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Film Noir  
page: 1  2  

Gay Lovers

By the mid-1950s, and in spite of that decade's reputation for repression, queer motifs were coming into focus. In Joseph H. Lewis's The Big Combo (1955), gangsters Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) are clearly indicated as gay lovers, working (as gangsters) and relaxing together, even sleeping together in the same bedroom.

When the inevitable comeuppance occurs via an exploding box of cigars that kills them both, Mingo's anguished last cry is "Don't leave me, Fante!"

Lewis was also responsible for the noir classic Gun Crazy (1949), which featured gay actor John Dall as a vulnerable sharpshooter done in by a femme fatale.

Noir's Queer Victims and Villains

Noir's queer victims and villains served several purposes in these films. They indicated a world in which the basic building block of society, the heterosexual couple, was in question. They made visible, if only in half-light, characters who were treated as invisible in society.

(A good example of the erasure of the homosexual in films is offered by the transformation of Richard Brooks' novel The Brick Foxhole [1945], about a victimized gay man, which became Edward Dmytryk's Crossfire (1947), a film about a victimized Jew.)

Queer characters also helped give film noir a knowingness, a hip cachet, by challenging the status quo with controversial characters, creating the frisson of a "walk on the wild side" for straight audiences and a sense, however qualified, of empowerment for queer and perhaps other marginalized viewers.

Noir's sometimes indiscriminate doubling of queers with sadists and lunatics (as with Caged's psycho matron Harper, for example) may seem deplorable to modern viewers, but this was a reflection of cultural anxieties around homosexuality and can be consigned to the period. Despite their often baroque treatment, gay characters also helped noir achieve a sense of realism that was crucial in connecting the genre with viewers.


These comments have drawn on classic film noir, often identified as having ended by the late 1950s with Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958), which featured Mercedes McCambridge as a scary leather-clad biker dyke. By the 1980s and 1990s the genre had shrunk to its modern variant, the minor form known as "neo-noir."

In 1996, Andy and Larry Wachowski's neo-noir Bound decisively reversed the trope of queer as sinister-comic decoration or disquieting-titillating subtext. The film's lesbian lovers were also its stars, indeed its heroines. The fact that it was both a critical success and a mainstream hit showed the culture's readiness for images of gay people out of the shadows, even in a shadow-drenched genre like film noir.

Gary Morris

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Christopher, Nicholas. Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Corber, Robert J. Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997.

Dyer, Richard. "Homosexuality and Film Noir." The Matter of Images: Essays on Representation. London: Routledge, 1997. 52-72.

Hirsch, Foster. The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. San Diego: A. S. Barnes, 1981.

_____. Detours and Lost Highways: A Map of Neo-Noir. New York: Limelight Editions, 1999.

Silver, Alain, and Elizabeth Ward, eds. Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style. Woodstock, N.Y.: Outlook Press, 1979.


    Citation Information
    Author: Morris, Gary  
    Entry Title: Film Noir  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 19, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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