10 Essential Queer Crime Films
The reception and assessment of LGBTQ+ representation in film, particularly outside of the realm of queer theory, tends to center on the notion of positive representation. But while admirable role models are certainly important, so too are movies that show queer characters in all their flaws, complexity, and even villainy. Crime cinema offers audiences an escape from the moral and legal constraints of the real world and a glimpse into drama and chaos that can help illuminate societal and interpersonal conflicts. That subversive pleasure should be offered as much to queer and trans audiences as to straight, cisgender ones. Here are ten excellent crime flicks that put queers and queerness front and center:
Strangers on a Train (1951, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Based on a novel by master of sordid crime fiction Patricia Highsmith, this thriller’s action begins when a sociopathic mama’s boy named Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) suggests to mild-mannered tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) that they each murder the person giving the other trouble. Guy plays along with what he assumes is Bruno’s dark joke before it becomes clear he’s in too deep. The subtextual erotic tension between the men—fueled in part by Granger’s open offscreen bisexuality—is as palpable as the suspense one expects from a Hitchcock film, and Walker’s turn as Bruno is a delicious exercise in effeminate villainy.
Female Trouble (1974, dir. John Waters)
Waters’ camp classic stars his muse Divine as the bratty young Dawn Davenport, who goes into a violent rage and runs away from home after her parents refuse to buy her the cha-cha heels she wanted for Christmas. With the urging of a pair of beauty salon owners who act as her sinister benefactors, Dawn seeks fame through a series of strange and gruesome acts. Female Trouble’s unapologetically tasteless, anti-assimilation philosophy is best summed up in a line spoken by Waters cast regular Edith Massey: “I worry that you'll work in an office, have children, celebrate wedding anniversaries. The world of the heterosexual is a sick and boring life!”
Dog Day Afternoon (1975, dir. Sidney Lumet)
Set over the course of one sweltering Brooklyn summer day, Lumet’s New Hollywood classic is based on the true story of John Wojtowicz, who attempted to rob a bank to finance his lover Liz Eden’s gender transition. As the Wojtowicz-inspired protagonist Sonny, Al Pacino is neurotic, unpredictable, and inept—he botches the robbery early on, and spends the rest of the film’s runtime trying to get his money, evade the cops, and keep the bank patrons safe. But his charm and charisma are undeniable, and it’s easy to see how the real Wojtowicz has come to be something of a folk hero—particularly after seeing Pacino chant the prison uprising battle cry “Attica!” at a crowd of gay liberationist supporters. It’s worth noting that Chris Sarandon, a cis man, plays the character based on Eden; yet she and her queer world are portrayed with such empathy and affection that Sarandon’s performance never feels like a caricature or mockery.
Querelle (1982, dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Fassbinder’s dreamlike, highly stylized adaptation of the radical queer writer Jean Genet’s novel Querelle of Brest follows the titular Belgian sailor (an absurdly hunky Brad Davis) on shore leave in the seaside Breton town. His surreal journey involves murder, betrayal, and lots of gay sex. Fassbinder’s blatantly artificial sets and gaudy, lurid color evoke classical Hollywood, but the subversive narrative and the phallic imagery that crops up unsubtly in the props and architecture turn that era on its head. A fitting final installment in the prolific oeuvre of a director who loved ‘50s American melodrama, Querelle leans with all its might into sensual excess.
Born in Flames (1983, dir. Lizzie Borden)
Set in a socialist—but by no means utopian—U.S. of the near future, this work of New York no wave cinema sees revolutionary feminist factions take to the airwaves and the streets to protest chauvinism and oppression. Their action turns, ultimately, to violent resistance. Though a work of speculative fiction, Born in Flames is firmly rooted in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—not only in its ideological concern with debates over movement division and coalition building, but also in its setting in the war zone of ancient ruins that was lower Manhattan in those years. Of course, this doesn’t mean it lacks resonance with the present, or with any other era of unrest across human history.
Poison (1991, dir. Todd Haynes)
Haynes’ first feature-length film consists of three separate stories intercut with one another, each of which draws on and subverts a different set of cinematic tropes. In “Horror,” a mad scientist straight out of a ’50s pulp comic concocts and drinks a sexual elixir that deforms and maddens him. “Hero,” styled as a tabloid TV spot, tells the story of a boy who kills his abusive father before flying away through an open window. “Homo” is a tender coming-of-age romance set in a prison and inspired, like Querelle, by the works of Jean Genet. Together, the tales turn a whole swath of genres topsy-turvy and give them new resonance in the era of the AIDS epidemic.
Swoon (1992, dir. Tom Kalin)
Filmmaker Kalin was a founding member of the AIDS activist art collective Gran Fury, and the radical roots of his creative practice make this collage-like rumination on the 1924 Leopold and Loeb murder case much more than a straightforward true crime film. Kalin examines the homophobic and antisemitic junk science that characterized contemporary coverage of the case, splicing camera-addressing commentators and hand-drawn phrenologic diagrams into the narrative footage. This critical hindsight doesn’t mean the film shies away from eroticism or frank depictions of violence, either. Pair Swoon with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) for a shared-subject double feature that throws Kalin’s self-reflexive artistry into sharp relief.
The Living End (1992, dir. Gregg Araki)
One of the paradigmatic films—along with Poison and Swoon—of the New Queer Cinema movement, Araki’s nihilistic road movie follows two gay men recently diagnosed with AIDS on a crime spree fueled by anger at political indifference to their impending deaths. Soft-spoken film critic Jon (Craig Gilmore) and his tough, volatile foil Luke (Mike Dytri) are lovers on the lam in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) or Badlands (1973). Colored by Araki’s signature campy, gallows-humor sensibility and brimming with desire and rage, The Living End is a heartbreaking, thrilling, and darkly hilarious fuck-you to the homophobic neoconservative world in which it was made
By Hook or by Crook (2001, dir. Harry Dodge and Silas Howard)
Directors Dodge (familiar to some as the spouse of poet and memoirist Maggie Nelson) and Howard, both trans men, star as their fictitious counterparts, Shy and Valentine, in this buddy road movie. Shot on video in 64 locations around a grimy late ‘90s Bay Area, the story follows the lovable, marginal outsiders as they drift through a life of petty crime and vagabondism in search of family both biological and chosen. The tender bond that arises from the characters’ shared experiences is palpable and poignant, cutting through the superficial aesthetic shortcomings of the film’s shoestring budget.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018, dir. Marielle Heller)
The crimes portrayed in this film, based on the autobiography of infamous literary forger Lee Israel, are relatively tame, but that doesn’t make the stakes any lower for Israel, played brilliantly by Melissa McCarthy. She and her partner-in-crime Jack (Richard E. Grant), both gay, are bitter and antisocial, but their devious, highbrow antics and their affection for each other make the film as poignant as it is charming. A sharp script and lived-in performances come together to craft a movie that attempts neither to make its characters palatable nor to exaggerate their flaws in order to condemn them.