REVIEW: The Lonely Sex (1959), by Richard Hilliard

Are men really the lonely sex? I suppose if you think about  stereotypes, maybe. We think of women as being gregarious social  butterflies, and men, in turn, are the stoic, stony lone wolves. Of  course anyone with a lick of life experience would understand the truth  is more complicated than that. Perhaps the lonely sex, then, is intersex  people. If you're reading this, there's a substantial chance you don't  know what intersex even means--see? But alas, this movie is not about  intersex people, as much as I'd like it to be, just because we don't  have enough movies about intersex folk as of yet. Instead, The Lonely Sex is  an early sexploitation movie that tries to raise some points about  society and its gender roles, with results I can only describe as mixed.

An  unnamed man is haunted by the idea of relationships, apparently because  of his early sexual experiences. When he was a teenager he was taken in  by a--gang? cult?--which forced him to copy sexual diagrams, and later,  sleep with a prostitute. He was unable to perform the latter act, so he  was kicked out, and when he told his dad he laughed at him. Ever since  he's been jobless, homeless, and in and out of jail for various Peeping  Tom-related misdemeanors. He resides occasionally in an abandoned tool  shed out in the woods, where he draws faces on mirrors with crayons and  listens to vaguely sexual radio ads. Eventually he kills a lady for  rejecting his plastic rose. All this time, we've also been following the  story of Annabelle Greene, the daughter of a psychiatrist who lives  with her dad's friend Matt, a Peeping Tom worse than the protagonist who  constantly looks like he might really rape someone someday. The unnamed  man kidnaps Annabelle and keeps her locked in the shack, which Dr.  Greene and Matt eventually learn of. Matt, despite his status as a  predator supreme, believes that all perverts should be executed without a  trial, so he shoots and kills the man. Father and daughter are  reunited, and things end as happily as they can with someone like Matt  still around.

Because Russ Meyer hadn't happened yet,  this is a sexploitation movie much more concerned with exploitation than  sex. There is some nudity, it's true, and the plot is largely about  sex, but this is not sexuality which is meant to titillate. This, like a  lot of '50s exploitation movies, is meant to make us think, and in  particular, it's meant to make us think about the function of society  and how that relates to deviance. The '50s were very much about order,  and that was reflected in the sociology of the time: the predominant  sociological theory in 1950s America was structural functionalism, which  was all about that idea of looking at how the parts of society  influence one another and create emergent behavior. Structural  functionalism is a theory which is ultimately unable to account for  social change, and which is grounded in the bigotry of the 1950s. The  idea of privilege, for example, and inequalities in power on matters of  race, sex, ability, etc. usually come across as unimportant to  functionalism, which led to the rise of conflict theory in 1960s. To me,  it's interesting to see this account for the popularity of moralizing  in exploitation movies. Sure, a lot of movies were pinned to the mat by  the Hayes Code, and therefore had to have black-and-white clearcut  visions of good and evil. But there was a demand for movies that  explored the battle of virtue vs. deviance, due in part to the Cold War  and a desire to define the American identity as something more moral  than Soviet Communism. (That's why they added "under God" to the Pledge  of Allegiance in 1954.) The Lonely Sex, in my mind, represents a  weird interstitial state between the '50s and '60s. It attempts to  consider the functions of privilege and sexual expectations from a  conflict theorist point of view while still framing it within a 1950s  portrait of deviance. And tellingly, it accuses a privileged portion of  society of hypocrisy, blaming them for what's happened.

Matt  is very much like those Republican senators who oppose LGBT rights and  later turn out to be having same-sex affairs. He appears to have a  relatively respectable place in society--he's close friends with a  prominent psychiatrist, and he's well-dressed. It's never mentioned what  he does, but it must be something good. From a certain perspective,  Matt's bloodlust is a little understandable. There's a scene where he  asks Dr. Greene, regarding the newspaper headline of the unnamed man's  murder, "What do you think happened before the murder?" He seems to be  fearful of the idea that perhaps the killer raped his victim before  doing her in. I have no pity for rapists; I do not care what their  stories are or why they did it, and I believe that they should be  prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. But I also believe in  justice, not citizens running around shooting people (or cops running  around shooting people, for that matter). And that's ignoring the  biggest elephant in the room, that Matt is still a worse creep than the main character. The protagonist is at least aware of  the wrongness of his actions, but if Matt ever did rape or kill someone  he'd likely have a convenient excuse. And unlike the protagonist, he is  not mentally ill. Mental illness does not excuse one from crime--nor is  it a singular cause of it--but Matt lacks motive for what he does. That  makes him more despicable than the unnamed man in my eyes.

Of  course, the fact that the "protagonist" kills someone really fucks up  any sort of message this movie could be going for. Still, I'm going to  attempt to find my own perspective on this: much of the conflict the  unnamed man faces in this movie is a result of 1950s gender roles. His  sexual dysfunction comes from his abuse at the hands of the group he  attempted to join as a youth as well as the world's blaming him for it.  The gang/cult's attempts to force him to have sex with a hooker is a  sort of rape by proxy, which his father laughs at, and which the rest of  the world says is a failing in his natural male predilection for sex.  His friends and family can't understand why he wouldn't want to have sex  with a woman, even under forced circumstances. Like many men in  patriarchal societies, he feels trapped by obligations he can't or  doesn't want to fulfill--even with his privilege, he is a victim of  patriarchy just as any women would be. That's an interesting theme for a  '50s movie to cover.

But few people seek out movies  for their politics, so I will also say that there are also plenty of bad  movie things in here to draw you in. It's pretty cheesy to see a  character scrawl "HELP" on a wall after killing someone, especially how  it's framed here. They also insisted on giving the unnamed man these big  balls of makeup under his eyes to make him look more washed out--but  they stand out so much that the effect only succeeds in the shadows,  being quite hilarious otherwise. Plus, if you're an exploitation fan,  especially of the old style, this will probably remind you of a C-list  Wishman castoff, which is certainly better than nothing. This was  directed by the writer of Horror of Party Beach, too, which is  always fun. If you want to see something that's halfway between the  anthropological sleaze of one decade and the identity politics of  another, or you just want to join fat men in perving on stripping  ladies, it's worth a watch. I was certainly surprised by the caliber of  its entertainment.

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