Alfred Hitchcock’s Best Picture-winning film Rebecca (1940) (his first American film) depicted subtle hints of affectionate lesbianism, in the devoted and obsessed character of housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson). Joseph Breen, the head of the Production Code Administration (PCA) at the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) was decidedly concerned about the “quite inescapable inferences of sex perversion” in the film.
In the most obvious scene, the sinister Mrs. Danvers opened the curtains to the bedroom of the deceased Mrs. Rebecca de Winter and went through her intimate belongings.
There was also a strong undercurrent that not only was Danvers expressing her unusual lesbian feelings for the haunting Rebecca, but she was also trying to seduce the 2nd Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine). She opened the woman’s closet, selected a fur coat, seductively held it next to her own cheek and then brushed it by the cheek of a nameless, horrified, and recoiling second Mrs. de Winter, stating:
“Feel this. It was a Christmas present from Mr. de Winter. He was always giving her expensive gifts, the whole year round. I keep her underwear on this side…”
She also showed off an embroidered pillowcase on the bed (monogrammed with an “R”) and its “delicate” sexy nightgown inside – one of Rebecca’s most intimate articles of clothing:
“Did you ever see anything so delicate. Look, you can see my hand through it.”
The doubting 2nd Mrs. de Winter was fundamentally challenged and believed that her husband, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), was completely infatuated with his seemingly-perfect first wife Rebecca, who had drowned a year earlier. Until the film’s final revelation of his troubled marriage to his first wife (an overtly sexually-liberated female), Maxim’s new wife doubted that she was loved at all.
In the film’s conclusion, the enraged Mrs. Danvers burned down the Manderley country mansion, and also perished in the fire (in the bedroom). Whether this was symbolic of the punishment of lesbianism and the victory of heterosexuality and domesticity was open to question.
John Huston’s classic film noir The Maltese Falcon (1941) had one of the more memorable entrances of a homosexual character in a film. It was also one of the first instances of an obviously ‘gay’ character appearing on screen.
Detective Sam Spade’s (Humphrey Bogart) secretary Effie Perine (Lee Patrick) alerted her boss to a sweet-smelling client – effeminate, bow-tied Mr. Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), who had just arrived in the outer office and presented her with a gardenia-perfumed business card. Spade sniffed the card – reacting with a bemused expression, before the strange, bug-eyed, shifty man confronted Spade in his office.
In the original novel, Cairo was clearly described as “queer” although the film only hinted (quite obviously) at the character’s sexual orientation, as he fondled his cane and touched it to his lips (hints of fellatio).
In fact, some have speculated that the entire “Fatman” Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) gang, including “gunsel” Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.) was homosexual. “Gunsel” referred to a young and inexperienced homosexual male who took care of an older male.
Double Indemnity (1944)
One of the greatest film noirs of all time was Paramount’s and director Billy Wilder’s definitive film Double Indemnity (1944), based upon James M. Cain’s novel. It told of a sizzling relationship that developed between two murderous conspirators:
- lustful, voyeuristic, and gullible insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray)
- blonde LA housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)
It depicted dangerous sexuality in the form of the predatory femme fatale.
She was first seen after naked-sunbathing beguilingly wrapped in a towel at the top of a staircase. Then as she descended the stairs and buttoned her clothes after dressing, she showed off her leggy anklet bracelet to Neff.
Afterwards, she appeared at the door of Neff’s darkly-lit apartment, on the pretense of returning his hat from earlier in the afternoon. She peeled off her coat, and was revealed to be wearing a very tight, form-fitting white sweater designed to entice him. By the wet window pane, Phyllis related more about the suffocating relationship she had in her marriage. But as she drifted away from him to leave, he grabbed her by the wrist and kissed her, and they both told each other they were “crazy” about each other. Shortly later, the scene tracked/dissolved back to Walter’s apartment, the same evening, where Neff reclined on the sofa smoking a cigarette, and Phyllis was fixing her makeup – presumably after they had sex.
In the following scenes, she persuaded Neff to join her in scheming to kill her husband and help her make it look like an accident – to collect on her husband’s accident insurance policy.
Later, Walter confessed this about his partner-in-crime and their failed objective:
“I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) was a similar tale of murder and seduction a few years later.
Toward the end of the classic romantic drama Casablanca (1942), there was a suggestive fadeout after Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) fell into Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart) arms in his upstairs apartment. She had confessed her love (“if you knew how much I loved you, how much I still love you”) and offered a passionate kiss before the fade-out.
Other aspects of the original script were also toned down:
- the character of sex-blackmailing Captain Renault (Claude Rains)
- during the Paris sequences, the mistaken knowledge of the ‘death’ of Ilsa’s husband, to lessen the sense of impropriety of a married woman ‘cheating’ on her husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) by having sex with another lover
In the film’s famous finale at a foggy airport, Rick put patriotism before his passionate love for Ilsa and sacrificed everything:
“Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.”
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