Psychoanalysis (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

Between the emergence of the hard boiled form of crime fiction in the 1920s and their adaptation by Hollywood for the screen in the 1940s, Freudian psychoanalysis had been extensively popularised in American culture, to the point that the its basic concepts were familiar to most audiences.
This allowed Hollywood to entrenched this form of storytelling into its film with a reasonable certainty that audiences would catch the gist. This vulgarised common knowledge became the base for a spectacular display of visuals, often translated into dream sequences, which became quite commonplace in American cinema, and quite distinctively in film noir.


In many films, the psychiatric appears as a character, who often has the same role as the detective: he must discover the reasons for a criminal behaviour, which, interestingly, is often on the part of women. This configures the psychiatric as someone in the service of male rationality and patriarchal cultural authority, whereas the woman represents the devious desire to seeks a different form of reality.
It is also interesting how psychoanalysis is presented as a rationalist science, but it’s the means by which a complex and potentially destabilising undercurrent of excessive and disordered desire is expose, which eludes easy rationalisation. In many ways, it is a form of uncertainty more than a means of upholding law effectively.
In Cat People we do have a character psychiatrist and we can see all his shortcomings. In fact, not only he is unable to solve Irena’s ‘problem’ (of which, by the way, she’s completely aware of, so she strictly doesn’t need a psychiatrist for that), but he completely misread it. As a patriarchal hero, Dr Judd is unable to see the true problem and so of course implies means that are completely ineffective. Quite an interesting twist to the noir hero.

The psychoanalyst, like the hero, must solve the mystery at the core of #FilmNoir Click To Tweet

The Dark Mirror

But there’s a more interesting way in which psychoanalysis insinuated itself in the logic of Hollywood films in the 1940s. Audiences familiar with the basic concepts of the psych started to have new expectations about how characters would actually react in particular circumstances. Film noir dealt with some very serious issues of trust, betrayal, sexual control, murder, which on the one hand created very specific expectations from the audience and on the others couldn’t openly be addressed under the Hays Code.
Psychoanalysis provided a common language on which filmmakers and audiences could understand each other on the base of allusions and suggestions. It allowed the creation of a new suggestive language (and form of dialogue) that became very characteristic of film noir.



Cat People (1942) by Jacques Tourneu 
Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a New York City–based fashion designer who hails from Serbia, begins a romance with marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). After the couple gets married, Oliver becomes concerned about Irena’s notion that she is cursed and may transform into a large cat in the heat of passion. Confiding in his beautiful assistant, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), about his marital issues, Oliver unwittingly triggers Irena’s curse, with tragic results. (Google synopsis)

The Dark Mirror (1946) by Robert Siodmak
After a doctor is murdered, Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) questions the man’s girlfriend, Terry Collins (Olivia de Havilland). Sensing that she’s keeping a secret, Stevenson confronts Terry in her home, where he meets her identical twin sister, Ruth (also de Havilland). Both women appear exactly alike, sometimes even posing as each other. However, when twin expert Dr. Elliott (Lew Ayres) analyzes the sisters, he finds that one twin is normal, while the other is psychotic — but which one? (Google synopsis)

Whirlpool (1949) by Otto Preminger
Plagued by an overwhelming urge to shoplift, Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney) is helped out of a tight spot by David Korvo (Jose Ferrer). Unfortunately for Ann, Korvo is a conniving hypnotist who draws her into a web of deception and murder through his mind-altering abilities and frames her for his misdeeds. While Ann’s psychiatrist husband, Bill (Richard Conte), believes that his wife didn’t commit the crimes, Korvo’s devious scheme makes proving her innocence quite difficult. (Google synopsis)



Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC

Americana  – Psychology in American Film Noir and Hitchcock’s Gothic Thrillers


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1940s Film Noir - PSYCHOANALYSIS (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - Psychoanalysis provide a common language on which filmmaker and audiences could understand each other on the base of allusions and suggestions.

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About the Author

I was born, raised and I still live near Verona (Italy), though I worked for a time in Dublin. I started writing fantasy stories as a kid. Today I’m a bookseller who reads fantasy, history, mythology, anthropology and lots of speculative fiction. Somehow, all of this has found its way into my own dieselpunk stories.

22 Comments on "Psychoanalysis (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)"

  1. Psychoanalysis was very big after the war and Freud, Jung and Dr. Spock were so big at that time with dreams, ink blots, and hidden egos all the rage. It makes sense this would appear so much in cinema especially since people in film noir were really screwed up
    Birgit recently posted…A To Z Challenge: Letter OMy Profile

  2. Hi Jazz – this is fascinating to read and ‘to see’ some films I’ve never actually seen – I’ll be back to read your reviews and thoughts … I don’t like watching these sorts of movies, but as I get older I don’t take the story line on too much, but read more into the film making and the aspects you’ve been making us aware of … cheers – great posts – Hilary
    Hilary Melton-Butcher recently posted…Peace and Love Blog Hop: Write – Edit – Publish …My Profile

    • It’s Always fascinating to see ‘behind the scene’ fo a creative works, especially whene there are so many social and historical implications 🙂

  3. you are writing about some wonderful films, which i have not seen.
    Twinkling Tina Cooks
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  4. Ooo! Cat People sounds right up my alley. Where does one find these old gems?

    • I’d expect the to be available on Netfix?

      I watched Cat People when I was a kid. I remember watching both this 1940s version and the 1980s version, and like the 1940s version a lot more 😉

  5. It is fascinating how psychoanalysis is woven into films of the time. Hitchock used it brilliantly in Spellbound, ‘though I’m not completely sure one would classify that one as noir.

  6. I first learned about Freud in noir films. It was eye opening years later in college to read his actual work compared to how it was portrayed on screen.

  7. It’s interesting to see a psychiatrist solving the mystery in films. I like the story line of The Dark Mirror! Seems intriguing and fascinating!
    Shilpa Garg recently posted…Profane Acts #AtoZChallenge @AprilA2ZMy Profile

  8. Solving mysteries (and possibly getting it totally wrong) with psychology sounds like my kind of movie! 🙂
    Sara C. Snider recently posted…A to Z Herbarium: PoppyMy Profile

  9. Ah, so this is where the terrible portrayal of psychology and therapy started in film. 🙂

    My wife is a therapist, and her pet peeve is how awful counselling, psychiatry and psychology are portrayed in movies. Despite the fact that plenty of people are familiar with therapy (especially screen writers!), films tend to stick to the common “perception” of what it should look like, instead of what it actually is.

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  10. I know psychoanalysis got really popular in the 1920s, but hadn’t really thought of it as playing a big factor in film noir. Now that I think about it, it does make sense.
    Carrie-Anne recently posted…Pasarét and Ponte VecchioMy Profile

  11. Having had a mega catch up with life and the Challenge, I’ve been having a binge read of your posts, which has been most enjoyable.

    You’ve alluded to this subject in earlier posts, so I’ve been waiting for this one with baited breath. It seems to me that the popularity of Freud et al provided more of a useful device for getting around the censors than anything seriously inciteful in physchological terms. I can’t say that’s changed since. Much in the TV/film world still seems to depict everything from appallingly poor practice to out-and-out hokum. Lots of fun though for the mainstream viewer.

    • As CD pointed out above, psychology in films is never accurate. It is often used with lots of ‘poetic licences’ attached, as long as it helps the plot.
      But I think film noir (and some other forms of storytelling, for that matter) use psychology in a more subtile way, not as a tool in the plot, but as a means of expression. Knowing how the human brain works may help sending the message in a more subtle way, one that the viewer/reader may internalised better.
      This is the most intersting way to apply psychology to storytelling, in my opinion. A way that is not apparent at all.

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