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Innuendo (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

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.

Censorship could have been the death of #FilmNoir it turned out to be a source of creativity Share on X

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:

Freudian psychoanalysis

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

NPR – Remembering Hollywood’s Haye Code 40 Years On
Urban Dictionary – Haye Code

1940s Film Noir - INNUENDO (AtoZ Challenge 2017) - To suggest what which could not be showed


  • Pamela
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 00:06

    I love innuendo in old films – sometimes it’s so subtle that you miss it the first time around and other times you just wish they would say what they’re really thinking. Great post as always.

    Pamela @ Highlands Days of Fun

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 17:30

      I love innuendo in storytelling. It’s the most fun game between author and readers. And in many ways, it’s what creates layers to a story.

  • Lillian Csernica
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 02:45

    The film version of The Big Sleep is a whole lot tamer than the actual novel. I can just imagine Hawks sitting down with Hammett and the screenwriters, deciding how to follow the plot without saying exactly just how sordid the younger sister’s problems had become. The Maltese Falcon is a classic, but my favorite remains The Big Sleep.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 17:33

      Films have always had more limitations than literature, in terms of censorship. It would be interesting to know why.

  • Jacqui
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 03:06

    I have never heard of this one–innuendo. It seems perfect for the time.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 17:34

      I’d say, for a certain kind of film, it was necessary ;-)

  • Shawna Atteberry
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 03:45

    One of the reasons I love film noir is all innuendo. I always love how filmmakers find their way around all those pesky morality codes.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 17:36

      Me too. And it’s just fascinating. Double meaning always opens up a lot of possibilities for interpretation.

  • Andrea Lundgren
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 04:16

    I think that scene from the Big Sleep must be the “memorable one” that the original version of the movie didn’t have. I remember Christina Wehner, my cousin, mentioning it. Now I’ll just have to see the rest of the movie. :-)

    I think in many ways, not being able to show does lead to greater creativity, as you said, and more fun for the audience as there is a level of ambiguity and much is left for our imagination. We have to figure things out from context, tone, and manner (which can be good practice for real life, where much is left unstated), whereas when characters just come out and say something, there’s nothing left for us to do.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 17:40

      I totally agree. Ambiguity is a true dialogue between the author and the reader/viewer because, as you pointed out, both have to put in something of their own.
      But then, this is what makes a work more universal, in my opinion. If you leave space for the reader/viewer, they will always bring something they care for into the game. The story will always be relevant to them.

  • Birgit
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 05:31

    The directors and writers became quite adept at getting things past the censors. The film Noir is a perfect example and one where they can really take it quite far. I’m thinking of Carment Miranda right now….she was never in a film noir but she was the gal in the tutti fruit hat with bananas and strawberries….a musical with something somewhat suggestive

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 17:46

      Noir directors and screenwriters were masters of innuendo. Besides, were else do you find a form of innuendo so subtle and elengant other than in film noir? ;-)

  • Irene
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 05:54

    Innuendo in storytelling makes me mentally salivate:)

    I taught English before social studies and I would show Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. While it’s not film noir, it does make use of innuendo and I kind of loved “torturing” the kids. Many of them were used to pretty direct storytelling, so having to figure out character motivations and deconstruct dialogue was always educational and entertaining.

    Thank you for the links on the Haye Code too. I’ll be sharing those with my current students as we study this time period.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 17:48

      You’re very welcome, Irene, I’m happy to be useful.

      Sometimes I wonder. Seems to me as if people is loosing the ability to decode innuendo. Especially Young people.
      What do you think?

  • Cheryl
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 07:35

    Interesting, but this one was harder for me to get my head around for some reason…
    Impromptu Promptlings
    A to Z Challenge Letter H

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 17:50

      Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise to having made it complicated. If you want something clarified, don’t hesitate to ask ;-)

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 08:31

    Clever filmmakers. Though I’ll admit that innuendo often flies over my head. ;) That dream sequence in Spellbound was pretty cool/creepy.

  • Anna Tan
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 09:02

    I think sometimes I prefer innuendo to the blatant stuff on screen nowadays…

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 17:52

      Me too. Far more subtle and it allows to create layers to a story.
      Just my opinion :-)

  • Sophie Duncan
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 09:02

    People will always find a way around restrictions, and they can be very creative. I think that challenge can force subtlety into things, and writing can’t be sloppy when you’re working hard to convey your meaning in spite of censorship.
    Sophie’s Thoughts & Fumbles – Dragon Diaries

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 17:54

      That’s true. Many inexpereinced writers think that the best thing for creativity is total freedom. Personally, I think it’s limits. If you have many limits, you’re forced to think outside the box. Then something interesting is bound to happen ;-)

  • Debs
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 14:29

    Oh my, hasn’t inuendo changed. Back then, we were dealing with a type of public innocence where something like that Big Sleep scene could slip under the radar and only be picked up by the cognizanti. Makes it way more fun.

    Bunny and the Bloke

    • Post Author
      Posted April 11, 2017 at 17:56

      Do you think so? I think filmmakers used that kind of dialogue because they knew that viewers would pick the actual meaning perfectly ;-)

  • CD Gallant-King
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 15:45

    “Censorship” (sorry, MPAA ratings) are still a problem in America, and oftentimes arbitrary and nonsensical. Filmmakers spend so much time jumping through hoops trying to fit their films into certain parameters, it’s a whole separate layer to the editing process. At least in the Hayes era it seemed to be consistent, and pushed moved to get creatively better.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 12, 2017 at 10:02

      That’s really weird, don’t you think? CEncorship doesn’t really make sense to me, artists should be free to express themselves… if they are indeed producing art ;-)

      I was reflecting on novels. I don’t think there is an actual censorship on novels, but there are indeed strong thrends. If you don’t enter into one of those, you are cut out of the market. Not a true cencorship, though I think the result is pretty much the same.

  • Joe Owens
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 15:46

    The way filmmakers used this skill in the day is something surely lost in today’s throw everything out in the open. They do0n;t make them like they used to rings truer here than anywhere.

    This year I am laying out the plot of a new historical fiction novel over my 26 A to Z posts. I’d love to have you stop by.

    The Steel Horse Saviors is a story about three civil war veterans who head west in 1866 with their Steam Locomotive to seek their fortune. They encounter a beautiful redhead trying desperately to save her family business that threatens to complicate their plan to escape their past.

    Joe @ the Fiction Playground visiting from the A to Z Challenge

    • Post Author
      Posted April 12, 2017 at 10:05

      I agree. Seems like today films tend to spell out everything, which leaves very little mystery to the story.

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 16:09

    The Hays Code really is interesting, in that there was this attempt to legislate morality, which you really can’t do. And, as you’ve brilliantly shown here, it didn’t change the messages that were sent – just the way they were sent. And that did strengthen the genre. Excellent post!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 12, 2017 at 10:07

      It’s a bit like Prohibition, don’t you think? That was also an attempt at legislating morality. And that didn’t even produced anything creative ;-)

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 17:17

    It’s unreal to read just how many things the Hays Code forbade, things we now take for granted being able to depict. Nowadays, the pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction, with nothing left unsaid or unshown. Sometimes a scene is more powerful when we can’t see something and it’s left to our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 12, 2017 at 10:11

      I agree. Forbiding too much doesn’t make sense, but allowing everything is damaging in many ways, in my opinion. Entertainment creators end up showing for mere shock value and that isn’t storytelling and certainly isn’t art.
      My opinion ;-)

  • Shilpa Garg
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 20:22

    Interesting to know how the film makers found ways of circumventing the Hays Code! Truly imaginative and creative!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 12, 2017 at 10:12

      I think film noir is one of the higest examples of how filmmaker turned a limit into a potenciality ;-)

  • Nick Wilford
    Posted April 11, 2017 at 23:48

    Fascinating! I’m glad to have learnt something new here. Things could have been entirely different if this code hadn’t been in force. Of course, films now are often too brash and out-there in these areas – suggestion can be much more effective.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 12, 2017 at 10:14

      That’s true, eh? So much of film noir relies on suggesting that I wonder whether this form of film would have ever been born if the Haye Code hadn’t existed.

  • Melanie Atherton Allen
    Posted April 12, 2017 at 05:36

    Hello! Yay! This is one of my favorite Film Noir topics ever– and you cover it really well! So interesting!

  • Sharon Himsl
    Posted April 15, 2017 at 06:52

    I have always liked the creativity of this period. Some of Hollywood’s best film dialogue was written, and innuendo made these films sophisticated and fun to watch.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 15, 2017 at 09:10

      I totally agree. I do think that in this period of Hollywood’s life dialogue were a lot more important than they are today.
      I like a good action, but without good dialogue, action become stale.

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