Repressing the Male Gaze? Sidney J. Furie’s The Leather Boys and the Growing Pains of Post-War British Masculinity
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A re-appraisal of The Leather Boys (Sidney J. Furie, 1963) drawing on the theoretical work of Antony Easthope, Laura Mulvey and others. The article contextualizes the film’s narrative in the historical reality of 1960s Britain and discusses its impact prior to and on the eventual decriminalization of homosexuality. The film is, in many ways, an accurate articulation of a crisis of masculinity driven by a range of social changes, with the result that white heterosexual male identity was challenged and examined as never before. Furie’s pragmatic, apparently unsophisticated, no-frills direction belies the intelligence, sensitivity and integrity with which the director dissects a complex issue and infuses the narrative with a compelling and disarmingly simple humanity.
The 2016 Toronto International Film Festival saw the North American première of Sidney J. Furie’s long thought to be lost 1959 Toronto-shot film – A Cool Sound From Hell – 57 years after it was made. In the words of Furie’s biographer, Daniel Kremer, the film is a study in ‘wounded masculinity and male inadequacy’. Prior to the 2016 screening, its only theatrical release was in the United Kingdom where the Canadian first made his name and established masculinity as a leitmotif in his directorial career.
On the strength of the commercial success of The Young Ones (US title: It’s Wonderful to be Young, Furie, 1961) – starring local teen idol Cliff Richard – Furie was offered the direction of Summer Holiday, another musical vehicle for Richard and his backing band, The Shadows. Not yet thirty and perhaps wary of being associated too closely with any one genre, Furie instead opted for a low budget (c.US$130,000) movie with a highly – at that time – controversial subject.
The Leather Boys (Furie, 1963) presents an account of British working-class masculinity in crisis. Its protagonist, Reggie (Colin Campbell), is exercised by the changing status of women in the form of his teenage bride Dot (Rita Tushingham), and in falling back on the male bond with Pete (Dudley Sutton), a covert homosexual, is forced to confront his own confused identity.
As a visual text, the film is, in many ways, an accurate reflection of the particular pressures encountered by young British men in the early 1960s. The myriad societal changes that were occurring at the time included the recent introduction of the contraceptive pill for women, public debate about the decriminalization of homosexuality, new-found affluence with the final ending of wartime rationing, a multi-racial influx of immigrants from former colonies, and Britain’s accelerating retreat from empire.
Traditional pieties regarding the pre-eminence of the white British male were coming under the spotlight as never before. Such a situation – according to Antony Easthope in What a Man’s Gotta Do: The masculine myth in popular culture – would have been the source of considerable unease, as ‘Masculinity tries to stay invisible by passing itself off as normal and universal’. With regard to mainstream cinema, Laura Mulvey’s work strongly indicates that this ‘normal and universal’ masculinity results in the patriarchal ‘masculinisation’ of all spectators – male or female – as the default ‘universal’ gender. In ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Mulvey proposes
‘three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the profilmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion’.
All three are essentially masculine, and by convention the first two are unacknowledged, in effect, invisible. This essay argues that The Leather Boys – through Furie’s determination to keep as close to reality as possible – provides an eloquent reflection of the particular upheavals through which British masculinity was passing. Furthermore, the film comports with both Easthope’s thesis and Mulvey’s notion of the masculinized gaze—strangely, but emphatically—through the main male characters’ avoidance thereof.
Deploying psycho-analytic theory as a framework and British and American popular culture as examples, Easthope argues that patriarchy – informed by Christian misogyny and capitalism – presents a myth of masculinity in which ‘a man must be male and masculine and nothing else’. By way of illustration, Easthope cites the movie, Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948), where ‘The John Wayne figure, like God the Father, embodies the fantasy of a man who makes himself out of nothing and who is therefore purely masculine, a hard man all through’ and who miraculously acquires a ‘son’ (Montgomery Clift) without the assistance of a woman. Similarly, men who accept and believe in the dominant culture must repress their femininity, which leads to Easthope’s startling assertion that ‘modern patriarchal society is based upon sublimated male homosexual desire’.
In early 1960s Britain the male-and-masculine-and-nothing-else myth was under some strain. The social and legal institutions, which kept women in an inferior and controlled position and outlawed homosexuality, were crumbling in the face of what came to be known as ‘the permissive society’. And with the rise of mass communication, alternative viewpoints and lifestyles became a common part of public discourse, challenging the presumed consensus.
An entire generation of males, with no personal recollection of Britain’s ‘finest hour’, was just coming of age. The heroism of their fathers had no obvious sites for emulation, other than National Service conscription and the decidedly anti-heroic emergencies in Kenya, Malaysia and Suez. Yet the bluff courage of Jack Hawkins in The Cruel Sea (Charles Frend, 1953) or Kenneth More in Reach for the Sky (Lewis Gilbert, 1956) continued to present nostalgic looks back to World War Two, the so-called ‘good war’. Their protagonists were possessed of a ‘caring and heroic professionalism which passed itself off as universal, effectively marginalizing alternative forms of masculinity’. Nevertheless alternative forms steadily began to emerge. Stanley Baker in Hell Drivers (Cy Endfield, 1957) introduced ‘a new male type’, exuding a ‘thrilling, sexually desirable and subversive masculinity’ uncluttered by moral rectitude and decency. After all, as Jimmy Porter declares in Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1959) there were ‘no more brave causes to fight for’. Compulsory military service for men ended in 1963, and The Times of London reflected a common belief that ‘disturbances had increased since the ending of National Service’. The oft-touted explanation for rising violence in peacetime society was that it ‘replaced the disturbances of war’, thereby insinuating that the natural milieu of the young male is the battlefield.
The ‘disturbances’ were perpetrated by sub-cultures of working-class males, whose particular brand of ‘masculinity had been conspicuously absent from British screens in the 50s’. To an extent, they mimicked – if not mocked – the militaristic display of their fathers, sporting easily recognizable uniforms – long Edwardian coats and brothel-creepers for the ‘Teddy Boys’, parkas and sharp suits for the ‘Mods’, and leather jackets and denim jeans for the ‘Rockers’. In 1964, tension between these mobile gangs culminated in violent clashes at various genteel seaside resorts in southern Britain.
The growing influence of American popular culture had already helped to mold a popular ‘tough guy’ image of the masculine. The United States – unlike the United Kingdom – was brimming with economic vitality and cultural confidence. The Western genre, with its epic tales of men – and minimal interference from women – facing the vicissitudes of life on a figurative and literal frontier, were made all the more impressive by the introduction of widescreen format in the 1950s. The gangster novels of Micky Spillane, featuring archetypal ‘hard man’ detective Mike Hammer and movie spin-offs of titles, such as, I, the Jury (Harry Essex, 1953), Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955) and My Gun is Quick (Victor Saville, 1957) had a lasting impact. Furthermore, the mid-1950s invasion of Rock and Roll – spearheaded by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley – fed a widening generational rift, leaving commercial operators free to exploit a rich seam of aimless rebellion among young males.
Typical slogans adopted by advertisers included: ‘Build your Physique’, ‘Why Be Scraggy?’, and ‘Create for yourself a DOMINANT and ASSERTIVE personality’. For Charles Atlas – another American import – assertiveness was an uncomplicated matter of kicking sand in the face of rivals and winning the favors of women. However, magazine titles like Body Beautiful also suggested a more sensual side to masculinity, which was subtly beginning to permeate male consciousness. Richard Dyer refers to the emergence of more than one acceptable face of masculinity: ‘The physique magazines and soft-core pulp novels centered predominantly on two types of desirable male – the youth and the muscle man’, the former embodying callow immaturity, the latter, strength and confidence.
However, the dominant mores of the time still appear to have favored the image of the strongman protector above all else. Sam, the wrestler, in A Kid for Two Farthings (Carol Reed, 1955) is personally proud to be displayed on the cover of Body Beautiful, but only earns the respect of his girlfriend when he defeats his rival, ‘The Snake’. Mulvey contends that ‘According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the psychical structures that back it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification’ with all the passivity and surrender of control it implies. The way to bridge this seeming divide was through the re-direction of the male gaze. Unlike female magazine models who could look enticingly at the camera lens or shyly avert their gaze fully aware of being observed, the typical male model parading his muscled, oiled and near-nude body would look away, either to one side or upwards, as if observing something of interest and importance outside the field of vision. This paradoxically deliberate insouciance, enables both viewer and viewed to retain their masculine power as ‘the bearer of the look’, as well as resolving ‘some of the contradictions between masculine identity and male object of desire’. Any possible homoerotic feeling is thus disavowed and sublimated.
It is precisely in the realm of sexual desire and prowess that masculinity is fraught with primeval fears. For Easthope, one of the foundations of patriarchy is ‘the exchange of women’, but this exchange can be problematic if it involves rivalry. The flashpoint of the seaside disturbances of 1964 was ‘generally a quarrel over girls’. As Easthope puts it ‘jealousy wholly disrupts the male bond’. Indeed, Reggie’s only moment of physical violence in The Leather Boys occurs when he beats up his rival for Dot’s affections (1:05:02-1:05:15).
In this respect, military service overseas provided a useful forum for sexual adventure safely removed from the twitching net curtains of middle England. It was claimed that if a young man ‘leaves the Army unexperienced in this field, then it is likely to be for moral or psychological reasons’. Young men were expected to sow their wild oats. If he did not consummate his virility in a Singapore or Kuala Lumpur brothel, there had to be something wrong with him.
Conversely, sexually active women were deviant and anti-social. At the height of the Mods and Rockers fights, it was suggested that because of the ‘early physical development of girls’ the boys were ‘being corrupted’ by them. Such knee-jerk misogyny was equally critical of independent single mothers, like Mrs Rothwell (Thora Hird) in A Kind of Loving (John Schlesinger, 1962), or Dot’s mother (Betty Marsden) in The Leather Boys. The latter’s first appearance reflected in a mirror as she applies make-up, speaks of self-centered narcissism (Figure 1). As early as 1956, the Royal Commission on Marriage and Divorce pointed to ‘the social and economic emancipation of women’ as a cause for the breakdown of the nuclear family.
The emancipation was also sexual. The portrayal in film of young, unmarried British women with active appetites was no longer taboo. Beginning with demure Susan Brown (Heather Sears) in Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1958), female characters gradually acquired a more empowered and confident sexual identity, like Diana Scott (Julie Christie) in Darling (John Schlesinger, 1965). With the availability of The Pill – at first only to married women – from January 1961 onwards, women were able to control their own fertility and thus obviate the stigma of extra-marital pregnancy. Pete acknowledges this fact when he recites a joking variant of an old nursery rhyme, ‘There was an old woman who lived in a boot. She had no children at all. She knew what to do’ (51:26-51:34).
This was a time when Britain had – in the words of its Prime Minister Harold MacMillan – ‘never had it so good’. Affluence had become a reality in all strata of society. Mass-produced electronic appliances like televisions, record players, cookers, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and washing machines were now within the reach of the average manual worker. There were so many available jobs that a regular inflow of immigrants – particularly from former Caribbean colonies – was needed to remedy the shortfall in workers. Their presence began to challenge long-held racial assumptions about white male superiority – not to mention virility – as British masculinity became increasingly visible.
Directing The Leather Boys
The British Film Institute’s monthly journal, Sight & Sound, noted ‘Furie’s unfussy, functional style of direction’ in his early British pictures, whilst a review in Films and Filming praised Furie’s ‘careful and observant direction’. Notwithstanding the faint air of condescension, these commentators had identified a refreshing lack of pretentiousness in the young Canadian. Other than a penchant for master shot long takes, Furie could not – and probably would not – lay claim to auteur status.
Shooting began in October 1962 and wrapped in December. From the outset, the intention was to make the story as gritty and authentic as possible. In many respects, Furie’s approach mirrored the social realism of the British New Wave. He opted for black and white and selected three relatively unknown actors as the protagonists. Rita Tushingham was feted in New Wave circles after A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1961), but may not have been so well known by the general public. Furie was also ably assisted by the weather of a typical British fall that suffused the exteriors with a grainy gray light as ‘the arc lights caught the fine rain looking like threads of cotton, slanting down into the puddles on the tarmac’.
Location filming took place at the Ace Café in north-west London, Butlins Holiday Camp and the seafront at Bognor Regis, Kingston cemetery, the open road, Edinburgh, and the Tidal Basin Tavern in London’s dockland. The Ace was a real biker haunt where gangs like the unfairly notorious Ton-Up Boys hung out and were happy to work as unpaid extras. Nothing was roped off, as Furie correctly surmised the attitude of the locals: ‘The Brits weren’t going to show you they were interested. They would just walk through the shot, and they wouldn’t look at the camera’.
Setting aside Gillian Freeman’s readymade screenplay, Furie encouraged improvisation in rehearsals, an innovative process that ‘was later modified and pioneered by British Independent Mike Leigh’. He continued to utilize this method for script development in his later pictures. In Lady Sings the Blues (Furie, 1972), Diana Ross and Richard Pryor – neither of whom came from a traditional acting background – were given free rein to extemporize. Tushingham and Sutton were happy with this way of working, but Colin Campbell was frequently angered at receiving an unexpected line from Sutton who even sometimes strayed from the workshopped script during a shoot. Ironically, this may have helped authenticate Reggie’s several sudden outbursts of rage.
Sutton recounts how Furie was so obsessed with achieving verisimilitude that he would even turn his back while the camera was rolling in order to concentrate on the sound of the dialogue, as if eavesdropping on a conversation. ‘He has this intense desire to make everything look real, and then sound real, and gave concentration to both individually’.
The spirit of spontaneity offered by improvisation also spilled over into other aspects of Furie’s direction. Financially restricted from hiring a London bus during Reggie and Dot’s wedding party, he ordered actors and crew to board one that happened to be passing at the time. They then came back ‘for another take on another bus’.
Most importantly, Furie shared Sutton’s desire to create a gay character that would ‘shatter the stereotype by not mincing around and doing the campy, limp-wristed stuff’. This approach led to a confrontation with the film’s producer, Raymond Stross, who ‘interrupted a rehearsal by shouting at Sutton “You’re not being queer enough! Queen it up!”’ Sutton’s reaction was to push him out of the room. The director later mollified Stross, who eventually acquiesced to the preferred approach.
Furie stated that with The Leather Boys he wanted to make a film dealing with ‘the reality of human relationships’. The film’s ‘leather boys’ are not loutish thugs preying on the general public, they are a self-contained group and ‘for once the central figure isn’t seen in relation to an enemy society’. In the original novel, the two biker lovers are vainglorious petty thieves. Their feelings are mutual and their love consummated, but the blurb on the back cover emphasizes that this is a ‘strange, twisted love’. By removing the criminal context and by not privileging one sexual orientation over another, Furie could focus exclusively and impartially on ‘the reality of human relationships’ – straight or ‘twisted’ – speaking to the ‘uncertainty, the tenderness and the pain that lies behind both faces of love’, and giving ‘a minute and moving depiction of ruptured personal relationships, of the lost investments of misplaced love’.
Themes, narrative and technique
The title of the film has undergone an interesting change of connotation. Leather has always had a strong association with men. Hard-wearing, durable and protective, it was one of the chief accoutrements of ‘the few’ – members of the Royal Air Force – who prevented Nazi dominance of the skies over Britain in 1940. After the war, that image of rugged heroism against the elements and against the odds found a natural home in motorcycle gangs, many of whom also complemented their outfits with World War Two flying goggles.
In a peacetime setting, the image acquired a more delinquent aspect. As Cliff Richard’s father in The Young Ones (Furie, 1961), Robert Morley conjures up an image of youths wearing leather and wielding bike chains. Significantly, Marlon Brando’s leather-jacketed biker hoodlum in The Wild One (Laslo Benedek, 1953) remained beyond the pale of the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) until finally released with an X certificate in 1967. In discussing the themes of The Damned (Joseph Losey, 1961), Losey spoke of ‘the violence I saw in kids; the violence of rock and roll and leather boys on motorcycles’.
However, with several decades’ hindsight, the epithet now has a quite different resonance. As a symbol of pure, un-feminized masculinity, males in leather have become an almost clichéd exemplar of gay iconography. Perhaps, however, the only difference is that in 1963 – the year that ‘sexual intercourse began’, according to the poet Philip Larkin – the notion that men could be attracted, in the words of Sylvia Syms in Victim (Basil Dearden, 1961), ‘as a man would be to a girl’, was the very antithesis of manhood.
As an example of working class realism the plot is initially unsurprising. Unlike Freeman’s original novel – a ‘prototype for Brokeback Mountain’ that centers on ‘two otherwise normal boys’ – Reggie is depicted as a happy-go-lucky heterosexual. He is equally content in the bantering company of his fellow-bikers as he is having illicit sex with Dot. It is not until they find themselves married and free of all parental constraints that there is the first glimmer of realization that an enjoyment of sex is really the only thing they have in common. The holiday camp honeymoon soon brings out their divergent expectations and from then on – feckless as they are – matters can only get worse.
Dot is typical of the new consumer culture, but in her taste for the fripperies of life there is no room for the traditional home-making role of the female. In a witty 70-second sequence (25:38-26:48) to the jaunty accompaniment of a brass band – one of the film’s rare instances of non-diegetic music – Dot is tracked as she moves along the street from the ironically named ‘Eve’ hairdressing salon, to the candy store, then on to pick up a copy of True Romance, before finally buying a can of Heinz baked beans as an afterthought.
Reggie is a boisterous young man in a typically masculine job as a garage mechanic, but when his marriage begins to falter, he is the one who yearns for domesticity. He makes the bed and tidies up Dot’s clothes. Even before the honeymoon he is shown hanging up Dot’s wedding dress. So, from the beginning, there is an inversion of traditional, if not roles, at least impulses, which signals the turn the story is to take.
Conventional notions of femininity and masculinity are supported by the separation of home and work into two primal domains. This is illustrated in the second scene of the film, where Dot and other girls are enduring a home economics class about the function of alkalis in washing powder. In a mere forty seconds (1:44-2:24), immediately after the opening titles, we learn that gender roles have to be ‘taught’ and that young girls in the early 1960s showed signs of rejecting this vision of womanhood.
For a boy, becoming a man involves refusing to acknowledge femininity in his nature, but in so doing he also limits his own self-knowledge. At first, Reggie has a strong sense of who he is and what he likes. His manliness is affirmed by his interest in motorcycles, his biking gear, his job, his ‘mates’ and the fact that he likes making out with Dot. But just as the excitement of sex was predicated on its illicitness – at the beginning of the film Dot is under-age and they can only ‘do it’ when parents are out – so too is Reggie’s sense of identity built on factors external to him. As Dot begins to assert herself he becomes emotionally and physically impotent.
When the relationship runs into trouble, Reggie’s first thought is to don his leather jacket and return to the reassuring and reinforcing embrace of the Ace Café. That haven of masculinity where even the girls dress as boys and only stand out, for example, just before the race to Edinburgh and back. In a medium long shot, they wait silently for ‘the possessors of the phallus’ to ride them away (Figure 2).
At first, however, Dot has no intention of assuming the passive role. She speaks up as and when she feels like it. More quick-witted and literate than Reggie, she impatiently helps him out over the pronunciation of the word ‘suite’, finds the idea of him taking part in a Tarzan competition laughable and no matter how loudly Reggie shouts and jabs his finger at her, she is never intimidated. His growing aggression is fueled by the threat she seems to pose to his identity, made manifest in his loss of sexual desire. When she counters his ‘You ain’t a proper wife’, with ‘You ain’t a proper husband’, she reaches to the core of his being.
From the outset, Reggie is expected to provide for Dot in every sense, whereas Dot relieves herself of any duty toward her spouse: ‘I didn’t marry to work. I married to take things easier’. Pete also smugly confirms the burden Reggie has to bear: ‘I don’t have a wife to support’ (48:12-48:15). Hard worker though he is, Reggie is at heart a home-loving boy. Even in the honeymoon chalet, he is reluctant to stray outside. When he subsequently declines to get drunk and tell dirty jokes, Dot takes his place. Easthope maintains that banter and obscenity are aspects of what he terms ‘masculine style’. It functions as a means of admitting an ‘otherwise unspoken and threatening idea’, and a masculinity that regards the feminine as a permanent source of threat to male identity, has a lot to be worried about. Already, during the wedding reception, Uncle Arthur had made two quips that speak to contemporary male anxieties. The first – ‘Beer makes you queer’ – is addressed to Reggie, the second – ‘Whisky makes you frisky – to Dot, each followed by raucous laughter from everyone in earshot (11:09-12:00).
During Dot’s challenges to Reggie, she adopts a defiantly feminine appearance – blonde perm, fur collar and high heels (Figure 3) – but the opposite obtains for their later reconciliation in the no-man’s land of a field outside London (Figure 4). Having dispensed with her perm, she further conceals her femininity by continuing to wear a crash helmet even when they kiss and make up.
If men and women were to be bound by separate moral codes, then that double standard would become difficult to enforce with the blurring of gender identities. The term ‘unisex’ was soon to become fashionable, as young women took to wearing jeans and young men grew their hair. A newspaper article entitled ‘What Goes on in a Holiday Camp’, remarks on young men with ‘luxurious Oscar Wilde curlicues’. Some even took Mick Jagger’s cue and experimented with make-up.
Just as Dot disguises herself to please Reggie, so Pete tries to do the same, creating an impression of macho worldliness with his fake American accent. Reggie, slow as ever on the uptake, finds Pete odd, but not queer. His inability, or reluctance, to acknowledge Pete’s true nature, is emblematic of the difficulty of accommodating homosexuality with masculinity. Through disavowal, Reggie tries to protect his already shaky identity. As the narrative unfolds he has to work harder and harder to ignore the truth about Pete.
It is not until more than a quarter way into the film that we first meet Pete and the plot shifts from being about a boy and a girl, to a triangular relationship with Reggie’s conflicting desires at its center. Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick notes that in the ‘male-centered novelistic tradition of European high culture that triangle nearly always comprises two male rivals for the affections of one female’. In The Leather Boys, the asymmetry of two males to one female remains, but the more common schema is overturned by Reggie taking the feminine position as object of desire. Pete and Dot compete for his affections – Dot, the ‘un-feminine’ woman and Pete, the ‘un-masculine’ man – with the only difference that Pete’s desire is never openly articulated.
In his first appearance outside the Ace Café, Pete intrudes on a foregrounded conversation between Reggie and another biker (28:40-29:30). We see him approach from behind, arms outstretched. As he comes alongside Reggie and they begin to rib one another, Pete adopts a ‘teapot’ pose – right hand on hip and left arm extended towards Reggie – obvious to us, but not to Reggie. The pose is subtle and maybe no more than mildly odd in the context of a group of male bikers, but it is repeated later in a much less ambiguous context when Dot suggests the two men look like ‘a couple of queers’.
So, from the outset, we are drawn into a collusion with Pete, which elicited empathy and genuine reflection from several critics about this ‘invert’, a common pseudo-scientific term of the time. Penelope Gilliat for The Observer, describes Pete as ‘a generous spirit that is dead modern’, and Isobel Quigley in The Spectator, comments that he is ‘the antithesis of the general notion of a homosexual as frail and sissy’. Throughout the film, the audience is made aware of all that is positive about the relationship Pete offers to Reggie and it is difficult not to feel regret when he is eventually rejected.
There are other instances when the audience sees what Reggie does not see. Again at the Ace Café, Reggie is jealously confronting fellow biker, Brian. Pete at first stands alongside glaring askance at Dot, then moves behind Reggie – after dismissing Dot’s ‘pregnancy’ – and continues to monitor the stand-off.
There is a furtive intensity about Pete’s unobserved looks that contrasts with the boundless confidence he more usually exhibits. He is liked and feels at home in the Ace Café, and he is even more at ease on the waste ground where he works burning garbage. When he takes Reggie there the scene is awash with phallic imagery (Figure 5). From silhouetted factory chimneys and poplars in the background, to a train steaming past in the middle distance, to the foregrounded rockets and Roman candle around the leaping flames of a bonfire; everything – including the twilight exterior – indicates a celebration of masculinity devoid of feminizing influences.
Given Pete’s orientation, the scene is all the more ironical, as it was commonly believed that over-exposure to feminine surroundings was likely to emasculate a man. Gilliat believes the film was intentionally criticizing the ‘old way of roping off the sexes’. If this is so, The Leather Boys had a considerably more progressive edge than a prominent New Wave film like A Kind of Loving, where, ‘subordinated to an all-female household, Vic (Alan Bates) loses his potency’. By contrast, the setting of The Leather Boys in an avowedly male environment supports Easthope’s contention that homosexuality is the natural, if unspoken, corollary of machismo.
Reggie feels so good in the company of Pete that he moves in with him. They sleep in the same bed, display photos of themselves together and generally take care of each other with hot baths, cups of tea and plenty of sympathy (Figure 6).
But Dot shatters their idyll. After seeing photos of Pete with his arm around Reggie stuck to the mirror in their room, she finds them dancing together with an exuberance that was completely lacking when Reggie danced with her on their honeymoon. Again, we see what Reggie does not see. Pete skulks behind him watching Dot with wary hostility. After a few sarcastic exchanges, he strikes the ‘teapot’ pose once more, this time with his extended hand placed on Reggie’s shoulder as he attempts to dismiss Dot with ‘Leave the men to men’s business’. Her close-up riposte confirms the contemporary view of homosexuality: ‘Men? You look like a couple of queers’ (Figure 7). Suddenly unmasked, Pete shrinks down behind his bike.
The difference between Dot and Pete, between the threat of women’s changing status and homosexuality on male identity, is that the latter was a crime and had to remain covert. The way this is conveyed in The Leather Boys is through eye contact and, more importantly, the avoidance of it. Dot can engage Reggie’s eyes with an emotionally meaningful look, whereas Pete cannot.
The intended object of Laura Mulvey’s controlling male gaze of both scopophilic voyeurism and narcissistic fetishism is women. But in The Leather Boys, Dot is never ‘subjected to moments of erotic contemplation’. The film does not have the masculinized viewpoint that Mulvey identified in mainstream cinema. Both Reggie and Pete eschew the role of ‘main controlling figure’. In fact, Furie seems to turn this idea on its head, empowering women – or at least Dot – as ‘the bearer of the look’.
At the end of the long haul from London to Edinburgh and back, Pete sweeps Reggie away from Dot, invoking a biblical image, ‘Don’t look back or she’ll turn into a pillar of salt’. Ever the transgressive clown, Pete juggles with the identities of Lot, his wife and Sodom itself, just as he earlier reverses conventional gender roles by making two giggling girls pay for him and Reggie at a sea-front café, or when he mocks the muscle-bound image of Charles Atlas. In the confusion, Reggie loses sight of Dot gazing intently into the lens as the camera dollys back away from her.
Rather than invalidating Mulvey’s thesis, though, Furie highlights the subliminal power of the determining male gaze in the patriarchal order, precisely through Reggie and Pete’s refusal to make eye contact during an uncomfortable exchange. In the longest scene of the film the men have a back-to-back confrontation in which Pete states as openly as he can that he would like to be Reggie’s surrogate wife.
Reggie’s tone is sheepish, almost apologetic, as if he suspects the truth about Pete but is unable to ‘bear the burden of sexual objectification’. As Andy Medhurst points out, ‘tensions between men are rarely free of sexual undercurrents’. Previously they had broken that tension with a pillow fight, the symbolic re-enactment of ‘war’s suffering’, which Easthope describes as ‘a kind of punishment for the release of homosexual desire and male femininity that only war allows’.
The simplicity of the scene – two men with their backs to each other in a bedroom – is both excruciating and heart-wrenching. They speak haltingly, before Pete hands Reggie his shaving kit without turning round and Reggie hurries out without closing his suitcase properly (Figure 8). The understated brilliance of the blocking tells the audience everything they need to know, and gives them a direct emotional line into the heart of Pete.
In the subsequent scene, Reggie’s hoped-for reconciliation with Dot backfires as he discovers his rival, Brian, now occupying the marital bed. This exchange of one woman between two men provokes the jealous rivalry that, in Easthope’s words, ‘wholly disrupts the male bond’. Yet, despite the intimacy (Brian is still in bed), the open aggression makes their mutually penetrating look permissible and thus easy to perform. Surprisingly, even though he easily won the previous encounter and with Brian at a physical disadvantage, Reggie does not react with violence. He goes in search of Pete and they resolve to leave the country that same day on the first available ship.
The film could end there, except for the fact that we the spectators already have a privileged knowledge of Pete’s real feelings and intentions. The narrative tension is sustained by the fact that we have no idea how the situation will play itself out. Pete sends Reggie off to wait in a pub while he finds out which ships might be sailing that day. But when Reggie steps into this typically masculine locale his cheerful mood evaporates as he is surrounded by a group of openly camp men, in stark contrast to Pete’s other favorite male environment, the Ace Café. A sense of dread pervades the scene as a final reckoning beckons, but still it is impossible to divine Reggie’s reaction to the long-avoided truth. Any lingering hopes of happy resolution are dashed when Pete turns up and is immediately recognized by the men around Reggie. Pete’s crestfallen look heralds the inevitable, but it is for Reggie to make the final move, which he does. He leaves the pub without a word. Pete follows, keeping a few paces behind. When Reggie stops walking, Pete also stops. Nothing is said as Reggie turns slowly and their eyes meet. Reggie offers a very brief, almost apologetic, smile, which Pete mirrors. Still the onus is on Reggie to walk away. He does so and this time Pete lets him go. It is a cinematic masterstroke that Furie is able to maintain a compelling narrative suspense until the very last few seconds of the film. A 1998 re-appraisal describes this as ‘the film’s most precious moment’, in which there is ‘so much withheld in the brief exchange of looks, and yet so much is made (achingly) clear’.
Only in this final scene can Reggie bring himself to look directly at Pete with emotional truth and even a certain empathy. The absence of speech may show his reluctance to acknowledge ‘the love that dares not speak its name’, but it also deepens the intimacy of the moment. Then with a change of music – from a few sparse chords, pizzicato bass notes and percussive flourishes punctuated by discordant ships’ horns, to the resumption of the up-beat theme – it is evident that a significant transformation has occurred in Reggie. He walks away, picking up speed as he goes. Having faced homosexuality as a reality, he has effectively looked his own femininity in the eye. He rejects what Pete has to offer, but with little sign of homophobic panic.
In spite of the linear flashback-free narrative employing stock devices like the camera watching Reggie and Dot go indoors, tilting up to a first-floor window, before dissolving to the lovers lying post-coitally on Reggie’s bed, Furie and his director of photography, Gerald Gibbs, maintain a keen contact with the characters’ interior reality. As Pete and Reggie’s friendship develops, so the camera moves steadily closer. But the closeness abruptly acquires a grotesque quality after Dot’s ‘couple of queers’ outburst. Reggie is confused and concerned, as Pete is shown in low angle close-up sarcastically declaring he is going out for a lipstick refill (Figure 9).
Then in the pub, at the end of the film, through a series of quick cross-cuts of the clientele, Reggie’s gathering unease at their proximity is palpable. The camera is now too close for masculine comfort as we see one of the men run his tongue inside his partially open mouth, while another purrs about Reggie’s ‘hazel eyes’.
However, it is in the occasional symbolic use of framing that the director most strongly emphasizes Reggie’s inner torment. He is torn between two people who embody two conflicting desires in himself. When his impotence is first discussed, Dot is foregrounded in shadow and Reggie is diagonally behind her in the top left-hand corner of the frame (Figure 10).
Similarly, much later in the film, Reggie is once more in the upper left-hand corner with Pete foregrounded on the right. Pete’s face is on its side and is also obscured by the bars of the bed as he drunkenly mumbles that they should have stayed together in the race to Edinburgh (Figure 11).
It is as if Dot and Pete are not real people, but rather, projections of Reggie’s confused psyche, his inability to combine love and lust in one person.
As director, Furie comes across as a dispassionate story-teller, fulfilling the Grotowskian imperative that all drama is fundamentally about actors and audience. Director and camera appear mostly to be invisible facilitators in this process, rather than one of the masculinized components of Mulvey’s triad of ‘looks’. Nor do any of the three characters have a privileged viewpoint and Dot is never objectified. Given this absence of a specifically masculine look, there is no reason for the audience to identify with or adopt a male stance either.
Furthermore, the director thankfully avoids heavy-handed moralizing, instead infusing The Leather Boys with much humour and incidental irony. One of the first things that Pete exclaims to Reggie is, ‘It’s unbelievable. I love you!’ The characters, especially Pete, are so accessible that the reviewer for The Daily Mail – whose editors had previously denounced the Wolfenden Report into homosexuality as ‘The Pansies’ Charter’ – was amazed at how much he had empathized with ‘one of those’.
Nevertheless, the problems encountered by British youth groping for a new identity amid the welter of social, economic and cultural changes taking place, are never treated glibly. Robert Murphy praised the film’s ‘refusal to impose facile artificial solutions on the problems of the young’. In fact, in true Free Cinema style, Furie does not impose any solutions at all. Reggie and Dot’s coming of age, having rejected the advice of teachers and parents, is an unresolved mess of misunderstandings, childish tantrums and eventual realizations. Pete’s lonely longing will apparently continue unabated and unacknowledged by an uncomprehending society, and where Reggie goes next is shrouded in as much mystery as the trope of the lone cowboy riding off into the sunset.
Impact and legacy
The Leather Boys was one of the largest grossers in the UK, despite the fact that its release had been held over by distributors worried about its ‘suitability’. One reviewer railed at the delay forced on this independent production by ‘the aged retainers who select films for Rank and A.B.C.’ According to Christine Geraghty: ‘Changing leisure patterns, including the arrival of television, meant that increasingly distributors and exhibitors relied on young people for their audiences.’ Another commentator confirmed industry decision-makers were well aware that ‘the greater part of the cinema audience is now drawn from the age group 16-25’, and that The Leather Boys ‘is about people of that age’. Yet, its X certificate indicated that the BBFC considered it less suitable for general viewing than, say, the U-rated Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964). Perhaps those ‘aged retainers’ were more comfortable looking back to the glory days of the British Empire and its reassuringly un-nuanced version of masculinity, rather than forward to the burgeoning contemporary challenges of diversity. Michael Caine heroically standing his ground while the cream of British imperial infantry is skewered by Zulu assegais was fit for family consumption, but a picture about a gentle gay biker was not.
In the light of subsequent legislation decriminalizing homosexuality and addressing the inequalities between women and men, it appears that Antony Easthope’s contention that ‘feminist and gay accounts have begun to make masculinity visible’, was already true in the early 1960s, at least on an unconscious pre-political level. Masculinity, as examined in films like The Leather Boys, opened the way to expose ‘the unconscious of patriarchal society’ and the ‘socially established interpretation of sexual difference’.
Some contemporary reviews unwittingly highlighted prevailing prejudices in their reactions to ‘a story not so much about social beings as about that most a-social of them all – a homosexual’. In a piece entitled, ‘Muddled Thinking in a British Problem Film’, The Times’ anonymous critic tried to reason that the two male protagonists’ relationship was a ludicrous impossibility because,
‘Reggie... even if “normal” sexually, he is mentally very feminine and needs someone to lead him and dominate him. But Pete, despite his superficially “butch” trappings – motorbikes, leather suits and the like – is also essentially feminine.’
To our 21st century eyes, it is easy to see whose thinking is truly muddled. Conversely, Films and Filming, which reproduced a still of Reggie cradling a sleepy Pete for its January 1964 front cover, stated that ‘Pete is butch’, and went on to praise the film’s objectivity and lack of sensationalism about a subject ‘that is far from unusual in Britain today’. One detractor, the noted American author John Seelye, resorted to mocking homophobic condescension to describe Sutton’s role as ‘a queer who is supposed to be enough of a regular guy to fool the hero, but still faggoty enough to let the audience in on the secret’.
However, American reviews were mostly glowing. H. Weiler, for the New York Times, commented that Furie and the cast ‘managed to elicit honesty and genuine tenderness and humor from their simple drama’ and Brendan Gill of the New Yorker proclaimed it ‘one of the best films of the year’. Yet, despite a Golden Globe nomination for Best English-Language Foreign Film, The Leather Boys remains largely unknown in the US. In England, it ‘played a vital part in liberalizing British attitudes’ and in 1967, three years after its release, homosexuality was finally decriminalized.
It is difficult now to imagine the bizarre, contradictory, even hysterical attitudes of the time. Homosexuality was regarded as a sickness, a mental defect, a hormonal imbalance that needed expert medical treatment (it was only removed from the International Classification of Diseases in 1992). The ‘treatments’ available – sometimes as an alternative to imprisonment – included psychoanalysis; religious counselling; hypnosis; electric shock aversion therapy (some patients were even given portable electric shock boxes, so that they could ‘treat’ themselves at home); apomorphine (a powerful emetic also used for alcohol and opioid addiction); and estrogen, in an attempt to reduce sex drive. At the same time, if a person acted on his desires, he committed a crime, a situation as absurd as a victim of Tourette’s syndrome being prosecuted for cursing. Gay men could not help their ‘condition’ but they were nevertheless legally accountable for their symptoms. The 1957 Wolfenden Committee concluded that ‘homosexuality cannot legitimately be regarded as a disease’, but it was still another 10 years before decriminalization.
In the closing long shot of Pete, stationary, watching Reggie walk away from him, it is obvious that he is not the one who needs to change. What stands out about Dudley Sutton’s portrayal of Pete is that he cannot be othered in the way that other gay characters of the period could. He is not Murray Melvin’s soft-spoken textile design student in A Taste of Honey, or guilt-ridden and repressed like Melville Farr in Victim, nor is he safely beyond British law in Italy (where homosexuality had been legal since 1890), like Malcolm the fashion photographer in Darling. He is not a stereotype of any kind, and it is this that gives him and the film such power.
Times have indeed changed and The Leather Boys – in its own unassuming way and despite never being accorded the kudos of belonging to the British New Wave – helped to change them. In his dispassionate, sincere and sensitive direction, Furie successfully pre-empted leading theorists of masculinity, making the issue visible and available for public discourse.
Peter Jordan worked extensively in Britain and Italy as a stage, film and television actor. He was Head of Acting at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (2007-2013), and has directed numerous productions for the local professional drama community. Currently Assistant Professor (Drama and Literature) at City University. He is the author of The Venetian Origins of the Commedia dell’Arte (London and New York: Routledge, 2014).
64. Glenn Smith, Annie Bartlett and Michael King, ‘Treatments of homosexuality in Britain since the 1950s—an oral history: the experience of patients’, BMJ, doi:10.1136/bmj.37984.442419.EE (published 29 January 2004), retrieved 5 August 2018.