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Film Studies: The mood of desire in movies was often palpable. I miss it

I'd guess from her obituary that it was in 1951 I cut the picture of Lili St Cyr out of - well, probably the News of the World. That was the year of her breakthrough. She got small movie spots after she had had the wit to be charged with indecent exposure during her bubble-bath act at Ciro's, a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard. She was artfully defended in court by Jerry Giesler, who asked Miss St Cyr (I read the name as "Miss Sincere") to repeat portions of her act. He then turned to the jury and enquired whether they had been emotionally ravished or indecently interfered with - or whether they hadn't had a swell time.

Don't be alarmed. Sex is my subject this Sunday, yet I would urge upon you the restraint my mother employed in those days. I had two fat scrapbooks, one of sportsmen, the other of movie pictures. The latter, as my mother sometimes observed, leaned towards the ladies: pictures of fully inflated women in varieties of night attire, underwear and what I supposed must be party dresses such as were unknown in south London. The ladies were reliably covered, but there was an air of imminent upheaval or defloration, of a wind to whip all garments away, leaving just the vulcanised smile above them that seemed to be saying, "There, now." Though, of course, "it" was neither there nor now.

The thrust of sex on the screen in those days was always as a coming attraction - the idea of desires that would, one day, be rewarded. If you see the 20th century as a short animated movie, then in the l950s all the guys in the dark were blowing their heads off trying to make ladies' clothes vanish. That wind took hold in the late 1960s, and it's steady now. Though women in the audience, maybe, are still blowing to get equal rights.

Sex, in American movies anyway, was Lana Turner appearing in The Postman Always Rings Twice in a dazzlingly white, radiantly new sun-suit, as if to say to John Garfield, "That shouldn't be so hard to remove, should it?" Thirty-five years later, in the remake, Jessica Lange hauled Jack Nicholson up on the table, slapped his hand into her crotch, and filled the soundtrack with orgasm.

Sex was From Here to Eternity - "the book they said couldn't be filmed". The captain's wife turned out to be Deborah Kerr (not Joan Crawford, the first casting) in a black swimsuit rolling in the Hawaiian surf with Burt Lancaster. In the book, her character strips off for him, revealing the livid scar that mars her body (a bungled abortion?), and asks him, "There, Sergeant, is that what you want?" So grim candour turned into the first splashy ad for getaway holidays - "Come to Hawaii, and you could come, too."

No one mined the tension in the 1950s more acutely than Alfred Hitchcock: he had always felt the pulse of voyeurism, and he knew the age was fit to bust from frustration (as well as ready for busts). So in To Catch a Thief, he had Grace Kelly suddenly kiss Cary Grant and then ask him at a picnic the next day whether he preferred "a leg or a breast". (Chicken, you see; she was fully coutured at the time.)

In Vertigo, when Kim Novak regains consciousness after Jimmy Stewart has rescued her from the San Francisco bay, she realises she's naked under the blanket: that he has undressed her. And she has a furtive, feral look, like an animal that wonders if he saw its scar - or even its magic box. (This would help explain Vertigo.) And then in Psycho, you got to see Janet Leigh three times in her underwear - with never a cuttable nipple or an offending erogenous zone (how hateful prude-talk is), even in the shower scene - before some rising energy in us or Norman Bates lunged at her.

It was a foolish age, driven into daft spirals of metaphor and suggestion. But the mood of desire in movies was often palpable - and I miss it. Our mainstream movies are able, more or less, to hire in female nudity, and get it to perform (in fact, many actresses fight fierce battles to guard dignity and private places, yet still risk having "unofficial" candids turn up on the Net).

The mainstream is pious about not "getting into pornography" - and one result of that is that sexuality or sexual experience are as rare in movies as they ever were. It's just that now there's a lot of false advertising. But desire is gone. There was a time on screens when people looked at each other with the rapt, inward transport that shows on audience faces in the spilled light from the screen.

We can't go back. You wouldn't want to reinstate censorship. (Though that doesn't rule out the principle that art thrives on restrictions.) But then remember Laura, a movie in which you see a guy (Dana Andrews) falling in love with a bad painting of a woman he thinks is dead. Fascination is not a rational thing. The surrealists always felt that no medium reached so deep into the folly of desire as the movies. Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel (children of Catholic families and censorious societies) were geniuses who taught us to see the skin beneath the shift - in Vertigo and Belle de Jour. Lili St Cyr worked to the same law: "Don't touch," her image warned. "But be touched? There, now."