James M. Cain and the Boom of Sex and Violence in 1940s Film Noir

It hadn't always been that way.  Back in the very earliest days of cinema, the films themselves had been novelties, simplistic selections of short scenes, and  often quite random.  

On many occasions, the film wasn't even the main attraction, but having said that, the content of the films began to come to the attention of the more morally minded members of society.

A good example from this time might be Carmencita (1894), a 21 second film directed and produced by Edison employee William K.L. Dickson.

In the film, shot in New Jersey, a Spanish dancer named Carmencita was quite possibly the first female to appear in a US motion picture. In some states, the projection of this scandalous film was forbidden, however, because it revealed Carmencita's legs and undergarments as she twirled and danced - - making this one of the earliest cases of censorship in the moving picture industry.

Two of the great breakthrough films of 1903 were The Great Train Robbery, and the film which inspired it which was called A Daring Daylight Burglary, and which was made in Sheffield, in England.  

What was notable about these two films was that they were among the first to string several scenes together in a narrative fashion, and not only were they both huge hits, but you will see from the titles that they were also crime films.


Here is A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903) which was ambitiously shot in three days at a cost of £25. It was massively successful in Britain and abroad and between 500 and 600 copies were sold, including an American order for 100 copies.  It was also extensively pirated in the US amd was the primary influence on Edwin S Porter's classic The Great Train Robbery (1903), the film which is said to have originated the American action movie.
The first tentative moves in the US towards an organised censoring of the movies against the combined threat of sex and violence came in 1908, with the setting up of the National Board of Censorship.  Inevitably, and because it was a voluntary board and was in the pay of the industry, the National Board of Censorship ran aground.  The Board had started in New York, and its standards didn't prove worthy of the entire US, and so a self-regulating body called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (it later became the MPAA) was set up in 1922, under the direction of the Postmaster General Will H. Hays - - hence its common name, the Hays Office.

Hays' office made a list of things that were not to appear in movies, such as nudity ('in fact or in silhouette'), ridicule of the clergy, and 'sex relationships between the white and black races'. Also on the list was the fact that no sympathy was to be shown for criminals, and special care was to be used in the display of firearms and crimes in general.

The list as such proved to be too narrow to satisfy Hays, and worse, Hays also lacked the power to enforce his judgements, and so in 1930 he was finally able to establish the Production Code, which was to affect everything that came out of Hollywood for the next quarter of a century.  The Code was to be a stick which was to regularly whip and bash film noir, more than any other type of film.  

The Production Code was announced as follows in the press of the day:
A new code of conduct was adopted by the Motion Picture Producers and Distibutors Association at a meeting of the board of directors of that organisation yesterday, at their offices, 469 Fifth Avenue ... The new code is generally considered an outgrowth of severe criticism by prominent churchmen, who charge that the moral character of audiences is being under mined by the sort of action they see on the screen.

New York Times April 1930

In finishing, the New York Times summed the code up as follows:
  • Law, natural and human shall not be ridiculed, and
  • Sympathy shall not be created for the violaters of the law
Despite these efforts, movie makers didn't always stick the Production Code.  An example was witnessed in Howard Hughes' battle with many state censors in 1932, over the release of Howard Hawk's Scarface, which was a basic rendering of the Al Capone story.  

In 1934 however, a certain Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia moved the goalposts significantly towards heaven and began a wholesale boycott of cinema in toto, arguing that a huge proporation of what was shown was still about sex and violence.  

In June that year, 50,000 Catholics took the pledge at once, vowing never to go to the cinema - - and so a frightened movie industry set up a further department called The Production Code Administration Office, and from this point on producers became very careful that they submitted treatments and scripts long in advance of production.

One result of this was that James M. Cain suddenly found that his deal for his 1934 novel The Postman Always Rings Twice fell through, just when it was looking like being payday for him - - and the same happened in 1936 when his novel Double Indemnity was dropped, after initially finding itself in the middle of a five-way bidding deal. 

In both cases it was the report from the Hays Office that nixed the deal to bits, as these reports saw the deals and film treatments cancelled and canned.  Cain recorded the event as follows (quoted by Max Decharne in the book Hardboiled Hollywood):
That afternoon the Hays Office report came in, and it started 'Under no circumstances...' and ended up '...way shape or form.'  My agent asked me if I wanted to hear what was in between, and I told him I could guess.

Double Indemnity then, when it was finally filmed in 1944, was something of a breakthough picture for Hollywood, in that it showed the studios that the world was ready for tougher subjects, presented in the hard-boiled style.  In fcat, Double Indemnity possibly paved the way for the whole post-war film noir boom, and was maybe a part of a partial climb down in attitude from the Hays Office, which with the war raging over the world, was maybe obliged to take a more realistic attitude to violence.

James M. Cain was all of a sudden a filmable author, even though he received $10,000 less for the rights for Double Indemnity than he had been offered in 1936.  In the wake of the success of Double Indemnity (1944) however, adaptations of Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) were quick to follow, and all three of these turned out to be classic, seminal film noirs.

Cain was interviewed about this dark new trend in the movies in 1946, in an article for the New York Times entitled CRIME CERTAINLY PAYS ON THE SCREEN, in which he is quoted as saying the following:
The reason Hollywood is making so many of these so-called hard-boiled crime pictures is simply that the producers are now belatedly realzing that these stories make good movies.  the public is fed up with the old melodramatic type of hokum.
While melodrama continued to be as popular as ever, this quote from James M. Cain still suggests that there was a sudden boom in the 1940s of films that we now identify as film noir, and that among other factors, this might have been something to do with the production codes that had evolved in the previous decades.

This still from Double Indemnity shows all you see of the murder in the movie.  You don't see the act, and instead the camera focuses on Barbara Stanwyck's face, which glazes over with a cruel finality. 
The murder scene from DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
The body is removed from the vehicle in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)
Likewise, you don't see the body of the murder victim, other than in this split second shot as Fred MacMurray drags it from the car - - and you don't see the murderous, adulterous couple dumping the body either - - but instead you just see them staring at in horrific fascination.  

As with much in cinema, the audience probably felt they had seen the murder, but of course, thanks to the subtelties of Billy Wilder's direction, and the overall fear of the code - - they saw nothing at all.

James M. Cain at WIKIPEDIA

Image of James M. Cain by Herrick at de.wikipedia (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons and is found at this page

Image of Production Code cover leaf sourced at this page

What is Film Noir?

The list of film noirs varies substantially. The lowest estimate is that there are actually ZERO films noir. This is based on the argument that there is no such genre, and all the words film noir captures is a less coherent set of trends, with anything based on any of the following (and more): 

  • Lighting technique
  • Writing technique
  • Gender issues
  • Post-War problems
  • Psychoanalytic influence
  • Criminals and crime
  • and a generally ill-fated bunch of guys in hats, usually involved with a dangerous woman.

Wikipedia’s list of what’s noir and what is as a consequence non-noir, lists 52 titles even before 1940 . . .  and film noir isn’t really said to start until about 1943, or as is quite often said Stranger on the Third Flooor (1940).

For the 1940s the same article lists in the region of 260 film noirs — that’s from 1940 – 1949. And that is just the American noir — there is plenty from elsewhere, although noir is an American idea, driven by American trends. 

There are roughly 260 noirs listed for the 1950s as well — again minus the many ‘world’ noirs out there.

On the 1940s list I spotted Key Largo on my way down and I think this inclusion highlights a few of the difficulties.  Key Largo is a film we all know  quite well, but I do not necessarily think of Key Largo as a film noir, and never have — although I suppose applying noir criteria, in a way it obviously is.

So film noir exists where you find it. Take for example a few of these random categories:

The Espionage Thriller

Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Manhunt (1941)
The Fallen Sparrow (1943)
Journey Into Fear (1943)
The Mask of Dimitrios (1944)
The Ministry of Fear (1944)
Cloak and Dagger (1946)

The Period Crime Thriller

The Lodger (1944)
Hangover Square (1944)
Bedlam (1946)

The Boxing Thriller

The Personality Kid (1934)
Kid Galahad (1937)
Kid Nightingale (1939)
Knockout (1941)
Body and Soul (1947)
Champion (1949)
The Set-up (1949)

The Rogue Cop

The Bribe (1949)
Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)
The Man Who Cheated Himself (1950)
Detective Story (1951)
Rogue Cop (1954)
Shield for Murder (1954)
Touch of Evil (1958)

Ella Raines in Phantom Lady (1944) - 'Wifelet Seeker Hero'

The Wifelet Seeker Hero

The Stranger on the Third Floor
Phantom Lady
Black Angel

The Paranoid Woman

Rebecca (1940)
Suspicion (1941)
Gaslight (1944)
Experiment Perilous (1944)
Dark Waters (1944)
The Secret Beyond the Door (1947)
Sleep My Love (1948)
Caught (1948)

The Female Lawbreaker

The Letter (1940)
Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Temptation (1946)
Ivy (1947)
The Velvet Touch (1948)
Too Late for Tears (1949)
Beyond the Forest (1949)
I feel that this list could be added to indefinitely. For all those 500 plus films classed as noir from the 1940s and 1950s, further classification is possible — quite fun actually.

Jean-Luc Godard said all you needed for a film was a girl and a gun, and remember he was brought up on the stuff.  I'd add an ill-fated guy in a hat and a guarantee from the off that the woman is bad, bad news.

This Gun For Hire (1942) - Stills

In looking for a fine example of what one may call The Cinema of the Disenchanted, another name perhaps for the film noir of the 1940s, one will be immensely entertained to discover This Gun For Hire (1942).

Within you'll not only find Veronica Lake singing, spying, loving and doing neat magic tricks, but a fascinating plot (by Graham Greene) which deals spies, lies and big business, all combined in a neat piece of wartime propaganda which thrills more than it lectures.

Although Alan Ladd plays a guy who's set out at the top of the film to be a thoroughly disturbing psychopath, thinsg don't quite pan out that way.  And of course what folks love the best about this emotionless killer, is his fondness for cats.

To top this off, here is a great Tumblr thread which holds a good many stills, bits and pieces and other fine images related to this winner of a film noir.

This Gun For Hire (1942) on Tumblr

Full article on This Gun For Hire (1942) on Classic Film Noir


Detour (1945)

Detour (1945) is high noir, low budget and endlessly fascinating.  Like many of Edgar G. Ulmer’s films Detour was shot in 6 days;  ‘Just visualise it,’ said Ulmer, ‘eighty set-ups a day.’  

It’s hard to visualise, but it sure is heroic.  Normally, this approach would produce a clunky and directionless mess, but occasionally as here, it can still produce a gem.  It's what they used to call a 'poverty row quicky', for the high-speed and low-expense of its production, and there is something about this format that really lets the subversive implications of noir rise to the surface.

Detour is a fatalistic road-movie featuring the broke, the dissatisfied and a spade of bad luck.  At heart it’s a tense anti-buddy relationship, between actors Tom Neal and Ann Savage.  It turns out that Detour is also many people's favourite noir, given how bleak and cheap and evil it is. It's twisted in a way that is hard to achieve these days, and what buffs call a 'low-rent masterpiece.'  

Tom Neal in DETOUR (1945)

Above all Detour concerns losers - one loser in general - and that loser's self deluded narrative, which painfully falls apart over the course. Yep, the story is replete with outrageous coincidence, but that is story-telling for you, and these things happen.  The fatal final words sum it up: 

'Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.'

In Detour, everyone takes a battering, even Tom Neal's piano when at one point he offers up a crazed rendering of a Brahms waltz. There is nothing he or anybody can do, and in fact the lead character's struggle against fate is what makes him so hopeless, and what drives the movie to its final destination, the electric chair.  You know this coming, you can hear it in that incessant and confessional voiceover, you can see it in the pessimism and doom that he and Ann Savage share, in the claustrophobic surroundings of their car and in their hotel room.  

The car, incidentally, because of the cheap back projection, looks just as like a prison cell as the hotel room, and Detour actually benefits from being cheap.  It suits these bums and their shoddy ways, and reinforces the metaphorical aspect of their journey, their own endless detouring as they try and put off the inevitable.  In this respect, Detour is nothing less than an image from hell itself.
Tom Neal in DETOUR - his real life was also fairly noirish
Tom Neal himself had a kind of noir career, injuring actor Franchot Tone so 

badly in a fight that he was ostracised in Hollywood, turning instead to landscape gardening, until he was sentenced to jail for shooting his wife in the head, and killing her.  Tom Neal served 6 years for this crime and died within a year of his release.  Neal’s son, Tom Neal Jnr made one film, reprising his dad’s role, in a 1992 remake of Detour, which is a must-see for the avid noir collector. Franchot Tone had two sons with Jean Wallace (star of The Big Combo) and she had one with Cornel Wilde.  Everything they say about incestuous Hollywood is therefore proved true, just by these guys alone. Read about Tom Neal on Wikipedia, if you dare.


In his time, Edward G. Ulmer directed about every type of cheap movie there is — including the noirs Bluebeard (1944), Strange Illusions (1945), Ruthless (1948) and Murder is My Beat (1955).  But he also made sci-fi (The Amazing Transparent Man, 1960), horror, low-budget epic and nudist films. 

What are the noir elements at work and play in Detour?  First there is the (anti)hero, who is on edge and in something of as nervous panic in every scene.  Tom Neal excels at this, and is terrified of his shadow and always seconds away from a cold, unshaven sweat in every scene, even when he doesn’t need to be.  Next, the dame.  She is attractive, cold, and more ruthless than Lady Macbeth.  

Tom Neal - super nervous indecision in DETOUR (1945)

Combined with the hero’s indecision and fateful lack of confidence, a classic marriage-from-hell evolves.  Tight on rum she strumpets herself around the apartment.  He paces up and down at the window, trousers unfeasibly high above his waistline. Cinematic joy, all round.

Then there are the supporting characters; cops who always turn up at the most inopportune moment, but suspect nothing.  And members of the public, who in classic film noir mode, suspect everything, and seem to be about to blow the whole thing wide open.

That’s key to true film noir.  Central to every film noir is a crime, whether it be one of passion, or even an almost accidental or subconsciously committed crime, as in this case.  Your weakness and indecision are going to plunge you into an anti-social hell from which there is no escape, and it’s this separation from the world at large that gives the general public their lethal quality in noir.  Think of the witness, the ‘Medford man’ in Double Indemnity, a fool in one respect, but the world-shatteringly loose pin in the wheel in another.

One of noir’s other greatest capabilities is the fatally unlucky coincidence, and this is perfectly captured in Detour, and twice.  I say perfectly, because coincidence is a difficult thing to pull off, given that while audiences in general don’t mind a crazy coincidence if it keeps the plot rolling, you can never be sure how far you can stretch these things.

On The Road with the Process Screen in DETOUR (1945)

As an early road movie, Detour doesn’t depict the road as a place of freedom, but rather as a trap.  There are none of the landscape shots normal to road movies in it, probably due to its budget, and the cast is too small for any incidental characters of note.  The detours are endless and the journey is interminable, and the low production values create a meaning all of their own.  Tom Neal’s voiceover adds a weird unreliable aspect but also covers up gaping plot holes, and the constant use of the process screen and the film loop of the passing desert creates an even deeper feeling of being trapped.  Ulmer was in fact a low-budget master.  Often, instead of using a clapperboard he would shoot quickly orchestrated master shots and reaction shots of actors, putting his hand over quickly over the lens to save time and precious film stock.

I’ve been calling Detour film noir, but in terms of classification, it has a few other things going for it.  Detour may even be known as one of the first classics of post-war cinema, being released in November 1945.  It is however Ann Savage who raises Detour from the genres of noir and thriller into that of horror.  Possibly the reason why the film still holds its head up high today, 70 years later, standing proud alongside every cinematic achievement since 1945, is her performance, which is ugly-wicked and horrific. 

Ann Savage in DETOUR (1945)

There is one striking moment in Detour when the film swings from thriller/road-movie mode, into the inextricable mess that leads to everybody’s downfall, and it’s when Ann Savage turns to accuse Tom Neal in the car.  It’s because of Ann Savage that Detour was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".  The look she gives Tom Neal is as memorable and fatal as anything else on screen, as she announces herself as one of the great screen psychos.

The Motion Picture Production Code, a set of moral censorship guidelines that governed the production of most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968, meant that the ending of the film isn’t quite what you may like or expect.  But one of the code’s key tenets was that murderers were not to be seen to get away with their crimes.  There was actually a heap of hokey BS in the code but as with everything else in Detour, the end is over quickly, and so you can’t be too bothered that it isn’t the conclusion you’d like.

There are countless ways to see Detour for free on the internet, including at archive.org/details/detour where you can download it straight to your computer, and because it's public domain it's also all over YouTube, and other video sites.  Another bonus is that Detour is only an hour and seven minutes long which is such a relief, given that the trend today is for producing three hour ass-crunchers which are often not worth the effort.