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Psychoanalysis (1940s Film Noir – #AtoZChallenge)

Between the emergence of the hard boiled crime fiction in the 1920s and its adaptation by Hollywood in the 1940s, Freudian psychoanalysis became extensively popularised in America. Its basic concepts were familiar to most audiences.
This allowed Hollywood to use this form of storytelling in its film with reasonable certainty that audiences would catch the gist. This vulgarised knowledge became the base for a spectacular display of visuals. The use of dream sequences 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. Yet, it’s the tool that exposes a complex and potentially destabilising undercurrent of excessive and disordered desire – 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 real problem and this, of course, implies the use of 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 Share on X
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 precise 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

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.


  • Birgit
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 04:32

    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

    • Post Author
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 09:13

      You’re absolutely right. And psychology really helped with the hard stuff that would be censored in any other way.

  • Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 10:02

    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

    • Post Author
      Posted April 20, 2017 at 13:15

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

  • Tina Basu
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 12:40

    you are writing about some wonderful films, which i have not seen.
    Twinkling Tina Cooks

    • Post Author
      Posted April 20, 2017 at 13:16

      If you hand up watching them, I hope my little blogs will help you see beyond the mere story 🙂

  • Cheryl
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 15:20

    Ooo! Cat People sounds right up my alley. Where does one find these old gems?

    • Post Author
      Posted April 20, 2017 at 13:18

      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 😉

  • Margot Kinberg
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 16:24

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 20, 2017 at 13:19

      I’ve read critics speaking of Spellbound as noir. But then, as you know, nobody is really sure what noir is 😉

  • Shawna Atteberry
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 18:00

    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.

  • Shilpa Garg
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 18:49

    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!

    • Post Author
      Posted April 20, 2017 at 13:21

      Me too. But then, stories of twins are often particularly charming.

  • Sara C. Snider
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 18:50

    Solving mysteries (and possibly getting it totally wrong) with psychology sounds like my kind of movie! 🙂

  • CD Gallant-King
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 20:37

    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.

    P – Pussy Black-face and Margaret Marshall Saunders

    • Post Author
      Posted April 20, 2017 at 13:33

      But then, if you think about it, that applies to everything in films 😉

  • Carrie-Anne
    Posted April 20, 2017 at 00:51

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 20, 2017 at 13:34

      It makes a lot of sense, especially with the Hays Code looming int he background 😉

  • Debs
    Posted April 21, 2017 at 17:09

    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.

    • Post Author
      Posted April 22, 2017 at 11:04

      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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