Homosexuality and Film Noir

Clifton Webb in THE DARK CORNER (1946) - fastidiously dressed and sarcastic
Coded messages concerning homosexuality are common to all cinema, but in the mid-century, when you weren't even permitted to say the word 'homosexual' in a movie, a general set of conventions applied, and these were keenly felt in film noir, which often dealt with issues that the more popular films of the day were not prepared to.

Before we go on, when I say that use of the word 'homosexual' was not permitted, this wasn't of course a written rule, but a general expression of the prejudice, fear and apprehension around the subject.  The first mention of the word in cinema was in the British film Victim (1961), starring Dirk Bogarde, and it earned what was otherwise a good, strong drama an X certificate in certain places, and an outright banning in many American states.

To address the possibility of homsexuality in noir, we have a good model in the actor Clifton Webb, who is presenetd as homosexual in the films Laura (in which he plays Waldo Lydecker) and in The Dark Corner (in which he plays an art dealer, Hardy Cathcart.

The traits to look out for in identifying homosexuality in film noir might be a male character that is fastidiously dressed, and whom appears mocking and sarcastic, demonstrating at least a perversity of speech.  Witness the film noir homosexual's attitude to women, and the picture is complete.  Often, such characters are seen as at ease in the company of older women, although with everyone else (and this really applies to Clifton Webb) they act eltisit and cruel.

This mixture of snobbery and unkindness often manifests itself in dialogue that attempts at wit, but is in fact cruel.  Listening to Cliften Webb as Hardy Cathcart in The Dark Corner, one almost becomes tired of these attempts at Wildean wit, which in a film noir context are only used to destroy people, or derange any scene with their mordant sentiments.

Hardy Cathcart: How I detest the dawn. The grass always looks like it's been left out all night.


Hardy Cathcart: I found the portrait long before I met Mari. And I worshipped it. When I did meet her, it was as if I'd always known her... and wanted her.
Woman in Gallery: Oh, how romantic.
Hardy Cathcart: If you prefer to be maudlin about it, perhaps. 


Hardy Cathcart: The enjoyment of art is the only remaining ecstasy that is neither immoral nor illegal.

Typically, the homosexual is the villain in noir, not exactly because the film wants to say that homsexuality is bad or wrong, but because of an uncomfortable idea that gay men are able to get closer to women, largely because they don't pose a heterosexual threat.

It might really be the case.  Women in film noir tend to be presented as the wife or sweetheart, in quite a normal or unthreatening manner such as Lucille ball plays in The Dark Corner) and if not that, then as a much more commonly featured alluring and deceptive femme fatale.  In both cases, however, women are presented as highly elaborate, coiffured, in striking clothes and with sophistciated mannerisms, aspects which are apllied directly to the homosexual characters.

Think of two other aspects associated with the feminine and queenly arts; jewellery and perfume.  Both of these features in Farewell My Lovely (1944) in the character of Lindsay Marriott, whose ring is key to his character, as his his soft coat and scent; and then in The Maltese Falcon (1941), there is Joel Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, who is also linked to perfume . . .  and perfume is something of course that is insidious, and is a typical female kind of mask, or indirection, permeating the air, and being both everywhere and nowhere at once.

Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo in THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)

What we see in these characters is the idea that femininity doesn't end with women.  In fact, this level of queerness in film noir meets different ends and suggests something more about a man than simply 'he is gay.'  It suggests in fact that the lines of sexual differentiation, which are often blurred and tangled in film noir with its powerful women and weak men, are beginning to be blurred in Hollywood for the very first time.

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