true noir

© William Ahearn 2007

Long before French critics detected a serious change in the films coming out of Hollywood in the 1940s, audiences and critics in the US also noted the dark themes and unraveling of the strict moral code that previous films had contained. The general line on what affected Hollywood in those days chalked it up to the world war then still raging in Europe and Asia. Not everybody bought into that conclusion. In August 1945, reporter Lloyd Shearer’s “Crime Certainly Pays on Screen” was published in The New York Times Magazine.

Shearer’s article begins with the line: “Of late there has been a trend in Hollywood toward the wholesale production of lusty, hard-boiled, gut-and-gore crime stories, all fashioned on a theme with a combination of plausibly motivated murder and studded with high-powered Freudian implication.”

Shearer cites several movies displaying this trend and they are the very same films that the French critics will respond to a year later: “Laura,” “Murder My Sweet,” and “Double Indemnity,” among others.

James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler were interviewed for the article and their views reveal a different spin on how these films came to be.

“The reason Hollywood is making so many of these so-called hard-boiled crime pictures,” Cain told Shearer, “is simply that the producers are belatedly realizing that these stories make good movies. It’s got nothing to do with the war or how it’s affected the public or any of that bunk. If Billy Wilder, for example, had made Double Indemnity [into a movie] back in 1935 the picture would have done just as well as it has now.”

Raymond Chandler’s take can be reduced to the quote: “My own opinion is that the studios have gone in for these pictures because the Hays office has become more liberal.”

While the Hays office denied it had become “more liberal” to Shearer, the facts of James M. Cain’s career contradicts that denial.

The Hays Code (also known as “The Production Code”) can be found here.

James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice was published in 1934. Not only did readers love the book, it was also critically acclaimed. A Hollywood movie seemed the next logical step but the Hays office nixed production on the basis of its rule against portraying the method or technique of a crime. In 1935 Cain published Double Indemnity believing – as with Postman – it would never see the darkness of a matinee.

(There was a 1939 French adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice titled “Le Dernier Tourant,” that is integral to this story. In 1943, Luchino Visconti, in his directorial debut, filmed “Ossessione,” based on The Postman Always Rings Twice, but Visconti didn’t secure the rights and the film wasn’t shown in the US until 1975 in a limited art house release. It’s now available on DVD.)

There are many apocryphal stories of how Billy Wilder and Double Indemnity connected and while I wish I had the space to recount even some of them, the point is that they did connect and the film was made without a peep from the Hays office and released in 1944. Written by Wilder and Chandler and starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edwin G. Robinson, the film was a major success and nominated for seven Academy Awards.

There is a September 7, 1944, New York Times movie review of “Double Indemnity” that contains an interesting observation. “For Billy Wilder,” wrote critic Bosley Crowther, “has filmed the Cain story of the brassy couple who attempt a ‘perfect crime,’ in order to collect some insurance, with a realism reminiscent of the bite of past French films.”

(Those “past French films” will come up again in the conversation when the narrative travels to Paris circa 1946.)

With all due respect to James M. Cain, the plots of Postman and Double Indemnity bear a striking similarity. What really gets to the bone of it is that both contain methods for murder. What changed at the Hays office would take at least ten pages to explain and the underlying cause was that the Hays office was costing Hollywood a lot of money in a time when international markets were closed to them. The rules of the Hays office were voluntary – it wasn’t a state or federal entity – and it was ultimately up to the studios to control their product. While crime films have always been a staple of Hollywood, the work of Cain focused not on gangsters and bootleggers but on common people driven to murder by sex and greed. Once a major success such as “Double Indemnity” flicked across the screen and wowed the crowd, it wasn’t possible to get the blood back in the vein.

These “common man” crime films have since been interpreted based on Freudism, existentialism, Marxism and numerous other isms but – as the old joke goes – Hollywood only believes in one ism and that’s plagiarism. “Double Indemnity” started a trend and that trend was reinforced by the release of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” two years later as another success. The femme fatale leading the fall guy to his doom became – at least among Hollywood scriptwriters – a template, and various knock-offs (Otto Preminger’s “Fallen Angel”) or creative variants (Joseph H. Lewis’ “Gun Crazy”) would follow.


Go to Part 2.