Psychoanalysis and Film Noir

Psychoanalysis and film noir

It is no accident that cinema and psychoanalysis were practically born at the same time, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Up to a certain extent, there has always been an interconnection between the two disciplines. The focus on the mental structure of human beings, their social behaviour and, most importantly, the representation of reality and that which escapes from it, are the most prominent evidences of the proximity between cinema and Freud’s theories*. Furthermore, the very movie theatre atmosphere is in many ways a dream-like analogy. The dreaming experience is reenacted with all these perfect gimmicks such as darkness, abstraction or the constant exposure to a succession of images. So, let’s sit on the couch, turn off the lights and switch on our minds. And remember, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

The rallying point

Film noir was eminently a social genre and therefore one of the first and most significant recipients of theories of psychoanalysis. Moreover, its expressionist appearance is also a direct allusion to a certain mental state and a singular perception of reality. Thus, the way was paved for the assimilation and exploitation of all these new concepts including the unconscious, the ego or the interpretation of dreams. The rapidity of the introduction and spread of Freudian ideas was due to the massive migration of many intellectuals to the United States, caused by Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. Their research and progress was taking place on American soil and so was their influence. Society and then cinema –its inexhaustible source of expression–, immediately absorbed all their postulates.

Portrait of Sigmund Freud.
Portrait of Sigmund Freud.

The term ‘film noir’ was coined in France in the summer of 1946. That year five American films were released with striking similarity –regarding their topics and their tone– with a series of novels called Série noire, published by Éditions Gallimard*. Those films were: The Maltese Falcon (1941), by John Huston, Double Indemnity (1944), by Billy Wilder, Laura (1944), by Otto Preminger, Murder, My Sweet (1944), by Edward Dmytryk and The Woman in the Window (1944), by Fritz Lang. Nino Frank and Jean-Pierrer Chartier were the first French film critics to use this term and to inaugurate an ongoing debate about the films that should or should not be included in this genre. The complexity looms equally and inescapably over psychoanalysis and film noir for evermore.

The reductionist approach of just acknowledging good or evil situations and characters, was Hollywood’s common depiction of reality back in those days. When it came to crime, its portrayal was oversimplified. America’s high moral standards would categorically despise any criminal act, without further contemplation. Each case was solely resolved by the police, until therapeutic treatments were also considered as potential crime solutions. Thus, human psyche exploration had groundbreaking effects both on society and cinema. As far as film noir is concerned, it also meant the improvement of its narrative and its visual possibilities

The epitomes

Psychoanalytical theories were translated into the themes approached by film noir, but it also influenced crime depiction and character formalisation. The aesthetics became surrealistic and contemplative. The Dark Past (1948, Rudolph Maté) is one of the sharpest results of this association in terms of subject evolution. Its plot revolves around the conflict of a violent gangster who is finally relieved from a childhood trauma that appears to be the cause of his disturbed behaviour and his criminal propensity. Abuse and lack of affection are targeted as fundamental motives of any delinquent tendency, specially for youngsters. William Holden as the nervous outlaw and Lee J. Cobb as the persistent psychiatrist, they both put on a display of paradigmatic performances. This film was his second collaboration after Holden’s debut in Golden Boy (1939, Rouben Mamoulian).

Nina Foch and William Holden in The Dark Past.
Nina Foch and William Holden in The Dark Past.

The Dark Past is still a highly unknown movie but it represents the type of lucid and slightly educational melodramas that would make use of psychological terminology to help audiences understand the labyrinthine tormented mind of a criminal. Such an approach –before the rise of Freudian assertions– would have been unthinkable. The roles of psychiatrists or psychoanalysts in solving crime plots became essential in many past and contemporary films and it certainly shaped the archetypes that these characters represent. This film also serves as an attempt to provide a logical explanation for violence and criminality, which were America’s primary concern at the time. However, The Dark Past wasn’t the sole illustration of this evolution. Many directors –particularly those who emigrated from Europe– such as Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock, seized the dramatic and cinematographic opportunities of Freud’s psychoanalytical theories.

Olivia de Havilland and Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror.
Olivia de Havilland and Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror.

The Dark Mirror (1946, Robert Siodmak), though inundated with unexpected turns, adopts a similar approach to the criminal subject. The script was crafted by Nunally Johnson*. In this psychological thriller, two identical twin sisters –both wonderfully played by Olivia De Havilland– are prompt to be examined by a psychoanalyst, Lew Ayres, who has to determine which one committed murder, after being identified by a witness. In addition to its expressionist ambiance, this films is also a remarkable showcase of psychoanalytical techniques. Ranging from Rorschach test to word association or even to polygraphs, The Dark Mirror practically covers the entire spectrum of an analyst’s paraphernalia. Unmistakably, all these procedures were put on display for a public extremely eager to know all the details about this whole new approach to human mind.

Rorschach test in The Dark Mirror.
Rorschach test in The Dark Mirror.

In the mind of the master

Not to discuss the influence of psychoanalysis on Hitchcock’s career, would be like making a cake without the cherry on top. He was perhaps the one who capitalized the rise of Freud’s precepts, in terms of their narrative and visual potential. Overall, his entire filmography encompasses his assimilation of psychoanalytical theories, but as far as this piece is concerned, we will focus on two particular movies: Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Spellbound (1945). In my opinion, both films strongly manifest Freud’s influence.

In Shadow of a Doubt, the key of suspense lies in the character of Charles Oakley, who is mischievously played by Joseph Cotten. His personality and his criminal impulse are unmistakably defined with distinct psychological information, in a whole new approach to villainy. Using psychoanalytical terminology, the fundamental explanation given to Uncle Charlie’s schizoid* personality disorder, is that an unfortunate childhood accident fractured his skull, causing his character’s evil alteration. In his mind, society and human kind translate into abomination and corruption. In the search for the world he had known as a child, his past memories are idealized and, therefore, bear no resemblance to a reality that is both cruel and miserable. Charles also displays a misogynistic point of view on his appreciation of widows, whom he perceives as frivolous women subjecting men to their whim. To the audience all this proves, once again, his pathological condition and homicidal behaviour.

Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt.
Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt.

However, duality and contrast are the core concepts in Shadow of a Doubt. The constant recognition in each other carried on by Charles and his niece –played by Teresa Wright–, and duplicity of his conduct; are the main manifestations of these two notions. Acting seductively as a model of conduct in order to fit into society and lure his victims, is shown in contrast to his vileness and lack of empathy towards his crimes. This is the perfect detailed portrait of one of the most fascinating villains in Alfred Hitchcock's movies. In terms of that duality, he's both alluring and terrifying.

Spellbound also constitutes a fine example of film noir's main character's personalities. defined in psychoanalytical terms, so as to find the cause of their promptness to crime. Full of freudian associations –emphasized by his collaboration with the great surrealist painter Salvador Dalí–, this film also proposes that the origin of Dr. Ballantyne's conflict –played by Gregory Peck– emerges from a childhood trauma. Repressed memories that are only revealed in dreams and their interpretation are strong noticeable signs of the magnitude of the imprint of Freud's work in Alfred Hitchcock's filmography. Hypnosis and word association turn out to be fundamental in the recovery of those childhood experiences.

Dream sequence in Spellbound based on the work of Salvador Dalí.
Dream sequence in Spellbound based on the work of Salvador Dalí.

These are a few of the most prominent examples of Freud's theories in such a fascinating genre as film noir. It therefore doesn't seem that odd to establish the consistency between this film genre and psychoanalysis, for there's no darker place than human mind. Sweet dreams, my dearest readers.


*Sigmund Freud
(1856 - 1939) Austrian neurologist, founding father of psychoanalysis. A clinical method for treating psychopathology through dialogue between a patient and a psychoanalyst, using therapeutic techniques such as the use of free association and discovered transference. His analysis of dreams as wish-fulfillments provided him with models for the clinical analysis of symptom formation and the mechanisms of repression. More information in

*Éditions Gallimard
Independent French publishing house founded in 1919 by Gaston Gallimard. Famous for its collections, developed after WWII, just like the Série noire run by Marcel DuhamelCroix du sud by Roger Caillois or Espoir by Albert Camus

*Nunnally Johnson
(1897-1977) American filmaker, screenwriter and producer. He began his career as a scriptwriter in 1935 working for 20th Century Fox and gained major notoriety with the adaptations of The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford) or The Keys of the Kingdom (1944, John M. Stahl). He also adapted two film noirs  such as The Woman in the Window (1944, Fritz Lang) and The Dark Mirror. He only made four movies as a director, including The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) and The Three Faces of Eve (1957).

*Schizoid personality disorder
Personality disorder characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency towards a solitary lifestyle, secretiveness, emotional coldness, and apathy. Affected individuals may simultaneously demonstrate a rich, elaborate and exclusively internal fantasy world.

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