Psychology in American Film Noir
and Hitchcock's Gothic Thrillers

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2014, Volume 13, Issue 1


Sheri Chinen Biesen
Rowan University

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."

Hitchcock designed storyboard images of his cinematic shots to psychologically convey his artistic vision and subjective point of view. 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.

Spellbound opens with a quote from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, "The not in our stars. But in ourselves...." The words superimposed on the screen then explain: "Our story deals with psychoanalysis, the method by which modern science treats the emotional problems of the sane. The analyst seeks only to induce the patient to talk about his hidden problems, to open the locked doors of his mind. Once the complexes that have been disturbing the patient are uncovered and interpreted, the illness and confusion disappear...and the devils of unreason are driven from the human soul." This rumination on psychoanalysis then fades into a sanitarium.

American film noir of the 1940s drew on German expressionist cinema of the Weimar era such as the dark psychological horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), which depicts a disturbing portrait of an asylum and a series of murders told from an insane narrator's subjective point of view while presenting a revealing cultural product of the fears and tensions of post-World War I Weimar society. Moreover, many talented European émigré filmmakers exposed to German expressionism (including Jewish artists) fled the rise of the Nazis and migrated to America and Hollywood during World War II. They specifically contributed to the dark film noir portrayal of wartime and postwar 1940s American culture. Notable expatriate directors such as Wilder and Hitchcock had worked at Germany's UFA studio early in their career, influencing their dark vision, and Preminger worked in Austria before coming to America.

American crime pictures of the Depression era such as gangster films Little Caesar (1930), Public Enemy (1931), and Scarface (1932) also featured psychologically volatile criminal antiheroes, which troubled censors and American cultural civic organizations as they tapped into real life Prohibition era hoodlums like Al Capone and violent crime depicted as a social problem in American culture. However, by the late 1930s and 1940s these cultural products of American cinema grew more psychological, as seen in the films noir of the World War II and postwar years.

In the late 1930s psychological gangster films such as Blind Alley (1939) and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), we see medical practitioners or psychology professors functioning as psychologists employing psychoanalysis, analyzing dreams, trying to understand the criminal mastermind, revealed in subjective montages that looked and felt like an expressionistic horror film crossed with a gangster film. By 1940, émigré Peter Lorre (star of expatriate director Fritz Lang's expressionist 1931 crime film M) plays a violent insane asylum escapee who becomes a serial murderer in vanguard film noir Stranger on the Third Floor. Lorre's killer haunts the tormented antihero's nightmares shown in stylized psychological montages, implicating him for the crime with splintering bars of entrapment and ominous shadows.

As World War II broke out, tapping a changing American culture, Paramount's 1942 film noir This Gun For Hire starred Alan Ladd as Philip Raven, a psychologically volatile assassin who aids the war effort. Yet, plans to film a dream sequence to convey his disturbed criminal inner psyche were aborted due to a shortage of sound stage production space as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States's entry into the war interrupted filming. Nonetheless, the film conveys the protagonists tormented psychology. Ads quoted sexy blonde costar Veronica Lake, who plays a wartime undercover FBI agent, in taglines that clamored: "Kiss me or kill me...which will he do?"

In many noir films, the villain or self-destructive protagonist is explained as having mental, psychiatric problems as the source and root cause of his deviant behavior. Wilder's psychological 1945 Academy Award-winning Best Picture The Lost Weekend centers on an ordinary man, a writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland), who is battling alcoholism, which nearly leads him to insanity. When he goes on an alcoholic binge, he hits bottom and ends up in a psychiatric ward. The psychiatric hospital is presented as shadowy and menacing from his afflicted point of view. Although this mental health setting helps him, it is conveyed as a frightening environment that he perceives as threatening and terrifying as patients scream in the night. His male nurse is caustic in dark humor rather than a compassionate therapist or helpmate as is his maternal girlfriend, Helen St James (Jane Wyman). Ultimately, he breaks out and escapes to face his delirium tremens demons and hallucinatory episodes alone in his apartment. He imagines a nightmare in which a bat attacks and eats a rat on his wall.

Similarly, in the noir film Conflict (1945), Richard Mason (Humphrey Bogart) murders his wife, but suffers mental anguish and is tormented by all-consuming guilt shown in psychological montage, then is analyzed by psychologist friend Dr. Mark Hamilton (Sydney Greenstreet) who solves the crime and aids police in his apprehension. Film noir specifically dealt with an array of psychological, mental illness, and trauma issues faced by veterans returning to a civilian American home front culture as World War II drew to a close. In Spellbound, what is striking is that the tormented antihero is a psychologist assumed to be a criminal imposter who is actually a doctor and World War II veteran suffering from amnesia and mental health issues. However, the more serious illness is not his posttraumatic experience in combat, but rather due to his childhood trauma when he accidently contributed to his brother's death, suffers guilt, and later witnesses a murder which brings back the memory of his earlier trauma. Other noir films such as The Blue Dahlia (1946) avoided making a war-related illness criminal. The veteran with a brain injury could not commit murder due to censorship.

Many 1940s American noir films such as Spellbound and Whirlpool reveal respect for psychoanalysts reflecting their prominent status in American culture. As in Spellbound and Whirlpool, they are depicted as wise and able to help many people. In fact, even the sanitarium in Spellbound is a nice place, more like a retreat or expensive resort. Moreover, these two films show psychoanalysts to be clearly successful in society. They have nice homes, and go to respected membership clubs, professional conferences, and skiing holidays.

In addition, noir films like Spellbound and Whirlpool indicate the recurrent contrast between being an intellectual, psychological medical scientist and fulfilling some of the more sterotypical aspects of being a woman. For instance, in Spellbound (originally titled, The House of Dr. Edwardes), in an era of stronger Rosie the Riveter female roles, as wartime women worked in essential, non-traditional male jobs amid a war-related manpower shortage in America's home front as men went off to serve in the conflict, the female psychoanalyst Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) is deglamorized as more androgynous in prim glasses, with hair pulled back into a tight bun, and wearing a plain scientific lab coat. However, she is able to be both a successful career woman in the psychiatry profession and engage in romance with amnesiac John Ballantyne (Gregory Peck).

However, reflecting an evolving American culture at the end of the war in 1945, she also functions in a more stereotypical role as a redeemer aiding the troubled veteran. Many were readjusting to civilian society as women and returning veterans in America were channeled back into domestic home life. Both Petersen and her psychiatric mentor Dr. Alexander Brulov (Michael Chekhov) engage in Freudian psychoanalysis, analyzing dreams to unveil the disturbed criminal unconscious and solve the crime. Brulov is a renowned expert in the field of psychology diagnosing various symptoms including amnesia, schizophrenia, and a guilt complex. He dismisses her love for the patient, at one point saying, "You're not his momma. You're an analyst."

When Peck descends the stairs in a psychotic state with dilated pupils and a switchblade, Hitchcock leads viewers to believe he will murder Bergman as she sleeps in the middle of the night. However, Brulov immediately recognizes Peck's dangerous symptoms and sedates him with bromide in a glass of milk -- shown to simulate Peck's subjective point of view looking through the glass as he drinks it. Brulov later explains the importance of Freud and dreams to Peck (who dismisses Freud) and proceeds with Bergman to analyze his dreams and treat him. The murderer is ultimately revealed to be a rival, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), the psychiatric director of the hospital.

Spellbound features the valuable contribution of European talent fleeing the war and its issues while also filling roles during America's wartime labor shortage as seen in the film's émigré director Hitchcock and actors Bergman, Chekhov, and Carroll. In fact, Russian expatriate Chekhov, nephew of famed playwright Anton Chekhov, steals the show and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award as the accomplished psychoanalyst. Michael Chekhov had worked in German films and taught a new method of performance developing a more psychological style of acting drawing on the teachings of Konstantin Stanislavski to pupils Bergman, Peck, and Elia Kazan, among others. Moreover, demonstrating the influential role of psychology in Hollywood and American culture during this wartime 1940s period, the filmmakers' real life psychoanalysts such as producer David O. Selznick's psychiatrist Dr. May E. Romm, Dr. Karl Menninger, Transylvanian psychiatrist Dr. Fraime Sertoroclos, and psychoanalysis student Eileen Johnston were hired as technical psychiatry advisors for the film.

Hitchcock's stylized Dali-inspired surrealist dream montage sequence in Spellbound reveals how noir and gothic thriller films revolved around a psychological point of view with dreams and nightmares depicting a subjective inner psyche to convey mental illness. As seen in noir films, Spellbound and Whirlpool, there is often an oversimplified pop explanation of Freudianism and the unconscious, also seen in earlier films such as Blind Alley in which a psychologist explains the inner workings of the brain, ego, superego, and dreams to a gangster. In noir films such as Spellbound and Whirlpool, psychoanalysis is portrayed as both scientific and true, even wise, and indeed the doubter (Gregory Peck) is shown to be wrong. In fact, in fine noir form, the analysis of dreams is able to solve murders, a key part of being a film noir detective.

Publicity for Spellbound emulated earlier films noir such as This Gun For Hire. Spellbound posters featured Peck holding a switchblade as he embraces Bergman with such provocative tagline captions as the following: "The maddest love that ever possessed a woman," and "This is love! Complete... Reckless... Violent!"

By 1945, American cultural critics observed a changing American society as a result of the violence of World War II, which affected audiences in the wake of grisly atrocities seen in documentary combat newsreels. The New York Times noted, "Crime Certainly Pays on the Screen: The growing crop of homicidal films poses questions for psychologists and producers" (Shearer 77). Realization of the full extent of the shock and horror of the Holocaust, as well as postwar atomic trauma, also informed American cultural perspectives in the shift from wartime to Cold War.

The depiction of psychoanalysis and wise European émigrés in Spellbound provides a contrast to later portrayals of institutional sanitariums as in the low budget Cold War B film noir Behind Locked Doors, which was directed by Oscar "Bud" Boetticher rather than the European expatriate directors of the war years. It seems to channel the postwar American cultural tensions and xenophobic fear of foreigners in a growing paranoid Red Scare climate. After the war, the La Siesta Sanitarium is a criminal hideout depicted as an abusive, dangerous prison where people are beaten near death. This film anticipates later social realist films dealing with mental health and psychological illness such as Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963) and Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). In fact, publicity posters for Behind Locked Doors promoted the private sanitarium in the film in harrowing, terror-inducing fashion: "Murder was the only way out!"

Wartime and postwar film noir also reflected changes in American cultural gender roles during and after World War II. As mentioned earlier, strong World War II era, Rosie the Riveter style, working female gender roles shifted just a few years after the war as women were channeled from career back into the home and more domestic roles. This postwar shift was shown by Gene Tierney not playing a working career woman as in Preminger's wartime noir Laura, but rather by the postwar late 1940s she had transformed into a beautiful, repressed, kleptomaniac housewife in Preminger's Whirlpool. Ann Sutton is married to a prominent psychologist, yet victimized and framed by a scam hypnotist for a crime she did not commit: his murder of a former patient, who was a wealthy heiress from whom he stole money.

Whirlpool centers not on a psychotherapist as in Spellbound, but instead on his disturbed housewife. Although set in Los Angeles, Whirlpool showcases not the iconic urban jungle of earlier gangster or noir films (like This Gun For Hire and Double Indemnity), but instead taps into the popularity of a growing, sprawling postwar suburban baby boom lifestyle in American culture after World War II in its well-to-do Southern California residential landscape. Ann is a wealthy suburban spouse neglected by her hardworking psychologist husband Dr. Bill Sutton (Richard Conte) who is busy treating traumatized war veterans as well as attending a psychology conference in San Francisco.

Unlike earlier film noir femme fatales (e.g., Double Indemnity), Whirlpool features a naive gothic ingenue protagonist (not unlike Bergman's redeemer psychologist in Spellbound), who in this case is fooled, lured, and betrayed by a hypnotist because she seeks help for her mental illness, rather than seeking money or an affair. She is already affluent and comfortable, but uptight and tense due to her disturbed psyche, which makes her a target for David Korvo (Jose Ferrer) to cash in on her mental illness to line his own pockets. He uses hypnosis to hustle and kill patients as well as to mislead and implicate her. His ethnic villain also suggests the increasing postwar cultural xenophobia in a growing Cold War era.

As Spellbound revealed World War II era 1940s American culture's esteem for psychoanalysis and Freudian psychotherapy, Whirlpool presents psychology and the treatment of mental illness as a highly regarded profession, and even distinguishes it from hypnosis, which is presented as a lesser, dangerous, dubious mental health activity that is demonized as subject to illegitimate criminal elements and activity.

In Whirlpool, Ann Sutton's husband, psychologist Dr. Sutton, is a respected member of the community. He is wealthy, even famous. He is an invited speaker at a psychiatric conference and reads a hospital medical chart. He is able to help ordinary people from the soldier with war trauma to (eventually) his wife. Through his understanding of psychoanalysis, her problems of criminal kleptomania, rooted in her childhood resentment of her father, are explained.

The noir villain played by Ferrer, in contrast, is depicted as a quack hypnotist and criminally insane scam artist who abuses and preys on those who are psychologically vulnerable. He takes all their money, blackmails, and murders them, but notably he is not credentialed as a psychologist. Publicity ads for Whirlpool promoted hypnosis and Tierney's mental illness. In fact, the film's preview trailer begins with hypnosis and ends with "Spellbound!" Posters showed Tierney looking in a mirror with the tagline: "Tomorrow she will know what she did tonight!" and "Can a man make a woman do things she doesn't want to?"

By 1950, Gloria Swanson's aging femme fatale Hollywood star Norma Desmond in Wilder's Sunset Blvd. becomes a tragic figure suffering from mental illness and insane delusions, which obsessively lead her to gun down William Holden's tormented screenwriter antihero Joe Gillis. As he floats face down in a swimming pool, he tells his story post-mortem from a subjective, psychological point of view. In fact, on the heels of psychological film noir such as Hitchcock's Spellbound, Preminger's Whirlpool, and Wilder's Sunset Blvd. so many noir villains were depicted as psychotics that motion picture industry executives such as Twentieth Century-Fox's Darryl Zanuck actually complained about the overabundance of psychopathic criminal film antagonists in American noir cinema and sought to avoid them in the future (Behlmer 174-194).

By 1955, Robert Aldrich's Cold War noir Kiss Me Deadly captured American cultural fears of nuclear war and atomic trauma as it ends with a radioactive apocalyptic explosion. It opens as a doomed, barefoot Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) flees in the night after escaping an insane asylum, but she still meets a violent demise after being beaten by thugs. As American culture evolved after World War II, by the mid- to late 1950s, just a decade after the conflict, the dark psychological film noir crime trend ebbed in popularity on motion picture screens and with American film-going audiences. However, the uniquely psychological predilection of noir crime films spawned an enduring legacy in subsequent pictures, including the psychological narratives of Hitchcock such as the voyeuristic Rear Window (1954), mentally afflicted Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960).

While film noir declined by the late 1950s, its psychological cinematic influence lived on. Hitchcock eventually redirected his gothic noir impulses to psychological horror, suspense thrillers, and the rise of television in postwar American culture. For instance, capitalizing on the easing of cinematic screen censorship in a changing American society as film noir and the classical studio system ebbed, and drawing on a grislier variation of the late 1950s television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in Psycho (1960) a crime psychiatrist analyzes Anthony Perkins's psychotic slasher killer Norman Bates and explains to police detectives (and American film audiences) the complex Oedipal reasons for his split personality and violent, misogynistic murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), to whom he was sexually attracted, but resented. Norman channeled his overbearing mother who had dominated him. Bates's schizophrenic alter ego had killed his mother (and her lover following his father's death) and assumed her identity. Such mental illness, violent crime, and gender distress was iconic of earlier 1940s psychological film noir crime pictures and a shifting American culture in the wake of World War II and the postwar era.

Works Cited

Behind Locked Doors. Dir. Bud Boetticher. Perf. Lucille Bremer, Richard Carlson. Aro Productions Inc., 1948.

Behlmer, Rudy. Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck. New York: Grove, 1993.

Biesen, Sheri Chinen. Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005.

Hitchcock, Alfred. "Why Thrillers Thrive." Picturegoer 18 January 1936: 15.

Leff, Leonard and Jerold Simmons. The Dame in the Kimono. New York: Grove, 1990, 2001.

Rebecca. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier. Selznick International Pictures, 1940.

Spellbound. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck. Selznick International Pictures, Vanguard Films, 1945.

Shearer, Lloyd. "Crime Certainly Pays on the Screen: The growing crop of homicidal films poses questions for psychologists and producers." New York Times 8 August 1945: 77.

Stanley, Fred. "Hollywood Turns To 'Hate' Films: Government Lifts Ban on Brutality." New York Times 6 February 1944: X3.

This Gun For Hire. Dir. Frank Tuttle. Perf. Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd. Paramount Picture, 1942.

Whirlpool. Dir. Otto Preminger. Perf. Gene Tierney, Richard Conte. Twentieth-Century Fox, 1949.

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