A Life of Crime and the Thriller as Horror Film

Mark Jancovich
Mark Jancovich

In his early writing on the genre, Neale suggests genres “differ from one another… in the precise weight given to the discourses they share in common” so that while narrative disequilibrium “is inaugurated by violence” in the western, the gangster film, the detective film and the horror film, the “specificity” of the horror film is not defined by “violence as such” but by its special emphasis on “discourses carrying the human/nature opposition in its discursive regime”, an emphasis that can even end up “relativising or even displacing entirely the Law/disorder dichotomy in term of which violence operates in the western, the detective and gangster films.” (Neale 1980, 21)

In other words, Neale uses the now common opposition that associates the thriller with legal transgression and horror with metaphysical transgression. However, while such opposition may seem common today, it was not in operation in the early 1940s, as can clearly be seen in the New York Times’s review of ‘The Return of Doctor X’:

“The resuscitation of the dead is a cinematic commonplace these days; the real problem is to get the boys to do something dramatically constructive after you have got them out of the trenches. Once they return from that bourne from which the traffic grows more congested daily, they usually tend to lead a life of crime.” (B.R.C. 1939)

‘The Return of Doctor X’
‘The Return of Doctor X’

Furthermore, the association between the thriller and horror is also suggested by the presence of an “interesting new face among the posthumous fraternity” — Humphrey Bogart — who plays the film’s vampiric monster.

Nor was Humphrey Bogart the only star of gangster films to play horror monsters or vice versa. After all, Karloff had not only been chosen for the role of Frankenstein’s monster based on his appearances as gangsters in earlier films (Skal 1993), but Bela Lugosi also appeared as a gangster in ‘Black Friday’.

poster black friday film
‘Black Friday’

The latter film features Boris Karloff as “a surgeon who ‘transplants’ the brain of a killer into the timid cranium of an ageing professor of English literature” (B.R.C. 1940), an operation that causes the professor to suffer from a “Jekyll and Hyde” personality. Most of the time, the professor is meek and mild, but every so often he suffers a “homicidal seizure”, during which he transforms into the murderous gangster Boris Karloff used for the transplant.

During these “seizures” the gangster revenges himself upon his old gang, which is now led by Bela Lugosi, and while the New York Times complained that “Lugosi’s terrifying talents are wasted in the role of a mere gangster, an unsupernatural mugg,” Bela Lugosi would go on to play a number of roles that played upon the ambiguity between the figure of the monster, gangster or foreign spy.

‘The Monster and the Girl’ also continued this trend, and not only features “the old affair of the scientist and the simian with a transplanted human brain” (T.S. 1941) but makes a group of gangsters the object of vengeance by the human/simian hybrid.

‘The Monster and the Girl’
‘The Monster and the Girl’

However, the issue is not that some films merged otherwise distinct categories but rather that the horror film and the thriller were virtually indistinguishable from one another as terms and many films that are commonly identified today as classic thrillers were clearly associated with horror during the 1940s.

For example, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ is often claimed to have established many of the key features of film noir, but while many reviewers saw it as a striking film that “turns out to be the best mystery thriller of the year”, and one that established its director, the “young Mr. Huston”, as one that “gives promise of becoming one of the smartest directors in the field” (Crowtherb 1941), it was not seen as establishing a new style.

On the contrary, it was claimed that “the trick which Mr. Huston has pulled is a combination of American ruggedness with the suavity of the English crime school — a blend of mind and muscle — plus perhaps a slight touch of pathos.”

In other words, the film was seen as a brilliant blending of established trends rather than as the creation of a new and distinctive trend.

Furthermore, the film is supposed to remind one that the “sophisticated crime film” can be “devilishly delightful… when done with taste and understanding a feeling for the fine line of suspense.”

In addition to its “devilish” delights, the film is also claimed to evoke a sense of suspense that does not just provoke tension but also fear. It features a story of “monstrous but logical intrigue” that makes it “one of the most compelling nervous laughter provokers yet”.

Furthermore, at this time, references to nervous laughter were one of the key ways in which reviews indicated the success of a horror film.

A similar situation can also be found in reviews of ‘The Gun for Hire’, which was also judged to be an important addition to the tradition of tough thrillers, mainly due to its introduction of Alan Ladd, “an actor to watch”: “not since Jimmy Cagney massaged Mae Clarke’s face with a grapefruit has a grim desperado gunned his way into cinema ranks with such violence as does Mr. Ladd in this fast and exciting melodrama.” (Crowtherb 1942)

Not only did Alan Ladd appear the previous year in Universal’s old dark house horror film, ‘The Black Cat’, but his latest thriller was claimed to provide thrills that are “truly hair raising”, again suggesting a something closer to the fear and terror of the horror film than simply the breathless action or suspenseful tension that are currently associated with the thriller.

Even Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers were often discussed in this way, so that ‘Foreign Correspondent’ (1940) was claimed to feature “much flesh-creepy business” (Crowther 1940), and ‘Saboteur’ (1942) was claimed to not only provide “thrills” but also to “terrify” (Crowthera 1942).

However, the link is with horror is most pronounced with his contributions to the gothic (or paranoid) woman’s film, such as ‘Rebecca’ (1940) and ‘Suspicion’ (1941), and with another tale of female investigation, ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ (1943).

This film not only featured a young woman who turns detective but is also claimed to offer “a bumper crop of blue ribbon shivers and chills” (Crowther 1943), and proves that Alfred Hitchcock “can raise more goose pimples to the square inch of flesh than any other director of thrillers in Hollywood”.

The same was also true of other directors strongly associated with both the thriller in general and film noir in particular. For example, Fritz Lang’s ‘Man Hunt’ was claimed to have been “told with stark and terrifying ruthlessness” (Crowthera 1941), while Orson Welles’ ‘Journey Into Fear’, which is often seen as crucial to the development of film noir, was not only described as “a tale of terror” that proved “a tense invitation to heart failure by fright”, but as “well fitted to the Welles technique”. (T.S. 1943)

Similarly, while ‘Phantom Lady’, ‘Double Indemnity’, ‘Laura’ and ‘Woman in the Window’ are often seen to represent the moment of transition from the prehistory of noir to its supposed “glory days” (1946-1948), these films were clearly understood as part of the 1940s horror cycle. As a result, while they were often referred to as thrillers, the term was often used to suggest the kinds of affective response that would normally be associated with horror today.

For example, when ‘Phantom Lady’ was described as “a real thriller” (Guernseya 1944), this phrase was designed to emphasize its capacity to thrill, and it was claimed that the film featured “a hair-raising climax” and was the latest of its director’s “superior chillers” (Winstena 1944).

‘Double Indemnity’ was also “a spine-chilling film” (Creelmana 1944), that was “plainly designed to freeze the marrow in the audiences bones” (Crowtherb 1944) and was “no picture for the kiddies, nor for adults with faint hearts or weak stomachs.” (Cameronb 1944)

However, while it was claimed that ‘Laura’ “builds up an eerie atmosphere” (Creelmanb 1944) and “packs as much wallop, and more, than the deliberate pulse quickening shocker” (Thirerb 1944), there were few other references to it as chilling, an absence that is largely due to its overt identification as a woman’s picture.

If ‘Phantom Lady’ was also seen as a woman’s picture that featured a female detective, ‘Laura’ was associated with femininity through its production values. For some, the film was “an all-around job of cinema sophistication” (Thirerb 1944), that featured a “smart story; skilful direction; superb performances; deluxe decoration”. However, others claimed that the film “is set in the kind of upper-class world one finds in magazines like ‘Cosmopolitan’ and ‘Ladies Home Journal’” (Peck 1944), and that its “slick and tricky production… eventually robs the film of real power”.

‘Laura’ is, therefore, the only key noir identified film of the period that is not described as “chilling” or “spine tingling”, but is described in terms that sound much more like contemporary accounts of the thriller: “a tautly gripping entertainment.” (Barnesd 1944)

In contrast, it was claimed that Fritz Lang’s ‘Woman in the Window’ “will give you the screaming meemies” (McManusa 1945), and was designed to “scare the audience and keep it in a constant state of horror” (Farber 1945).

Similarly, Lang’s next release, ‘Ministry of Fear’, was claimed to have “plenty of spine-tingling excitement” and was “a sure bet for anyone who wants likes his blood curdled.” (Creelmanb 1945)

It was a “tingling production” for which you will need to “keep an overcoat on when you go to see this thriller, for it dumps on you and douses you fast.” (Crowthera 1945)

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