Crossfire, Bound and Double Indemnity: the homosocial and the homosexual in classic and neo-noir

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, writing in Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire identifies in her introduction a ‘continuum of male “homosocial desire”’, deliberately polemicizing the use of the word ‘homosocial’. It is, she points out, a ‘neologism […] formed by analogy with “homosexual” and just as obviously meant to be distinguished from “homosexual”’. By adding ‘desire’ to ‘homosocial’, (‘desire’ more obviously usually attached to ‘homosexual’), Sedgwick goes against the grain of dominant culture and ‘hypothesize[s] the potential unbrokenness of a continuum between homosocial and homosexual’. For men, she argues, society tells us that strong, healthy ‘buddy’ relations between men are entirely distinct from unhealthy, queer sexual relations between men. By naming a continuum, Sedgwick is able to bring all kinds of relationships between men into the same critical light, which leads to her analysis of different stalwarts of English literature to examine. She identifies a common triangular pattern (the ‘erotic triangle’) of two male lovers, rivals for the attention of a female, who by the end of the work display as much an attachment for each other as for the woman who has ostensibly been the object of their attentions from the outset. But to Sedgwick, there is no need for criticism to draw attention to a similar continuum linking female homosocial and homosexual behaviour, since the connection between ‘women loving women’ and ‘women promoting the interests of women’ does not worry society nearly as much. In her terms, the bond between men is as much an axis of patriarchal oppression of women as anything else. The fact that the continuum between ‘men loving men’ and ‘men promoting the interests of men’ is broken contributes both to homophobia and patriarchal oppression. Society has a vested interest in breaking up male bonds and replacing them with marriage bonds as a means of controlling men, and allowing men to control women. ((Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English literature and male homosocial desire (New York: Columbia University Press) 1992, pp1-5))

Jean Noble, writing in an article about Bound, explicitly brings Sedgwick’s idea of a continuum of desire into the body of writing about film noir:

Sedgwick’s evidence [for positing the ‘erotic triangle’ as a method of control] is a large body of classic English and American fiction where the triangular male-female-male figure returns at the conclusion of each story (and, I would add, each film noir narrative) as a sign of heteronormative male bonding and simultaneous remobilisation of patriarchal control. ((J Noble, ‘“Bound” and invested: lesbian desire and Hollywood ethnography’ in Film Criticism, 1998 22:3, p7 (my emphasis) ))

Noble also brings in Terry Castle’s book The Apparitional Lesbian, in which Castle ‘takes Sedgwick to task for foreclosing upon lesbian desire’ in Between Men:

Castle re-reads Sedgwick’s male-female-male triangle and notes that since it only remains stable when its single female term is unrelated to any other female term, it forecloses on the possibilities of female-female eroticisation. […] In other words, where there is male homosociality, there is no room for lesbian desire.

In the light of this criticism, I do not feel it appropriate to continue with Sedgwick’s gendered view of homosocial relations. In this essay, I shall be using Sedgwick’s ‘continuum of desire’, and I intend to examine the nature of ‘erotic triangles’ in three films noirs. In particular, I shall examine to what extent noir compounds literature’s use of male bonding to the detriment of women, and how a new wave of films uses similar devices to new ends.

Crossfire (RKO: Dmytryk, 1937) exists in a sphere defined by Sedgwick as an obvious seat of homosociety: the military (I shall discuss bureaucratic homosociety with regard to Double Indemnity later). The film is based on Richard Brooks’ novel, The Brick Foxhole, but differs from it many crucial aspects. The story of both novel and film turns around a group of returning soldiers with very diverse outlooks on life, seen through the perspective of Mitchell, who is himself determined to have a good time to ‘show’ his wife, whom he suspects of having an affair. This curious bunch end up implicated in the murder of a man they met in a bar, and the remainder of the plot becomes a mistaken identity policier, with Mitchell as the supposed murderer. It falls to a sergeant amongst the men to point the police in the direction of the true murderer, who is, in both versions, an unpleasant bigot. What differs from page to screen is that in the novel, the murdered victim is a homosexual; onscreen, he is a Jew. This difference prompts Vito Russo to observe that film is an example of ‘Hollywood’s maturity when dealing with antisemitism’; he goes on to note that

The New York Times noted the change in a review, but said only that the motivation for the murder had been changed from that in the novel, “to good advantage.” The novel’s crucial discussion of men’s striking out at what they fear in themselves was omitted. It has yet to be raised onscreen with any real awareness of the magnitudes of the problem. ((Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: homosexuality in the movies (New York: HarperPerennial) 1987, pp 68-70))

Russo is clearly pointing to the disruption that Sedgwick’s work highlights: the societal pressures against sexual relations between men lead the soldiers in the novel to the fear of all that is gay, which results in the homophobic murder. The novel is a liberal paean to tolerance of homosexuality which is rather surprising for its time. What is entirely unsurprising is that the studios and in particular the censors at the Breen office were entirely against filming the story. James Naremore includes the story of Crossfire in his chapter detailing the problems of censorship faced by films which were later to be described as noir. Naremore quotes Breen considering the original story from the novel as ‘thoroughly and completely unacceptable, on a dozen or more counts’, and shows how the film’s writing team (Dmytryk, Adrian Scott and John Paxton) developed the idea into a ‘policier centering on the colossal irony of a Jew being murdered by a US soldier in the immediate aftermath of World War II’ ((James Naremore, More than Night: film noir in its contexts (Berkley: Univ of Californa Press) 1998, pp114-6)) . The film is transformed, and becomes instead a liberal paean to the intolerance of anti-Semitism.

But this change leaves questions unanswered. As Russo indicates, with the characters unchanged, anti-Semitism is not as convincing a motive of hatred as men ‘striking out at what they fear in themselves.’ Moreover, parts of the narrative become incoherent; there is in particular a paucity of innocent reasons why total strangers should meet in a bar, then retire to the apartment of one of them to get better acquainted. Naremore asserts that although there is no question that the film adheres to the letter of what was demanded of them by the censors, and that although there is no explicit stating of homosexuality in the Jewish character Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene I), and indeed a number of contra-indicators, there is an undeniable queer feel to the film:

[… the film] enables us to “see” […] many of the things that censorship was trying to repress. […I]t conveys something of the forbidden homosexual content of Richard Brooks’s novel even when it works hard to assure us that […] the murder victim is heterosexual. Sam Levene plays the role without a hint of effeminacy, and when he first appears, he is accompanied by an attractive woman (Marlo Dwyer) [… E]ven though Samuels appears motivated by nothing more than decency and concerns for a veteran, and even though we are told that he and Mitchell talk mostly about baseball, the scene has a sexual ambiguity. The effect is heightened because of the Socratic intensity of the conversation, because the actor playing Mitchell [George Cooper] is boyishly handsome, and because the bizarre setting creates psychological tension. The city streets, bars, and hotel lobbies are surreally crowded with uniformed men, and Dmytryk’s mise-en-scène occasionally resembles an expressionist, militarized locker room. In this place, as one character remarks, “the snakes are loose,” and nobody seems purely innocent. (118)

Naremore’s quote also hints at the major problem this film has with regards its women characters. Samuels is ‘accompanied by a woman’ – a woman who barely speaks, and has only a very low credit as Miss Lewis. There are only two other notable female characters in the film: Mitchell’s wife Mary (Jacqueline Wright), who is mostly notable by her absence, and Ginny Tremaine (Gloria Grahame), a prostitute in the novel, calmed to a more presentable nightclub hostess in the film. There is no arguable erotic triangle in the film, because the only person interested in Mary Mitchell is her husband. Nonetheless, the strong homosocial links between the soldiers, and the no less strong bounds linking the upper echelons of the military establishment and the police force leave little space in the film for any female presence at all. In this instance, ‘men promoting the interests of men’ appears to do so entirely without regard for the other sex.

Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1947), which is based on the novel of the same name by James Cain, underwent a similar transformation from print to screen to that of Crossfire, but where the latter removes all vestiges of the queer, Double Indemnity makes a point of adding into a narrative a strong homosocial relationship. Brian Gallagher made a study of the changes and concluded:

The film version […] is marked by two substantive changes: omitted was Phyllis’s [Barbara Stanwyck] compulsively murderous streak and pathological devotion to “Death”; added was a third major character (elevated from the status of a minor character in the novella), Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), the tough, shrewd insurance investigator who uncovers the details of the well-disguised murder plot. These two changes, in large measure, restructured the narrative thematically. What was essentially a murderous story with strong sexual overtones became a sexual story with strong murderous overtones. ((B Gallagher, ‘I-love-you-too, sexual warfare and homoeroticism in Wilder, Billy “Double Indemnity”’ in Literature Film Quarterly, 1987 15:4, p237 ))

Since the Keyes character is a significant creation on behalf of the film’s writers (Wilder and Raymond Chandler) it bears a closer analysis. As the man to whom the Walter Neff’s (Fred MacMurray) confession is dictated, the confession which is the narrative structure of the film, he is undeniably a central character. This is key not only to Keyes’s status within the film but also to the confession itself. Gallagher shows that

Walter’s confession “doubles the intensity” of the male discourse by directing the narrative, passing to another male, instead of directing it, extradiegetically, to an assumed but unspecified (presumably male and female) audience. (238)

This doubling of the intensity comes in part from our voyeurism as an audience listening in to a confession rather than an overt voiceover intended only for us; and in part from the nature of the relationship between Keyes and Neff, which is not apparent to us at the beginning of the film, but which is increasingly made clear as the narrative progresses. The men are colleagues at the insurance company Neff attempts to defraud, and as colleagues, provide an example of the homosocial space bureaucracy provides (Sedgwick). They are not equals: Keyes, as Claims Manager, is more important in the hierarchy of the company than Neff, who is only a salesman. Throughout the film, however, it is clear that these men have worked together for some time, and have rituals together born of familiarity. Principal among these is that Keyes can never find a match to light his cigar, and Neff always ends up providing him with one. When Neff lies dying at the end of the film, and cannot light his own last cigarette, Keyes finally finds a match of his own, and performs the ritual in reverse. This last cigarette clearly functions symbolically as a dying man’s last wish, afforded him by his executioner: Keyes has enjoyed the role of the embodiment of the law throughout the film, as the man who in the final count, Neff has failed to outwit. But the very idea of lighting another’s cigarette also has an undeniable erotic thrill: in casual encounters, asking for a light enables a conversation to be struck up as well as a match; and holding a hand steady to keep the flame in the right place also enables otherwise proscribed physical contact.

Lighting each other’s cigarettes is about as far as the relationship between Keyes and Neff can go onscreen, just as the screen shows us that all Phyllis and Neff do together is embrace. But there is an ellipsis between Walter and Phyllis embracing together, and Walter and Phyllis sitting at either end of a sofa apart while she touches up her makeup and he continues his voiceover. This elision can only be a coy, censor-approved representation of physical intimacy between the two. What is similarly elided from the relationship between the two men? After all, Neff tells Keyes, apparently light heartedly, that he loves him, which is more than he ever does for Phyllis. There is no doubt that there is real affection between the two: that the two were close is made explicit by the closing dialogue, where Neff tells Keyes that the perpetrator of the crime was ‘Too close, only the other side of a desk’, and Keyes responds ‘Closer than that.’ The desk, which signifies we are in bureaucratic space, is what keeps the two apart in Neff’s mind, but for Keyes it does not separate them. But although the two men have such a close relationship, it cannot afford either of them any pleasure:

The film’s deep cynicism – which exceeds anything in Cain’s novella – resides in its positing an alternate sexual relationship [to that with Phyllis Dietrichson] for Walter (i.e., a homosexual one with Keyes) as equally untenable and unrewarding, allowing for only a temporary misogynist bonding of the two men at the point of Walter’s death. Thus the film’s bitter ending […] is much more reflective of the war-weary mood of the mid-1940s than the film’s overt subject matter might indicate. (Gallager 238)

Similarly of course, Neff’s relationship with Phyllis is nasty, brutish and short-lived: and it becomes clear by the end of the story that Phyllis is only showing any interest in the insurance man for her own ends. Double Indemnity is archetypal noir for its abject lack of hope of any sort.

Where Bound (Wachowski brothers, 1996) differs from Double Indemnity is in its moral framework, which is mediated at so many levels it affects the feel of both films. It’s immediately apparent from comparison with Double Indemnity that there is an air of hope in Bound. Earlier noir is characterised by its claustrophobic feel, due in part to the narrow nature of the censors. Since the criminals in these films are not allowed to get away with their crimes, they inhabit perforce an environment where the police are all powerful and omnipresent. Take for example Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1945): in a film such as this, the police appear almost as fate. They are there from the outset, from the solicitous officer who enquires after Mildred’s health to those who burst in shortly after the shooting that forms the starting point of the plot; thereafter, of course, the detective’s questioning gives the narrative its structure. A rather more obvious example is the scene added to the end of Detour (Ulmer, 1945): a clumsy, after-the-fact addition to appease censors. By the end of the film, the principal character has not been brought to justice. The coda suggests clumsily that although he is still at liberty now, he may not always be so, because some dark night, on some dark road, some presumably preternaturally perspicacious policeman will apprehend him and finally bang him to rights.

This sense of fate, of inevitably being called to account for one’s crimes, is certainly a feature of Double Indemnity. The film’s narrative structure is such that we cannot fail to be aware that this is a failed criminal endeavour: it is a dead end film. Walter Neff, stumbling through the opening credits into his office clutching a fatal gunshot wound, is clearly not a character destined a happy ending. As he recounts his story in voiceover, the fact of his impending demise is given heavy emphasis: this endeavour is doomed, and explicitly set out by the text as such, when Neff tells us he and Phyllis are ‘on a trolley ride together and the last stop is the cemetery.’ It is highly significant that the force with which Neff must reckon is not anything so official as the police, but Barton Keyes.

A similar sense of claustrophobia is present in Bound, but it is not due to the intervention of the authorities. The rather more complex time structure of the film as well as the relative freedom from censorship means that a far more open ending is permissible, and as such, the viewer finds it hard to tell where the film will finish. Will our heroines succeed? Will they be subject to the wrath of the mob? Fate is not present throughout the film, and there is no predetermined ending. Yet the very name – Bound – suggests confinement and restriction. The feeling of claustrophobia here is rather more personally than externally mediated. There is searing irony in Corky (Gina Gershon), the unmistakable butch dyke (and consequently anything but ‘closeted’), forcibly bound and gagged and returned to the closet. This is all the more searing when unpacked: the scene is nothing but identity politics writ large, and moreover, contains in microcosm the interpersonal relationships of the entire film.

Corky has been returned to the closet (and it is no coincidence that it should be her girlfriend’s closet) by Caesar, who is disputing the legitimacy of their lesbian relationship. As becomes clear halfway through the narrative when we return to the point where Corky is incarcerated, this is Violet’s (Jennifer Tilly) last chance to abandon Corky and deny her own lesbianism. Were she to do this, this would in turn confirm Caesar’s identity as Violet’s husband. By banishing Corky, Caesar is attempting to re-establish his patriarchal control over his errant wife. This scene is also the locus of the theme of claustrophobia, establishing itself at the start of the film, and recurring half way through. But where Double Indemnity leaves us with no doubt from the outset that the closed ending cannot be changed, Bound keeps us guessing, until the film finally throws off all vestiges of confinement. Violet and Corky drive off together almost into the sunset to the triumphal tones of Tom Jones’s She’s a Lady. The happy ending neatly concludes any idea of oppressive homophobic claustrophobia and quashes Caesar’s pretensions to mastery of Violet.

As Jean Noble points out, the triangle Caesar-Violet-Corky is a rewriting of one of Sedgwick’s homosocial triangle. Noble demonstrates that triangles are a regularly occurring feature throughout the film, from the opening moment, which features the three characters standing in an elevator with Caesar in front, oblivious to the two women ‘exchang[ing] a smoldering look’ (Noble, 4). Whereas Sedgwick shows us triangles in literature that are man-woman-man, Bound is trying a new configuration of woman-man-woman. This rewritten erotic triangle was important to Terry Castle:

Once two female terms are conjoined in space, an alternative structure comes into being, a female-male-female triangle … in the most radical transformation of female bonding, — ie., from homosocial to lesbian bonding – the two female terms indeed merge and the male term drops out. (( Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (New York: Columbia University Press) 1993, pp73-85 cited in Noble, J Bound))

Sedgwick’s original erotic triangle held together because the men had a strong relationship with each other as well as with the female object of their affections. But once Corky and Violet are together, there is no longer any link between Violet and Caesar. It follows that it is hardly surprising that the plot causes the two women to eliminate him.

Do any of the considerations of Sedgwick’s thesis continue to hold? If the original erotic triangle was used as a method of men’s dominion over women, does this new triangle show us a way of using female homosociety to oppress men? For Noble, homosocial spaces are an important link between Corky and Violet:

an important synchronicity has been established between Corky and Violet: Corky did five years in prison, Violet has done five years with Caesar in the “family business.” Both have occupied homosocial spaces: Corky in the Watering Hole [the film’s lesbian bar] and prison and Violet in the almost exclusively male mob family business… (5)

But if nothing else, this film shows us a wide and balanced variety of homosocial settings: for the men there are the institutions of the mob and the police force; for the women there is also the women-only bar – one of very few locations external to the apartment block in which the story takes place. This film is after all preaching lesbian equality not lesbian supremacy. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the most recent film gives us the most favourable treatment of homosexuality – after all, it’s only very recently that gay people have been integrated into the thrust of mainstream cinema ((Although Russo argues that films from cinema’s earlier, pre-censor days were considerably more liberal in regard to portrayals of unusual sexuality than anything from the 1940s to the 1980s.))

Words: 3658

Filmography

Crossfire (Dmytryk, 1937)

Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1947)

Bound (Wachowski brothers, 1996)

Mildred Pierce (Curtiz, 1945)

Detour (Ulmer, 1945)

Bibliography

Abelove, Barale & Halperin (eds), The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, (New York: Routledge) 1993

J Boozer, ‘The lethal femme-fatale in the noir tradition’ in Journal of Film and Video 51: (3-4) 20-35 Fall/Winter 1999, pp20-35

Terry Castle, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture (New York: Columbia University Press) 1993

Cynthia Fuchs, ‘The Buddy Politic’ in Screening the Male: Masculinity in Hollywood Films, ed. by Steven Cohan and Ina Rae Hark

B Gallagher, ‘I-love-you-too, sexual warfare and homoeroticism in Wilder, Billy “Double Indemnity”’ in Literature Film Quarterly, 1987 15:4, pp237-246

E Ann Kaplan (ed), Women in Film Noir, (London: bfi) 1998, 2000

James Naremore, More than Night: film noir in its contexts (Berkley: Univ of Californa Press) 1998

J Noble, ‘“Bound” and invested: lesbian desire and Hollywood ethnography’ in Film Criticism, 1998 22:3, pp1-21

Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: homosexuality in the movies, (New York: HarperPerennial) 1987

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English literature and male homosocial desire (New York: Columbia University Press) 1992

2 comments on “Crossfire, Bound and Double Indemnity: the homosocial and the homosexual in classic and neo-noir

  1. […] my blog. Tonight, I noticed from my referral logs that at least six people have found my essay on Bound and that spurred me to do the work necessary to copy my final dissertation onto my blog (mostly […]

  2. Thanks says:

    Thanks for providing these types of fantastic post.

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