THE CRYING GAME, HITCHCOCKIAN ROMANCE, AND THE QUEST FOR IDENTITY, Peter
N. Chumo II, Literature Film Quarterly, October 1, 1995, Vol.
23, Issue 4
Upon the U.S. release of Neil Jordan's The Crying Game, critics alluded to the film's Hitchcockian heritage, David Ansen of Newsweek calling it "a Hitchcockian thriller" (80) and Mike Clark declaring in USA Today that it had "one of the most plot-altering twists since Janet Leigh sudsed up in Psycho" (4D). However, either because they did not wish to develop this idea or because they did not want to reveal the film's main plot twist, such critics did not explore The Crying Game's relationship to Hitchcock--which is far deeper and more complex than mere plot twists. Psycho is an obvious point of reference because its famous shower murder scene was as great a jolt to the audience in its day as the death of Jody and the revelation of Dil's gender in The Crying Game--jolts so profound they send the plots into completely new directions. However, The Crying Game's use of the romantic thriller genre to investigate issues of sexuality and identity recalls more fully another Hitchcock classic, Vertigo.
The Crying Game does not mimic Vertigo point-by-point in plot or even to a great extent in style. At first glance they may appear to have no relationship at all, other than the fact that they are thrillers with clever plot twists. Jordan's film is clearly not a homage to Hitchcock in the traditional sense--DePalma's Body Double, for example. But it does evoke Hitchcockian themes--complicating them, however, with the homoerotic charge that Dil's gender brings to the film. Vertigo explores the spiral into madness and loss of identity that result from anxiety over female sexuality; The Crying Game throws into question all categories of sexual desire but ends with the sense that out of this chaos can come a new, mature identity and a deep, genuine love.
Game and Vertigo
On a narrative level the major plot developments and twists in Vertigo and The Crying Game are similar. The protagonist in each film is in some sense a crippled male who fails in his initial mission: Scottie (James Stewart) is unable to save the policeman's life in Vertigo's opening sequence, and Fergus (Stephen Rea) is unable either to kill or to save Jody (Forest Whitaker) in The Crying Game's first act. Having failed both the IRA and Jody, Fergus is neither a cold-blooded killer nor a savior and is ready to undergo a transformation of character. The rest of the film in some sense allows him to choose between these two roles.
Both Scottie and Fergus get a second chance through a woman who is false in some way, who in essence is not what she appears to be (Judy and Dil, respectively), and try to reconstitute their identities through these women. Scottie tries to relive his time with Madeleine through Judy (both played by Kim Novak), and Fergus tries to keep his promise to Jody that he would check on his sweetheart Dil (Jaye Davidson) if Jody were killed. Interestingly enough, both protagonists end up changing their new love into a copy of the original person so that the heroine's identity is jeopardized.
Finally, the revelations of the women's falseness are so profound they make us see the films in a completely new light on repeated viewings. The haunting Carlotta Valdes story in Vertigo is stripped of its mystery and reduced to the ruse that it is when Judy's flashback reveals Elster's plot to kill his wife. We can think back to the moment when Judy/Madeleine looks up at the tower and says, "It's too late. Something I must do," and know in retrospect she is not contemplating suicide but rather referring to carrying out her part in the murder of Mrs. Elster. Likewise, once Dil's gender has been revealed in The Crying Game, the viewer can look back to the film's first movement--the Fergus/Jody relationship--and reread many of the lines. When Jody shows Fergus Dil's picture, for example, and says, "She wouldn't suit you," the audience's first thought is probably of the racial barrier between Fergus and Dil since we do not yet know that Dil is a biological male. Indeed, as Rebecca Bell-Metereau points out, "As the audience learns of Dil's biological gender, viewers find themselves mentally reconstructing dialogue and rereading such lines as 'not my type' or 'anyone's type' or 'women are trouble'" (284). Even the opening song, Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" (whose very title sets up traditional gender distinctions that the film will proceed to break down), becomes ironic in light of the film's offbeat love story while at the same time oddly fitting for a story about a man who finally makes a sacrifice for the one he loves.
Crisis and the Crisis of Identity
Lesley Brill states, "Hitchcock's romantic films are organized around quests that lead; whatever the MacGuffin, to the creation (or recovery) through love of the protagonists' personal and social identities. The miscarrying of that search constitutes the central frustration of Vertigo" (207). Unlike Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo, however, Fergus will attain a measure of success in his search.
Brill goes on to point out that, like many Hitchcock heroes, Scottie begins the film as "a somewhat overaged adolescent," a description that also fits Fergus. As a lowly IRA volunteer--the Hitchcockian Everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances--he is often reprimanded by his superiors, Peter (Adrian Dunbar) and Jude (Miranda Richardson), as if he were their child in this surrogate family. For example, Peter scolds him for revealing his name to his hostage Jody and thus symbolically strips him of his personal identity.
Throughout the hostage drama are scattered hints that sexual ambiguity, not Irish politics, is the true subject of the film. In Hitchcockian terms the IRA plot is the MacGuffin, the excuse for the real drama. When Jude tells Fergus that it was easy luring Jody because "I just thought of you," the exchange at first seems like flirtatious play. Very quickly, though, Jude's sexual loyalties seem less certain:
Significantly, the question is never answered. By leaving it in suspension, the question hangs over the film as an emblem of sexual confusion that can apply to other relationships. When Fergus is falling for Dil but dreaming of Jody, for example, one could very well ask, "which one" does he love?
Fergus enjoys much of his brief time with Jody as they talk about sports as adolescents might (even the chase in the woods that tragically leads to Jody's death seems a kind of game to them), but the friendship takes on a homoerotic connotation when Fergus must help the handcuffed Jody urinate by taking out his penis and bracing him from behind. When Fergus is at first reluctant to comply, Jody declares, "It's only a piece of meat"--a statement that will take on new meaning when Fergus is confronted with Dil's "piece of meat," the source of his anxiety in the later part of the film. After the urination scene Fergus deadpans to Jody, "The pleasure was all mine," and they share a hearty laugh. The interlude at once plays as a mischievous boys'-night-out behind-the-parents'-backs, suggests the possibility of a secret wish for intimacy, and foreshadows the serious homoerotic relationship Fergus will face with Dil.
Not only does this scene anticipate a later scene, it also hearkens back to an earlier scene in which Jody (a man by a woman's name) holds the hand of Jude (a woman by a man's name) while urinating at the carnival only moments before Jude gets him into position for his kidnapping. This opening sequence, with the introduction of characters with cross-gendered names and an odd urination scene with romantic overtones of hand-holding, of course sets up the themes of gender confusion, shifting notions of identity, and romance/betrayal that Fergus and Dil will play out on a larger scale.
Most telling in highlighting the theme of identity for Fergus is his quoting of St. Paul when Jody asks him to tell a story: "When I was a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things." Ironically, at that moment Fergus does not have the confidence or maturity associated with adulthood, but the passage indicates the overall direction the film will take. Fergus will come to question his seemingly childish ideas of loyalty, sexuality, and political commitment and ultimately opt for a more adult, if less secure, view of the world.
Dil and the
Challenge of Sexual Ambiguity
After Jody's death Fergus wishes to "lose myself for a while," flees to London on a cattle boat (which suggests his ultimate anonymity), and assumes the alias of "Jimmy." He has had a haircut--a sign of a new identity and, shorn now of his adolescent locks, a possible sign of maturity--and then gets a haircut from Dil. He cannot bring himself to tell Dil what happened to Jody, but they soon strike up a quirky romance in a bar, at first talking through the humorous mediation of Col, the bartender (Jim Broadbent). In their first meeting in the hair salon and later in the bar, the potential lovers see each other through mirrors--in Vertigo, as Brill observes, a means of "warn[ing] us of the incompleteness of what we can see directly" (213): even as Fergus and Dil meet each other, neither is really seeing the other person. Both are not what they seem to be on the surface; each is holding a secret from the other. And like mirrors, the snapshot of Dil that Jody gave Fergus does not tell the whole story: it seems to depict a woman, not a transvestite.
The enigmatic Dil entrances Fergus, but the very fact of Jody's death renders any potential relationship problematical from the outset. Fergus is not even sure what he wants from Dil, romantically or otherwise. Nor is his confusion alleviated by the ubiquitous presence of Jody haunting the film: aside from several stylized, mind's-eye flashes of him, we see several pictures of him (shades of Rebecca!) and even his clothes prominently displayed in Dil's apartment. As Fergus gets to know Dil, he tells her, "I want to look after you"--possibly to fulfill the debt he feels he owes Jody, possibly to satisfy his own growing affection for her. His words echo Scottie's "Let me take care of you" to Judy in Vertigo and reveal the hero's desire for a role in which he can care for a woman.
This traditionally male role (carried out to chilling extremes in Vertigo) is suddenly yanked from Fergus in the revelation of Dil's gender, specifically the exposure of his penis the night s/ he and Fergus are about to make love. This stuns Fergus and is the greatest shock to his self-identity. He had fallen in love with Dil as a woman but now must face the fact he is in love with another man. In not only Vertigo but also such films as Notorious and North by Northwest, the heroine's sexuality often destabilizes the Hitchcock hero throughout their romance, but the woman ultimately assumes a "proper" or subordinate role to the man. Falling for another man, however, upsets such traditional power relationships and puts a unique twist on Hitchcockian romance that forces Fergus to look beyond his preconceptions of gender. Can he overcome this seeming barrier and continue to love Dil despite it? Can "only a piece of meat" stand in the way of love?
In Vertigo, Scottie's dilemma is to find the elegance and grace of Madeleine in the vulgarity and tartiness of Judy, an endeavor that drives him to madness. For Fergus the dilemma is more complex. In fact the Judy/Madeleine dichotomy is humorously dismissed in a discussion about Dil that Fergus has with his boss, Deveroux, who calls him "Pat":
Stereotypical notions of what makes a woman a "lady" or a "tart" are indeed meaningless. Fergus's problem is more elemental than finding his feminine ideal: does he still want a relationship with Dil, and if so, on what level? It is difficult to say with any certitude. While Fergus is at first repulsed at his discovery, he is clearly drawn to this person, whom he continues to see and even kisses on the lips. He defends her honor when his boss insults her, and they leave his workplace as a couple (Fergus even calls her "dear," though he personally resists such terms of affection from Dil). At such moments Fergus seems to lose his resistance to Dil; a sense of ambiguity comes to define their relationship as well as Fergus's new identity.
Fergus's relationship with Jody, the captor bonding with his prisoner, is the very essence of ambiguity, which makes Fergus unsuitable for the IRA but perfect for Dil. The IRA as portrayed here operates on a code of absolute certainty. One cannot deviate from the group's plan or allow emotion to get in the way; when it becomes apparent Fergus is befriending Jody, Peter and Jude have doubts about his loyalty. On a more personal level, when Jude finally tracks down Fergus in the last third of the film, she grabs him by the crotch and says, "Fuck me, Fergus." There is no mystery or playfulness in Jude--she is tough, cold, and direct, just the opposite of Dil, who is very unpredictable and flirtatious:
Dil embraces a mixture of qualities throughout the film: toughness and tenderness, strength and vulnerability. She can be mysterious one moment and bare her soul the next. When Fergus is annoying Peter, he loses his temper and complains, "I'm gettin' emotional, and I don't like gettin' fuckin' emotional." Where Dil expresses a full range of emotions, the IRA attempts to contain them. Fergus's relationship with Dil is a challenge--when traditional male/female sex roles cease to apply, the terms of the relationship are up for grabs. Fergus, then, embraces ambiguity as he rejects the rigidity, political and sexual, of his old IRA cohorts.
Throughout The Crying Game people try to enforce this rigidity--or at least to fix gender boundaries through an emphasis on what "suits" various people. In the opening scene Jody tells Jude that her name "suits you." Apparently a masculine name really does fit this tough IRA agent, and Jody, even when being tricked, instinctively knows this. Later, when Jody shows Fergus a picture of Dil, he tells him, "She wouldn't suit you"--an affirmation (although Fergus cannot see this) of gender-based restrictions that the film will question. Finally, when Jude reappears to Fergus with dark brown hair, Fergus tells her it "suits you." Jude agrees, "Aye, I was sick of being a blonde. I needed a tougher look, if you know what I mean." Jude easily plays with her role as an IRA agent, and, as if matching hair to name, chooses a more masculine, "tougher" look. For Dil, though, identity is a serious issue, and when Fergus plays with it, the consequences are serious.
For Fergus, however, cutting Dil's hair to make "her" look like a "him" is one part of a very ambiguous masculinizing process that includes having Dil wear Jody's clothing. Where Scot-fie is sure of himself, Fergus's motivations are difficult to pin down. The ostensible reason for having Dil change her identity is so s/he will be safe from Fergus's IRA comrades, should Fergus fail in his new mission they have given him. However, there could be a deeper reason. Perhaps Fergus is trying to deny his feelings for Dil by turning "her" into a man. On the other hand, his latent attraction to Jody might be finding mature expression through Dil, who even thinks that he is trying to make her "look like him." After all, when Fergus takes Dil to a hotel for safety, he calls it a "honeymoon," a possible fulfillment of the courtship Fergus shared first with Jody and then with Dil. Moreover, earlier in the film (before Dil's revelation) Fergus had a vision of Jody while Dil performed oral sex on him. Was the vision of Jody a manifestation of Fergus's guilt over romancing Dil or an erotic fantasy? In bringing back Jody from the dead, Fergus appears to be in the Hitchcock tradition: the hero resurrects the lost love (but whose? his? Dil's? both of theirs?) but faces gender ambiguities no Hitchcock hero ever faced. In order to gain Dil's assent to the transformation, Fergus must promise not to leave and so in effect commits himself not only to a man but to the man he himself is creating.
If the hero tries to construct a new identity for himself, this usually means destruction of the heroine's identity. Even as Ferguson makes Judy strip away her self to become Madeleine, he tells her, "It can't matter to you," as if her identity were already gone. Dil at first resists having her hair cut because it is such an essential part of her identity. When she states, "Girl has to draw the line somewhere," it is not only a funny line deriving humor from the fact she is not a biological girl, but also a serious effort to draw a personal boundary. Because of her love for Fergus and his commitment to her, she gives in, but even as he is cutting, Dil laments, "Don't recognize myself."
There is a striking image of Dil dressed as Jody emerging from a background of blackness when Fergus later goes searching for her. Stylistically, it resembles the famous shot from Vertigo when Judy, now perfectly dressed as Madeleine, emerges from the bathroom a newly created being. Dil's appearance, though, is actually a kind of parody of that shot since she is drank and in a stupor. The Crying Game strips away the dreamy romanticism of re-creating the lost love that Scottie briefly enjoys. That romanticism, however, plunges Scottie into a deeper illusion that will soon be shattered when he discovers Judy's duplicity.
To make the cycle complete, Dil kills Jude in what at first seems to be simple revenge for Jody's death. Significantly, though, Dil's anger with Jude in their confrontation is very specific and stems from how Jody was trapped. Dil exhibits a deep jealousy that Jude is a more authentic, attractive woman and used her body to snare Jody. Just before she fires the final shot that kills Jude, Dil asks, "You used those tits and that ass to get him, didn't you?" and afterward wants Fergus to "Tell me what she wore." In their only other meeting in the film, this female rivalry was established:
Scottie at the end of Vertigo is jealous of Elster because he was a better artist in molding Judy. Hitchcock links artistic jealousy to romantic jealousy when Scottie rages at Judy, "He made you over, didn't he? He made you over just like I made you over, only better. Not only the clothes and the hair but the looks and the manner and the words and those beautiful phony trances," as he drags her to the top of the church tower. Judy was not only Elster's mistress, she was his work of art before she was Scottie's. Dil in essence takes over Vertigo's Scottie role from Fergus and becomes the mad avenger. However, there is a significant reversal. She is both the artist and her own work of art. As a hairdresser and transvestite, one who shapes identity on a daily basis, Dil finally is not simply a creation, an object of the gaze, but rather a person who in the end can easily recover his female self.
Dil faces imminent arrest, but Fergus, in taking responsibility for the killing and saving Dil from prison, finds his identity--something his predecessor Ferguson could not do. In following his obsession to the top of the tower, Ferguson loses Madeleine a second time and ends the film in despair, but Fergus finds himself, not in obsessive male control but in surrendering control, in giving up his freedom for Dil. (This is actually a reversal of a common Hitchcockian theme since the hero of so many "wrong man" films establishes his identity by convincing others not of his guilt but rather of his innocence.)
Throughout Vertigo Ferguson is called by many names: "Scottie," "John," "Johnny-O," a multiplicity that bespeaks his failure ever to find a stable identity. Likewise, Fergus is "dear," "honey," and "darling" to Dil (although he resists such terms of endearment); "Paddy," "Pat," "Jimmy," and "Fergie" to others (his boss tells him, "I don't actually give a fuck whether it's 'Jim,' 'Pat,' or 'Mick'"); and Jude greets him with "Hello, Stranger" and later refers to him as "Mr. Nobody" when pointing out how effectively he has vanished and how ideal an assassin he will be. This last name in effect sums up Fergus's crisis of identity as long as he follows orders from the IRA or rigid societal notions of sexuality. Going to prison for Dil takes an enormous leap in committing himself to the one person for whom he has affection but with whom he may not be able to maintain a relationship.
In the film's last scene, Dil (her female identity restored) visits Fergus in prison and learns his real name. Fergus in a sense has also found himself and restored his identity, but Dil makes some additions: "Fergus, my love, light of my life"--a title that joins Fergus's social identity with his personal/romantic identity to Dil. Instead of the common Hitchcockian ending in which the hero ultimately assimilates the heroine into his world (Cary Grant lifting up Eva Marie Saint at the end of North by Northwest) or punishes her (Scottie forcing Judy to the top of the tower and, consequently, her death), The Crying Game's hero finds himself finally defined by his relationship to his beloved. Admittedly, it is an uneasy definition that Fergus does not embrace wholeheartedly but seems to accept and that in some way makes him a modern-day chivalric hero.
I began this essay by pointing out a similarity between the characters' names in Vertigo and The Crying Game. How ironic, then, that two films joined in such a way should also be connected in the way they both suggest that the issue of identity is much larger than a person's given name. Ultimately, The Crying Game is Hitchcockian not simply because it keeps the audience in suspense or has plot twists that match or even surpass Hitchcock himself but because, like Hitchcock's best work, The Crying Game uses the thriller genre for more than thrills. Specifically it probes issues of sexuality and identity while acknowledging and having fun with sexual ambiguities that had to be repressed in the films of Hitchcock. Displaying the wisdom of a bartender, Col rhetorically asks Fergus, "Who knows the secrets of the human heart?" Certainly not Fergus, but he makes a valiant effort to come to terms with them.
Psycho is also
an interesting comparison because of Hitchcock's unique marketing strategy
that seems to have inspired the way The Crying Game was marketed.
Hitchcock built audience interest around the promise that Psycho contained
secrets that should not be revealed to the public. Donald Spoto points
out, for example, that the film's "advertising campaign reflected
his desire" that "no one be allowed into the theater once
the film began" (420). The Crying Game's U.S. advertisements
featured the line, "The movie everyone is talking about, but no
one is giving away its secrets," and a picture of Miranda Richardson
holding a smoking gun--an image that emphasizes the thriller aspect
of the film and a supporting character so that the homoerotic romance
between the main characters played by Stephen Rea and Jaye Davidson
is a surprise. (Davidson's Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting
Actor presented an extra challenge in maintaining the secret for potential
moviegoers who had not yet seen the film by the time Oscar nominations
were announced.) Finally, in the marketing of both films, critics were
asked not to reveal the key plot twists in their reviews. Interestingly
enough, transvestism is a twist common to both films.
aside--in his interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock recounted
seeing a similar scene during a trip through France that was for him
the epitome of true love:
3 In the scene in the Indian restaurant, behind Fergus and Dil is huge painting of Venus emerging from her shell, the ideal of fully formed feminine beauty and a kind of mythological parallel to the post-transformation shots in both Vertigo and The Crying Game. It is also an ironic counterpoint to the femininity that Dil must painstakingly create for herself every day.
PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): The Crying Game, Hitchcockian Romance, and the Quest for Identity
Bell-Metereau, Rebecca. Hollywood Androgyny. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia UP, 1993.
Brill, Lesley, The Hitchcock Romance: Love and Irony in Hitchcock's Films. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1988.
Clark, Mike. "Satisfying Twists to 'Crying Game.'" Rev. of The Crying Game. USA Today 25 Nov. 1992: 4D.
Spoto, Donald. The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock. 1983. New York: Back Bay-Little, 1993.
Truffaut, Francois, with Helen G. Scott. Hitchcock. Rev. ed. 1984. New York: Touchstone-Simon, 1985.
By Peter N. Chumo