Psychology in American Film Noir and Hitchcock's Gothic Thrillers

By Biesen, Sheri Chinen | Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Psychology in American Film Noir and Hitchcock's Gothic Thrillers


Biesen, Sheri Chinen, Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood


Insanity, paranoia, and psychology have long been a staple of American film noir thrillers. These motion pictures provide insight into an evolving American popular culture landscape from World War II through the postwar era and function as cultural, industrial, and aesthetic products of Hollywood's classical studio system during a fascinating period of the American film industry. By the 1940s, American cinema such as films noir and Alfred Hitchcock's gothic thrillers were renowned for their depictions of psychology and crime. These films reflected the fears and cultural tensions arising from World War II and postwar American society, as well as a growing awareness of psychology and trauma in the aftermath of the war.

The onset of World War II transformed American culture and Hollywood cinema as masters of suspense like directors Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger cultivated brooding, shadowy noir films such as Double Indemnity (1944), Laura (1944), Spellbound (1945), The Lost Weekend (1945), Whirlpool (1949), and Sunset Blvd. (1950). In this essay, I will examine the depiction and promotion of psychology, mental illness, psychologists, and psychiatrists in American film noir crime thrillers such as Hitchcock's Spellbound, Wilder's The Lost Weekend, and Preminger's Whirlpool, and I will analyze how these psychological noir film narratives related to a changing 1940s American culture in the World War II and postwar eras.

By the late 1930s and 1940s, as World War II began and talented European and Jewish émigrés fled the war, facism, and the Nazis, flocking to Hollywood, a darker psychological mood informed many American crime pictures. These émigrés brought a brooding style to American cinema. Further, psychoanalysis gained popularity in 1940s America and in the film industry itself. The cinematic depiction of psychoanalysis and psychological mental illness was especially pronounced in American film noir crime narratives. Moreover, many Hollywood filmmakers, including émigré talent, were seeing psychoanalysts when making these American noir films.

As evident in such pictures as Blind Alley (1939), Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), This Gun For Hire (1942), Double Indemnity, Laura, Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, Behind Locked Doors (1948), and Whirlpool, noir films fused subjective, psychological point of view with artistic experimentation influenced by expressionism, surrealism, and documentary realism. Blind Alley, Spellbound, The Lost Weekend, Behind Locked Doors, and Whirlpool are particularly noteworthy because they deal with psychoanalysts and protagonists battling psychological instability. These people are also engaged in criminal activity and, in some instances, sent to psychiatric wards or insane asylums. Indeed, film noir was known for its psychological point of view and elaborate montages revealing the central character's conflicted subjective inner psyche. Flawed, tormented noir protagonists grappled with volatile moods, psychological demons, and mental illness, trapped by traumatic fears, violent obsessions, constrained or imprisoned in claustrophobic environments or sanitariums.

Like the moody psychological montages in film noir, Hitchcock's noir-styled Spellbound and gothic suspense thrillers depicted psychology, voyeurism, dreams, and nightmares as psychologists clinically treated (or became) patients. Moreover, as in film noir, Hitchcock's noir female gothic cycle included psychic trauma, insanity, a tormented protagonist's quest for psychological identity, elaborate flashbacks of haunting surreal nightmare memories, and stylized, subjective point of view as seen in Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941), and Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which influenced the noir style of Spellbound and Notorious (1946). For example, Hitchcock's Oscar-winning Best Picture Rebecca opens with voiceover narration by Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine) who describes a haunting recurring nightmare: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. …

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