sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2016-08-26 03:09 am
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I was trying to remember how I fell in love with you

So [personal profile] skygiants wrote about Gilda (1946), which we saw at the Brattle on Tuesday, and it is exactly as queer and gonzo as she describes. Thinking about queerness in film noir started me thinking generally about sexuality in film noir, which started me thinking about Joseph H. Lewis' The Big Combo (1955), a movie I really want to see again. I glossed it briefly three years ago:

I cannot decide whether The Big Combo (1955) suffers from its tendency to treat women as plot counters more than it benefits from its deep, shadowy, atmospheric cinematography or the performances of Cornel Wilde and Richard Conte as a hero it's difficult to root for and a heavy with a strange sympathetic streak, but I do appreciate how all of these elements come together in the finale: the merciless glare of headlights hunting a man who has dominated his lover past her limits, controlling even the music she listens to, the colors he prefers her to wear—half-blinded, staggering in the fog, whichever way he turns now she has the lights on him, as relentlessly trapped and exposed as he made her feel all those years. It's not complete repayment for how much of the rest of the film she spends crying, questioned and prodded by men who keep saying they love her, but I'll take it. The level of sexuality slipped under the radar is noteworthy, as is the director's evocatively synesthetic approach to violence. Dear scriptwriters: if you take a pair of inseparable hoods named Fante and Mingo who sleep in the same bedroom and make plans to run away together and then give them lines like "I can't swallow any more salami" and "The police'll be looking for us in every closet in town," I hope you were tweaking the Production Code deliberately, because a twenty-first-century audience can't take it with a straight face. The big-band brass of the title theme is great.

Trying to work out why it is that even now I harbor a soft spot for Richard Conte's smoothly ruthless Mr. Brown while I cut no such slack for Cornel Wilde's dogged Lieutenant Leonard Diamond of the 93rd Precinct, I realized that my feelings rest heavily on the sexual implications of a brief, at least historically startling scene between Conte and Jean Wallace. A little background before the smut.

The plot of The Big Combo is the kind of murky audience misdirection in which noir specializes: a study of a sexual obsession disguised as a moral crusade. The city is probably Los Angeles, but it's ninety-five percent studio interiors and backlot streets and day shots are few and far between; even efficiency apartments and hospital rooms are as spookily shadowed as stakeouts at midnight. We meet one major character fleeing through the tile-and-concrete warren of a boxing arena after dark, another pulling self-imposed graveyard shift at the precinct, another delivering a genial, chilling lecture on hate in a low-lit locker room. The finale will pull all of them away into the fog-swirling night. In this especially dark city, Diamond is our sole steady representative of the law. His name should signal his clarity and integrity, but in his very first scene he's shown to be obsessed and unreliable, his mixed motives obvious to everyone but himself—defending the $18,000-plus of departmental budget he blew on a fruitless six-month investigation of the seemingly squeaky-clean Mr. Brown, he mounts an eloquent denunciation of the corrupting influence of Brown's "combo," but the precinct captain cuts through his righteousness by reminding him that for the same six months he stalked "Brown's girl," the beautiful, damaged ex-socialite Susan Lowell (Wallace), and on his own dime no less. "She went to Vegas, you went to Vegas. She flew to Cuba, you flew to Cuba. You can't bear to think of her in the arms of this hood . . . She's been with Brown three and a half years. That's a lot of days—and nights." Diamond sticks to the story that she's just his best lead on the slippery, seamless syndicate boss, but there are all sorts of uncomfortable overtones when he races off to question her while she recovers in the city hospital following an overdose of pills. She lies against the pillows like l'Inconnue de la Seine, he takes her in his arms as if to give her the kiss of life, and then he badgers her about the woman's name—"Alicia"—she whispered deliriously on her way into the ER. She struggles against him feebly, begs him to leave her alone. He holds her down on the bed and threatens to arrest her for attempted suicide if she doesn't talk to him. If there was ever any genuine social concern in Diamond's hunt for Brown, it's long since foundered on his chaotic feelings for Susan. He wants to save her, he wants to possess her, he has really not thought through how sending up her lover for life is supposed to win a woman's heart. (He's obviously never seen The Third Man (1949).) In the meantime, living out of his office, shaving and eating at his desk, recording case notes to himself like a homicide detective—which he's not—he looks about one wall of string-linked magazine clippings away from a conspiracy nut. A movie which wanted its audience to view Diamond more heroically might set him up like a loose cannon in order to give him the satisfaction of being proven right. Here, we know from the start that Brown's a crook—Diamond's a cop, so what? It's not why he's doing what he's doing, just how.1

Susan's relationship with Brown at first looks like much the same thing. No one has a real history in this picture, although Brown has the most with his seven-year rise from prison guard to arch-criminal, but we learn early on that she threw away a promising career as a classical pianist to become the kept woman of a high-class hood; she still displays a careful, educated voice, a "classy" manner even in the extremity of despair. Brown likes to accentuate these aspects of her. He doesn't like her to drink, because it recalls his wife the "lush" who drunkenly humiliated him; he likes her to dress in white, as if curating an image of purity; he dislikes her listening to classical music, the kind she used to play, perhaps because it is inaccessible to him or because it reminds her that she once had another world, one she might yet return to, without Mr. Brown. She is running away from him in her introductory scene—not permanently, but she didn't want to attend the boxing match in the first place; Mr. Brown insisted. Mr. Brown insists a lot. It is warping Susan out of shape, crushing her like an abyssal sea. So, obviously, why does she stay? Is it the violence? The nearness to power? She came from a society family; the wealth itself can't attract or impress her. Diamond can't figure it out.

The audience puts it together, but then we have the advantage of omniscience. It's her first day out of hospital, her first scene with Brown since her interrogation by Diamond. Susan is having a drink, listening to a modern piano piece, not wearing white, all the ways she can assert her defiance of her gangster boyfriend. She answers some of his rapid-fire questions, deflects others; establishes that while the police lieutenant grilled her for hours, she had nothing to tell him—"Alicia" meant nothing to her. Apparently reassured, as if to seal his affection for a loyal moll who gave nothing away, Brown catches her abruptly and twists her face toward his for a hard, devouring kiss, but when their mouths break, he's the one who looks breathless, troubled. "Susan, tell me," he coaxes, "come on. What's bothering you?" For answer, she tosses her head out of his grasp and hisses, "I hate and despise you." The audience may flinch, but Brown does not respond with the expected, demonstrated violence. He looks bewildered not by her hatred—it's the motive force in his universe, the thing that "makes the difference"—but by his inability to amend it. "Susan," he tries again, "what are you trying to do, drive me bats? What do you want, Susan? Tell me. I'll give you anything you want, tell me. Anything you want." By now he's kissing her cheekbone, her jaw, the side of her throat, his fingers tangled in the heavy curl of her ice-blonde hair; his mouth moves down to her bared shoulder, his husky, interrupted voice still pleading-promising against her skin, "Anything at all."–"Nothing," she whispers, helplessly, bitterly, "nothing, nothing, nothing—" His fingers slip from her hair; his face disappears off the bottom of the screen, out of shot. Hers fills the frame, as smooth and shadowed as a sculpture with downswept eyes, but before we cut to the police station like a tacit reminder of law and order, we see her eyes widen, heavy-lidded, her whole expression unmistakable desire. That's the answer to the question she was supposedly asking herself; that's why she'll choke down pills rather than outright walk away from her lover. As calculating and brutal as Brown is in his business practices, as inflexibly as he controls the external minutiae of her life, there's nothing he won't do for her in bed. Which I mean metonymically, because she's standing next to the hi-fi in the half-lit living room of her lavish apartment when Brown goes down on her. This is a man who boasts of the superior strength of his hatred to men he's about to destroy, who smilingly switches off a deaf man's hearing aid right before he executes him and repurposes the device to torture his rival with pyrotechnic jazz at ear-shattering volume, who lives by the domineering maxim that "first is first and second is nobody," and he goes unhesitatingly to his knees for the pleasure of a woman he wants to make happy. He can't, of course, because first he would have to understand that Susan's suicidal self-loathing follows directly from her emotional and sexual entanglement with him and his heartless criminality, but it's the unfailing next best thing. It's messed-up, it's sad, it's actually hot. Anything you want. If there's an earlier depiction of cunnilingus in American film outside of porn, someone's going to need to point me toward it.2

So once again I'm left feeling I need to read more queer and gender theory in order to talk intelligently about these films, because the scene just described feels like a place where my values and the values prevailing at the time of the film's release are at odds. My feelings about the giving and receiving of oral sex generally run along the lines of normal, healthy, and yes. It's not an especially marked category of sexual practice for me. To a mainstream audience of 1955, however, at least for those viewers who got it—and there may well have been many who didn't—I suspect the heavy implication of male-female oral-genital fun times was, if not quite as deviant as the openly affectionate, definitely Code-tweaking partnership of Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman), then at least a little hinky. Transgressive. Dirty. Technically illegal under the definition of sodomy in some states.3 And as such, it functions as both a proof of love and a social brand. What Susan gets from Mr. Brown is not the vanilla kind of loving a nice girl is supposed to want; I imagine that he can provide it precisely because he is not a nice man himself, any more than his two best triggermen who sleep side by side in twin beds like any other married couple of the 1950's. I could be wrong. I don't want to confuse the Production Code with actual mid-century mores.4 But the fact that cunnilingus in The Big Combo is an act associated uniquely with the criminal Mr. Brown—with fellatio teasingly represented by Fante and Mingo and their salami—makes me think I'm not. [edited up from comments for clarity: I am not in any way surprised that the script assigns its transgressive sexual creativity—anything outside missionary PIV—to its villain, it's just a case where the goalposts for transgression have shifted so far since the film was made that Brown's behavior now reads quite differently to me than I expect it was intended to, which I find really interesting. The emotional conflict of an attentive lover who can't translate his consideration outside the bedroom convinces me much more than the simple idea of Susan in thrall to her sexual desires.]

Brown is not a good guy. He's possessive, destructive, sadistic, a casual taker and ruiner of lives, and he unsettles even in amicable conversation because he goes about so much of his blood-money business without any overt expression of anger. He smiles and smiles and is a villain. His micromanagement of his lover's life without any regard for her preferences or boundaries is a main factor in her suicide attempt and he never gets it, not even at the end when she has him pinned in the lights and the expression on his face as he squints out through the blinding fog is the same strange, pained bewilderment, never understanding that it was not in his power to give her what she wanted most. But the film suggests that he was trying. It gives him the benefit of the doubt where at least one kind of happiness was concerned. I can't say the same about Diamond. Even in the scene where he stumblingly admits his feelings for Susan, one of the few moments in the movie in which he looks sympathetic, vulnerable, less than fanatically sure of himself, he can't stop himself from trying to hurt her into helping him, jerking the mink coat from her lap and gruesomely describing its pelts as the "skins of human beings . . . people who've been beaten, sold, robbed, doped, murdered by Mr. Brown," as if she never knew where the money came from. He can't stop trying to use her. Wilde and Wallace were married for thirty years in real life; they made seven movies together, eight if you count the one he directed without appearing in; it interests me that in neither of the two I've seen so far are they cast as ideal lovers, or possibly even people who should be involved with one another at all. Perhaps I'm overgeneralizing, but I have trouble reading Diamond as anything other than a very conventional, heteronormative lover—if he knows what really turns his beau ideal on, it's probably something he thinks a woman who has the right kind of man shouldn't need. The final configuration of the three principals is ambiguous, but if Susan really has thrown in her lot with the gender conformity of her decade, it's hard for me not to feel that she's lost something. Maybe she'll find it again after the film ends with someone who isn't Lieutenant Diamond. This TMI brought to you by my attentive backers at Patreon.

1. All the while he's carrying on his white-knight, Madonna-whore complex about Susan, Diamond maintains a mostly off-again relationship with Helene Stanton's Rita, a dark-haired stripper who greets him after his six-month absence with a well-deserved "You've certainly got a nerve!" She really cares about him despite her scorn for his job and her frustration with his distance; she warns him when the word on the street turns nasty in his direction. He goes to her for sex and emotional support and not much more. She's not his fallen angel who needs a hand back on her pedestal again. Only after she's taken eleven bullets in his place does Diamond recognize what a heel he was to her, crumbling into tears as he berates himself, "I treated her like a pair of gloves. When I was cold, I called her up." I am glad that he is shown to be capable of remorse, because the audience noticed the glove thing long before he did. But I admit it affects my assessment of his feelings for Susan.

2. Gustav Machatý's Ecstasy (Extase, 1933) has a twenty-year lead on The Big Combo, but it's Czech. And unless things have changed much since I saw This Film Is Not Yet Rated in 2006, Hollywood is still way behind any reasonable times in depicting female pleasure, especially if it does not involve dick.

3. Including Massachusetts! Thanks, Puritans.

4. Because my life is my life, I know much more about classical Roman attitudes toward cunnilingus, i.e., it's even more degrading and unmanly for a man to perform than fellatio. If you get face-fucked by a dude, at least it is a dude you're submitting to; if you're getting face-fucked by a woman, game over, man, game over. Also, everyone knows it's just gross. You can really insult a Roman man by calling him a cunnilingus, even more than if you called him a fellator (cocksucker) or a cinaedus (effeminate, penetrable, gender-non-conforming man). Martial wrote way too many epigrams on the subject. There's also some relevant graffiti. I am comforted by the existence of Pompeiian graffiti indicating that male prostitutes offered cunnilingus to their female clients, and not just in a your-mom-for-five-bucks kind of way. But the literary record at least is overwhelmingly negative and the culture I live in inherited not a little of it, alas. In any case, these are all masculinity-related hangups about which Mr. Brown does not appear to give a fuck.
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2016-08-27 04:39 pm (UTC)(link)
classical Roman attitudes toward cunnilingus, i.e., it's even more degrading and unmanly for a man to perform than fellatio. If you get face-fucked by a dude, at least it is a dude you're submitting to; if you're getting face-fucked by a woman, game over, man, game over. Also, everyone knows it's just gross. You can really insult a Roman man by calling him a cunnilingus, even more than if you called him a fellator (cocksucker) or a cinaedus (effeminate, penetrable, gender-non-conforming man). Martial wrote way too many epigrams on the subject. There's also some relevant graffiti.

WELL PFUI. (Man, I missed those epigrams, apparently. Thankfully.)