officers who follow him (as a suspect) is framed as evidence of his reverence for the law and its enforcers. The heterosexual man is thus presented as law abiding and law fearing; the homosexual man as both breaking the law and mocking its authority by treating a member of the judiciary with disdain.
In terms of the film’s dénouement we are presented with the restoration of Guy as a heterosexual male who will no longer reluctantly collude with his evil homosexual “double.” In doing so he becomes worthy of respect despite his past complicity with the murderous plans. Guy and Bruno are spinning out of control on a carousel at the amusement park (the controller having been shot). We see Bruno and Guy grappling on the floor of the carousel in a blurred and disorienting scene where the phallic poles and a horse’s hoof pumping up and down in the frame would seem to suggest that the foot fetish has returned as a sign of homoerotic desire (Barton, 1995, p. 231). Bruno’s deviance is, as Barton remarks, reasserted in a final scene where he grasps at the fetishized horse’s hoof and kicks Guy’s hand. But the carousel explodes and Bruno is thrown off and killed. Surprisingly, Guy is not killed by the apocalyptic destruction of carousel. Instead his restoration as a resolutely heterosexual man (now safe from the corrupting influences of the homosexual Bruno) enables him to partner with his fiancée Anne on a train journey which mirrors the journey at the start of the film when he first met Bruno, save for one significant difference. A minister on the train repeats Bruno’s destabilizing question: “Aren’t you Guy Haines?” (which heralded the assault on the stability of Guy’s heterosexual identity whereby Bruno tried to corrupt Guy into participating in murderous acts). Guy and Anne leave the compartment without answering the priest. Guy has learned not to talk to strangers having once been exposed to a dangerous homosexual man who very nearly cost him his heterosexual masculinity, his liberty, and his life.
Film 4: Victim (1961)
Basil Dearden’s film Victim (1961) was “the first British film to center its narrative on male homosexuality” (Medhurst, 1984, p. 22) and to candidly and overtly plead for its social acceptance.4 Victim’s story of homosexual blackmail equated homosexual invisibility with the [then] UK law’s relegation of homosexuals to a lawless subculture in which they became victims of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. This statute so effectively criminalized homosexuality that it came to be known as the “Blackmailer’s Charter” (Coldstream, 2011, p. 14). Victim has the unique status of being specifically seen at the time of its release by Rank Studios as a liberal film campaigning against the legal oppression of male homosexuals (Jones, 1996, p. 271). As such it arose out of a particular tradition of “social problem realism” in British cinema whereby filmmakers like Dearden sought to influence changes in societal attitudes (Murphy, 1992, p. 28).5 The film puts forward the same point of view as the Wolfenden Committee, that the law should be changed and homosexuality between consenting adults decriminalized (Medhurst, 1984, p. 24). Medhurst (1984, p. 22) argues that Victim needs to be read and understood against the “historical specificities of [its] moment of production.” Indeed, at the time the film was made, the topic of homosexuality was so controversial that it is recounted that many leading actors offered the leading role, “backed away like rearing horses in terror at the subject [homosexuality]” (Coldstream, 2011, p. 9).
In Melville Farr (Dirk Bogarde)6 we are presented with the archetypal closeted homosexual who, in passing as a normal, successful, married man, appears to be the epitome of respectability. Farr is depicted as being both inside the law (as an agent of justice—a barrister) and outside the law (as homosexual lawbreaker). Similarly, he is inside the law (as a crusader against blackmail) and outside (as a gay man implicated in blackmail). Gradually his “secret” life as a furtive homosexual is revealed, culminating in a shocking scene where his homosexuality is named by a blackmailer who paints the slogan “Farr is queer” on his garage door for the whole neighborhood to behold. Later in the film, the blackmailer Sandy mockingly quotes a Latin dictum to Farr to remind him that, despite being a successful barrister, his homosexuality would render him perverse and guilty in the eyes of the law:
My motto’s different from yours: ‘Menssana in corpore sano’ It wouldn’t take the magistrate long to decide who’d got the clean mind in the healthy body.
(Coldstream, 2011, p. 75)
The terrifying power of exposure blackmailers wielded was provided by the United Kingdom’s [then] laws that criminalized homosexual acts and allowed blackmailers to traffic in the “sale of silence” (Moran, 1996, p. 52). Paradoxically, it is the threat of exposure that spurs Farr into action as he sets out to identify and stop the blackmailers (which becomes central to the film’s plot). Farr enlists the help of a man named Eddy to locate the blackmailers, asking him to “Watch for fear. Fear is the oxygen of blackmail” (Coldstream, 2011, p. 55). The audience is accordingly presented with a variety of fearful men who display nervous looks, frightened gestures, and speak to each other in a covert manner. Through representations of their fearfulness their homosexuality is made visible. A Rolls Royce car salesman named Philip personifies this character type in Victim. We see him mopping his brow nervously while on the telephone as he hysterically submits to the demands of the blackmailers. This shot is typical of the emotive montage used to bring a scene to a close on an image of a homosexual character’s face distorted with fear.7 In presenting such images the film invites the audience to closely analyze these men as we too watch for these “signs of fear” (doubling as signs of homosexuality). Victim is organized around the investigation of crime (theft, then blackmail), and the agents of investigation are the agents of the law. This means that the victim image (victims of blackmail, victims of the law) is reinforced by the gay characters’ narrative passivity (Dyer, 1993, p. 99). The film rewards the vigilant spectator who detects the fearfulness of the many homosexual blackmail victims paraded across the screen before their victim status is confirmed later in the film.
Victim is a solidly crafted film in the thriller/detective genre. Although the key investigator is not a police officer, he is still an agent of the law: the barrister Melville Farr. American film noir, which Victim stylistically echoes, often featured homosexual characters.8 A major generic element of film noir was that it dealt with characters, themes, and settings that were considered “abnormal, corrupt or deviant in some way” (Jones, 1996, p. 272). Victim makes use of this tradition in its creation of a secretive, oppressive homosexual underworld at the prey of blackmailers. Many of the images in Victim are predominantly negative and frame homosexuality as a secretive, miserable existence where one is preoccupied with protecting one’s terrible secret from being exposed. In a typical scene that positions the spectator to pity the homosexual, we are presented with a barber named Henry who is jumpy and defensive in his conversation with Farr about his being blackmailed. He reveals he has been to prison four times as a result of his homosexuality. Apologetic for his very existence, his status of victim is explicitly conveyed in the regretful tone in which he delivers his line:
Nature played me a dirty trick, I’m going to see I get a few years peace and quiet in return. [To Farr] There’s no magic cure for how we are … certainly not behind prison bars … l’ve come to feel like a criminal and an outlaw.
But the solace Henry seeks is shown by the film as undeserved for he is punished for his affliction when the thuggish blackmailer smashes up his barber shop in a traumatic attack that causes him to suffer a fatal heart attack. In this sense Victim prompts the audience to pity the homosexual who must suffer an undignified demise only days before retiring for a more peaceful life.
Victim ends with Farr facing a humiliating trial. His final act is to tear up the photograph of himself with his boyfriend, Boy Barrett, which the blackmailers had sent him, and throw it in the fire. The audience is positioned to perceive homosexual men as deserving of pity and sympathy for their terrible plight. Farr repudiates his homosexuality (and the memory of a platonic relationship) by destroying the very photograph that no longer represents a threat to his life. This diminishes the impact of all the previous positive images of Farr as a brave man crusading against injustice. The ambiguity inherent in Victim is perhaps a suitable reflection of the era in which the film was made. Its plea for tolerance is tempered by framing homosexuals as weak individuals whose lives are rendered miserable by the curse of having to live with their affliction. As the film fades to the credits the audience beholds the tortured face of a man whose life is in ruins: his wife, Laura, has been forced to leave him and his prospects of “taking silk” (being made a Queen’s Counsel) have been dashed. In exposing the blackmail ring his homosexuality has been made visible. The film suggests that Farr’s impending criminal court case will at best damage his professional reputation and, at worse, potentially see him incarcerated for homosexual offenses.
And yet the audience is still positioned to admire Farr for the courageous stance he is about to take in his resolve to, as he puts it, “go into court as myself and draw attention to the fault in the existing law.” Victim is thus complicated by the fact that its overt message (that the law regarding homosexuality should be liberalized) and one of its covert messages (that homosexuality is a sickness and not natural) are both aspects of the dominant ideology concerning homosexuality in 1961.
Victim succeeded in drawing attention to the plight of homosexuals at the mercy of two forms of oppression—blackmailers and the law (that would harness the very “crime” that the blackmailers revealed to prosecute them and, in many cases, send them to prison). The film can be credited with providing the first positive homosexual screen images that gay men were quick to embrace (Bourne, 1996). Bourne reminds us that in 1961, the importance of a film like Victim cannot be underestimated: “Since gay political action cannot exist without bringing into open homosexual desire, then Victim performed a vital action” (1996, p. 161). Victim contributed to the impetus for change to a law that relegated homosexuality to a criminal condition that itself underwrote blackmail opportunities. A gay man named Christopher Coates articulated the frustration and anger felt by gay men who perceived in Victim “a reminder that the law stigmatised ‘us’: Subconsciously we were sick of being ‘criminal’” (Bourne, 1996, p. 241).
Victim’s ambivalence toward homosexuals (as an unnatural condition and yet deserving greater sympathy and tolerance) is mitigated by the fact that the film’s articulation of homosexual desire helped foster social debate that helped pave the way for the decriminalization of consensual homosexual acts in 1967 (see Moran, 1996). Indeed, Coldstream argues that Victim played a significant role in helping shift public sentiment in favor of decriminalization. As evidence, he cites that the swing in popular opinion favoring law reform is heralded by the 8th Earl of Arran (who piloted the bill through the House of Lords) as being “in no small measure due to Victim” (Coldstream, 2011, p. 9). Indeed, Medhurst (1984) and Coldstream (2011) are at pains to point out that many closeted gay men were emboldened by Victim to fashion a more positive and public self-identity that rejected the tired old pathology of “sick” and “deviant” that had bedeviled them prior to the film’s release. In that sense, the brave character Melville Farr acted as a hero who encouraged homosexual visibility at a time when increased visibility was precisely what was required to assist homosexual law reform in the United Kingdom.
Film 5: Cruising (1980)
William Friedkin’s controversial film Cruising is a film that has long attracted notoriety for its depiction of a gay serial killer. The release of the film was greeted with vocal opposition, protests, and rioting by New York’s gay community for its negative depiction of gay sexuality (Stewart, 1993; Wilson, 1981). Arthur Bell, a founding member of the Gay Activists Alliance in New York City, called Cruising a “snuff film” decreeing that it sent “a message to go out and murder and decapitate gays” (Guthmann, 1980, p. 2). Friedkin’s realization that his film conveyed potently negative images of homosexuality prompted him to add a disclaimer (in the form of subtitles) to all prints of the film that read, “This film is not intended as an indictment of the homosexual world. It is set in one small segment of that world, which is not meant to be representative of the whole” (as transcribed by Watney, 1982, p. 107). Even if one accepts the sincerity of Friedkin’s comments, in the filmic images that follow the disclaimer, this segment of the gay community is depicted as monstrous and pathologically deviant in the extreme. This is achieved through the deployment of synecdochal images that encourage the spectator to read the “part” (the violent, bleak S/M world of the leather men) as representative of the “whole” of gay community.
The film’s plot is death driven: violent murders carry the narrative forward. Cruising operates by positioning the audience to perceive the gay men depicted in the film as modern day vampires. The homosexual clubs are presented as dark, cavernous places, visually analogous with the vampire’s lair. Steve, an undercover police officer, is frequently filmed descending stairs; plunging himself (and the audience) into the alien world of the hard core leather bar with its bizarre sadomasochistic rituals. And just as vampires can only come out at night, the men who frequent these clubs (particularly the killer) are framed by the film as requiring darkness in order to operate. Indeed all the murders occur at night and the refrain from a hard rock song alluding to a vampire searching for prey is heard after some of the murders occur: “Well it’s dangerous out here tonight, but a soul’s got to eat.”
In agreeing to go undercover, Steve is told by the police captain that the assignment is dangerous because he must go “out there” to see if he can attract the killer. Steve replies “out where?,” and is told he must infiltrate the gay leather scene that is “a world unto itself.” As such the killer’s territory is depicted as a place where the “others” in society dwell, and as such “normal,” heterosexual citizens are safe from the killer due to the hiddenness of his world. Thus the film presents the social world as a divided realm: one half inhabited by “normal” people, the other inhabited by the others—the easily identifiable homosexual world of the S/M clubs and bars.
Gay sex in Cruising is depicted as painful; devoid of love; and, in its extreme form, as violent and clinically impersonal. Men are filmed engaging in sadomasochistic sexual practices that are made to appear all the more brutal and other by the frenetic camera movement; dimly lit interiors; and the pulsating, intimidating rock music accompanying these scenes. During one particular visit to such a club Steve encounters a drab gray world inhabited by men ritualistically whipping and torturing each other. The audience is positioned to be repulsed and shocked by the camera framing a man smearing lubricant onto his hand. His actions are not shown but the camera frames the contorted face of his passive partner.
The sexual acts depicted involve multiple partners and are represented as serial acts by extremely promiscuous men. Cruising equates serial sex with serial killing: the former providing a foundation from which the latter will manifest as the logical extension of the deviant sexual practices. In one club, Steve is confronted with men dressed as police officers: his unease conveyed by his face registering shock at the sight of giant handcuffs, batons, and the shrill sound of police whistles blowing. He is asked to leave because of his “wrong attitude” to “precinct night.” The audience is positioned to identify with Steve. We see the club from Steve’s perspective and in sharing his voyeuristic gaze (the men in the club stare back at the audience in response to us staring at them), we are positioned to identify with him in feeling disconcerted and disgusted by this inversion of the “real” cop being confronted with men engaging in deviant sexual practices while masquerading as police.
In Cruising, Stuart—the serial killer at large—is depicted as essentially vampiric in nature. He is shown to thrive on killing new victims in order to survive. His modus operandi [which Friedkin modeled on several real-life Greenwich Village murders] (Tucker, 1979) is centered around him seducing his victims into accompanying him to a secluded place where he usually kills them in a fervent stabbing frenzy.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Cruising is its positing of the notion that homosexual sex will ultimately culminate in death. This is often conveyed in Cruising, though to best effect in a scene where a fashion designer (a stereotypical gay character) leaves his studio as the daylight is fading and drives to a seedy part of the city. His journey from the bright and elegant uptown streets to his darkly framed destination is made all the more menacing by the somber sounds of a cello that seem to conspire with the scene’s darkness to forebode danger. He is shown entering a booth at a pornographic cinema to engage in sex with the killer. The men make contact as they watch the film and we see the killer’s knife framed in silhouette against the face of a man on the screen who is smiling and looking down as he is being fellated by another man. This image of homosexual sex in its essential form is followed by the image of the killer’s knife plunging into the victim. As the knife is wielded before the next stab we see more homoerotic images in silhouette on the screen—this time of a man in red briefs getting undressed. This is contrasted with the agonized expression of the victim reflected in the mirrored lenses of the killer’s (Stuart’s) sunglasses, immediately followed by a final image on the screen—a naked man lathering his buttocks with soap suds. The camera holds this image as the audience sees blood splattering onto the small screen (that of the porno cinema). The pornographic film ends (to the sound of the projector spluttering to a halt) at the precise moment the victim is shown to die. The killer echoes his customary comment, “You made me do it,” before departing the booth. By juxtaposing the image of a gay man deriving pleasure from sex (on the screen within the screen) with the foregrounded image of a man being savagely stabbed to death, a crude equation is conveyed to the spectator: the ecstatic pleasure embodied in gay sex is synonymous with the psychotic pleasure derived by the killer. The two things—murder and gay sex—are presented as equally monstrous. One equates to the other, and furthermore, murder is shown as a natural (inevitable) consequence of homosexual acts. Homosexuality is shown as a precursor to the murder act compounded by the notion that homosexuality predisposes gay men to be victims of the murder act. It is as Vito Russo asserted, “The monster in Friedkin’s horror film is homosexuality itself” (1987, p. 261).
The victims the audience witnesses getting murdered in Cruising are all presented as being lured to their deaths through the promise of sex. In their quest for sex, the men accompany the killer willingly to secluded locations. Cruising suggests that the men are partially to blame for their demise because they sought anonymous sex with a stranger.
As Cruising progresses, Steve’s resolutely heterosexual orientation is shown to be wavering. His undercover life has exposed him to a lifestyle that is eliciting homosexual desires previously dormant in his identity. The police captain ascribes no importance to the gay men who are being murdered, referring to them as “scared, weird little guys.” He implores Steve to keep working on the case despite Steve protesting that the case is “affecting” him and that he “can’t handle it.” The captain’s comment that Steve is “up to his ass in this” [the case] registers a chord with the audience who have been privy to Steve’s emerging feelings that he might be evolving a gay identity.
The killer, Stuart, is arrested by Steve in a dramatic scene where he attempts to knife Steve in Central Park but is wounded when Steve retaliates, stabbing him. The dénouement is provided by the captain who charges Stuart with eight counts of murder in the hospital and explains [as an aside for the benefit of the screen audience] that Stuart’s homicidal tendencies were motivated by a desire to obtain approval from his dead father by killing the very people who embodied the thing he most hated about himself: homosexual attraction. Despite the fact that the crimes are solved and the perpetrator brought to justice, we are presented with a fresh crime scene attended by the captain. A gentle, kind, gay character named Ted Bailey who lives in Steve’s apartment building is shown lying dead in a pool of blood having been stabbed to death. The audience is left to ponder whether Steve has committed this murder, a revelation mirrored by the worried expression on the captain’s face. This scene cuts to one of Steve entering a gay bar as twilight is fading, to the sound of sinister music. A spectator might likely conclude from these images that through intimate contact with the violent gay S/M underworld, Steve has been seduced into becoming homosexual and subsequently manifested into a gay killer. Russo asserts the audience is left with the message that “Homosexuality is not only contagious but inescapably brutal” (1987, p. 259).
As the film concludes, Steve is depicted staring at a mirror (framed as the audience) deep in contemplation and visibly anguished by what the spectator might interpret as his awareness that he has been (reluctantly) seduced into the vampiric gay world. The ending suggests he might well be a killer.9 Indeed this possibility that the cycle of murderous violence may continue is reinforced by the film ending with a scene of a tugboat traversing New York Harbor, which takes the viewer back to the an almost identical opening scene in which a severed arm from a gay corpse is found floating in the harbor.
Film 6: Swoon (1992)
Wahlert points out that “Films of the late 1980s and early 1990 made by non-queer gay and lesbian filmmakers attempted to disavow all the charges levied against homosexuality: that it was a sickness; that it signifies a predisposition to criminality and violence” (2013, p. 150). In contrast, films made during the same period by queer-minded filmmakers of the so-called New Queer Cinema “choose not to avoid these charges but to deconstruct them and, to a certain degree, embrace them” (Wahlert, 2013, p. 150). Such an embracing attitude is heralded in the promotional film poster of arguably the most well-known New Queer Cinema film: “Swoon: Puts the Homo Back in Homicide” (Wahlert, 2013, p. 167).
Swoon10 (dir. Tom Kalin) audaciously inverts the previous filmic notion that a homosexual relationship was an “unnatural” mockery of marriage. Like Rope, it draws inspiration from the real-life Leopold and Loeb case,11 though Swoon concentrates on the homosexual relationship between the two men, particularly the hold that the pathological Leopold had over Loeb. Kalin does not shirk from the reality that these characters are criminally inclined. In an interview he candidly stated, “we’re in a sorry state if we can’t afford to look at ‘unwholesome’ gay people” (Jones, 1996, p. 285).
Swoon uses black and white as a sign of history and memory as the spectator is invited to (re)evaluate the mythology surrounding the Leopold and Loeb case (Francke, 1992, p. 59).12 In the first half of the film we are “positioned to identify with Leopold through images that equate his deviance with glamour” (Taubin, 1992, p. 37). His homosexuality places him outside the law; yet this works to connect him to the seductively appealing underworld of Chicago, which is presented as a world of dancing, frivolity, and free-flowing liquor (despite Prohibition). The second half of the film abandons Leopold’s subjectivity as the crime is filtered through various institutional perspectives—psychoanalytic, criminological, and legalistic—all of them framed by the film as homophobic discourses.
Swoon presents the kidnap and murder as one of the many crimes planned by the duo: an extreme outcome of a long and tangled relationship that revolved around the exchange of sex for criminal activity. In an opening scene that celebrates their besotted love, the men kiss and exchange rings in a deserted factory enveloped in a bright light that seeps through the rafters. The tenderness and beauty of this romantic scene powerfully suggests to the audience that this is indeed true binding love of the type that equates to heterosexual love:
Nathan: “If I do what you want”
Richard: “I’ll do what you want”
This forging of unholy “marriage” vows inaugurates their shared “partnership” in crime. This reflects the actual findings of the court as reflected in an excerpt from the judgment conceptualizing the crime as a contract involving the exchange of crime for sex:
Leopold acquiesced in Loeb’s criminalistic endeavors and received in return opportunities for certain twisted biological satisfactions.
The film insists upon a reading that acknowledges that this is a “marriage” based on love and desire. Swoon suggests that Leopold and Loeb unconsciously used violent crime “to resist their imminent separation and passage into adulthood, marriage and family” (Kalin, 1992, unpaginated).
The closeness of the men’s “marriage” is conveyed when Loeb alludes to Leopold’s desire for them to be bound together as a “couple” (as the crime has achieved through a shared bound of guilt): “You want to get caught. If you could get pregnant you would.” Nathan smiles as if to acknowledge the truth of his desire to be bound to Richard as heterosexual married couples are through children. Swoon frames the intense desire of the men to stay together as ultimately offering a motive for their crimes. Nathan’s diary [as read aloud the audience in the film] testifies to this truth: “May 23rd 1924: Killing Bobby Franks together will join Richard and I for life.”14 Paradoxically, the film demonstrates how both men’s prayers are answered through crime. Richard becomes a notorious criminal and Nathan’s love for Richard is made public.
During the subsequent trial for murder, Swoon re-creates the court scenes in which the discourse of law invokes the notion of this relationship as one that is distinctly unnatural and abhorrent in comparison to natural (heterosexual desire). Wahlert astutely observes of this scene involving expert testimony:
Kalin provides us with images of Leopold and Loeb kissing, kissing, embracing and undressing one another on a large bed. The camera begins to pull back, and we discover that this bed is situated within the gallery of the courtroom. Swoon implies that it is not only the murderous act that is on trial but also the sexual nature of the pair’s relationship.
(2013, p. 163)
The prosecutor addresses the court in Swoon [in language culled from the trial transcript]: “Your Honour, I want to remind this court that the basic motive of this case is the desire to satisfy unnatural lusts.” He goes on to call upon the notion of an aggrieved society in demanding that the men die for their crime: “In the name of the people of Illinois, in the name of the fatherhood and the womanhood and the children, we are asking for death by hanging. Do not let them go free or allow their spawn to be thrown into society.”15
Swoon may well present Richard and Nathan as reprehensible criminals bound in a “compact” (a surrogate form of marriage) who brutally murder a young boy. Yet the film profoundly touches on the depth of their love in a scene where the audience sees Nathan grieving after Richard’s murder in prison. He howls alone in his cell and is eventually swathed in a crude straightjacket. His mummified appearance suggests a partial death from which he will never quite recover: the bond forged by the murder having being broken by Richard’s death.
Swoon uses irony to indirectly discredit the notion that homosexuals possess a depraved psyche that frames them as inherently criminal and predestined to kill. Yet, to its credit, the film does not shy away from acknowledging that homosexuality was implicated in the complicated matrix of personal interactions (sexual, intellectual, and psychological), which led Leopold and Loeb to murder.
Swoon is different to Rope in that it presents a much more complicated reason to explain the murderous act it depicts (that the crime resulted partly out of a contract for sex and desire to achieve intimacy through a criminal act). However the two films share the view that homosexuality will cause violent criminal behavior to manifest in an individual if certain conditions prevail. Just as Rope frames the murder as an artistic act, so too does Swoon. This is evident when the boys encounter a group of workmen who might easily discover they have a dead boy in the back of the car. Richard reminds Nathan of their intellectual superiority when he says, “Relax babe, it [the crime] will be more perfect if we just drive straight through. Those idiots will never know what passed them.”
In Swoon the notion that homosexual disease is a precursor to the violence is communicated in a variety of ways. In contrast to Rope, however, Swoon holds this notion up to scrutiny and ridicule by presenting the evaluation of homosexuality as a disease as a flawed process. This is best conveyed through the “slideshow” within the film where phrenology (a then popular science) is employed to explain why the men are criminally diseased. Some 20 photographs of men and women (including Richard and Nathan) are projected with accompanying criminological diagrams in which behavioral and facial characteristics are matched up. A narrative voice-over (with a suitably authoritative scientific objective tone) explains why Nathan and Richard were pathologically predestined to kill. These phrenological images are presented as serious evidential “proof” of the defendants’ diseased criminal minds (the signs of which can be “read” by examining facial features). But the film puts phrenology under the microscope (imitating its close study of criminality)—its inclusion reminding the spectator that such ludicrous scientific practices are as archaic as the period they are purloined from (the 1920s). The slideshow functions ironically to position the audience to perceive the foolishness of these notions. This is keeping with Wahlert’s observation that Swoon “dramatizes the queer outlaw” so that it “perpetuates myths about homosexuality in order to dissect and discredit them” (2013, p. 149).
In Swoon, the judge hands down 99-year sentences, suggesting he accepted that the diseased homosexual “nature” of the men predisposed them to kill. If the film is held to partially embrace the view that “disease” was a contributing factor in this crime, the ending of Swoon would seem to counter the tenuous link between disease and homosexuality. The spectator learns that immediately after his death in 1971, Nathan’s eyes were successfully transplanted to a blind woman. The equation of homosexuality being synonymous with disease is powerfully inverted by the audience learning that, far from being so diseased that his body is contaminated, it is Nathan’s body parts that restore sight (and therefore freedom) to a woman whose life was once lived in darkness. The symbolic association of homosexuality with darkness and evil is disrupted; for here the homosexual is associated with light and the pure goodness of renewed vision.
Film 7: The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1956 psychological thriller, Anthony Mingella’s screen version of The Talented Mr. Ripley16 (1999) is a compelling portrait of a young man, Tom Ripley, who evolves into a gay psychopath (Hanlon, 2009). As Klemm (2000, unpaginated) observes, “the theme that homosexual repression during the 1950s could lead a gay man to commit murder is handled without moralizing or resorting to cheap sentiment.” The complicated plot revolves around Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) seeking to trade his mundane life for one of glamour and luxury; with film critic Nick James observing “the film grips you with claustrophobia: the plot is a narrowing of options for Tom always down to murder” (2000, p. 17). Klemm (2000, unpaginated) describes how the plot sets up Ripley’s journey to becoming beguiled with the good life of another man:
Tom Ripley is a devious young man who longs to trade his rags for riches. He gets his chance when Herbert Greenleaf, a wealthy shipping magnate, notices the Princeton shield on Ripley’s jacket and asks him if he knew his son, Dickie. Ripley, who has never attended Princeton and had borrowed the jacket from a friend, seizes the moment. Greenleaf offers to pay Ripley $1000 to travel to Italy and convince his bohemian, jazz-loving son to come home. Ripley travels to Italy where he meets Dickie (Jude Law) and his girlfriend Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow) who spend their days sunbathing on the beach and sailing. Ripley pretends that they are old college chums (Dickie, of course, has no memory of him) and then wins Dickie’s friendship when a pile of jazz records falls from his suitcase. Ripley is invited to move in with Dickie and eats his food and wears his clothes. He also begins to display his ‘talents’ such as forging signatures and imitating voices. Ripley is envious of both Dickie’s looks and his status, and he studies his host very closely. But Ripley is feeling more than envy; he is falling in love with him.
James (2000, p. 16) observes: “there’s a strong homoerotic tension between Tom and Dickie, despite Dickie’s ever present girlfriend Marge.” Ripley is presented as being infatuated with Dickie and his life of luxury. Ripley’s desire for Dickie is beautifully conveyed in a scene where he sings the Chet Baker song “My Funny Valentine” in a sultry jazz basement club in Naples, accompanied by Dickie on the saxophone. Rich (2000, unpaginated) notes of this scene:
It’s a cultural moment of exquisite nuances: Damon [Ripley] (in his own voice) precisely mimics the tragic Chet Baker’s famous androgynous rendition of the song, whose lyric carries the longing of its tragically unhappy author, Lorenz Hart, a closeted, alcoholic homosexual who saw himself as a graceless outsider among the glamorous showbiz elite.
In another homoerotically charged scene, the two men play chess while Dickie lounges in the bath, his hairy bronzed chest the epitome of masculine beauty in contrast to Ripley’s pallid complexion. As James (2000, p. 16) notes, “the scene is filled with slightly sinister erotic tension with plenty of nudity and flashes of confused anger.” Indeed Hanlon (2009, p. 272) notes, “the homosexual dimension to the film develops with the blatant sexualisation of Dickie—he emerges from the sea as a quotidian of Ursula Andrews in Dr. No (1962).”
The mood of the film changes when Ripley is suddenly tossed aside by the fickle Dickie when his obnoxious drinking buddy Freddie Miles (Philip Seymour Hoffman) appears during a jaunt to Rome. During a trip to San Remo abroad Dickie’s yacht, having tired of Ripley and his suffocating dependence, Dickie tells him to get lost. The scorned and jealous Ripley snaps and—in an enraged state—murders Dickie by bludgeoning him with an oar. To conceal the murder, Ripley scuttles the boat with Dickie’s body aboard before swimming ashore. The plot proceeds as follows:
He then coldly forges a number of letters, moves to Rome and assumes Dickie’s identity, If he cannot have Dickie, then he will become Dickie. The rest of the film chronicles Ripley’s exploits while he dodges both Marge’s suspicions and the polices.
(Klemm, 2000, original emphasis)
Ripley realizes he can assume Dickie’s identity when the hotel concierge mistakes him for Dickie. A complicated life of subterfuge ensues with Ripley (now living through Dickie’s trust fund having modified his passport) going to elaborate lengths (e.g., passing messages via hotel staff and writing to Marge using Dickie’s typewriter) to create the illusion that Dickie is still alive.
The charade of Ripley’s assumed life as Dickie ends when Freddie tracks him down to his apartment in Rome through the American Express office. James (2000, p. 17) sums up the tension of the scene well:
A suspicious Freddie trips around what is meant to be Dickie’s apartment (but is really Tom-as-Dickie’s), flipping up his hands at the décor and braying viciously “Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, Tommy, this isn’t Dickie, this is so bourgeois.”
Freddie’s suspicions are further aroused when, upon leaving, the building’s landlady refers to Ripley as “Signor Dickie” and comments on the piano music constantly emanating from the building. Freddie, who knows that Dickie cannot play the piano, goes back inside the apartment to confront Ripley. Ripley hits Freddie over the head with a heavy statute and murders him. He dumps the body in the woods and in a complicated series of events, forges a suicide note (writing as Dickie) and moves to Venice under his real name.
Ripley is poised to murder Marge but is interrupted when Peter Smith-Kingsley (Jack Davenport) enters the apartment. Eventually, Mr. Greenleaf hires a private detective to investigate Dickie’s disappearance. Ripley is eventually confronted by Marge, Mr. Greenleaf, and the private detective. Certain sordid details about Dickie’s life have come to light and Mr. Greenleaf now wants the investigation dropped. Marge furiously accuses Ripley of being involved in Dickie’s disappearance before Greenleaf and the private detective drag her away. Mr. Greenleaf offers to pay Ripley a substantial portion of Dickie’s trust fund in exchange for his silence. Protecting the family name from the involvement of the Italian police and scandal appear to be more important to Greenleaf than continuing the investigation.
Ripley and Peter—now lovers—go on a cruise but Ripley discovers that the heiress named Meredith Logue is on board. Ripley pretended to be Dickie to her on the voyage over to Europe. Ripley realizes that he cannot prevent Peter from eventually meeting his friend Meredith and, subsequently, discovering that he has been passing himself off as Dickie. Desperate to avoid discovery, Ripley hatches a ridiculous plan to stay below deck for the duration of the cruise, but soon realizes the folly of this plan. He sobs bitterly as he strangles Peter to death in his cabin. He then returns to his cabin. Knowing that he will probably get away with his crimes appears to provide no solace as he has resigned himself to a solitary life having murdered his boyfriend.
Ripley is clearly ruthless in his manipulation of others and his acts reveal him to be a gay psychopath, but nevertheless we are made to empathize with him (Hanlon, 2009). One of the most remarkable things about The Talented Mr. Ripley is that, from the outset, the audience identifies with his earnest desire to escape his tiny flat in Manhattan and rise above his drab circumstances. Even as the murders accrue, the audience is positioned to empathize with Ripley. Dickie is so heartless and Freddie so vile that we, the spectator, scarcely feel much pity when they die. When he first meets Meredith, in a voice-over he explains his duplicity to the audience: “It is better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.” The film, then, is as much about the desire to transcend class as it is about the repression of homosexual desire, as Rich notes:
Tom wants to remake himself into his dream boy. He wants to duplicate Dickie—in looks, in savoire-faire, in Gucci accessories—until he can pass as being to the manner, and perhaps even the Greenleaf manor, born.
However, it is his repressed homosexual desire that ultimately impels Ripley’s actions. As Rich (2000, unpaginated) observes of the film’s cinematography:
In one of the movie’s saddest, at times hallucinatory motifs, Damon [Ripley] repeatedly steals glances at Jude Law [Dickie] in any reflected surface he can find, expressing his affection with a terrified furtiveness that is at once sinister and heartbreaking.
These stolen glances are, of course, part and parcel of a life spent residing in the closet and they function as precursors to the real crimes that will be revealed as the film charts Ripley’s struggle with his repressed desire for both Dickie and his la dolce vita lifestyle. Ripley feels compelled to hide his desire for Dickie. Indeed, as Rich observes “when Tom sees two Italian men being physically affectionate: he recoils as if mortified, even though it is an intimacy he craves” (2000, unpaginated). Rich (2000, unpaginated) poses the question: “Could the film be found guilty of equating homosexuality with Tom’s criminal pathology?” He partly answers his own question by quoting the director, Anthony Minghella: “You lay yourself open to criticism for dramatising a man with ambivalent sexuality who kills people,” elaborating further: “It’s a sorry state of affairs if you can only write about a homosexual character who behaves well” (Rich, 2000, unpaginated).
Ripley’s relentless mission to reinvent himself strikes a chord with the audience. So while his murders may well be regarded as the acts of a psychopath or sociopath, his essential humanity is never occluded by his crimes. As he strangles Peter and sobs we cannot help but acknowledge that this is the act of man who is literally killing his own prospects for love and happiness. That is the tragedy of Tom Ripley’s talents (forging documents, mimicking voices, impersonating another man). They ensnare him; forcing him to kill a man whose abundant love promised a life of happiness. So in a sense, Tom faces justice of a sort as director Anthony Minghella observes in commenting on why he choose to adapt Highsmith’s novel for the screen:
I was charmed by the idea of a central character who could commit murder and get away with it. It’s not that I enjoy the amorality of it. I wanted to say that getting away with it is his punishment.
(as cited in James, 2000, p. 16, emphasis added)
Murderous Gays: The Mainstay of Cinematic Depictions of Homosexuality
Having explored these seven landmark films that make links between homosexuality and criminality, it is remarkable that, with the exception of Victim (which deals in blackmail) the crime linked to homosexuality in all the other films is murder (or serial murder in the case of Cruising). This is not surprising for several reasons. First, murder plots are a mainstay of many films about crime. Spectators are fascinated by representations of crime that disrupt the monotony of everyday life. Murder is an alluring crime for film audiences to be exposed to, and so directors have tended to exploit this fascination.
It would be problematic to assert that murder figuring as a common theme in films that link homosexuality to criminality can be taken as some sort of expression of homophobic sentiment. These seven films need to be understood as textual products informed by the legal, medical, religious, and social attitudes to homosexuality that were dominant at the time they were produced. To the extent that some of the earlier films pathologize homosexuality as a deviant illness (e.g., Dead of Night and Rope), it needs to be kept in mind that this was the prevailing understanding of homosexuality at the time. And, as previously noted, the film Swoon actively engages with the way that homosexuality was understood as a psychiatric illness in the 1930s by playfully holding criminology and phrenology up to scrutiny such that a modern audience can appreciate how notions of homosexual deviance were socially constructed in this era.
In closing, it is important to note the social reality that homosexuals—much like heterosexuals—are perpetrators of murder. Responding to criticisms that the film The Talented Mr. Ripley depicted a homosexual killer, Klemm (2000, unpaginated) observed, “We’ve spent our lives watching films in which straight people commit crimes of passion, why is it always politically incorrect when the killer is gay?” Klemm is right to imply that cinema should not shy away from exploring links between homosexuality and criminality. Indeed, films that make such links provide great intrigue and satisfaction for all manner of viewers. Barthes (1975) and Mulvey (1975) remind us that there is much pleasure to be derived from film texts. Asserting that films that associate homosexuality with criminality should be disproved of and admonished as homophobic is a naive criticism. Rather, films that make such a thematic link provide much pleasure for audiences. Indeed, many of the films explored in this chapter are considered classics and provide much pleasure (see Kates, 2000). We—the audience—luxuriate in the plot twists and gain great satisfaction in the director revealing the dénouement of the plot. The crimes may well be perpetrated by homosexuals, but it would be crudely reductive to describe these films as merely vehicles of homophobic sentiment. All of the films explored in this chapter offer so much more than an association between homosexuality and criminality. They offer the escapism where audiences lose themselves in the cinematic text.
Review of Literature and Primary Sources
Students and academics wishing to familiarize themselves with general discussions of homosexuality and popular culture that is not crime specific should consult Peele (2007) and Burston and Richardson (2005).
There is a relative dearth of literature that explores how homosexuality has been aligned with criminality in popular culture and film. An essential starting point is Vitto Russo’s The Celluloid Closet(1987): Homosexuality in the Movies, which traces the various ways that gay men and lesbians have been depicted in the cinema. A 1996 documentary that bears the same title (dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, HBO Pictures) is essential viewing as it updates Russo’s classic text and illustrates his ideas with dozens of segments from films. Similarly, while less analytical than Russo’s text, Steven Stewart’s Gay Hollywood: Film and Video Guide is a helpful point for anyone seeking to explore some basic underpinnings of gay and lesbian representations in film. Parker Tyler’s Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies (1993) is also a helpful, if now slightly outdated, text.
In terms of the cinema in general, Laura Mulvey’s classic article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) is essential reading for anyone grappling with the ways that cinema provides pleasure to the spectator. Mulvey uses complex psychoanalytic film theory to explain why cinema is such an alluring medium in popular culture.
Corber’s book In the Name of National Security: Hitchcock, Homophobia, and the Political Construction of Gender in Postwar America (1996) is essential reading for anyone interested in the manner that the famous director dealt with homosexual villains in his cinematic oeuvre. Robin Wood’s The Murderous Gays: Hitchcock’s Homophobia (1995) is essential reading for anyone interested in Hitchcock’s homosexual screen villains.
Criminologist Alison Young’s The Scene of Violence: Cinema Crime Affect (2009) is an excellent introduction to the way that violent images (including cinema) “get under our skin and keep us enthralled” (2009, back cover summary). The book explores what Young terms “the cinematic scene of violence: rape and revenge, homicide and serial killing, torture and terrorism” (2009, back cover summary) by conducting a detailed reading of both classical and contemporary films. In paying close attention to the details of the films under consideration, it models how students and researchers might approach the interpretation of films related to crime and violence. Nicole Rafter’s Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society (2006) is an invaluable text for coming to grips with the ways that cinema both reflects and distorts the social reality of crime. In a similar vein, Welsh, Fleming, and Dowler’s (2011) article “Constructing Crime and Justice on Film: Meaning and Message in Cinema” explores how criminal justice messages are conveyed in cinema. And Richard Dyer’s The Mater of Images (1993)—while not devoted to crime—is absolutely essential reading for anyone seeking to appreciate why cinematic images are so important in relation to representation. The very title of his book alludes to this idea: cinematic images matter [they help underpin how different classes of people are represented, and in turn, treated in society]. And Annette Kuhn’s (1992) The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality, explores how sexuality is often represented in various forms of popular culture in an unflattering light.
Before homosexuality was coded as a criminal state of being in the cinema, it was coded as a monstrous condition. In his book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film (1997), Benshoff engages with the homosexual implications of popular culture artifacts by exploring a range of horror films from the 1930s to the 1970s. He reveals the fascinating ways that homosexuality was coded as being synonymous with monstrosity, particularly during the production code and Cold War eras. While the book does not specifically deal with criminality, it nevertheless is invaluable reading because it shows how homosexuality has been aligned with a trait that is similarly menacing and socially undesirable.
Non-Anglophone cinema that explores links between homosexuality and crime is underresearched. One book that does cast a light on Asian cinema is Grossman’s Queer Asian Cinema (2000). He signals out the popularity of the gangster genre in popular Hong Kong cinema, observing that in the “antisocial underworld of criminals: here homosexuality is meta-criminality” (2000, p. 239). The character of the dangerous, desperate homosexual “hustler” (prostitute) is ubiquitous in dozens of these gangster films. In other world cinema, merely “being” homosexual is a crime. These films often document ordinary lives where gay men need to live clandestine, furtive sexual lives in order to protect themselves from persecution. Berry (1998) explores the Chinese film East Palace West Palace (1996, dir. Dong gong xi gong). The film takes place at night and explores men cruising for sex at public toilets near Tiananmen Square. The central plot examines a young man who is arrested by a police officer. In the course of being interrogated he tries to provoke the officer to seduce him. So controversial was the film (made during a period when homosexuality was illegal in China) that it had to be smuggled out of China for post-production in France.
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(1.) British cinema in this period was carefully regulated by the censors to ensure that those films that were perceived as having the potential to disturb social, political, or moral order did not reach the screen. As such, homosexuality could never be explicitly named, only implied through gesture, dialogue, and context.
(2.) That this is what actually occurred is confirmed when Dr. Van Straaten later explains how the dummy got from one room to another. He says that “Without knowing what he was doing Frere took it himself, impelled by the dominating Hugo half of his mind.”
(3.) Other “double” references include Guy’s tennis “doubles,” Guy’s bigamy joke, and Bruno’s drink order of “doubles” and cross-cut shots of Guy and Bruno looking at their watches.
(4.) Interestingly, Victim was the first film to feature the spoken words “homosexual” and “homosexuality,” which had never been uttered before on screen due to production code restrictions in the United States and United Kingdom.
(5.) The Wolfenden report of 1957 had recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality, and although it was another 10 years before legislation was passed, during this interim period films like Victim dealt with homosexuality in a mildly sympathetic way.
(7.) Another telling example is the close-up of a character named Henry’s face screaming and crying as the blackmailer Sandy starts to smash up his barber shop.
(8.) Two examples are Cairo in The Maltese Falcon; and the mean, manipulative, effeminate Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944).
(9.) Steve is one of four suspects the film suggests might be the killer. The other possibilities are a violent closeted police officer, the victim’s boyfriend (who also favors a knife as a murder weapon), and a killer unknown to the audience.
(10.) In reflecting on the film’s title it is apparent that Swoon functions as both noun (a state of romantic ecstasy as depicted in the love the men share) and verb (the process of fainting from horror as invited by the spectator’ s exposure to the violent murder scene). In this sense the film has presented us with both a celebration of homosexual love and an indictment of violent behavior.
(11.) This 1924 case involved the kidnap and murder of a 14-year-old boy by two rich, Jewish 18-year-old homosexual men in Chicago.
(12.) Despite its signification of history and memory, the film incorporates anachronistic details (such as touch tone telephones) to resituate the story in a perpetual present.
(13.) As extracted from the judgment of People of the State of Illinois vs. Nathan Leopold, Jr., and Richard Loeb.
(14.) Richard’s and Nathan’s identities seem to become intertwined after the murder. It is as if the murder has made them one. When giving evidence to the police Richard confuses himself with Nathan—“I” becomes “he.”
(15.) It is interesting to note that almost all of the courtroom dialogue contained in the script is transcribed from the original trial transcript. As such Swoon rereads this landmark case against its own inherited mythology, attempting to complicate the easy equation between homosexuality and pathology.
(16.) The Talented Mr. Ripley was first made into a film called Plein Soleil (Purple Moon) in 1960 by the French director René Clément, but it is not worthy of analysis for homosexual meaning because the director reversed Ripley’s implicit homosexuality (as derived from Highsmith’s novel).