the detective arrives on the case
by Douglas Messerli
Curtis Harrington (director) Fragment of Seeking / 1946
Curtis Harrington arrives at the gate of the white stucco complex wherein he will proceed with his search dressed, in a raincoat and oversized classes, as a kind of comical undercover detective, his shadow projected ahead of his body, a presence foretelling of almost terrifying secrets he may soon uncover.
What he quickly perceives is a blonde woman who appears forebodingly in various places around the buildings, sometimes on the roof, at other times in windows, later in halls, garden pathways, on the stairs, almost seeming to stalk our “detective” while at the same time, as in noir films, attempting to attract him and lure him into her arms.
When finally, soon after, the detective decides to explore the building’s inner stairways and halls, eventually entering one room, removing his coat and glasses to reveal himself as a rather handsome, curly haired youth, we wonder whether or not he awaiting an encounter with the male or the female.
The female knocks on his door, but does not enter, and when the young director, now freed of his detective disguise, opens it, he discovers she has walked off, necessitating a further chase after her down long hallways as she moves ever further away from him. Does he truly want to reach her or is only intrigues about her interest him and constant presence?
When the two, female and our hero, finally do meet up face to face, he finally leans in to kiss her again only to discover she has become a horrific skeleton which reminds one, seeing this film today, as critic Chuck Stephens has noted, of a vision out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho “foretold.”
Racing away from the scene, he returns to the terrace—en route observing other such skeletons standing and sitting where she has previously appeared—he discovers the man with head having fallen upon the table, apparently dead.
His search now becomes an attempt to discover who has done the deed and why? Cartoon-like footsteps point in the direction of a doorway through which he has previously never entered. He opens the double doors, his shadow again proceeding his gaze into the room where he sees what appears to be a woman, dressed as a man, who when she turns to look at him we perceive is himself in a long blonde wig. The end.
This work, created just previous to Harrington’s friend Kenneth Anger’s far more confident celebration of male/male relationships in Fireworks (1947), was perhaps the first gay “coming out film” ever made. In its dreamlike elements, its rather negative analysis of the situation, and the central figure’s confusion of sexual identity and desire, Harrington’s work definitely belongs to the pattern of that genre which I describe throughout these essays as the “CO-1” variation which we also see played out in several of Harrington’s later works and in movies by Anger, Gregory J. Markopoulos, James Broughton, Willard Maas, John Schmitz, François Reichenbach, Ron Rice, A. J. Rose, and Jacques Demy, among others. And as such. it stands as one of the most important early works of LGBTQ cinema. Here we see, finally, the gay detective, only 20 years of age, arriving to seek out clues to a case which no one ever before had openly announced as an issue even needing to be solved.
Los Angeles, August 23, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (August 2021).