“Skip is the only one that enacts incest with one hand and bats away communists like flies from a dung pile with the other.”
The guy socks the girl in the jaw and we laugh. We have to understand, if not embrace, that this is an American tradition in the most classical sense of the word. It has vein-thin but sturdy European roots: caricatures of domestic violence tokenized by guignol, circus, and burlesque theatre. It first cinematized as the mindless single-reel slapstick of Mack Sennett, Harry Langdon, and The Three Stooges (“mindless” as in corporeal, championing the grace and symmetry of the human form as it bludgeons it). It owes additional debts to lump-headed depression-era male stereotypes as well (although it’s constantly being reimbursed by wealthy descendants). Like most traditions, its heyday encompassed tirelessly infinite variants: the textbook use as punctuation that promoted it to cliché (James Cagney and his delicately shoved grapefruit toward Mae Clarke), or even the decadently homosexual inversion (Bogart dominating the pasty-faced effete Peter Lorre as he wails “This is the second time that you have laid hands on me!” and in one sentence Lorre is no longer an obliquely feminine foreign espionage agent availing himself of America’s underground but a Germanic drag queen entrenched in quite a separate underground).
In most cases we hit women to knock sense into them; we are gender doctors performing temporary hysterectomies. But at a barely subconscious level we hit them for fun, too. This pleasure is fleeting – found in perhaps 8 or 10 of our 24 frames – and so we never recognize it as cruel, not on the screen. These are swings of the fist we can enhance with our pride and joy because they cross no man’s (no human’s) land, both violating and enforcing the order of common chivalric decency on a crusade of reason. It is taboo to strike women because they are the weaker sex, but this rule becomes its own exception when they act unreasonable, or unmanageable, or start putting on crafty airs: we must strike women because they are the weaker sex, because they cannot strike at themselves. And we laugh, we innocent bystanders in the audience, because it isn’t abuse – these aren’t men and women, wife-beaters and their lowly chattels – it’s a guy and a girl. Not a boy and a girl but a guy, an average “nice” guy, a red-blooded hard-working joe, aiding the girl’s ascension to the golden haven of womanhood she’s momentarily fallen from.
We laugh at this partly because we’re bewildered; bewildered and amused to see gender roles simultaneously underscored and imploded. We also laugh, however, because of the onomatopoeic poetry leaping like airborne popcorn kernels from the soundtrack. The bitch-slap and chick-punch and ditz-whack are the territory of the foley artist just as much as of the chauvinistic male archetype: the ranchman, the private dick (an irresistibly appropriate moniker), the crooked insurance salesman and the sound editor are all cut from the same ideological cloth.
It’s hard to argue a violence/laughter conditioning syndrome as a cultural universal. But there’s almost no telling when brutality and hilarity will bleed into each other. Rather, it seems the most perplexing challenge of contemporary cinema to calibrate the former to transcend the latter. Mississippi Burning has screened in college classrooms, and a pattering of guffaws has drowned out the sight of Frances McDormand bruised and broken on a hospital bed. The filmmakers did not intentionally make the domestic abuse flourishes humorous – although they invite us to laugh at a distressingly fascist scene where Gene Hackman grips a Klan member by the balls. In one instance the display of masculinity seems a terminal and personal threat; in the other, an act of showmanship. And yet they both work marvelously well as punchlines (literally). Even an act with historically unspeakable connotations such as sodomy cannot escape this. What are rednecks and predatory pawnshop owners but families of cartoon fetishists exploring their own creative masculine ethic? Who are those that restore order by chastising them but cartoon victors of a merely alternate masculine ethic? Humor is a decidedly masculine concept: turgid, glib, and recklessly decadent.
It is appropriate, then, that the two most notable times we stopped laughing were the direct result of implications – not ejaculated threats but eerie whispers – that defied not only the proper order of gender roles and patriarchy but of natural law, of the beauty of evolution and biology. Philosophy was “out,” genetics was “in.” Sodomy still gets laughs because it is a cyclical and self-contained form of expression – the act itself is its only legacy. Incest, on the other hand, is not just a sex-as-fetishism but a science-as-fetishism; it is one of the few sexual fetishes that are also a form of genetic engineering (although what is the choosing of a mate, the exclusion of physical features from one’s ideal, but de facto genetic engineering?). Science is often found married to the fairy tale in an idyllic cottage (Bruno Bettelheim would have signed the marriage certificate); it is no different here, where bedding one’s sister or father or mother or cousin raises a legion of warped mutants, of Cains bearing hideous, throbbing marks (the Bible is not the only fairy tale, but it may be at least the most scientific, if unintentionally). These tales of the arabesque have been so lovingly ingrained in Judeo-Christian culture that even the slightest incestuous allusion rings a red circle around itself and seeps through the document at hand, melting everything in its path.
We stop laughing at Roy Dillon sixteen years later under Bush (and directly after Reagan, the oldest man ever elected to office and a former Hollywood star) because we never start laughing, at least not in that scene. Myra Langtry, like Evelyn C. Mulwray, clocks Roy beneath the belt but, worse, it isn’t provoked, it’s practically an act of recreation. Roy won’t team up with her, he’s learned from the best that con artists don’t have partners, and more importantly they don’t have families. This second rule becomes useful to Myra when she begins suggesting an Oedipal affair between Roy and his formerly estranged mother Lilly (also a con artist, and therefore exempt from “family” status). Roy slaps her twice and spits vulgarities at her but none of it seems sufficient retribution; we’ve just witnessed the cardinal accusation of vulgarity, delivered playfully (“You like to go where you’ve been . . .”) and almost seductively. Of course, we never believe Roy is a real man anyway – he’s a lousy con with the sexist streak of a six-year-old from the suburbs – so the force of his emasculation isn’t as powerful as it could be. But in 1990 it doesn’t take a real man – a Bogart or a Cagney or a Hayden or even a Nicholson – to get taken to task; the ideal of manhood has shifted from authentic patriarch to ironic patriarch, and the original tragic-ironic patriarch is Oedipus.
Roy is too much of Oedipus when his mother leans in for a wet, open-mouthed kiss at the film’s end, he is too much of Oedipus when his mother swings a briefcase full of money at his temple and shatters a glass of water in his hand, sending icy, freak-accidental shards into his jugular. He has not even committed the crimes of Oedipus, he has merely conjured them – and in doing so has conjured Oedipus’ doom. But afterward, as Lilly writhes in grief on the floor over her dead son as though viciously straddling him, further blurring the already barely visible lines between mourning and sex (le petit mort), Oedipus is lost in the fog; Lilly becomes Isis. At this, perhaps, we laugh, but only retrospectively.
Incest has become the ultimate postmodern fear. It is fitting that it dethroned the politics of demagoguery from this regal office, an exercise able to seduce entire nations (Ionesco could have saved stage producers time and granted them flair if he had instead made his infantry of metamorphosing rhinoceroses a wayward pack of pimps and prostitutes – who were Hitler and Stalin but a cunning mix of devil, Machiavelli and Sweet Sweetback?). But the fears of the collective conscious have abstracted since World War II; we now cower under the sheets considering how few of our desires can be usefully organized, and more importantly mitigated, by reason and science. There is nothing inherently evil (forget social responsibility for a moment) about the act of incest, although the esteemed council of Moses, Gabriel García Márquez and David O. Russell have decreed that the universe has its punitive way in the end: incest cheats fate, too, and fate responds accordingly (Louis Malle would have been shouted down at this symposium, John Waters was politely ejected). Likewise, there is nothing definitive withholding or encouraging arousal while in close proximity to family members; studies have uncovered patterns, drawn tenuous relationships between household dynamics and nearly universal sexual barriers. But then are aberrations truly aberrations?
The source of the incestuous urge lies at the base of a seemingly bottomless well of sexual desire; we know the water is there, like an oily bubble of poison with the potential to contaminate the entire supply, but our buckets of consciousness only descend so deep. The hedonist may refuse to draw any negative energy from this nefarious phantom, but the rest of us have become so compulsively obsessive that incest has become a stock crime, an easy stop to pull out toward the end of a pulp novel, standard fodder for a mystery that needs solving or a skeleton that needs extracting from a closet. Sexual perversion has replaced sociopolitical perversion. Today’s noir villains are child molesters (another act with a similar if less archetypal stigma) and perpetrators of incest, where yesterday the landscape was populated by spies, petty crooks looking to score big, Neo-Nazis hunting WMDs, and . . .
Communists. In 1974, during the Vietnam episode and at the height of Chairman Mao’s Republic, the film Chinatown was released, a neo-noir about an incestuous father/daughter relationship and a detective too smart/too cool for his own good but not smart or cool enough to figure it out who got embroiled in the aftermath. In 1990, exactly one year after George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev declared the Cold War’s close, The Grifters was released, a sub-neo-noir about a “family” of con artists that gradually develops into a romantic love triangle (or, at least, a fuck triangle) between mother, son, and girlfriend.
Most noir films aspire to one end of this hard-boiled plot spectrum – that is, crime on the one end and family on the other – but amid the din of working definitions and theses kicking up the dust of our cinema’s sordid backstreets, one hero manages to be on both sides of the coin at once. He’s the only one that isn’t quite a hero but manages to be heroic anyway, the only one that enacts incest (as well as sodomy) with one hand and bats away communists like flies from a dung pile with the other. He was, ironically, born under Eisenhower, along with Joseph McCarthy and HUAC, the “new look” Cold War, and the inclusion of the phrase “Under God” into the pledge of allegiance. Even more ironically, he resides in the midst of a major Hollywood studio with Uncle Hays standing by. Richard Widmark’s Skip McCoy is a slightly lighter prototype of the transient Johnny from Mike Leigh’s Naked (another new noir with social scandal as its main premise, that one under Margaret Thatcher’s cloud). He is quick-witted, streetwise and skilled at his trade, but callous and imperious, as well as a firm believer in misogyny as a means of survival. He lives, if it qualifies as a life, down at the docks in a sub-sea-level shack sans electricity but where, as he sneeringly tells two cops who try to bust him, the beers are always cold (he keeps them lowered in the icy bay along with an airtight tin of loot). Skip is himself a cheap, cold, salty beer with a tangle of seaweed forever wrestling with his moral ballast – a nickel-and-dime pickpocket, a (to use the lingo) three-time-loser with only one chance left to leave the dames on the subway alone.
But Skip, like most American males when it comes to the unmentionables of fine young women, cannot help himself. He swipes a wallet from Candy, a scrumptious blonde, in the film’s wordless opening and, in the process, unwittingly stalls the sale of a bomb recipe between U.S. commie sleeper cells and a Russian agent with tentative diplomatic immunity. This act alone has the feel of nascent sexuality to it; like a boy caught cribbing condoms from mommy and daddy’s cookie jar, Skip has no clue what he has stolen but recognizes its importance by the aura of yearning about it. Everyone else seems to want it, so he automatically wants it, too – arbitrary desire by conditioning. Like a boy somehow hoping – and expecting, because he misreads platonic affection as sexual desire – to score in mommy’s undergarments, Skip deftly handles the strip of film he has purloined and alternately plays it dumb, smart and sexy to cops, Candy, Moe (a local underground snitch and geriatric tie saleswoman) and Joey.
The last of this laundry list, Joey, is an interesting near-foil to Skip – he’s the American commie, and an ex-boyfriend of Candy still using her for her street knowledge and airheadedness (he manages to convince her to make the bomb secret drop-off herself by lying through his teeth about the exchange’s political implications). In a slightly less mainstream (that is, less anti-communist) film, Joey might have embodied even more accentuated characteristics of the American male archetype: in an indie film with appropriate sensibilities today, he might have been a camp he-man in the spirit of John Phillip Law, with Skip a sly, if pip-squeaky, queer. As is it, however, the relationship between Joey and Skip is still nothing less than remarkable for 1950s cinema. Joey is a sweaty, nervous, gun-toting communist, a tough coward who seems to have gone socialist simply so he can make money selling secrets to the reds. Skip is a sniveling, shifty-eyed loser without a sense of decency or responsibility who still manages to come out ahead in the end because, God bless him!, at least he’s not red (the underground in this film has its own laughable moral code – when Joey asks Moe what she knows about communists she simply replies “I know that I don’t like them”). To organize the dynamics of their relationship, Joey is the “top,” Skip is the “bottom,” and they’re both screwing each other and screwing each other over to win mommy’s love (in this case, mommy is the “score” of the filmstrip bearing the explosive algorithm). Candy is the go-between, the female stuck in the middle with allegiance to Joey and foolhardy love for Skip who bears the brunt of their incestuous frustrations.
Candy, communism, and the filmstrip form a kind of mother unit, or mother trinity in this film – their bastard sons are Skip and Joey, Cain and Abel respectively, vying for mommy’s favor. Candy, as the only true “woman” in the trio, therefore accepts the role of martyr (the Jesus role) who gets stoned for her purity (represented in this case with ignorance, the highest form of social purity). Her tawdry attempts at self-defense (she blackjacks Skip in the skull at one point and escapes with a small portion of the filmstrip) pale in comparison. And though she is not the only woman to suffer abuse – Joey, the good son, the Abel, shoots Moe in the head after she mouths off to him – she is the only one whose abuse seems to offer the boys release. The unspeakable fears in this film bleed between communism and incest until the two are both the same blue, puffy shade of Candy’s wounds. And watching it all, we almost stop laughing . . . but not quite. Candy’s martyrdom encompasses our condescending slings and arrows, too, not to mention those of the filmmakers who forced upon her such a facile, sexist shell of a character.
It must be noted that while Joey’s violence in the film is orderly, necessary for his unholy cause, and mostly cold-blooded (he’s an agent serving a higher power), Skip’s beatings are cloaked in confusion and ambiguity. At first we think him to be traumatized, acting out some childhood drama rather than simply punching his way through social Darwinism, but then it becomes clear that abuse is a sexual mechanism for him (as it was to Johnny in Mike Leigh’s Naked). He takes pleasure in manipulating fools, that’s why he’s a pickpocket; his hand movements toward Candy on the subway are only a few steps from masturbatory, from frotteuristic (further highlighted later when he swipes Joey’s gun, also on the subway). He is almost certainly the first “complete” anti-tragic American film hero, identified with endless sexual contrasts: he is violent but occasionally cerebral, virile but dainty, handsome but slender and stiff like a blonde pipe cleaner. He is sexist but somehow sympathetic to the plight of women, too. He’s just as likely to bash Candy’s face in after accepting her tender kisses, and yet he willingly takes on the task of burying Moe’s corpse, who not twenty minutes previous had sold the location of his residency for a meager price. Pickup on South Street is less a spy thriller and more a glib psychological landscape (typical of Samuel Fuller) where we observe the clashing of geological formations – namely Skip’s sex impulse, Skip’s Oedipal impulse, Skip’s aggressive impulse. The central battle of the film occurs not on the screen between Skip and Joey or America and Russia but within the minds of audience members as they attempt to decipher how they’re supposed to feel about Skip. I have said that Joey and Skip are Abel and Cain, which should make the decision between them intuitive – but the curiosity is that in this film, Cain wins. The ambiguous, conflicted turpitude of the urban underbelly wins over the hard but sure evil of communism (it’s almost as though Joeyhad to be communist and cowardly – anything less would have made Skip too unlikable by comparison). How is this possible?
The Cain archetype is the father of all American archetypes in that it enables our vague antisocial behavior and promotes it to the status of a sanctified rite. The story of American society, and its blithe misogyny, is essentially the story of Cain tweaked and retold a thousand or more times. We can only stop laughing at it, and at ourselves, when the latent knot of oppositions that Cain comprises rages to the surface of the narrative spurting blood from its blowhole. Chinatown and The Grifters smear our noses in our own excrement, in the fact that we despise sex for its putrid potential and paradoxically itch for it all the more because we do. Pickup on South Street is like a hybrid of those two films (or are they fragments of Fuller?); we can still laugh at the violence, at the betrayal, and at the sexual repression Skip exhibits because his Cain-ness doesn’t seem to fit into the film’s larger themes (communism, cheap thrills). He’s a postmodern manic-depressive that got caught pinching on the subway four decades too early. Confusion is easy to point and laugh at. So is psychosis, when it doesn’t get under our skin. But whether we laugh or not, Cain is already there, subcutaneous in everything American.
Which is not to say that Cain is never punished for his deeds in American film. Occasionally, and inevitably, those that smack dames around for fun go too far. George Eastman in A Place in the Sun found only the electric chair at the delta of his deceitful rainbow – and yet he is nothing if not a sympathetic murderer (Shelly Winters’ death is even staged like an accident after Eastman decides, grudgingly, not to go through with drowning her). He even gets to devour his cake in the end when Liz Taylor’s character, the siren calling to the perilous rocks, visits him in prison to confess her love one last time. Scenes like these, and others in the American canon, seem to think one thing and proclaim another – in other words, they seem to say that we can learn from the errors of Cains who bend the law of the land so far it snaps in two. They are at heart both cautionary tales and therapeutic dramaturgy.
Cain is what drives Jake Gittes to keep pursuing tangled answers with rotten fruit hanging from their branches. He’s what drives Noah Cross to impregnate his own daughter and deny Los Angeles the right to its own water. He’s what drives Walter Neff to help Phyllis Dietrichson off her husband for the insurance money, then tire of her under the seductive spell of business partner Edward G. Robinson (who wouldn’t fall for Little Caesar?). He’s what drives Frank to help Cora push the old, impotent Nick off a precipice in a calculated moment of lust and then (unconsciously) slaughter her in an automotive accident. He’s what drives Cody Jarrett (in a ridiculous parody of the Oedipal principle) to shriek “Top of the world, ma!” pre-suicide, clamoring for mother’s approval until the very end. He’s what drives to Anthony John to submerge in Shakespearean psychology and awaken from the baptism an Elizabethan killer (his victim is, interestingly, Shelley Winters, perhaps Hollywood’s most prominent victim of Cain). He’s what drives Bruno Anthony to strangle Guy Haines’ cheating wife in a pair of eyeglasses and then demand that Haines return the favor (fittingly) on Anthony’s father. He’s what drives Skip to mercilessly beat Candy as though she were the mother that wouldn’t spread her legs (and what drives Skip to, in the same breath, shed a tear for Moe at the other edge of femininity).