Lingering shadows of a transphobic film
Of all the transphobic films I’ve seen, there is one that still disturbs me more than the others. Perhaps it’s because it takes place in Ottawa and Montreal, which makes it feel like it actually happened here. It was released in 1976, the year I graduated from university and that too makes it personal. It’s a vivid reminder of the kind of world that awaited me as I tried to find my path as a trans woman. Its transphobia is at once so extreme, and yet so typical of the times, that it should be on film studies courses as an example of how trans people, especially trans women, have been historically represented on film.
It’s called Strange Shadows in an Empty Room. It was an Italian-Canadian co-production, and an exploitation film in the style of Dirty Harry.
It’s also known for its car chases, and opens with Ottawa police chasing a car down a barren Lebreton Flats, in front of the Parliament Buildings and along a Wellington Street empty of traffic. American B actor Stuart Whitman plays an Ottawa cop by the name of Tony Saitta, and he’s quickly identified as a man of action. Two cop cars crash ineffectually in the chase scene, before Tony takes the robbers out on what looks like Murray Street in the Market, circa 1976. He guns two down, and arrests one, which hints at Tony’s way of doing things. His is a push-people-around-ask-questions-later approach to crime solving.
Tony receives news that his sister, living in Montreal and played by upcoming Quebec star Carole Laure, has been poisoned. Being a man of action, he flies to Montreal by helicopter and, disregarding questions of jurisdiction, takes over the investigation from Ned Matthews, a somewhat passive Montreal cop played by John Saxon, a reliable character actor of the time.
The movie often cuts to scenes that don’t appear related to the main plot line. In one of these cuts, we view from behind a woman walking in a dark alley followed by a man carrying a newspaper with some sort of club hidden in its folds. The camera shows her shapely legs and then cuts back to the man’s pants as he walks faster to catch up. The fetishistic gaze of the camera returns to the woman’s stockinged legs, and lingers just long enough on her legs and high heels that I knew right away she was a trans woman. It was one of the transphobic tropes of movie making of the time. The scene was designed to fool and titillate the heterosexual male audience before revealing the woman’s true identity later. (Ha! Gotcha!)
The trans woman in the alley is clubbed repeatedly to her death and, we find out later, her body gets pulverized in a rock grinder.
Needless to say, it takes a while for Tony and his Montreal sidekick to figure out she was trans. When they do, we get this edifying conversation:
“That girl was a guy.”
“Sounds like something we might find in a fruit market, huh?”
Tony’s not all brawn, however. He notes the unusual shade of nail polish on what’s left of her fingers, which eventually leads him to a sex shop where the proprietor attempts to sell him a sex doll. “Life size. Has all the parts. You could do everything.” That’s not for our Tony, of course. He pressures the proprietor into revealing the address of his “transvestite” customers, who apparently come in from time to time for the wonderful selection of lipsticks.
Cut to the next scene where two trans women are discussing a wig, while the third is putting on lipstick.
“I don’t know why I decided to leave it with Marilyn,” one says.
Catty conversation continues. The buzzer rings.
“Sounds like a hot one. He must crave my body,” she says, of the persistent buzzing.
“Answer the door, Cinderella,” the other one replies. She buzzes him in, and meets Tony at the door.
“What’s up,” he says.
“Hi sweetie. It’s private here. You’ve got to be a member.”
He shoves her aside, which prompts one of the women to throw a bottle at him. Presumably she didn’t take kindly to a stranger bursting into their apartment without identifying himself or showing his badge
“Hey, take it easy, girls. Just take it easy. I want some information.”
One of the trans women removes her wig. “I’ll give you a mouthful of information,” she says, and takes a swing at him with what looked to me like a hat box.
After the hat box assault, which Tony resolves with a kick to the testicles (ha-ha), there follows a completely illogical fight scene that lasts two minutes and is choreographed to a 1970s TV cop show soundtrack. One trans woman ends up going through a large glass window and one gets beaten up and tossed into the swimming pool, but it’s the fate of the third one that reveals the hateful nature of not just this scene, but of the movie as a whole.
The third trans woman has apparently plugged in her curling iron and is now lunging at Tony with it. Attacking with a curling iron is ludicrous, of course, but by introducing this prop the film maker turns the beatings into a strange cisgender psychosexual expression of hate for trans women. Tony seizes the curling iron from the trans woman and promptly drives it up her rectum. Cue the screams, and the look of horror from the one of the subdued trans women. She wasn’t the only one. I expected the beatings, but my jaw dropped at the cruelty of the scene and the relish with which Tony performs it. The film normalizes violence against trans women like few others I’ve seen, and presents it as entertainment.
At the end of all this carnage, one of the trans women asks plaintively, “Why didn’t you just tell me what you wanted?” Because we wouldn’t have had two minutes of trans bashing if he had, of course.
This film has all the worst ingredients of transphobic films: stereotypes to the point of caricature, the murder of a trans woman, blind hatred and violence, and the baiting of the cisgender audience to join in the fun. If you read reviews of it, you’ll find none of the critics or people who have seen it mention any of this. They haven’t even noticed.
If you’d like to investigate for yourself, It’s available for loan from the Ottawa Public Library under its shortened title, Shadows in an Empty Room.