Between the emergence of the hard boiled crime fiction in the 1920s and its adaptation by Hollywood in the 1940s, Freudian psychoanalysis became extensively popularised in America. Its basic concepts were familiar to most audiences.
This allowed Hollywood to use this form of storytelling in its film with reasonable certainty that audiences would catch the gist. This vulgarised knowledge became the base for a spectacular display of visuals. The use of dream sequences became quite commonplace in American cinema, and quite distinctively in film noir.
In many films, the psychiatric appears as a character, who often has the same role as the detective: he must discover the reasons for a criminal behaviour, which, interestingly, is often on the part of women. This configures the psychiatric as someone in the service of male rationality and patriarchal cultural authority, whereas the woman represents the devious desire to seeks a different form of reality.
It is also interesting how psychoanalysis is presented as a rationalist science. Yet, it’s the tool that exposes a complex and potentially destabilising undercurrent of excessive and disordered desire – which eludes easy rationalisation. In many ways, it is a form of uncertainty more than a means of upholding law effectively.
In Cat People, we do have a character psychiatrist, and we can see all his shortcomings. In fact, not only he is unable to solve Irena’s ‘problem’ (of which, by the way, she’s completely aware of, so she strictly doesn’t need a psychiatrist for that), but he completely misread it. As a patriarchal hero, Dr Judd is unable to see the real problem and this, of course, implies the use of means that are completely ineffective. Quite an interesting twist to the noir hero.
But there’s a more interesting way in which psychoanalysis insinuated itself in the logic of Hollywood films in the 1940s. Audiences familiar with the basic concepts of the psych started to have new expectations about how characters would actually react in particular circumstances. Film noir dealt with some very serious issues of trust, betrayal, sexual control, murder, which on the one hand created precise expectations from the audience and on the others couldn’t openly be addressed under the Hays Code.
Psychoanalysis provided a common language on which filmmakers and audiences could understand each other on the base of allusions and suggestions. It allowed the creation of a new suggestive language (and form of dialogue) that became very characteristic of film noir.
Cat People (1942) by Jacques Tourneu
Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a New York City–based fashion designer who hails from Serbia, begins a romance with marine engineer Oliver Reed (Kent Smith). After the couple gets married, Oliver becomes concerned about Irena’s notion that she is cursed and may transform into a large cat in the heat of passion. Confiding in his beautiful assistant, Alice Moore (Jane Randolph), about his marital issues, Oliver unwittingly triggers Irena’s curse, with tragic results. (Google synopsis)
The Dark Mirror (1946) by Robert Siodmak
After a doctor is murdered, Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) questions the man’s girlfriend, Terry Collins (Olivia de Havilland). Sensing that she’s keeping a secret, Stevenson confronts Terry in her home, where he meets her identical twin sister, Ruth (also de Havilland). Both women appear exactly alike, sometimes even posing as each other. However, when twin expert Dr. Elliott (Lew Ayres) analyzes the sisters, he finds that one twin is normal, while the other is psychotic — but which one? (Google synopsis)
Whirlpool (1949) by Otto Preminger
Plagued by an overwhelming urge to shoplift, Ann Sutton (Gene Tierney) is helped out of a tight spot by David Korvo (Jose Ferrer). Unfortunately for Ann, Korvo is a conniving hypnotist who draws her into a web of deception and murder through his mind-altering abilities and frames her for his misdeeds. While Ann’s psychiatrist husband, Bill (Richard Conte), believes that his wife didn’t commit the crimes, Korvo’s devious scheme makes proving her innocence quite difficult. (Google synopsis)
Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street. Routledge, 1991, London/NYC