Return to SCE Homepage
Return to Session Program
Return to MLA Page

Shadowing Film Noir:  Hollywood's Political
2004 MLA Convention
Philadelphia, PA
27-30 December


Scott F. Stoddart
Marymount Manhattan College

"Queer Eye" for a "Straight Dick": Contextualized Homosexuals in Film Noir

Do not cite without permission of the author.



Interestingly enough, the homosexual villain employs an important space within the context of film noir ; however, this space has been marginalized in the films and in the criticism that composes noir scholarship.    Therefore, my re-examination places the homosexual villain within the historical context of the period between 1931 and 1959, proving that the shifting position of the queer villain adds to the film's ideological perspective.   In understanding the correlation between queer eyes and straight dicks, I believe we can better comprehend the dynamics of noir 's legacy as historical product.      

James Naremore's More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (1998) argues that "a liminal space" exists between the ideologies of post-World War II Europe and America, between high modernism and "blood melodrama" and between B-crime films and art cinema (220).   Between these dichotomies, he claims, the drama of film noir positions the protagonist, the fast-talking detective, against the "almost mythical 'bad place,' where the forces of rationality and progress seem vulnerable or corrupt, and where characters on the margins of the middle class encounter a variety of 'others': not savages but criminals, sexually independent women, homosexuals, Asians, Latins, and black people" (220).   The strength of Naremore's reading is how it uses historical context to read the detective hero as he (it is always a 'he') navigates the dark side of this America - and the dark side of his own conscience.

Since Vito Russo deconstructed the politics of the queer image in Hollywood cinema in his groundbreaking The Celluloid Closet (1987), film scholars have read the place of the queer man as a "bad place."   Lee Edleman's reading of Clifton Webb in Laura (Preminger, 1944) exposes the ideological pressures of the studio system "that impinge on the cinematic process of constructing a 'face' to figure 'the homosexual'" (201).   Picking up where Edleman leaves off, Richard Dyer, in his essay "Queers and Women in Film Noir " again reads a Webb performance, this time in The Dark Corner (Hathaway, 1946); his hypothesis, building from previous readings of Gilda (Vidor, 1946), claims that the reason queers figure into   noir is "to construct" the femme fatale (123), relegating the gay man to the sidelines, much like a maid in waiting.

While I do not deny the marginal position of the homosexual in film noir , I believe that Naremore's contextual hypothesis provides a firm foundation to begin the process of truly understanding the pre- and post-war construction of the queer image.   Placing the homosexual character within the historical reality of 1940s and 1950s America, I believe that we can truly read the fact and fiction of the villain's "queer eye," understanding the root of homosocial relations within the "straight" mainstream and the fears generated by this imaging . _

Conventions of Noir

The historical progression of the detective fiction highlights a similar pattern in the scope of film noir ; and, as we will see, these three generic formulas help to understand the progression of noir and the homosexual's position within it.   In his essay "The Typology of Detective Fiction" (1966), Tzvetan Todorov articulated a critical method for rethinking the detective story as a serious fictional genre.   Taking S. S. Van Dine's "twenty rules" for composing detective fiction as a start, Todorov not only debunks the easy construct of Van Dine's simple formula, but he theorizes a constructive history of the genre through linguistic tropes.   The first story convention, the whodunit, revolves around two murders - "the story of the crime and the story of the investigation" (44), or, in Russian formalist terms, the fable (story) and the subject (plot).   As Todorov sees it, "The first notion corresponds to the reality evoked, to events similar to these which take place in our lives; the second, to the book itself, to the narrative, to the literary devices the author employs" (45).     The second convention, growing out of a response to the formulaic quality of the whodunit, the série noire (the thriller) surfaced during World War II - "the kind of detective fiction fuses the two stories or, in other words, suppresses the first (the crime) and vitalizes the second (the investigation) " (47).   Todorov understands this brand of detective fiction as a response to the despondency prevalent in the American character; the thriller's "vulnerable detective" became the central consciousness of Hammett and Chandler.   Finally, a third type of detective fiction surfaces as it blends the properties of the whodunit and the thriller, focusing on the criminal as its central conscience.   The suspense novel' s "reader is interested not only by what has happened but also by what will happen next; he wonders about the future as about the past" (51).  

To begin, it is wise to recall that the cinematic theory that is noir -- the term coined by French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chameton for a branch of Hollywood films made between 1941 and 1957--has long defied generic definition.   Borde and Chameton argue that film noir   arose in response to the global condition following World War II, and Hollywood's keen desire to legislate morality even further than the Hays Office._   Prior to 1941, Hollywood cinema was dominated by a rationality and symmetry that celebrated American life; after the war, a disillusion settled, and American films were suddenly structured by a "subversive strain of behavioral deviance

  . . . now dominated by crime, corruption, cruelty and an apparently unhealthy interest in the erotic" (Belton 184-5).   In order to play against the anticipated convention of traditional Hollywood cinema, including the Code, film noir celebrated the existential, focusing on the alienation of the individual, the inhumanity of the industrialized world, and the arbitrary nature of public justice.  

Borda and Chaumeton identify noir as "a film of death" (5) and defined its style as a cinematic reconsideration of psychological drama: "the moral ambivalence, the criminality, the complex contradictions in motives and events, all conspire to make the viewer co-experience the anguish and security . . . The aim of film noir was to create a specific alienation" (25).    Its evolving focus on crime, however, not only forced the film noir to work against the grain of the standard Hollywood crime film, angling its vision from the perspective of those outside the law, but its progressive structure, historically, mirrors the three phases of detective fiction.   As filmic grammar created a style for the film noir , the early noir s separated from the crime films of the 1930s through perspective: "The [police] documentary [of the 1930s] considers the murder from without, from the official police viewpoint; the film noir from within, from the criminals'" (6).   The private dick "midway between order and crime" (7) becomes the protagonist in the fiction and films of the era, contradicting the earlier ideals that he is above the law - this inglorious character highlights that thin line between the variety of criminal elements that surface within the noir films, providing "glimpses [of the] complex and shifting patterns of domination based on money, blackmail, vice and informing" (8).   Through their delineation, "The private detective, midway between order and crime, running with the hare and hunting with he hounds, not overtly scrupulous and responsible for himself alone, satisfied both the exigencies of morality and those of the criminal adventure story" (7).   As evidenced by the early films, including The Maltese Falcon (Huston, 1941), Murder, My Sweet (Dmytryk, 1944) and The Big Sleep   (Hawks, 1946), while breaking a series of conventional Hollywood rules, they followed a "whodunit" formula - one that concludes with the murder crime not only solved, but the perpetrators punished.  

The ambivalent nature of the protagonist is important to reading the criminal, as it openly acknowledges the attractive nature of the criminal element; this becomes the important variant as noir s began to favor the criminal in spite of the hero, shifting in emphasis from the earlier films to the middle years.   In making the criminal more attractive, often more interesting than the hero, the effect becomes deliberate: "All the works in this series exhibit a consistency of emotional sort; namely, the state of tension created in the spectators by the disappearance of their psychological bearings .   The vocation of film noir has been to create a specific sense of malaise " (13).   This creates an element of surprise in its framework, toying with the spectator's subconscious desire to see the criminal succeed.   As the "angelic killers, neurotic gangsters, megalomaniac gang bosses, and disturbing and deranged stooges" (8) take center stage, the protagonist, often assuming the role of metonomic everyman, fights to not only clear his name, but to uphold the virtues of the American system.   Films as seemingly divergent as The Big Clock and Strangers on a Train use similar constructs to come to very similar ends.

While Borde and Chaumeton argue that the series began to pass away in 1953, most critics concur that Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1957) ends the series, justifying this call because of the studio' s dismantling of the film prior to its disastrous release.     However, taking the thoughts of the French critics to heart, I believe that film noir ended much more covertly, with the release of Compulsion   in 1959 - Richard Fleischer's retelling of the Leopold and Loeb murder.   Examining the films of the latter days of noir , Borda and Chaumenton recognize that a distinct feeling creeps into them:   "One gets the felling that all the components of noir style lead to the same result: to disorient the spectators, who no longer encounter their customary frames of reference" (12).   While Welles's film, in its original state, illustrates this quality to a degree, Fleischer's film employs the noir style in such a covert manner that the film should be recognized as the bridge between noir and the criminally focused dramas of the 1960s, including   In Cold Blood (Brooks, 1967), Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967) and The Boston Strangler (Fliescher, 1968)   - films that privilege criminal perspective as it pervades the suburbs - moving from the deep dark city to invade suburban psyches, emphasizing the vulnerability of America's moral majority.

The most interesting link in the films noir I examine is the fact that each criminal mastermind is coded as homosexual.   The depiction of the queer criminal in films noir follows yet another three step progression - an evolution that moves from the ostentatious character, never a serious threat to the hard-boiled detective hero to the smooth talking sophisticate, who slyly places the hero in jeopardy to the full-grown sociopath, who manages to create a façade of complacent conservativism while masking the boiling rage within.   In my assessment of these films, employing Naremore's contextual technique, I will prove that films noir provide an historically accurate depiction of the "queer eye" as it focused on defining the space for homosexuality in pre- and post-war America.   However, while the depiction may be historically based, the criminal element positions each character to the sidelines, suggesting that films noir are actually more conservative than once thought.         

Queer Eyes and Straight Guys: Hammett and Chandler's Worlds

In revolutionizing the detective genre, Hammett and Chandler's novels depict a new element - the "straight dick" interacting within his immediate world.   So, it is important, first of all, to recall what Frederic Jameson says about reading the fiction of the 1930s: "The thirties aesthetic - which has been stereotypically as a kind of return to realism, a reaction against the modernist impulse, and a renewed politicalization of the period of depression, fascism, and left-wing movements alike - needs to be reconsidered in the light of . . . modern media" (36).   For as radical a shift that Hammett and Chandler take in their detective fiction, the politics of their straight detectives are conservative in regard to imaging the other.   Hammett's Falcon , and Chandler's Farewell and Sleep were written in the 1930s, and they share similar attitudes toward the urban world, particularly in respect to the changing political climate and the growing population of homosexuals ten years prior to Huston's, Dmytryk's and Hawks's screen adaptations - therefore, creating two historical contexts for contextual analysis.  

As delineated by George Chauncey and John D'Emillio, gay men were flocking to cities well before the advent of World War II to avoid both embarrassing their families through disclosure and subjecting themselves to persecution by community law enforcement.   Historians have documented the pervasive view that homosexuality was both a disease and a perversion; therefore, cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco became refuges from judgmental family members.   And, as Chauncey demonstrates clearly, these cities became communities for escapees of Middle America, forging new families of like-minded queers, both male and female.    

The close proximity of Hammett's San Francisco and Chandler's Los Angeles is central to The Maltese Falcon Chandler's two novels because Hammett's political persuasions and Chandler's close contact with the Hollywood machine create specific methods for reading the queerness in their work.   According to Susan Stryker and Jim Van Buskirk, San Francisco's queer community was firmly entrenched in the city's Barbary Coast by the 1920s, a notorious bastion for both male prostitution and more respectable same-sex square dancing and cross-dress balls (19).   By the 1930s, gay communities were firmly entrenched in the city -   not only in the Barbary Coast area, but at Howard Street (with bars for sailors), California Street (home to the Fireside, one of the city's first gay restaurants), and the area of Market and Third Streets (site of the city's first Turkish baths) (23 -4).   Given the composition of these communities, mainly the city's literary and artistic types, San Francisco was recognized early on as a Mecca for queer men and women disenfranchised by the moral majority.   Secreting their same-sex desire into these darkened pockets of the city permitted the moral majority to corral queers with the criminal element in a guilt-by-association fashion, primarily in connection to the speakeasy culture of the later 1920s, when "`straight' referred primarily to law abiding citizens" and "in the life" referred to the activities of criminals and queers (26).

Hammett's predilection toward Communist activity is well documented by his biographers.   Even though it took place three years after Falcon was published, The San Francisco General Strike of 1933 that brought the city to a standstill reveals an idea of how politically volatile the city was in bringing like-minded activists together.   The strike lasted four days, as striking maritime workers, demanding better pay, clashed with the state militiamen in an encounter that left a number of the workers dead.   The city fathers found the Communist Party mainly responsible for mobilizing the workers against the militia to demand job security during the Great Depression.   The gay activist Harry Hay always claimed that the sight of the funeral procession down Market Street sounded the "siren song of Revolution" in his ears, and he became one of many homosexuals who signed on to the Left, the Party being attractive to politically aware homosexuals because its doctrine preached a form of social equality that the American democracy did not appear to practice.   Ellen W. Schrecker argues that The Great Depression, the economic and political fallout of the hedonistic 1920s, made Communism attractive to academics and students because it preached a more organized form of social ideology, "an intellectual system that above all seemed to explain the social chaos that they saw all around them" (31).   When Franklin Roosevelt's ascension to the White House did not offer a "quick fix" for the unemployment rate of 25%, a radical mass of academics and students joined the artists and writers of the time in fighting fascism - at home as well as abroad (35).     Certainly through these venues, Hammett encountered homosexuals as they made up a substantial number of the Party's league.  

Another factor comes into play as the Hayes Office Production Code went into effect in 1934; it is arguable that the fiction of Hammett and Chandler and the films noir were all just as much responses to the ideological struggle of the 1930s and the conservative desire to squelch radical ideas that questioned the sanctity of prescribed gender-roles that labeled the outside world an appropriately masculine one, and the domestic sphere as dutifully feminine.   In fact, I disagree with Borde and Chaumenton; I believe that the early films noir (those based on the fiction of both Hammett and Chandler) were initially a direct response to the Production Code - a directorial daring to see how far film could push the ideological envelope.   I believe that only after 1946 were noirs in direct response to the despair over the war.             

According to Vito Russo, Will Hayes was approached to coordinate the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in the late 1920s; once his tenure as Postmaster General was over, Hayes took full charge of the office, helping to draft a Motion Picture Production Code that gradually went in to effect by 1934 (31).   The office, heavily influenced by the Catholic Legion of Decency, administrated the code, designed to permit "No picture [to be] produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it.   Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin" (Kaiser 66).   It is interesting to note, however, that even though adultery and murder must always be punished, that drug addiction could not be glamorized, that kidnapped children must always be returned safely, that open-mouthed kissing, obscenity and abortion were never to be mentioned, the depiction of coded queer characters, particularly as villains was often permitted, with few restrictions.   In this respect, homosexuality was always relegated to being a subversive crime against nature, particularly against the up-standing American middle-class.       

Recent examinations into the workings of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover reveal his hand in composing the Production Code and in its enforcement.   Anthony Summers' Official and Confidential and Richard Hack's Puppetmaster each contend that Hoover's influence is all over the Production Code, and that he lobbied Will Hayes and President Roosevelt to maintain strict moral controls over the motion picture industry.   In fact, Hoover was in Hollywood to support Hayes when the Code was officially unveiled, having just overseen some of the production of G-Men produced by his friend, Jack Warner.     

While Raymond Chandler did not share Hammett's political leanings, he did share his distrust of J. Edgar Hoover and his meddling in the affairs of Hollywood, mainly through the Hayes Office and, eventually, through the McCarthy Hearings ._    Chandler was very outspoken on the issue of the FBI and its interest in Hollywood:

The FBI is a bunch of over publicized characters, Hoover himself being a first rate publicity hound.   All secret police forces come to the same end.   I'll bet the s.o.b. has a dossier on everybody who could do him damage.   The FBI throws up such a smoke screen that they make the public forget all the tough ones they never broke.   Sometimes I wonder if they ever did break a really tough one.   Whenever they begin to look bad they just pull out and talk about not having jurisdiction.   (181)

The power of Hollywood was a potent aphrodisiac for Hoover, the rich settings, elaborate meals and the glamour of its women stirred the now famous crime fighter to desire the fame and notoriety that came with industry.   However glittering the effect, Hoover recognized early on the influential power of the motion picture; he sensed that if the industry were permitted to present immorality in a provocative manner, motion pictures might prove the ruin of the moral fabric of the American scene.

Naremore touches on this in his reading of the noir cycle, but he pulls back from suggesting that noirs criticize the American political scene of the 1930s. In his assessment, while "there is good reason to conclude that the first decade of American film noir was largely the product of a socially committed fraction or artistic movement in Hollywood" (104), he finds that it "has no essential politics" until the postwar decade " when noir took on increasingly cynical and even right-wing implications" (104).   The world that Hammett captured in the pages of The Maltese Falcon is now recognized as a one of the fictions that had its "formative roots in the left culture of the Roosevelt years" (104), and its milieu is understood as a mirror to a contemporary world of the straight dick.   All this makes Hammett's use of Joel Cairo both contextually accurate and politically homophobic.  

Recent critical reviews of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), based on Dashiell Hammett's detective novel of 1931, focus attention on the criminal homosociability of Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and the fact that Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) refers to him as a gunsel, once vernacular for "faggot "_; however, little has been written about Joel Cairo's place in either the novel or the film, his coded behavior, and his oral fixation with his walking stick.   This is interesting, as it means there is no cr itical disagreement - every spectator reads Cairo as queer.   Why is this?   It implies that Cairo is so definitely coded as queer he is immediately legible to everyone.   This begs the question: How historically accurate is Hammett's/Huston's coding?  

Hammett's Cairo interrupts the daily routine of Sam Spade in a variety of manners.   Spade's secretary simply announces, "This guy is queer" to Spade (42), reading his appearance in the foyer of the office.   And, the narrator delineates Cario's qualities, to support Effie's initial reading:

Mr. Joel Cairo was a small-boned dark man of medium height.   His hair was black and smooth and very glossy.   His features were Levantine.   A square-cut ruby, its sides paralleled by four baguette diamonds, gleamed against the deep green of his cravat.   His black coat, cut tight to narrow shoulders, flared a little over slightly plump hips.   His trousers fitted his round legs more snugly than was the current fashion.   The uppers of his patent-leather shoes were hidden by fawn spats.   He held a black derby hat in his chamois-gloved hand and came toward Spade with short, mincing, bobbing steps.   The fragrance of chypre came with him.   (42)

The narrator's description moves from the general to the specific as Cairo is read   - starting with his size, moving to detail his ring and clothing, finally ending with his movement.   The costume might appear quaint, but it actually rings true to the way some queer-identified men dressed at the time, particularly in San Francisco, particularly in respect to the cut of the trousers.   What Hammett appears to be doing here is replicating the way a detective would read a new client, slowly moving from the general to the specific.   However, as he moves from Cairo's appearance to Cairo's movement, "short, mincing, bobbing steps" and perfume, "The fragrance of chypre ", the narrator codes Cairo as queer   -- and these qualities turn from being simply marks to be read to judgments.  

            As Cairo makes his way into Spade's office, these judgments become more pronounced in regard to his appearance and mannerisms.   He sits down "primly, crossing his ankles"; his other rings begin to shimmer, "twinkl[ing] on the second and fourth fingers of his left hand" and on the "third finger of his right hand"; he "draw[s] off his yellow gloves" from "soft and well cared for" hands (43).   Spade's reading is completed even before Cairo is permitted to speak - a clear sign of Cairo's place in the society at large.

              In making his move on Spade, Cairo's inabilities become obvious, again mocking him in a fashion.   After pointing a pistol at Spade, telling the detective he will search the premises for the missing falcon, Spade swiftly swats him with his hand, rendering the fey Cairo unconscious with ease.   Even later, when Cairo is left alone with Brigid O'Shaughnessy, while Spade speaks with Tom Polhaus, a policeman, in the hallway, screams "high, thin and shrill" (72) from the inner room reveal that Brigid is slapping Cairo about, rather than the other way around.   When Polhaus questions Cairo and O'Shaughnessy, Cairo sobs through the interview, calling the tough Brigid a "dirty filthy liar" as he mops his forehead with "a lavender-barred silk handkerchief" (74 - 5).   When he smells the fresh "odor of chypre " released by the hanky, Polhaus "turned his head to scowl interrogatively at Spade" who simply "winks" at the policeman (75).   In these little ways, Hammett shows his audience that he queer villain poses no real threat, and that the nuisance he creates is more offensive to the olfactories than to anything else.

            As the plot progresses, Spade labels Cairo and his associate Wilmer openly and offensively.   Throughout the rest of the novel, Spade uses a variety of derogatory expressions to render both Cairo and Wilmer as less than threatening: "fairy" (94), gunsel (110), "lily-of-the-valley" (143), "boy" (170), "effeminate" (178), "pocket-edition desperadoes" (184), a "fine lot of lollipops" (188) and "woman" (198) are each used to describe both men in a variety of situations.   From this standpoint, Spade is homophobic, and safely heterosexual - empowered from his own fringe position as a private eye, as he represents the patriarchal ideal of "law and order."

            Huston's Cairo (Peter Lorre) must be read in a completely different context - one involved with the world at large fending off the criminality of Nazi-infiltration.    Cairo's entrance is announced via the soundtrack, a lilting, light-hearted entrée that foreshadows comedy rather than the suspense of the sequence, subconsciously telling the spectator that even though Cairo represents the criminal element, he is not to be taken seriously.   Spade's secretary enters carrying the business card of a supposedly new client - her obvious smirk blends with the soundtrack to preview a comic scene, rather than another ominous one.   Sam eyes widen and he noticeably winces as he receives and sniffs the heavily perfumed card - "Gardenia" is all she says in response as she rolls her eyes - the sound track trilling in a shimmering squeal.   Sam's immediate response shows that he understands her completely, "Quick, darling.   Show him in."   As she exits to allow Cairo entrance, a close-up of Sam rolling a cigarette shows his puzzled expression.     The spectator with Spade 's perspective, seeing the diminutive Cairo as he enters; the camera frames him from below until Spade rises to shake his hand, so the framing only emphasizes his frailer stature.   Cairo dresses in dandyish duds - black tailcoat, brocade vest, high-collared, white shirt with a satiny bow tie.   His hair is curly, treated with a glossy gel, and his skin-tone is much darker than Spade's, perhaps highlighting the fact that he uses make-up.   In his bejeweled hand, he carries a top hat, his white kid gloves, and a polished walking stick, which he continues to hold throughout the sequence.  

          What is most curious about Cairo's demeanor is his reluctance to look at Spade as he offers his condolences for the late Mr. Archer - he fondles the walking stick, speaking mainly to it, twisting it about, seemingly to show it off to the unimpressed Spade.   As the shot cuts to face Sam, Cairo remains in the left portion of the screen, staring at his stick as Sam continues to look him over in a puzzled manner.   It is important to note that Sam does not look down at him with disdain - Spade appears to be giving Cairo an equal chance to state his business.    Cairo's question to Spade concerning the connection between Thursby and Spade's client is the first time Cairo looks directly at Spade - yet, the look is simply a glance, as Huston's camera cuts back to a medium close-up of Cairo as he begins to explain his desire for the "ornament."   As he begins to spin his traveler's tale, Cairo begins to fondle the stick, and then begins to stroke it more gracefully, before the metal handle on his lips - the connection between the absent ornament and the phallic stick is a bit too obvious, particularly in one shot where Spade sucks on his cigarette just as Cairo appears to insert the stick into his mouth.   This act of fellatio   underscores Cairo's method - his desire to seduce Spade into revealing the true hiding place of the falcon.  

          When Cairo's stick fails to impress Spade, Cairo pulls a tiny derringer from his pocket, threatening the detective to comply - the diminutive size of the gun - often thought to be a lady's weapon -- is one more way that Huston shows the spectator that Sam is not really in danger.   Cairo is exceedingly polite in is his directives: "I intend to search your office, Mr. Spade.   I warn you, if you shall attempt to prevent me, I shall certainly shoot you."   The frame from below, once more, emphasizes Spade's size next to the tiny man, who looks more ridiculous as the sequence progresses.   The soundtrack noticeably changes here, signaling a threat, but it quickly veers back to its original lilt once Sam takes a hold of Cairo's hands, and slaps him twice with them, and then, with a smile on his face, punches Cairo unconscious.   In going through Cairo's effects, Sam finds that the little man holds three active passports (British, French, and Swiss) and a ticket to the Geary Theatre for the previous evening.   In addition to much money, Sam finds another handkerchief   - when he pauses to smell it, the soundtrack, again, trills with a floating set of notes, telling the spectator that it reeks with the all too familiar smell of gardenia.   Cairo awakens to whine about the blood on his shirt, and sweetly disarms Spade by telling him that the offer of remuneration for the bird's return will make his own client very happy.   Before leaving, he asks Spade for the gun, who falls for this bit, handing over the little pistol to the eager Cairo.   The sequence ends, however, on a humorous note - Cairo hold the gun on Spade once more, insisting, in a huffy manner, that he will search Spade's office.   Spade's response is to simply laugh at the little man; the camera's gaze remains from below, making Spade appear much taller than Cairo - an indication that although the detective is rendered at bay for the moment, he is in no real danger from the scowling Cairo.

          I have taken time to delineate this sequence because it is so readily coded to place the homosexual villain at a disadvantage, although it is Lorre's one big scene in the film.   The camera's continuous alliance with Spade's perspective keeps the villain in the powerless position of seeming smaller and weaker than Spade.        

          While Hammett's queers appear to annoy the detective, provoking mischief rather than mayhem, Chandler 's queers disturb the action of the plot with their bizarre deaths, proving, in essence, that the best queer is a dead one.   In both The Big Sleep (1936) and Farewell, My Lovely (1940), dead gay men set the stage for Philip Marlowe's detection; in the noir adaptations of these fictions, Lyndsay Marriott (Douglas Walton) and Jules Amthor (Otto Kruger) in Dmytryk's Murder, My Sweet (1944 ) _ and Arthur Gwynn Geiger (Theodore von Eltz) and in Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (1946) _ set the plot in motion by their killi ngs.   Carl Lundgren (Tommy Rafferty), Geiger's partner in both novel and film and the only queer to survive, avenges the death of his boyfriend, only to serve as the butt of police brutality.

            While The Big Sleep opens with the intrigue of the Sherwood household, and Geiger's plot to blackmail the dying General with the younger daughter Carmen's nude photographs, the plot leaps into gear when Marlowe arrives at the bookseller's house just as an unknown assailant murders him, with the drugged Carmen as the only witness.     Marlowe's first sighting of Geiger is from a distance, and even though he comically presents the character through a neighbor of the bookseller: "In his early forties . . . Medium height, fattish.   Would weigh about a hundred and sixty pounds.   Fat face, Charlie Chan moustache, thick soft neck.   Soft all over.   Well dressed, goes without a hat, affects a knowledge of antiques and hasn 't any.   Oh yes.   His left eye is glass" (29) - Geiger appears more comic than queer.   However, the detail that Marlowe provides of the pornographic bookseller takes these tropes and codes them differently:

He showed about four o'clock.   A cream colored coupe stopped in front of the store and I caught a glimpse of the fat face and the Charlie Chan moustache as he dodged out of it and into the store.   He was hatless and wore a green leather raincoat.   I couldn't see his glass eye at that distance.   A tall and very good-looking kid in a jerkin came out of the store and rode the coupe off around the corner and came back walking, his glistening black hair plastered with rain. (31)

Marlowe's tone here is what is important - in the company of the "tall and very good-looking kid," Geiger becomes a shady character, rather than a comical one.   All of a sudden the "fat face and the Charlie Chan moustache " take on a sinister quality - the "glass eye" that he cannot see is a disparaging remark.   Marlowe basically reads Geiger through Carl, his boy, and the disgust registers once Marlowe recognizes the relationship as queer.

            Hours later, when Marlowe goes to Geiger's house to retrieve the drugged Carmen Sternwood, he finds Geiger dead on the floor.   However, while stepping over the body and around the drugged starlet, Marlowe takes note of the décor of Geiger's house, taking note of "a low beamed ceiling and brown plaster walls decked out with strips of Chinese embroidery and Chinese and Japanese prints" (34), "a thick pinkish Chinese rug in which a gopher could have spent a week without showing his nose,"   "floor cushions, bits of odd silk tossed around, as if whoever lived there had to have a piece he could reach out and thumb" (35).   While particular as to detail, Marlowe's tone registers with disgust as he qualifies each observation.   The detective spies Carmen Sternwood just as he recognizes "an odd assortment of odors, of which the most emphatic at the moment seemed to be the pungent aftermath of cordite and the sickish aroma of ether" (35).   Instead of judging the naked, drugged Carmen, however, Marlowe continues deriding the dead man as he rushes about "The Geiger ménage" (36) to escape with the General's daughter: "The back door was unlocked.   I left it unlocked and looked into a bedroom on the left side of the hall.   It was neat, fussy, womanish.   The bed had a flounced cover.   There was perfume on the triple-mirrored dressing table, beside a handkerchief, some loose money, a man's brush, a key holder" (38).   Marlowe's parting shot at the detail of the dead homosexual's décor underscores his distaste with this brush with the queer: "A man's clothes were in the closet and a man's slippers under the flounced edge of the bed cover.   Mr. Geiger's room" (38).   Just in case the reader thinks that the room might be Carmen's, Marlowe qualifies his reading by noting that this is a man's room - and not the room of a normal man: "all this in the daytime had a stealthy nastiness, like a fag party" (64).

            Marlowe catches up with Geiger's boy later in the novel, after Carol assassinates Joe Brody.   The detective's homophobia surfaces as the kid's wisecracks, including his oft repeated "Go ---- yourself" (99), taunt Marlowe's authority:

                          He stood with his fists on his hips, looking silently at the house above the top of

the hedge.

            All right," I said.   You have a key.   Let's go on in."

            "Who said I had a key?"

             "Don't kid me, son.   The fag gave you one.   You've got a nice clean manly little room in there.   He shooed you out and locked it up when he had lady visitors.   He was like Caesar, a husband to women and a wife to men.   Think I can't figure people like him and you out?"

              I still held his automatic more or less pointed at him, but he swung on me just the same.   It caught me flush on the chin.   I back stepped fast enough to keep from falling, but I took plenty of punch.   It was meant to be a hard one, but a pansy has no iron in his bones, whatever he looks like.   (100)

Marlowe's straight talking upsets Carol, and the detective gets the response he's after when Carol lashes out.   The tone of Marlowe's taunts is troubling as he cavalierly refers to Geiger as "the fag" and pulls no punches in letting Carol know that he understands the relationship.   The reference to Caesar underscores the detective's homophobia, and his own bravura prevents him from seeing the swift swat of retaliation.   Marlowe is noticeably surprised by the fact that the boy has hit him so hard; so, not taking any chances, the detective sums up the encounter with another dig directed toward the audience only, realizing now that another such remark might cause Carol to hit his mark next time.

            Of course just about all of this is missing from Howard Hawks's big screen adaptation.   The queer Geiger is nothing more than a corpse on the floor (one that disappears and reappears from time to time).   And, Marlowe's confrontation with Carol (renamed Carl for the film) is much more muted than in the text, the suggestion that he and Geiger were partners is only suggested in his jealous revenge against Brody, the man he thinks murdered the bookseller.    Of course, this tempering was all a result of the Production Code, which specifically outlawed displayed of homosexuality.

            However, the Code did not prevent one of the more profound acts of homophobia from being captured on-screen.   According to Gene D. Phillips:

While working out this scene on the set before the cameras rolled, Hawks and Bogart engaged in the same sort of improvisation they had employed in the [prior] scene   . . .    "Can you play a fairy?" Hawks asked Bogart, who replied, "Start your cameras."   Bogart walked up to the store, Hawks recalled, put his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose, "pushed the brim of his hat up, and went in as quite an effeminate character."   (58)

While Chandler wrote the sequence between Geiger shopkeeper and Marlowe, in the same homophobic manner, the fact that the Production Code permitted the sequence to remain part of the film still staggers the imagination.   The sequence begins with a precursor at the Hollywood Public Library, with Sam researching collectible first editions; when he returns the book to the librarian (Carol Douglas), a young woman made to appear spinsterish with round wire-rimmed eye glasses and her blond hair pulled back in a bun, she remarks, "You know, you don't look like a man who'd be interested in first editions," the faintest bit disdain in her voice.   Spade glibly replies, "I collect blondes and bottles, too" - seeming to combat the little remark aimed toward his masculinity.   The dissolve brings Spade back to Geiger's, the music on the soundtrack lilts as Spade dons his horn-rimmed glasses and turns the brim of his hat up, making him appear silly.   He affects his voice through the sequence, speaking to Agnes Lowzier (Sonia Darrin) with a noticeable lisp, licking his finger now and again as he gestures, looking over his glasses dramatically with attitude when she cannot answer his questions.   The pair trade barbs as tensions mount, the woman forcefully asking the mincing Spade to leave.   The sequence continues when he crosses the street to Acme Books to encounter the nineteen- year old Dorothy Malone (in her film debut), who gets a different routine - the real Spade. My guess that the sequence remained has more to do with the way it ends.   In the novel, Marlowe only encounters Geiger's shop-girl, and she is homophobic, her "banter" is merely disgust.   However, as pointed out by Todd McCarthy, Howard Hawks's biographer, Hawks wanted Bogart's Marlowe to be more sexually available than Chandler's, " best seen in the bookshop scene, in which there is little doubt what happens after the lovely clerk closes the shop on a rainy afternoon to share a bottle of booze with Marlowe" (384):

Hawks said that the scene was never intended to be taken as far as it went, but they were able to do so simply because "the girl was so damned good looking.   It taught me a great lesson, that if you make a good scene, if we could do something that was fun, the audience goes right along with you.   (385)

While Hawks's sequence is certainly more playful than Chandler's, the fact remains that the grotesque stereotype fuels the homophobia until Marlowe drops the act.   Chandler's Marlowe plays queer to get necessary information - woman be damned; Bogart's Marlowe plays queer until his hormones kick in, and the young woman sees an easy conversion on the horizon.   Once he drops the act, Philip Marlowe is, unquestionably, all man.   

Pink Eyes: Commies and Queers Watching

The Big Clock

          Film noir scholarship chronicles the effect that the HUAC and McCarthy Hearings had on the ideological construct of the noir films produced between 1947 and 1951, the dates of the two most significant hearings concerning Hollywood.   While Thom Andersen labels the films of this period films gris, mainly because "we have been taught to associate Communism with drabness and greyness" and that the films of Rossen, Polonsky, Huston and Ray made during this period are "often drab and depressing" (183), I agree with Naermore that it is difficult to read this gray quality as politically motivated.   However, I disagree with Naermore's assumption that this period permits scholars to "distinguish in a general sense between two major branches of the `family tree' of noir - one tending toward cynicism and misanthropy (Hitchcock and Wilder) and the other toward humanism and political engagement (Wells and Huston)" (125) - particularly when the film involves queer -   coded villains.

          The threat of Communist infiltration within the government and within the film industry can be traced to Mao Tse-tung's defeat of Chiang Kai-shek in 1949; many Americans, led by Republican members of Congress, accused Truman of losing China through his inability to prevent the coup d'état.   Because of this defeat, Senator Joseph McCarthy, covertly assisted by J. Edgar Hoover, began to pronounce the likelihood of government overthrow here in the States because of a supposed list of 205 Communists working in the State Department, and many of them homosexual (Kaiser 68). The hearings that lasted over the next three years helped to strip many of their professional livelihoods, including the "Hollywood Ten" - of whom film noir 's own Edward Dmytryk was one ._       

          According to Ellen Schrecker, Hoover's influence over the creation and oversight of an anti-Communist initiative is not easy to overestimate.   "Because of the bureau's strategic position within the government, it took control of the administration's anti-Communist effort and managed to infuse its own right-wing concerns into what otherwise might have been a rather narrow program of internal security" (23).   While Hoover's alliance with McCarthy went much deeper than professional, Hoover's own obsession with publicizing the dangers of anti-American propaganda (as he understood Communist rhetoric to be), paired with his desire to strengthen the power of his agency, made his quest personal.   His own testimony before HUAC illustrates how he read Communist allegiance as pro-Soviet - and, the linking of this rhetoric to homosexuality rests in his desire to see the practice as un-American.   

          Hoover's efforts became the basis for the Senate Subcommittee's Report, released in 1950 on the "pervert problem."   Its conclusions helped to criminalize homosexuality in the eyes of the government.

Homosexuals and other sex perverts are not proper persons to be employed in government for two reasons.   First, they are generally unsuitable, and second, they constitute security risks.   Aside from the criminality and immorality involved in sex perversion such behavior is so contrary to the normal, accepted standards of social behavior that persons who engage in such activity are looked upon as outcasts by society.  

Characterizing the homosexual as a security risk made the image of these men appear all the more dangerous because of the difficulty in identifying them - they could be anyone.   The report completely debunked the scientific data supplied by Albert C. Kinsey's report on Male Sexuality, saying, "There is an abundance of evidence to sustain the conclusion that indulgence in the acts of sexual perversion weakens the moral fiber of an individual to a degree that he is not suitable for a position of responsibility."   Hoover received carte blanche to pursue the threat of perverts through constant surveillance and illegal wiretapping, followed by break-ins to newspaper offices to plant information obtained through these covert means (Schrecker 24).   In all, the early 1950s were a time of covert, undercover operations set on catching and punishing anyone who could be assigned the label   "un-American," necessitating all to subscribe to a sense of conformity that displayed a life of normality.

            As the McCarthy hearings progressed, Hoover's infamous files surfaced to provide the Wisconsin senator much ammunition in his quest to secure the government from Communists and queers.   According to Richard Hack, the two men worked closely: "It was Hoover who decided which names to supply to McCarthy for questioning.   It was Hoover who provided the supporting documents.   And it was Hoover who molded the senator's scathing attacks on Adali Stevenson when the former governor of Illinois became the Democratic nominee for president in 1952" (264) ._     With the Hiss, Rosenberg and Hollywood Ten hearings over, Hoover and McCarthy planned on another examination of Hollywood, and Eisenhower's ascension to the presidency was important to secure their plans.   Once Ike was re-elected and Hoover' s job secure once more, the two men embarked on a second purge on the film and television industry.

            Hoover's interest concerning the cleansing of the government of homosexuals has not received much attention; the blame for this purge has usually gone to McCarthy and his chief public henchman, Roy Cohn.   But, Charles Kaiser, in delineating life for the 1950s homosexual makes it clear that the homosexual rumors surrounding McCarthy in 1953 made him quite mum on the subject . _   While McCarthy worked to expose the Communist element, it was Hoover who was the chief architect of the scheme to have the gay male threat exposed.    It was Hoover who orchestrated the "cookie-pusher" scandal, when a State Department official revealed, "ninety-one employees had been dismissed between 1947 - 1949 because they were homosexual" (69).   With this exposure, Congress began the first of two investigations, supported by Hoover's files, which feared that homosexual agents would be more susceptible to blackmail - a point disproved in both a New York Post article and by the release of the Kinsey report on sexual behavior in men (69).   Eventually, Hoover moved his operation to the Bay area in 1953 to continue his own investigation of the emerging Mattachine Society (Stryker 61).

          Kenneth Fearing's novel The Big Clock (1946) comes out of this period, illustrating a life of panic lived under the watchful eye of a corporation gone mad, and the fear of being pursued because of a falsehood.   The novel's protagonist, George Stroud, is a married man working for Crimeways magazine, one of the many enterprises of Earl Janoth, a mogul obsessed with managing the lives of his employees via a pronounced clock sitting in the lobby of his building.  

The big clock was running as usual . . . Sometimes the hands of the clock actually raced, and at other times they hardly moved at all.   But that made no difference to the big clock.   The hands could move backward, and the time it told would be right just the same.   It would still be running as usual, because all other watches have to be set by the big one, which is even more powerful than the calendar, and to which one automatically adjusts his entire life.   Compared to this hook-up, the man with the adding machine was still counting on his fingers.   (385)  


While capturing the ominous physical power of the clock, George personifies it as a material representation of the repressed control over the mind in corporate America.   His further description, seeing it as an extension of his overpowering boss, furthers the idea of the cold, faceless corporate entity.  

There was one thing I always saw, or thought I saw, in Janoth's big, pink, disorderly face, permanently fixed in a faint smile he had forgotten about long ago, his straight and innocent stare that didn't, anymore, see the person in front of him at all.   He wasn't adjusting himself to the big clock.   He didn't even know there was a big clock.   The large, gray, convoluted muscle in back of that childlike gaze was digesting something unknown to the ordinary world.   That muscle with its long tendons had nearly fastened itself about a conclusion, a conclusion startlingly different from the hearty expression once forged upon the outward face, and left there, abandoned.   Some day that conclusion would be reached, the muscle would strike.   Probably it had, before.   Surely it would, again.   (385)

Janoth's "big, pink, disorderly face" fixed in a "permanently fixed" smile resembles the fixed face of a clock.   He does not adjust to the clock because he is the clock - his muscles and tendons waiting to "strike" at the appropriate time, recognizing, only faintly, that others in the room - the world - mattered.   By drawing these parallels between the tightly wound Janoth and the timepiece that guides the corporate employees' lives, George introduces his reader to the ethic of corporate America - check your mind and your heart at the door so as to devote yourself to making America a corporate enterprise.

The novel does raise the issue of sexuality as it shifts narrative perspectives between Stroud, Janoth, and Steve Hagen, Janoth's right-hand man.   While George represents the standard American male - working hard to support his wife and family   - the aloof Janoth takes up with his lower class mistress, Pauline, a crass, trash-talking harridan who, when she does not receive payment for her company in bobbles or cash, derides Janoth's masculinity, accusing him of "camping" with Hagan:

"What about you and Steve Hagan?"

I forgot about the stopper, and simply stared.

"What?   What about me? And Steve?"

"Do you think I'm blind?   Did I ever see you two together when you weren't camping?"

I felt sick and stunned, with something big and black gathering inside of me.   Mechanically, I echoed her: "Camping?   With Steve?"

"As if you weren't married to that guy, all your life.   And as if I didn't know.   Go on, you son of a bitch, try to act surprised."   (430 - 31)

Janoth's reputation as a ruthless man of the publishing world is questioned by the tart Pauline, who even refers to Janoth's and Hagen's dealings as camping, a term used by women in the 1950s to question the sexual prowess of their supposed male lovers (Rodgers 40 - 1).    When Janoth kills Pauline in an embarrassed rage, he turns to Hagan for aid.   Ever willing to defend his boss, Hagen goes to the scene of the crime, and plants evidence to point to Stroud's having committed the murder.   While Hagen does act with Janoth's best intentions in mind, he is never coded in the novel as queer.   

According to Edward Dimenderg in Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity , John Farrow's adaptation speaks more of the film's setting than its politics: to him the film "conspicuously features modern architecture in office towers" (81) as it brings noir to the east coast.   "This shift in the location from the shadows to the street to the urban architectural complex neatly encapsulates the arrival of New York City as the center of the new postwar international economic and political order" (81).   However, there is a political perspective to the film, based in its sexual coding.   Screenwriter Jonathan Latimer took the innuendos directed at Fearing's Hagan (played by Gilda's George Macready), and coded them more overtly, mainly to play off of Charles Laughton's performance as Janoth, a bully in the office and an effete dilettante outside.

In the film, George Stroud (Ray Milland) is confronted with the dilemma that faced all male executives in the post-war period   - how to navigate the divide between the power of the big city and the comforts of married life.   While George's loyalty to his career is unquestioned, his marriage has suffered from his charged responsibilities at Crimeways magazine, a publication he edits for Janoth.   At the office, George has his own sidekick, a bow-tie wearing, fidgety second-in-command, Ray Cordette (Dan Tobin) - a doubling for the Janoth/Hagan team who work upstairs.   A gradual dissolve from Stroud on the phone with his wife to the boardroom brings the action to Hagan, covering the meeting until both Stroud and Janoth arrive.   Hagan is dressed as a dandy, in a sharp dark suit, and dotted bow tie, and his elegant manner coolly speaks for Janoth, as he warns of the superior's displeasure with the Board (It is interestin g to note that Hagan and Cordette are the only two men wearing bow-ties in these early sequences).   Of course, once Janoth arrives, he is hardly coded as a man's man, coolly looking down his nose at his workers, stroking his moustache with his pinky.   He speaks quickly, referring only to Hagan by his first name - even the set-up of the boardroom denotes a hierarchy of power, as Janoth sits at the head and Hagan sits to his left at an extension, ready to do his master's bidding.   When Janoth asks a demeaning question, all those around the table respond in unison, "Yes, Mr. Janoth" except Steve, who just nods in agreement.  

In the next sequence, Stroud comes in to Hagan's office - one that adjoins Janoth's.   Here, dictating to his own secretary, Hagan smokes, holding his cigarette from underneath, a distinct mannerism that clashes with the more manly way to smoke, exhibited by Stroud earlier.   George, we find, has been called into the office to cancel his intended vacation with his wife and child to oversee the next number of the magazine - as Stroud paces the floor, yelling about the sacrifices he has made to his job, Steve smokes perches on his office settee, gazing at George from below, peppering George's tirade with little quips and barbs that reflect his disdain for such middle class trappings.   Once Stroud asks Steve to "put yourself in my wife's place - a woman who has never had a honeymoon," the scene shifts to Janoth's adjoining office, where he listens on the intercom.   The switch in scene does suggest that a closeness exists between Janoth and Hagan, but the arrival of Pauline York (Rita Johnson) Janoth's mistress, puts to rest any thoughts concerning Janoth's sexuality.

Or, does it?   The next evening, Janoth arrives at his mistress' apartment and kills her by beating her with a sundial - one that she received while in the company of George Stroud, who was out drinking after fighting with his wife.   Pauline and Janoth have a heated exchange, but instead of her questioning his sexuality (as in the novel) he questions hers, reminding her of certain cab drivers, bell boys and lifeguards who she has recently entertained.   In fact, her derogatory comments are directed at his "flabby" body and his "pathetic" need for attention.   The scene dissolves from Janoth's bloated face to Steve Hagan's well-appointed apartment, someplace in the city.   Its décor speaks volumes, contrasting sharply with the clean, modern elegance of the Janoth building.   Steve's place is reminiscent of Old World elegance, with Victorian chairs, paneled walls with shelves filled with books and object d'art.   Hagan pours a drink for his boss, dressed in a floor-length dressing gown, adorned with a white cravat.   When Janoth says, "Steve, I've just killed someone," Hagan replies, "Well, she's been asking for it for sometime."   This familiarity denotes ease between the two men - no names are mentioned, but everything is understood.   They sit at a small table, set with cards, and the camera glides in to a close shot of the two men huddled together, intimately speaking of the crime.   Hagan hatches the plot to cover Janoth's involvement when the killer recalls that Pauline had been out with a man, who they will set up to take the wrap.   As Steve leaves to go retrieve Janoth's hat, left at the scene, he comes forward and places his arm about his shivering superior, embracing him in a protective manner; Hagan is now in control, and he confidently commands Janoth through the rest of the film, having seduced him to pin the blame on Stroud.   Nattily dressed in a dark suit, suede gloves and a homburg hat, Steve re-orchestrates the crime scene to liberate Janoth from suspicion.           

What is most interesting about the film version of The Big Clock is its use of the queer villain in light of the film being a struggle between the right-minded but falsely accused, straight hero battling to save his family life and his good reputation against the corpulent capitalist Janoth and his sneaky sidekick, Hagan.   Dean McCannell reads the film in this light, seeing George as a "democratic hero" fighting the good fight for "inclusion" (286) - a desire to see all of those oppressed by Janoth and his clock to find a place of true democracy.   In this respect, the film redirects the message of the novel, where George is really no better than his criminal boss or his self-serving henchman - Fearing's version of the world order is one where democracy is bought for a price, the clock representing the power that men like Janoth and Hagan hold bought for a price, cynically criticizing that the ideals of democracy can be bought and sold.   By highlighting the queer villain's place in the film, Farrow draws a much cleaner line between the hero and the villains, making sure that the democratic George liberates all the workers from the unquestioned oligarchy of such sexual deviants.  


The New Bridge from Noir to Realism

In every field of human endeavor, he that is first must perpetually live in that white light of publicity . . . when a man's work becomes a standard for the whole world, it also becomes the target for the shafts of the envious few.

            It is truly fitting that this quotation that Hoover kept over his desk at the FBI was the simply the ad copy for a Cadillac advertisement, dated 2 January 1915 because Hoover saw himself as a paragon of American values, and the Cadillac limo that he was driven to work in every morning was his personal status symbol - a reminder of how important he thought himself in maintaining the fabric of American society.   While historians typically believe that the Red Scare of the 1950s ended with McCarthy's defeat during the Army Hearings in 1954, and his subsequent death in 1957, it was far from over in the mind of J. Edgar; interestingly, this is also where film noir critics have traditionally ended the noir period, with the release of Orson Welles's studio-butchered Touch of Evil .   However, Hoover's covert campaign against both Commies and Queers simply entered a new phase, as did film noir 's influence.

          From the time of the second set of McCarthy Hearings in Hollywood, corresponding with the publication of Red Channels in 1951, until 1958, the homophile organizations forming in San Francisco and in New York remained under the watchful eye of J. Edgar Hoover (Stryker 35).   Formed in spite of the rampant homophobia of such public figures, the Mattachine Society (discussed earlier) and the Daughters of Bilitis expanded their ranks as they worked to educate the public about homosexuality in both men and women.   After it began publishing its nationally circulating newsletter The Mattachine Review in 1954, the officers found out that the society was under investigation by Hoover, who hid behind a series of laws that permitted his investigations so long as he suspected them as Communist covers (Stryker 41).   The publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl by City Lights in 1954 only added to Hoover's suspicions that both coasts harbored Commies and Queers.   Not all gay men and women immediately joined these groups, and, even if their agendas proved to be more conservative, these two groups forged important links for the gays and lesbians who hid themselves away in singular fear; these proved to be the foundations of the modern queer political movement.   

          In 1958, J. Edgar Hoover released Masters of Deceit , his first book outlining his understanding of the Communist conspiracy against America ._   Hoove r's intent in writing the text was pedagogical: "Every citizen has a duty to learn more about the menace that threatens his future, his home, his children, the peace of the world" (v) - the sexist markers showing how such awareness will help men to maintain order within their domestic order.   In the early chapters of the book, Hoover lays out a picture of America in danger of disintegrating from its foundation because of the false promises, where "Clergymen would be required to accept the Party line.   Children would be placed in nurseries and special indoctrination schools.   Women, boast the communists, would be relieved of housework.   How?   Huge factory and apartment-house kitchens would be set up, so that women would be free to work in factories and mines along with the men" (8).   According to Hoover, each of America's virtues would be compromised by allegiance to the Party doctrine.   Ironically, the man who had recently begun to plant information on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed out that the recent gains made by minorities would not be tolerated in a Communist state: "They say they favor democracy, that communism will bring the fullest democracy in the history of mankind.   But, to the communists, democracy does not mean free speech, free elections, or the right of minorities to exist.   Democracy means the domination of the communist state, the complete supremacy of the Party" (102).   Constructing his argument with few facts, Hoover' s book was a warning that America was still teeming with Commies ready to destroy the upper middle-class world of 1950s prosperity.

          Hoover's monomania for censoring queer organization filters into the text using a euphemistic language to identify the threat of gay men and women.   In Chapter 8, "Why Do People Become Communists?", Hoover uses character sketches of "typical" folks who have supposedly joined the Communist underground to fulfill a specific need, from a "vain hope of improving social conditions, gaining better housing, or achieving better relations between the races" (110) to achieving a "sense of belongingness" (112).   However, his warning that "sexual appeal plays a role"(111) in a misguided effort to connect is conveyed in a depiction of Larry, "a communist in a Midwestern state":

            A sad group of recruits are simply twisted, mixed-up neurotics.   Perhaps as sons and daughters of well-to-do parents they harbor a "guilt complex" about the very privileges that America has given them.   Or, because of some setback in life, they are angry at society and turn to communism as a way to "get even."

          Let's look at Larry, a communist in a Midwestern state.   Ever since youth, he had felt a "persecution complex." Everywhere he looked he seemed to see despair and strife.   The whole of society, he concluded, was strictly a dog-eat-dog affair, with life being divided between the have's and the have-not's.   Such an attitude was intensified by an "artistic" and "sensitive" temperament.   Seeing these "injustices," he felt compelled to help the "persecuted."   At first he became just a "reformer"; then, after reading Marxist literature, he joined the Party.   Twisted, distorted, and maladjusted, he is today even more confused.   He found that the Party only exploited his neurotic condition to make use of his services.   (113)

Rhetorically, Hoover's strategy is fascinating as he employs the quotation marks about words that need to project a painful sting or distasteful bite.   Larry's story, neatly summed up in such qualifiers, is easily a tale of closeted gayness, seeking companionship in a world that does not approve.   Hoover's method is simplistic Freudianism at its most dangerous, disdaining these "sons and daughters" of "privilege" as living through some form of "guilt complex."   The fact that Larry is labeled a "neurotic" whose talents can be "exploited" to such selfishly "twisted, distorted" and "maladjusted" ends places the needs of this sad man and the even sadder Party in a similarly frustrated crossroad -- one that Hoover feels it is important to warn middle-America about.

            Hoover continues to use the rhetoric of the "pick-up" to intensify his distasteful mission.   The "Party's efficient recruitment apparatus" (113) takes the form of a grand seduction, playing off of the needs of the unfulfilled.   He speaks of a Party member "working on the prospect" (113), like a temptress.   Hoover continues by reminding his reader, "Of special interest to the Party are young people" (114): "Many Party-sponsored activities - dances, parties, and picnics - are aimed to win the allegiance of boys and girls.   Time after time members join as teen-agers - the age at which the Party would like to capture minds" (114).   The word-choices remind one of the language used by right-wing religious organizations to suggest how gay men prey on unsuspecting children in an effort to "convert" them to a life of lustfully selfish sin.   Hoover even ends the chapter with the notion that all Americans, regardless of how patriotic, are recognized by such groups as "convertible" (116) - using a rhetoric of fear to turn true Americans away from those who subscribe to "this alien ideology" (115).

            At the same time Hoover's book was released, a play opened on Broadway that re-told the horrendous tale of Leopold and Loeb, the University of Chicago students who kidnapped and murdered a local boy in 1922.   Compulsion , written by Meyer Levin and based on his documentary novel, was regarded a hit by Brooks Atkinson when it opened at the Ambassador Theatre on 24 October 1957, as it focused on revealing that the men were not one-dimensional psychopaths, but terribly conflicted men whose intense feelings for one another conflicted with their privileged up-bringing.   Even though the drama employed "a lot of psychiatric exposition" to make the two young killers empathetic in their misguided efforts, the critics found that Meyer Levin's play left them thinking Leopold and Loeb "morbid, horrible, degenerate, odious" (21) - suitable for a play that opened at the height of the cold war that examines the motivations of two queer anti-heroes . 10  

In bringing the film to the screen, director Richard Fleischer employs noir tactics, filming in black-and-white, securing Dutch angles, using low key lighting to achieve haunting shadows.   Deep focus and imbalanced lighting help to turn suburbia, that newly though-of paradise of the 1950s working man, into the decaying city, rife with the threats to middle America - including villainous homosexuals.   

The film opens with a coda of the two men, Judd Steiner (Bradford Dillman) Artie Straus (Dean Stockwell) climbing from the window of a fraternity house where they have stolen some money and a typewriter.   The college and the surrounding suburbs are dark with night, lending a noir -ish effect to the shadows along the buildings and roadways.    As they take off in Artie's auto, the banter lends itself the effect of two lovers quarreling as Artie chastises Judd for not following orders.

Judd: ( lifting a flask ): To the perfect crime.

Artie: The perfect crime - ah, my wealthy fraternity brothers.   Sixty-seven dollars and a second hand typewriter.   Gimme some of that   ( grabbing at the flask ).   I told you to leave it alone.   No, but you were so scared you froze to it.  

Judd: The next time, I'll be all right.

Artie: If there is a next time.   When we made the deal, you said you could take orders.   You said you wanted me to command you.

Judd: I do.   As long as you keep to your part of the agreement.  

The sequence is shot in a tight frame, forcing the men to remain close to one another - almost kissing at times - adding to the tension of the moment.   This verbal sparring turns to a game of chicken when a drunk in the road becomes a simple obstruction, Judd steering the car toward the old man.   Artie, grabbing at the wheel, causes them to avoid hitting him; however, as they return, with Artie now at the wheel, Judd uses the moment to test Artie's loyalty, ordering him to obey.   As Artie narrowly misses the drunken man, the jazz-influenced score and credit sequence begin.   Given the score and the tense dialogue it is nearly impossible to recall that a title card telling the audience that the action takes place in 1924 started the film.   I believe this is intentional, as Fleischer presents the frenzied story in relation to the current time (1959) - causing his audience to recognize limitations concerning sexual identity within the landscape of middle America.

This is exemplified in the small exchange the pair have as they park in front of Artie's house.   Judd apologizes for missing the drunk at the last minute, promising to do "anything" to make Artie trust him once more.   Artie, in tight close-up turns toward Judd, as if to taunt him, "Anything?"   He turns toward Judd more, raising himself up a bit.   A cut interrupts the flow of movement as he moves closer toward Judd, again almost kissing him.   "I want to do something really dangerous.   Something that will have everyone talking, not just a few guys - with half the fat-head police in Chicago running around while we sit back and laugh about it." The seduction works, as Judd pledges to be better next time, so long as they perform "together - something perfect, something brilliant."   In pulling away from the curb, Judd sounds like a lonely teenager, half stating, half asking Artie if he can call him tomorrow.

Upon his arrival home, Artie meets his older brother Max (Richard Anderson), who questions where Artie spent the evening.   The attempt at conversation becomes an argument over Artie Strauss, as Max begins to question Judd' s reasoning for desiring Artie's company.

Max: Where were you?   Up to some funny business with Artie again?   As if I didn't know?

Judd: Then, why bother to ask?

Max: Wait a minute.   I want to talk to you a minute.  

Judd: I don't think we have anything in common, Max.   Now, let go of my arm.   I don't have to answer to you.

Max: Or any body else, eh kid?   Artie . . . your birds . . . you don' t give a damn about anything else in the world, do you?

Judd: Does my interest in ornithology annoy you that much?

Max: Don't be a fool.   I'm delighted with your success .   It just irritates me to see anyone as brilliant as you make a jackass out of yourself over someone like Artie Strauss.

Judd: I see.   For your information, my dear brother, Max, Artie Strauss happens to have one of the most brilliant minds I've ever encountered.

Max: I know all about Artie Strauss and his brilliant mind.   I have no doubt that the both of you have twice the brains I have - I'd just like to see you use it for once on something besides cheating old ladies at bridge and giggling and sneering in your room all afternoon . . . . Don't you ever go to a baseball game or chase girls, or anything?   At your age, I was always . . .

Judd: I'm sure you had some fascinating experiences, Max.   But, some other time.   I don't expect any consideration, but Artie happens to be a gentleman - something you don't understand . . . .

Max: Oh, I understand, all right.   Would you like me to tell you something else about him?   I think he 's a dirty, evil, filthy-minded little . . .  

Judd: (screaming): Keep your filthy mouth shut!   I don't have to listen to your insinuations any longer, and I won' t.

The camera angles that Fleischer employ turns the well-appointed Steiner home into a creepy, sinister environment, trapping the articulate Judd into a restricted situation.   And, the conversation turns from a simple inquiry to a comment by Max on Judd 's masculinity and his relationship with Artie.   As Judd mounts the stairs, he turns to scream in his own defense, causing Max to grab him before he wakes the house - clearly, this is the manner used by the little brother to get his parents to leave him be.    

The structure of the film's plot turns toward the detective genre when one of the boys' fraternity brothers, Sid (Martin Milner), who interns at the local paper, receives a call a drowned boy, who turns out to be Paulie Kessler, apparently murdered and dumped at the local park.   The Hyde Park suburb begins to teem with police detectives and news reporters once word gets out that a pair of eyeglasses found at the scene did not belong to the victim.   The Dutch angles and tight close-ups resume as Judd pours through each of his suits looking for his own spectacles under the watchful eye of Artie.   As Judd tears about the room, tossing about tweed blazers, Artie sits in a chair with a large Teddy Bear, speaking to it about Judd's incompetence.   As the tension builds between the two, the close-ups and angles get sharper, and the inter-cutting becomes quicker, moving between Artie, Jud and the bear, making for a decidedly creepy moment.   When Judd asks Artie to listen to reason, Artie yells back, "We're not taking to you," causing the spectator to realize just how unhinged Artie has become.   As Judd begins to tear frantically about the room, Artie, in extreme close-up, begins a private conversation with the bear, concerning Judd's fear.   When Max barges into the room, Artie rises to leave, asking Judd for a ride home.   When Max reminds him that it is only two blocks away, Artie's quick response is priceless: "But the streets are filled with kidnappers and degenerates.   Max, you wouldn't want to be responsible for something happening to me, would you?   Or, would you?"   These early moments in the film set the stage for the trial once the men are found guilty.

The film makes an interesting parallel to the words of J. Edgar Hoover when the boys are put on trial for the murder of Paulie Kessler.   The families secure the eminent attorney Jonathan Wilk (Orson Welles) to defend the young men, and he, very quickly, gets them to acknowledge their guilt, so he can turn the trial into a plea for their lives - "guilty with mitigating circumstances."   Using psychoanalysis as the basis for his plea, Wilk turns to medical examiners to report their feelings as to whether Judd and Artie are sane . 11    Naturally, due to the censorship guidelines, frank discussion of the subject is avoided in the film, but the defense concerning Artie and Judd's unnatural bond rings clear as the doctors Wilk and the doctors speak of the fact that Artie and Judd have no "close friends."    Wilk's case is built on the premise that the young men are "emotionally unstable" - a obvious euphemism for their queerness.   Dr. Ullman (Dayton Lummis) takes the stand to testify that the "boys" (as Wilk continues to call them) suffer from a form of schizophrenia; another psychiatrist agrees, saying that he boys suffer from a form of   "paranoia [that] encompasses a very positive feeling of being right and a strong neurotic suspicion of being persecuted because of those feelings" - rhetoric similarly employed by Hoover in his classification of the Communist - a fitting parallel that reveals that Fleischer's film has more to do with America in the 1950s than in the 1920s.  

Wilk's summation in pleading for the lives of Artie and Judd speaks to the public hatred for them because of their acts.   He treats the entire room as a microcosm of the public, saying, "For the last three weeks, I've heard nothing but the cry of blood in this room, heard nothing from the offices of the state's attorney but ugly hatred", suggesting that death is not what the boys deserve because they only acted out fantasies that anyone might be guilty of, but because of the general public's stability, they hold them in check.   He refers to Judd and Artie as "two sick children who belong in a psychopathic hospital" for the crime, and turns the tables on the District Attorney (E. G. Marshall) by pointing to him as being as guilty for "plotting and scheming" against the young men . 12   While not as progressive as one might hope, Compulsion is a composite of noir technique fused with the elements of the detective and the courtroom drama.   What makes it a more likely bridge to the crime films of the 1960s is its particular attention to the queer villains - now, moved to the center stage, rather than simply relegated to the sidelines.  

Artie Strauss and Judd Steiner make an interesting team of villains, the logical progeny of the comic misfits of Hammett's novel, the flamboyant closet-cases of Chandler's novels - and the films of Houston, Dmytryk, and Hawks -- and the sly, elegant schemers of Highsmith and Fearing - and the films of Hitchcock and Farrow.   With this trajectory, we can see that the queer villain has a rightful place in the world of noir , embodying each of its three stages, gradually moving from the sidelines toward the center of the feature.  


Works Cited

The Big Clock .   Dir. John Farrow.   Universal, 1948.

The Big Sleep .   Dir. Howard Hawks.   Warner Bros. 1946.

Borda, Raymond and Etienne Chaumenton.   A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941 - 1953.  

Translated by Paul Hammond.   San Francisco: City Lights, 2002.

Berube, Allan.   Coming Out Under Fire .   New York: Free Press, 1990.

Compulsio n.   Dir. Richard Fleischer.   Twentieth-Century Fox, 1959.

Chandler, Raymond.   The Big Sleep .   New York: Vintage, 1992.

Chauncey, George.   Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male

World, 1890 - 1940 .   New York: Basic Books, 1995.

D'Emilio, John.   Making Trouble: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and the University .   New

York: Routlege, 1992.

---.   Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940 - 1970 .   Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1998.

---.   The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and Culture .   Durham: Duke Univ., 2002.

Davis, Mike.   City of Quartz .   New York: Vintage, 1992.

Dyer, Richard.   "Postscript: Queers and Women in Film Noir " in Women in Film Noir , ed. E.

Ann Kaplan.   London: British Film Institute.   1998.

Edleman, Lee.   Homographesis: Essays in Gay Theory and Cultural Theory .   New York:

Routledge.   1994.

Fearing, Kenneth.   The Big Clock .   in Crime Novels: America Noir of the 1930s and 40s.

New York: Library of America, 1997.

Fried, Richard M.   Nightmare in Red: The McCarthy Era in Perspective .   New York: Oxford,


Hack, Richard.   Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover .   Beverly Hills: New

Millennium, 2004.

Hammett, Dashiell.   The Maltese Falcon .   New York: Vintage, 1992.

Higdon, Hal.   Leopold and Loeb: The Crime of the Century .   Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1999.

Hoover, J. Edgar.   Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It .

New York: Henry Holt, 1958.

Jameson, Frederic.   "The Synoptic Chandler" in Shades of Noir , edited by Joan Copjec.   New

York: Verso, 1993.

Kaiser, Charles .   The Gay Metropolis: 1940 - 1996 .   Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Levin, Meyer.   Compulsion .   New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956.

The Maltese Falcon .   Dir. John Huston.   Warner Bros. 1941.

MacCannell, Dean.   "Democracy's Turn: On Homeless Noir " in Shades of Noir , edited by Joan

Copjec.   New York: Verso, 1993.

McCarthy, Todd.   Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood .   New York: Grove, 1997.

Murder, My Sweet .   Dir.   Edward Dmytryk.   RKO Radio Pictures, 1944.

Naremore, James.   More Than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts .   Berkeley: Univ. of California.  


Rodgers, Bruce.   Gay Talk .   New York: Paragon, 1972.

Russo, Vito.   The Celluloid Closet .   New York: Harper and Row.   1987.

Schrecker, Ellen.   The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents .   Boston: Bedford,


Strangers on a Train .   Dir. Alfred Hitchcock.   Universal, 1951.

Stryker, Susan and Jim Van Buskirk.   Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San

Francisco Bay Area.   San Francisco: Chronicle, 1996.

Summers, Anthony.   Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover .   New York:

G. M. Putnam's Sons, 1993.


1 As we will see, this is especially important in The Big Sleep , where Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) enters into an argument with a retail clerk posing as a homosexual type, lisping sharp invectives while disguised with horn-rimmed glasses.

2   Tom Hinley, Chandler's biographer, relates the now "legendary" story of the night Chandler snubbed the Director of the FBI.   One evening, Hoover was at a La Jolla restaurant, and spotted Chandler dining with his wife, Cissy.   The Director asked a waiter to have Chandler stop by the table for an introduction, to which Chandler supposedly responded, "if Hoover wanted to meet him, he could leave his own table" (181).   Supposedly, Hoover rather loudly threatened to place Chandler under investigation as a result.  

3   For instance, see Bill Delaney's "Hammett's The Maltese Falcon " ( Explicator , Winter 1999, Volume 57, Issue 2) Daniel Linder's Hammett's The Maltese Falcon ( Explicator , Spring 2002, Vol. 60, Issue 3) - both articles focus their readings of the novel through Spade's use of the word gunsel , a word as derogatory as "faggot" in some circles.   According to these authors, reading Wilmer as queer forces distinct readings of both novel and film.   

4 Another interesting situation, as Geiger only appears in the film as a corpse.   However, not only does Hawks openly code Geiger's home as queer, but he has his faithful houseboy Carl shoot another man who he believes killed his boss.   In Chandler's novel, Carl openly lives with Geiger in his own room, tastefully decorated in a very macho fashion.

5 While no critics dispute Lyndsay Marriott's depiction (which is only more exaggerated in the 1973 remake, Farewell, My Lovely ), no one speaks of the coding of Amthor - a straight character in Chandler's novel who is coded as queer in Dmytryk's film.

6 Dmytryk wrote his own memoir of the events that led up to his inquisition and imprisonment, Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten , in 1996.

7   According to Hack, Hoover and McCarthy knew that Stevenson was Truman's choice as a successor, and that he would put a stop to the Hearings.   It was Hoover's notion to paint Stevenson as a homosexual, getting his reporter contacts at the nation's papers to start referring to the governor as "Adeline."   It is Hack's contention that this practice is the real reason Stevenson lost the election.

8    Additionally, Kaiser shows that while reporters looked for facts to taint the Wisconsin senator, none ever surfaced. He cites Ben Bradlee as saying, "there was a lot of time spent investigating the possibility that McCarthy was gay, but nobody ever came close to proving it.   What a wonderful solution to the problem that would have been" (75).

9   Not only did Hoover receive a $50,000 advance for the book and $71,000 in royalties (neither reported as additional income), he later sold the rights to Quinn-Martin Productions, forming the basis of ABC Television's weekly series The FBI (Hack 309, 361).


10   Levin wrote his documentary novel based on his own work as a young reporter in the Chicago area during Leopold and Loeb's trial for the murder of Bobby Franks.   Levin was forced to change the names of his two protagonists to Judd and Artie because Richard Loeb, who was still alive at the time the play was staged and still at the time the film was made, threatened to sue the author for slander.   Loeb never succeeded in bringing any lawsuit against Levin.

11 Leopold and Loeb's attorney, Clarence Darrow, used the same method in defending his clients.   According to Hal Higdon, the details from these psychological interviews revealed that the men had an unnatural attraction to one another.   Drs. Hurlbert and Bowman "determined [Nathan Leopold] never had been attracted to the opposite sex and looked on women as inferior intellectually" (201).   As to his relationship to Loeb, in court, Dr. Healy testified, "Leopold has had for many years a great deal of fantasy life surrounding sexual activity . . . He has fantasies of being with a man, and usually with Loeb himself, even when he has connections with girls, and the whole thing is an absurd situation, because there is nothing but just putting his penis between the fellow's legs and getting that sort of thrill . . . Loeb would pretend to be drunk, then this fellow would undress him and he would almost rape him and would be furiously passionate at the time, whereas with women he does not get that same thrill and passion" (214 -15).

12 It is important to note that in Meyer Levin's novel Compulsion (1956) the subject of homosexuality is quite frankly discussed and used as a means of understanding the motives behind Artie and Judd's act.   It, too, is not a progressive text, but it does reveal how homosexuality was defined legally as a disease in the 1950s.







Return to Top of Page

Return to SCE Homepage
Return to Session Program
Return to MLA Page