Censoring and Selling Film Noir

Sheri Chinen Biesen


Film noir is known for its duplicity. Industry censors considered 1940s noir cinema provocative, salacious and ‘sordid.’ Hollywood studios walked a fine line between appearing to comply with Hays office Production Code censorship while simultaneously pushing the envelope of its moral constraints, then hyping and sensationalizing censorable sex, violence and hard-hitting themes to sell noir films to the public. In fact, studios capitalized on the racy explicit nature of noir pictures in publicity contradicting assurances of censorial compliance. For instance, censor Joseph Breen was “shocked” when MGM purchased James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. It was banned for a decade. Yet, ten years later as filmmakers adapted hardboiled fiction, Breen assured religious groups it would “not be offensive.” Yet, it was promoted as “torrid,” “too hot to handle” with Lana Turner in a bathing suit finding “Love at Laguna Beach” with hunky John Garfield who clamored, “You must be a she-devil,” suggesting far more sex, skin and “savage boldness” than is shown in the film. Film noir responded to Production Code censorship and other regulatory factors, including Office of War Information Bureau of Motion Pictures restrictions on Hollywood screen depictions of the domestic American home front (or overseas combat front), and Office of Censorship strictures such as a wartime ban on screen gangsters as ‘un-American’ for propaganda purposes in World War II-era noir films centering on criminals. These multiple censorship entities often collided. This regulatory climate catalyzed the development of film noir, a dark cycle of shadowy 1940s-50s crime films that boomed by World War II and evolved over the postwar era. I will investigate extensive primary archival research—including scripts, memos from industry censors, writers, directors, producers, and publicity records—to compare how film noir was censored and sold.


Censorship; Film Noir; Hollywood Cinema; Motion Picture Production Code; Film

Full Text:



Althusser, Louis, “Idéologie et appareils idéologiques d’État (Notes pour une recherche)”, La Pensée, 151, 1970: 3-38, Eng. tr. Ben Brewster, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)”, Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays, London, New Left Book, 1971: 121–176.

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

Borde, Raymonde – Chaumeton, Etienne Panorama Du Film Noir Americain (1941-1953), Paris, Editions du Minuit, 1955, Eng. tr. Paul Hammond, A Panorama of American Film Noir,San Francisco, City Lights, 2002.

Breen, Joseph, AMPAS Library, 2 February 1944, 1.

Brickell, Herschel, “This is strong men’s meat”, 19 February 1934, Cain: The Biography of James M. Cain, Roy Hoopes, New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1982, 596.

Chartier, Jean Pierre, “Les Americains Aussi Font des Films Noirs”, Revue Du Cinema, 1 (1946): 66-70.

Frank, Nino, “Un Nouveau Genre ‘Policier’: L’Adventure Criminelle”, L’ Ecran Francais 61 (1946): 8-9, 14.

Hanna, David, “Hays Censors Rile Jim Cain”, Daily News, 14 February 1944: 11-13.

Koppes, Clayton – Black, Gregory, Hollywood Goes to War, New York, The Free Press, 1987.

Krutnik, Frank, In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity, New York, Routledge, 1991.

Leff, Leonard – Simmons, Jerold, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code, New York, Grove, 1990.

“Love at Laguna Beach,” Life, 20 August 1945: 123.

Polan, Dana, The Naked City, Commentary for Criterion DVD, 2007.

Schrader, Paul, “Notes on Film Noir,” Film Comment 8: 1 (1972): 8-9.

Silver, Alain, “Kiss Me Deadly: Evidence of a Style”, Film Noir Reader, Eds. Alain Silver – James Ursini, New York, Limelight, 1996: 209-35.

Stanley, Fred, “Hollywood Crime and Romance,” New York Times, 19 November 1944, X1.


Double Indemnity, Dir. Billy Wilder, U.S.A., 1944.

The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dir. Tay Garnett, U.S.A., 1946.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.13125/2039-6597/1386

NBN: http://nbn.depositolegale.it/urn%3Anbn%3Ait%3Aunica-16967

Article Metrics

Metrics Loading ...

Metrics powered by PLOS ALM

ISSN 2421-5821 

Between is published by the University of Cagliari - Maintenance for this OJS installation is provided by UniCA Open Journals, hosted by Sistema Bibliotecario di Ateneo.

Between Journal was founded in 2011 with the financial contribution of Fondazione Banco di Sardegna (years 2010-2011).

ISSN 2039-6597 

CC-By lockssDOAJ seal SPARC Europe