When the popularity of films became apparent in the 1920s as throngs of viewers milled to the motion picture theatres, moralists already started calling for a set of rule. Movies always addressed what people most had at heart, and that was often change and fear of change, with all the cutting-edge feeling it brought with it. For example, in the 1920s, films were crowded with flappers doing their own, scandalous stuff.
Slowly, a set of rules took form, but it was only in the mid-1930s that this code became prevalent and filmmakers started to adhere to it. The incarnation of the code that informed decades of Hollywood films was the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as Hays Code, from Hollywood chief censor William Hays who strongly upheld it. The code gave a guideline about what was advisable to show in films, which would be ‘play it safe’ on many subjects, including sexuality, violence, graphic showing of any kind. Justice always must prevail. Family always wins over. Patriotism is always rewarded. You get the gist.
It wasn’t mandatory, but once the censorship became strict, filmmakers worried about it butchering their films and looked for ways to go around the code rather than risking to have their products indiscriminately cut by censorship.
The code was upheld in Hollywood from 1935 to 1968.
Film noir dominated the 1940s, the harshest periods of ruling of the Hays Code. It was a kind of film that addressed very adult matters and didn’t shy away from themes like violence, murders, betrayals, sexual obsession. Censorship was a real issue.
Most film noir solved this not by avoiding the theme, but by avoiding the show, rely on suggestion, innuendo and nudging of the viewer’s imagination. These were valuable means of closing the gap between the constraints bearing upon direct representation and the audience’s expectation of how the characters would actually behave.
In doing so, film noir had two powerful allies:
Popularised in the US already in the 1920s, by the 1940s it was so ingrained in people (and of course in movies viewers) that filmmakers could rely on it as part of the narration.
In the popularised account there is a strong association between Freudian psychoanalysis and hidden or illicit sexuality. In film noir this proved useful to suggest what which could not be shown. Instead of showing forbidden activities (regarding both sex and violence), film noir used seemingly natural elements in a way that was evocative of those activities by association or thought symbolism.
Double-meaning dialogue was one of the most used devices and indeed one of the most recognised characteristics of noir.
German Expressionism was based on the manipulation of reality so to elicit an emotional response. It uses natural elements, then distorts and manipulates them in a way that suggests very different realities. “Dream sequences” as well as other forms of displaced experience, became very common in film noir. They conveyed in a displaced manner the effects of extreme violence, perverse or corrupted sexuality or moments of psychic breakdown. During the 1940s, and particularly in the crime thrillers, such sequences represent a standardised means of simultaneously signifying and siphoning-off excesses.
The Haye Code could have been a disaster for film noir. It actually became a source of creativity and gave birth to some of the most recognised characteristics of noir.
The Big Sleep (1947) by Howard Hawks
Private investigator Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by General Sternwood to help resolve the gambling debts of his wild young daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). Sternwood’s older daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), provides assistance when she implies that the situation is more complex, and also involves casino owner (John Ridgely) and a recently disappeared family friend. As people linked to the Sternwoods start being murdered, Marlowe finds himself getting ever deeper into the case. (Google synopsis)
Spellbound (1945) by Alfred Hitchcock
When Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives at a Vermont mental hospital to replace the outgoing hospital director, Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), a psychoanalyst, discovers Edwardes is actually an impostor. The man confesses that the real Dr. Edwardes is dead and fears he may have killed him, but cannot recall anything. Dr. Peterson, however is convinced his impostor is innocent of the man’s murder, and joins him on a quest to unravel his amnesia through psychoanalysis.(Google synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC