In celebration of the SCOTUS victory (narrowly approved, yet sweeping consequences), I offer my brief musings on how marriage equality might have impacted a few of my favorite noir films.
Fante and Mingo, The Big Combo (1950)
If you groove on villains, especially sidekick hitmen, there’s arguably no hotter couple in noir than Lee Van Cleef’s Fante and Earl Holliman’s Mingo.
Proof that they’re not just pals but lovers comes when we see that they share a tiny hotel room with beds as close as film of the era would allow. (Even The Thin Man‘s Nick and Nora slept further apart years earlier, as would The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s Rob and Laura years later!) After a bare-chested Fante answers the phone, it’s a queer delight when he then leans over to tell the score to Mingo — sleeping just across the end table.
And even though they’re ruthless killers, only the hardest of hearts isn’t moved by bottom boy Mingo’s despair when he learns his dominant partner Fante is dead.
Marriage equality wouldn’t mean much to these two, living in the shadows as they did. They knew who they were — to the world and each other. Nuff said.
Ballin and Johnny, Gilda (1946)
Gilda might have been a very different picture indeed if gay/bisexual men were out and proud of it in the film’s era.
Why did Johnny leave Gilda in the first place? Unspoken stereotypes would have it that he just couldn’t make a commitment. A queer reading might wonder if he was confident in his assumed heterosexuality.
Does Ballin truly love Gilda? The film shows his attachment to Gilda is possessive and fetishistic, but not otherwise intimate. In fact, there are relatively few shots of the two together throughout the film, and no embraces or lustful glances. They both know the kind of social marriage they’re in.
Far more frequent in the film are intense scenes and intimate shots of Ballin and Johnny’s relationship:
Furthermore, on a more subtle level, there are textual hints that Johnny and Ballin are getting it on and not Ballin and Gilda. As film scholar Richard Dyer points out in “Homosexuality and Film Noir,” for example, when Johnny first meets Gilda, he just walks right in. In other words, he has entered Ballin’s house without ringing the bell or knocking. Presumably, he already has a key, suggesting more than a business partnership.
The film speaks loudly of its era in many ways — from hiding gay relations to putting women in virgin-whore double-binds. I won’t argue that Johnny would have married Ballin if they were in a film today, but Ballin might have proposed. Or who knows, maybe the three would’ve made a neat little bi triangle, with Johnny in the middle.
The Noir Lesbian: Rebecca (1940) and In a Lonely Place (1950)
If gay and bi men are depicted as hot but closeted in noir, the lesbian is vilified. Rarely is she developed as a character, usually looming and lecherously gazing at or finding ways to touch the object of her affection — the desirable heroine or femme fatale.
When she does get a significant role, she may thrill queer audiences and villain-lovers, but the film will show no sympathy for her frustrated desires.
All the queer pleasure viewers may get from membership in Team Danvers and even the film’s hints at the blandness of monogamous heterosexuality don’t equal portrayal of respect for lesbian desire. For noir, it takes until 1996 to arguably reach that point.
Violet and Corky, Bound (1996)
While some critique Bound as sexploitation, it is by far my favorite neo-noir. I love the way it plays with the tropes and style of noir, and — even at points where I feel a sexist gaze is at work — I love Violet and Corky’s relationship. Toying with butch/femme roles that were so prominent in the original noir era of the 40s-50s, Corky looks butch but her sexual inexperience makes her act more femme with Violet. Violet is high femme in style, but she’s definitely the dominant one, the leader to Corky’s follower.
Somewhere in the world, between heists and cons, I’m imagining Corky and Violet stepping up to the county clerk’s office for a marriage license…using fake names, of course. And though marriage is a flawed institution at best, this makes me happy.