Almost universally derided as lurid, overwrought, excessive: I liked it very much. The title at the intro warns us that the film is a story of evil. In Beyond the Forest, evil is personified by a woman, Rosa Moline (Bette Davis), married to the too-nice local doctor (Joseph Cotton) but desperate to get out of that one-horse town and into the nearest big city – Chicago – for the sophistication and excitement she craves. Why is she evil? Because she’s a slattern – the house is full of dust — because she cheats on her husband, because she’s killed a man. But the worst bit – the bit that got cut out of prints in several US cities – is because she’s willing to jump off a hill to abort the child that’s keeping her from the bright lights of the big city. At the beginning, she says that life in Loyalton is like waiting for a funeral to start. The film shows us just how true that is, as she collapses and dies just as she’s about to make the last train outta there.
The film is probably best remembered for Davis’ speaking of the one line ‘What a dump!’, a camp classic made respectable when re-deployed by Edward Albee in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and even more famous when Elizabeth Taylor spat it out in the film version. But the fame of the line obscures what surrounds it and makes it potent: Rosa’s refusal of the constraining and defining options for women in Loyalton.
‘I don’t want people to like me. Nothing pleases me more than when they don’t like me. It means I don’t belong.’ When her dull milksop of a husband — shown drinking a glass of milk in case you didn’t get it — tells her he just saved a woman’s life, her retort is ‘Saved her for what?’ Hating everyone makes her feel alive, keeps her from accepting the conditions of the existence she didn’t choose, keeps her in revolt. ‘I’m going to bed,’ says the husband. ‘That’s big news. Where else could you go?’ Gay audiences of the time might have laughed at the line but surely the feeling that if they didn’t get out of their small towns and into a big city, they’d die, that towns like Loyalton would kill them, is a situation they could connect to, one that spoke them and dramatised their plight?
Beyond the Forest has many great scenes but one worth lingering over is the one where she leaves the husband and runs off to Chicago only to find Neill Latimer (David Brian), her lover, doesn’t want to marry her (see above). He offends her by offering her money. But even as she refuses, she’s interpellated by everything that surrounds her as laughinstock and a whore: she’s kicked out of a bar for being a single woman, a drunk thinks her a prostitute, the police have their eye on her, even the newspaper boy seems to detect her plight. It’s a fantastic scene. Some might think it too much. But too much for what? King Vidor directs this is as if it were an opera, all is emotion and he’s finding the right pitch to convey it, with situation, camera, setting and angles, even the tone of a stranger’s laughter. Everything here symbolises, creates, evokes and conveys feeling. Clearly.
Ruth Roman is in the movie merely as an ideal of womanhood, everything Davis’ Rosa Moline isn’t. Max Steiner’s score is so unimaginative he has to rely on underscoring Fred Fisher’s ‘Chicago’ over everything. And yet, Beyond the Forest is lurid, is excessive, is overwrought. It is also great. The film achieves the latter through, not in spite of, the former.
This thought was incurred by the Before Stonewall programme of films at Lincoln Centre and by Guy Madden’s excellent programme of films at Harvard, as well as the suspicion that retrospectives of ‘gay’ films almost always dwell on instances of representation rather than ‘sensibility’ or ‘structures of feeling’ or other elements that are harder to classify but just as clearly communicated, and historically perhaps even more important, as they were a subcultural form of communication but clearly understood through mainstream media, something akin to the minstrelry Henry Louis Gates Jr. describes in Blues, Ideology, and African American Literature, A Vernacular Theory, when he describes blacks donning black-face in minstrel shows and performing to a mixed audience in a way so inflected that the black audience were aware but the white audience possibly not.
I saw Foul Play when I was 14 and it’s the first film I saw which I knew was somehow gay without it having any gay characters to speak of. Today there are many things one can point to: the film’s empathy with outsiders and misfits of all kinds (though some might find the scene above on the verge of being offensive; the film makes amends later); the feminist overtones which then over-hung the incipient gay liberation movement — a girlfriend gives Goldie Hawn’s Gloria a whole array of tool with which to defend herself against male aggression; the San Francisco setting; the way the Dudley Moore character travels through the saunas and discos in search of a quick shag in ways much more characteristic of gay men of the period than heterosexual ones; the type of cinephilia, with its adoring send-ups of thriller/horror tropes; the opera sub-plot and it’s comic use of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado; the plot to kill the pope; the camp humour with which it’s all told; the tracing of this sensibility to its director, one of the first to be openly gay, who had written Harold and Maude before and would later go on to direct such camp classics as 9 to Five and Best Little Whorehouse in Texas before dying of AIDS in 1988: one easily notes the patterns of the films and of the career. Back then, the only thing I could point to was how in the last shot, the extras looked like the pornstars that then adorned the covers of Blueboy or Mandate magazines, and were later to adorn the covers of Falcon videos. As you can see from the clip above — where Goldie Hawn plays a librarian who is being chased for a microfilm she doesn’t know she has by a killer nicknamed The Dwarf — it’s all very gay, in every sense of the word. And one knew it, even then, even at 14 but without quite knowing why.