Love, Sex, and Lust at the Movies


One of the major themes in films is love/sex/lust.


This was very evident in the early silent films and continues right up to the present. 


What is interesting is that a lot of the films that are presented as something else, really are about love/sex/lust.  Let us look at some examples.


At the same time that Welles was filming Citizen Kane, John Huston was filming The Maltese Falcon at another Hollywood studio.  Both films are masterpieces.  Both films were the first film for these two great directors.  The Maltese Falcon is a story about a missing gold and jewel encrusted sculpture of a falcon that a variety of dangerous people are trying to get their hands on.  Bogart plays a private detective hired to help get the bird.  But the struggle to get the falcon is not really the driving power of the film.  "The movie is essentially a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes.  It's all style.  It isn't violence or chases, but the way the actors look, move, speak, and embody their characters.  Under the style is attitude: Hard men, in a hard season, in a society emerging from Depression and heading for war, are motivated by greed and capable of murder" (Ebert, p. 283).  What does this have to do with love/sex/lust?  Everything!  The Bogart character is hired by a woman and they fall in love.  At the end of the film Bogart realizes that she is a very dangerous and deadly woman and he has called the cops to come and get her.  She pleads with him not to turn her in.  Despite his love for her, he has her arrested.  One of the final lines of dialogue in the movie goes like this:


"I hope they don't hang you, precious, for that sweet neck…The chances are you'll get off with life.  That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in twenty years.  I'll be waiting for you.  If they hang you, I'll always remember you."


If that does not speak volumes about love/sex/lust, then I don't know what does!  Tough love!  Commitment…to both her and to what is right.  I wish more people would pay attention to that message.  If the significant other in your life, the person you are dedicated to, who you love completely, does the wrong thing, violates basic rules of the game of life, you don't stop loving them…but you turn them in, you require that they behave responsibly.  If people lived up to that, then we would not have spousal abuse or child abuse in this society.  People forgive or overlook or neglect to act far too often with the idea that things will get better, that somehow magically, the wrong doer will not do it again. 


The great detective/crime novelist Dashiell Hammett wrote the book on which The Maltese Falcon is based. They had made movies out of this novel twice before and both of them were very poor movies.  It took a great director and a wonderful cast to really appreciate and capture the tone of the book.  Huston also wrote the screenplay.  This 1941 movie was nominated in several categories including best picture but did not win the Academy Awards.  That was a tough year in which to be competing for awards.  John Ford won for wonderful How Green Was My Valley (Ford had also won the year before for The Grapes of Wrath, another classic---both of these great films by Ford are about love in the greatest definition of love, love of family, commitment to one another, and how the social and economic forces of capitalism do their best to destroy love)---How Green Was My Valley also won the most awards that year including the best film beating out both The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane.


 The Big Sleep (1946) also starred Bogart as a detective.  This time the story is based on a Raymond Chandler book.  Here again we have action, murders, violence and lots of things going on; however, the movie really is a lust story.  What is of interest is that the lust was happening both on and off the screen.  The female lead was Lauren Bacall and she and Bogart were married in 1945 after they starred together in To Have and Have Not (1945) (she was 20 and he was 44 at the time).  The great novelist William Faulkner was one of the writers of The Big Sleep.  The movie is more about words and the tone of the lust you can hear and feel in how the actors speak the words.  The movie was completed in 1945; however, scenes were added to increase the role of Bacall so that the revised product was released in 1946.  The following is one of the scenes that was added and although they are talking about racehorses, they are really talking about sex.


Bacall:…speaking of horses, I like to play them myself.  But I like to see them work out a little first.  See if they're front-runners or come from behind…I'd say you don't like to be rated.  You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free…

Bogart: You've got a touch of class, but I don't know how far you can go.

Bacall: A lot depends on who's in the saddle. 


Yes, a lot does depend on who's in the saddle.  Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in 1924 in the Bronx.  After high school and some training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she played minor roles in several Broadway plays, then turned to modeling and that is when she was spotted and brought to Hollywood.  After marrying Bogart their relationship was close and warm.  "When Bogart fell ill of cancer, she nursed him devotedly until his death in 1957" (Film Encyclopedia, p. 73).  I will always feel that one of the greatest love stories ever filmed was The African Queen which starred Bogart and Katherine Hepburn and was directed by Huston.  Lots of things go into making this a great movie; however, I would contend that one of the key ingredients was Bogart's successful marriage to Bacall.  She is not in the movie; but, she is inside Bogart.  By that I mean that in their relationship they found love, not just sex and lust.  Bogart matured, in part, thanks to that love and was able then to bring that into his acting. 


One of the steamiest movies is Body Heat (1981) starring Kathleen Turner as Matty and William Hurt as Racine.   Below is a scene from the movie where the two of them first meet.  Matty is married and looking to get rid of her rich husband and Racine is a small town lawyer.  They meet at the beachfront walkway during the night.


Racine: You can stand here with me if you want, but you'll have to agree not to talk about the heat.

(She looks at him, and there is something startling about the directness of her gaze.  When she speaks, she is cool without being hostile.)

Matty: I'm a married woman.

Racine: Meaning what?

Matty: Meaning I'm not looking for company.

Racine: Then you should have said---"I'm a happily married woman."

Matty: That's my business.

Racine: What?

Matty:  How happy I am.

Racine: And how happy is that?

(She looks at him curiously.  She begins waking slowly along the rail.  He walks too.)

Matty: You're not too smart, are you?

(He shakes his head "no.")

Matty: I like that in a man.

Racine: What else you like---ugly? lazy? horny? I got 'em all.

Matty: You don't look lazy.

(Racine smiles.)


From this beginning things move quickly and heat up into a torrid illicit love affair in which Racine agrees to help Matty kill her rich husband.  This is a modern version of a film noir, a genre of night, darkness, guilt, violence, and illicit passion---no genre is more seductive.  Most of the great noirs were made in the 40s and 50s and were filmed in black and white.  This is the first film for Turner and she played the sultry part perfectly and she was so sexually confident that the audience believes she would have the capacity to get a lawyer to help her commit a murder.  This is Hurt's second movie.  (In 1980 he starred in Altered States.) 


"Women are rarely allowed to be bold and devious in the movies; most directors are men, and they see women as goals, prizes, enemies, lovers, and friends, but rarely as protagonists.  Turner's entrance in Body Heat announces that she is the film's center of power" (Ebert, p. 80).  Matty accomplishes her goal with perfection.  She has her husband killed, frames Racine for it, and appears to be killed at the end---but really disappears to a foreign beach to enjoy her new wealth.  In her final lines in the film, Matty says to Ned Racine:  "Ned, whatever you think---I really do love you."


"Does she?  That's what makes the movie so intriguing.  Does he love her, for that matter?  Or is he swept away by sexual intoxication---body heat?  You watch the movie the first time from his point of view, and the second time from hers.  Every scene plays two ways" (Ebert, p. 83).


This film is all about temptation and giving in to it.  That is what is at the heart of lust.  Few movies do a better job of getting you to see how a person can get sucked into lust/temptation and the price it extracts from all the participants.



Robert Altman has made many fine films over the past 40 years including M*A*S*H (1970), The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975), and The Player (1992).  If you want to see a clever and biting satire of the movie industry, go see The Player starring Tim Robbins.  However, if you want to see a really great love story, then go see Altman's McCabe @ Mrs. Miller  (1971) starring Warren Beatty as McCabe and Julie Christie as Mrs. Miller.  This is one of the saddest love stories and is very poetic.  The film is set in a rough and tumble mining town in the west.  A big mining company tries to buy McCabe, a successful gambler and entrepreneur, out and when he says no, they send in killers to remove him.  Mrs. Miller runs McCabe's whorehouse for him.  "Life is cheap here.  The film shows one of the most heartbreaking deaths in the history of the western.  A goofy kid has ridden into town and visited all the girls in the house.  Now he has started across a suspension bridge.  A young gunslinger approaches from the other side and cold-bloodedly talks him into being shot to death.  The kid knows he is going to get shot.  He tries to be friendly and ingratiating, but the time has come.  The town looks on, impassive.  You don't want to be caught on a bridge facing a guy like that.  We realize at the end of the film that this episode on the bridge is the whole story in microcosm: Some people are just incapable of not getting themselves killed" (Ebert, pp. 292-3).  So, McCabe gets himself killed when he could have simply sold and moved on.  The relationship he had with Mrs. Miller is a sad one in which their business partnership complicates matters. You notice that the movie title is not "and" but "@" like in the name of a business. 


Thanks to Warren Beatty another love story was filmed.  The ads for the film sensationally stated that: "They're young…they're in love…and they kill people."  The year was 1967, the movie was Bonnie and Clyde.  "From Bonnie and Clyde descended Badlands, Days of Heaven, Thelma and Louise, Drugstore Cowboy, Natural Born Killers, and countless other movies in which ordinary people were transformed by sudden violence into legend" (Ebert, 84). 


"The movie opened like a slap in the face.  American filmgoers had never seen anything like it.  In tone and freedom, it descended from the French New Wave, particularly Francois Truffaut's own film about doomed lovers, Jules and Jim.  Indeed, it was Truffaut who first embraced the original screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton and called it to the attention of Warren Beatty, who determined to produce it" (Ebert, p. 86).  The studios were resistant, the film critics for the most part attacked the film, but the public loved it once they discovered it.  By the time of the Academy Awards it was the front runner and won 10 awards!  It made Beatty a superstar and also helped make the careers of all the other key actors in the film---Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Gene Wilder.  It also helped the career of the director Arthur Penn who went on to make a number of fine films including Little Big Man.  The cowriter of the movie, Robert Benton, became an important director of such outstanding films as Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, and Sophie's Choice---three of my most favorite films. 


The film is set during the depression and Bonnie and Clyde were real-life bank robbers back then who became folk heroes because the banks were seen as the enemy due to farm foreclosures.  The movie ends with a super-violent scene in which they die in a hail of bullets which changed the way the movies depicted violence.  Love/sex/lust…..perhaps I should have titled this essay….love/sex/lust and violence!



Hollywood has presented endless love stories for us to think about, get our feelings involved in, and respond to with our own behavior.  Most of those films do NOT present us with viable role models.  Often the characters presented are dysfunctional, obsessive, and even dangerous.  However, we do see some really wonderful role models like in the Hepburn and Bogart characters presented to us in The African Queen.  However, stories that involve great heroics, do not really provide us with role models that are easily translated into helping us understand our own actions and how we should behave under relatively normal situations that we encounter in our daily living.  We do find some such movies, really great ones at times. 


What are some of your favorite movies that depict the lives of relatively normal individuals learning to love one another under normal life conditions?