Film Noir and the Production Code: An Unlikely Alliance

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Film Noir and the Production Code: An Unlikely Alliance

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For more than four decades the Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays code, controlled the content of American films. It was established in 1930 by William Hays with the blessing of the major studios, as well as conservative religious groups, and was initially released as A Code to Govern the Making of Motion and Talking Pictures and it was essentially a self-censorship document that would prevent film from becoming indecent or immoral in order to protect the American public from potentially indecent and immoral influences. In order to get distribution and to prevent the film makers from being fined, a film had to conform to the production code. In general terms there were many reasons the studios agreed to adopt the Production Code, but the main reason was certainly financial. When organized religious groups began complaining that films were becoming indecent, the studios initially ignored those complaints. That was until those groups created the Legion of Decency and organized boycotts of the cinema, resulting in a 12% loss at the box office over just a 3-month period. Realizing that they couldn’t sustain that kind of loss, the studios agreed to follow the directions of the Production Code, really just so they could stay in business.

Some of the highlights (low-lights?) of the Production Code were the famous “Don’ts and Be Carefuls”, can be found here.

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They’re pretty expansive lists, and wading too deeply into any of those waters could get the filmmakers in trouble, and could lead to a negative impact at the box office. In the late 50’s and early 60’s some films started pushing the boundaries of the Code. That, along with the dissolution of the studio system made way for the Production Code to be replaced by the aged-based rating system that is still in use today.

So what does all of this have to do with Film noir?

I’m glad you asked.

When we talk about Film noir, we’re actually talking less about a genre and more about a style of film making. In just the same way that you wouldn’t refer to animation as a genre, there are too many different kinds of stories within Film noir to box it in to a single genre. In terms of animation, if Despicable Me and Frozen were each live-action films, would you put them in the same genre? Of course not. If you didn’t have the single box called Film noir, you wouldn’t put Sunset Boulevard and The Maltese Falcon in the same genre. Or Mildred Pierce and The Sweet Smell of Success. Or even The Asphalt Jungle or Out of the Past. The list goes on and on of films that under normal circumstances would have no connection to each other besides this label of Film noir.

However one thing that a lot of Film noir does have in common is devious people doing devious things. As a part of the “Be Carefuls” portion of the Code, criminals always had to receive their comeuppance, and characters could not get away with murder. Plus, as a part of the Don’ts, any depictions or portrayals of sex were strictly off limits. Filmmakers couldn’t even show kissing that got too passionate. Since Film noir dealt with these issues as primary catalysts in the plot and thematic elements of the stories, they had to be dealt with in creative ways.

One of the most famous scenes in Double Indemnity occurs between Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), the doomed insurance salesman and the femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) when the pair first meet each other in her home. She’s married, and in fact her husband is a customer of Walter’s, but the sexual tension between them is palpable as Neff puts the moves in Mrs. Dietrichson. “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff,” she says. ‘Forty-five miles an hour.” He replies, “How fast was I going, Office?” She answers, “I’d say around 90.” The conversation goes on for a few more lines after that and it drips with subtext. Everyone knows what they’re talking about, but they can’t really come out and say it. Had the Production Code not been in force at that time, or had this film been made any time within the past 20-30 years, the characters likely would have had a much more banal conversation about how he wants to sleep with her, but she isn’t ready to… yet. Instead we’re given rich dialogue that’s filled with passion and symbolism that ironically probably never would have been there if the filmmakers had been given the freedom to write the scene in the way that they probably would have wanted.

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Staying with Double Indemnity, there’s another great example of what you could and could not show. One of the Be Carefuls regarded brutality and graphic violence. The primary motive for Walter and Phyllis is to kill Phyllis’s husband and claim the insurance money. Walter concocts an elaborate, but doable plan to kill him which includes him hiding in the back seat of the Dietrichson’s car. Phillis is supposed to be taking her husband to the train station, but instead she pulls off onto a side road. The camera never leaves her face as we hear her husband complain that she made a wrong turn. Suddenly we hear him struggle as though he’s being choked. The music crescendos as we stay on Phyllis’s face staring straight ahead, and she has an expression of deep satisfaction, almost as though she’s getting turned on by what’s happening.

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Contrast that to another great film that would come out nearly 30 years later. There is a very famous scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone has his brother-in-law Carlo killed for helping in the murder of Michael’s brother Sonny. Carlo, thinking that he’s being taken to the airport, gets in the front seat of the car where Michael’s henchman Clemenza sits in the back. Clemenza greets Carlo before quickly putting a string around his neck and strangling him. We see Carlo fall back over the seat and his foot kicks through the windshield as he unsuccessfully struggles to stay alive. His lifeless foot finally comes to rest outside the window as the car drives away.

Both of these scenes are powerful visually, but I would argue that the scene from Double Indemnity is more visually interesting for the reason that we’re left to our imagination to fill in the blanks. We’ve been introduced to Walter Neff, and he hardly seems the murdering type, and yet we hear him killing Mr. Dietrichson rather than seeing it. This is great because Director Billy Wilder remembered that sound is half of the film, and the sound cue tells us everything that we need to know. Then there is the expression on Phillis’s face. The deep satisfaction. The apparent sexual arousal. The unbridled look of evil intent. All of that is encapsulated in the brilliant performance that Barbara Stanwyck gave in the entire film, but in this scene in particular. We are made privy to her most intimate thoughts and feelings and if we’re paying attention we come to realize that we’re visiting a very dark place. What’s more is that even though Walter is doing the killing, even he doesn’t know just how dark the hole is that he’s falling down. Even if we’re only feeling this on a subconscious level, it’s still there and it sets up the second half of the film. The fact that Wilder couldn’t show the graphic nature of Mr. Dietrichson’s murder freed him up to show something even more important, something that we need to know in the story moving forward, and that something was the darkness inside of Phyllis.

Looking at the scene where Carlo is murdered in The Godfather, we’re exposed to something completely different. At this point, the Production Code had been gone for only less than 5 years and filmmakers were still experimenting with what they could and couldn’t do on screen. The Godfather was a film that took the graphic nature of violence to a new level, whether it was the bloody horse head in Jack Woltz’s bed, or Sonny getting massacred by multiple machine guns at the toll booth, or Luca Brasi getting the knife through his hand as he’s strangled from behind, audiences that saw The Godfather in the theater were exposed to a new type of violence that hadn’t been seen in the cinema before. There’s not blood in the scene in which Carlo is killed, but it’s just as graphic and disturbing as those other scenes because we see the fatal pain that is being inflicted on the characters. We watch as he unsuccessfully struggles to hold on to his life, and we’re almost relieved when it’s over. And yet, even though there is a lot more action in this scene, it still isn’t as visually interesting as the scene from Double Indemnity precisely because we’re being shown everything. Carlo dies in the scene. That’s what we see. We already know that Michael has turned ruthless and will kill anyone for any reason. We might find it satisfying because of what happened earlier to Sonny, there is absolutely nothing going on under the surface in this scene. We’re being shown a brutal murder because the Director Francis Ford Coppola had the freedom to do so. But other than the murder, nothing else is happening in that scene.

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It’s not only the violence of the films, but the sexual content as well, that forced the filmmakers of the 40’s and 50’s to approach what they were doing in more interesting ways. Look at a film like Body Heat, which is essentially the same story as Double Indemnity, albeit with some significant tweaks. William Hurt plays a small town lawyer, and Kathleen Turner is this film’s femme fatale. Very little is left to the imagination, as we see their steamy love affair unfold in front of us with reckless abandon. Although there are some restrictions to what Director Lawrence Kasdan could show in order to keep an R-rating, he went right up to that line and created scenes that Billy Wilder could only have dreamed of. But I think back to a scene in Double Indemnity where we dissolve from Walter and Phyllis kissing to them sitting on the couch. Walter is smoking a cigarette and Phyllis is reapplying her lipstick. The clear inference is that they’ve had sex. But now, Walter is lying in shadow and Phyllis is sitting in the light, where as previously they both had been equally lit. Walter then tells Phyllis that he has a plan to kill her husband. He has moved into a shadowy place, and having sex with her has pushed him there.

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Because these films had tragic heroes and the Code mandated that wrongdoers had to get their comeuppance, many of these films had tragic and deep endings. My favorite example is from Out of the Past starring Robert Mitchum as Jeff, a man who’s trying to escape his past, but ends up entangled in it yet again. He’s a former private eye who was supposed to find and bring back Kathie (Jane Greer), the girlfriend of his gambler client, Whit (Kirk Douglas), but instead ends up hooking up with her and then killing his former partner after Whit sends him looking for them. Trying to leave all of that behind, Jeff has opened a gas station in a small town and has a deaf kid working for him. He’s fallen in love with a local girl named Ann (Virginia Huston) , who’s also the object of affection of a local cop named Jim. Late in the film, as Jeff’s world is unraveling, Jim confronts him and tells him that Ann deserves a better life than the one that Jeff can provide. Maybe she’ll never love Jim as much, but he can give her the kind of peace and stability that she deserves and that Jeff can never give her. The film ends not only with Jeff sacrificing himself, but he tells the kid to lie to Ann in order to make her believer that Jeff was planning on leaving with Kathie so that Ann will be able to emotionally let go of Jeff.

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Because Jeff had killed his partner, and the Code demanded that he receive justice, there was no way for Jeff to live happily ever after with Ann. However he gets redemption both in the external sacrifice that he makes as well as the internal sacrifice of making sure that she doesn’t miss him the way she normally would. Plus, if Out of the Past came out today, the filmmakers would at least have the option of having Jeff get away with his crime, and they might succumb to that temptation, which would produce a flatter and ultimately weaker film.

Now then, please do not get me wrong. I am not advocating for censorship. I don’t believe in restrictions of any kind on artistic expression. However, Orson Wells once said that an unlimited budget and unlimited time are the enemies of creativity. In much the same way, the ability to express yourself in an unlimited fashion can stifle creativity as well. When I look at a movie like Sausage Party, to use an extreme example, I see filmmakers without boundaries. Without boundaries, you don’t have to think, you can just do, and that really creates a boring film. There’s a reason the 40’s and 50’s are looked upon as the Golden Age of film making. The filmmakers of that era had to be thoughtful and creative about the material they put in their films, especially if being open about that material would prevent their films from reaching an audience.

The filmmakers who created the best Film noir were the best at this practice. In order for them to get this material in to their films, they had to push the limits of their talent and creativity, and that’s what made these films so compelling and so memorable. If it wasn’t for the Production Code, I seriously doubt we’d look at Film noir so fondly today.

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