The Psychology in American Film Noir and Gothic Thrillers

The Psychology in American Film Noir and Gothic Thrillers
© Photograph by Sven Werdens

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 article, 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, fascism, 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.

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.”

Hitchcock designed storyboard images of his cinematic shots to convey his artistic vision and subjective point of view psychologically. He praised thrillers over horror films and felt that viewers see films to experience thrills and seek the excitement of emotional disturbances. In creating suspense, he thus sought to shake viewers beyond ordinary, mundane existence (Hitchcock 15). Such thrilling noir cinematic escapism also reflected the cultural tensions and transformations in American society in the 1940s wartime and postwar years.

During World War II, European émigré directors such as Hitchcock, Wilder, and Preminger were influential in cultivating a distinctly dark psychological breed of American noir films. Film noir and noir style gothic thrillers employed psychology to evade screen censorship and actually enable endorsement from American film industry Production Code censors (see Biesen, Stanley, Leff and Simmons). Hollywood émigré directors like Hitchcock were aware that depictions of insanity had been censored in British films, and thus ingeniously invoked psychological narrative techniques in their American noir films tapping the interest in psychology in American culture at the time.

In fact, Hitchcock and Wilder served in psychological warfare units during World War II, working on propaganda films including documentaries depicting horrific atrocities of the Holocaust as Allies liberated Nazi concentration camps. Wilder’s family perished in the Holocaust as he shot the definitive film noir Double Indemnity during the war.

Wilder’s ‘Double Indemnity’ narrative is structured as told from a doomed antihero’s psychological point of view. He is so haunted and guilty after murdering his femme fatale lover’s husband that he cannot hear his own footsteps as he walks on a dark night and feels he is already a dead man. Fate is a lingering presence in his mind.

In these American noir crime films, Hollywood and émigré filmmakers presented an indicator of American cultural views of psychology during this 1940s period. By 1945, film noir and Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ conveyed psychology, psychologists, mental illness, and an asylum in a dark shrouded style. Hitchcock originally wanted to film ‘Spellbound’ with clinical documentary realism, but decided to incorporate eerie dream sequences based on stylized designs created by Salvador Dali, which showcased Freudian psychoanalysis with elaborate surrealistic montages of a nightmare as gigantic voyeuristic eyes watch and peer into the soul of the viewer and the psychological subject.