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."

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'