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

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