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.