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Cinema and censorship: simpler times of subtlety in the 40s and 50s

The original poster for Alfred Hitcock's 'Vertigo'
The original poster for Alfred Hitcock's 'Vertigo'

I recently watched two classic Hitchcock films, ‘Rear Window’ (1954) and ‘Vertigo’ (1958). Both masterpieces in their own right, I was annoyed at myself for not having watched them sooner. Especially given the numerous parodies and references made about them, both ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘Family Guy’ have dedicated whole episodes to mimicking these films.

This got me thinking, are ‘classic movies’ circa mid-19th century better than films made today. The film industry has changed a lot since the 50s. Take 1952’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, where the poker game incident takes place behind closed doors and is more a suggestion of assault rather than an explicit on screen altercation.

Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'
Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'

During this time in the United States, films had to adhere to the Motion Picture Production Code or Hays Code. The Hays Code was essentially censorship, the government saw films as heavily influential and in need of regulation. This meant that films had to mirror conservative American values, resulting in risqué elements of film being reduced to metaphor and subtext.

Think about the horse racing conversation from ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946).

 

[Vivian] “I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.”

[Marlowe] “You don’t like to be rated yourself.”

[Vivian] “I haven’t met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?”

Pretty steamy right?

Nowadays the subtle art of foreplay in films seems gregarious and overproduced. In my opinion it’s because films don’t have to work as hard at making the audience feel emotion or curiosity. A single look from Lauren Bacall tells you all you need to know about sexual chemistry and desire that no soon to be assassinated ‘Bond Girl’ can compete with.

In some ways the forthright sex scenes, and violence we are now accustomed to are less impactful than the subtextual art of seduction rampant in the 40s and 50s.

'Some like it Hot' (1959), directed by Billy Wilder
'Some like it Hot' (1959), directed by Billy Wilder

Towards the end of the 50s and 60s films begamn to rebel against the Hays Code, Billy Wilder’s  ‘Some Like it Hot’ (1959) is a clear example of this. In 1967 the voluntary MPAA rating system was founded. This allowed for films to have content warnings and ratings. The Hays code was now redundant, as films could produce the content they wanted and simply rate their films as adult or 18+.

The American New Wave of cinema thus begun, movies once again had creative freedom, and could even glorify criminals and openly question conservative society. ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ for instance is the epitome of an American new wave flick. The 1967 movie was unafraid to show sex and violence, a rallying cry for the new wave to swell and grow.

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty star as infamous lovers Bonnie and Clyde
Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty star as infamous lovers Bonnie and Clyde

The subtlety and nuance of mid-century movie making was gone, and no generation of movie is necessarily ‘better’ than any other. But, I’ve got to say that in a time of massive blockbusters, over complicated yet idiotic plot twists and gratuitous sex, I miss the simpler times of horse racing metaphors and intense staring. Also the twist at the end of ‘Vertigo’ puts Dan Brown to shame.