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
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee