Censorship, Film Noir, and Double Indemnity (1944)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 25, Numbers 1-2, 1995
- pp. 40-52
- Additional Information
Biesen | Censorship, Film Noir, and Double Indemnity The Film Archive Double Indemnityand the Code: From the momentthey met, itwas murder! 40 I Film & History Censorship in Film | Special Section Sheri Chinen Biesen The University of Texas at Austin Censorship, Film Noir, and Double Indemnity (1944) think the whole system of Hays censorship, with its effort to establish a list of rules on how to be decent is nonsensical. A studio can obey every one and be salaciousviolate them and be decent.1James M. Cain, 1944. Hollywood, according to present indications, will depend on so-called "red meat" stories of illicit romance and crime for a major share of its immediate non-war dramatic productions : The apparent trend toward such material, previously shunned for fear of censorship, is traced by observers to Paramount's successful treatment of the James M. Cain novel, "Double Indemnity," which was described by some producers as "an emancipation for Hollywood writing."2 Fred Stanley, "Hollywood Crime and Romance" The New York Times, November 19, 1944. Industry trade publications and archival records indicate that Double Indemnity (1944) was a pivotal film in the evolution of Production Code Administration (PCA) censorship and wartime production restrictions providing the necessary conditions for the dark style and paranoid thematics of film noir. As Fred Stanley noted in 1944, "This renewed interest in certain types of storied sordidness and ultra-sophistication" in response to Double Indemnity"has, not prompted any easing of Hays office or State censorship regulations. There have been none and none is expected. It is just that Hollywood is learning to use finesse in dealing with a variety of different plot situations which, if treated obviously, would be unsuitable."3 Vol. 25, No. 1-2, 1995 | 41 Biesen | Censorship, Film Noir, and Double Indemnity Joseph I. Breen, Hollywood's censor. There is a consensus among scholars that Double Indemnity is a classic example of film noir; that Hollywood's industrial self-censorship by the PCA eased after World War II; and that Double Indemnity functioned as one of the cinematic tugs in the unraveling of the PCA. Indeed, Double Indemnity was both influenced by the Production Code, and influenced how the Code was applied (or not applied) to later films. In a sense it opened the censorial floodgates for a darker cinema. This gradual easing of the Code to accommodate what industry censor Joseph Breen termed "low tone and sordid flavor"4 would enable an abundant proliferation of films noir to be produced in Hollywood with the Code's Seal of approval. The fact that Double Indemnity was well-received at the box office (earning $2.5 million in North American rentals)5 did not hurt either—a good bottom line provided tangible incentives for studios to jump on the bandwagon. Ironically , despite its pervasive influence and success, what is most notable about Double Indemnity's inception as a film project is that practically no one—neither studio, nor starwanted to be involved with it. "I like to set Hollywood back on its heels," director Billy Wilder remarked , "my own studio said I was crazy to attempt it.... [Even] George Raft turned the role down flat. We knew then that we'd have a good picture."6 James M. Cain's sordid story complicated efforts to find a screenwriter willing to adapt it—not even Wilder's long-time collaborator, Charles Brackett, would take on the project.7 Since Cain was unavailable (writing a treatment of Western Union for Fritz Lang at Twentieth Century-Fox)8, the only way to recruit a collaborator was to hire a first-time screenwriter from outside the industry, hard-boiled writer, Raymond Chandler. Finding a writer was only one of the many problems facing Double Indemnity. A bigger one was the opposition to the project by the PCA. Origins of Industry Self-Censorship: Joseph Breen and the PCA The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 was loosely enforced until 1934, as can be seen by the content of early 1930s films. But, when the National Catholic Legion of Decency threatened to boycott indecent Hollywood films in the spring of 1934, Will Hays, President ofthe Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), established...