Featured Article - The Evolution of Murder in Cinema: The Silent Era Through The '60s

A historic look at the progression of murder in film and the cinematic portrayal of those who commit it.

Murder has always been a driving force in entertainment, dating back to the tragedies of Shakespeare, where Hamlet declares, “All is not well. I suspect some foul play!”.  Its early depiction in film was carefully implied. Most often it occurred as an isolated event that happened off screen, provoking viewers to fill in the blanks. Its been present in film since its beginning, when silent pictures introduced audiences to death with historical reenactments of war. While the subject of taking lives is to be expected when depicting such events, the most shocking displays have always been those executed by homicidal motives. The first few decades of cinema was no stranger to such events, but its portrayal was very subtle. Yet it would be an unfair judgment to say those films didn’t evoke the same emotions as modern cinema. In fact, many early pictures pushed the envelope and paved the way for the evolution of the on screen portrayal of the most heinous of crimes.

The Bad Guy

In early cinema it was easy to pick out the bad guy. They were always dressed in black and they were fond of pulling at the ends of their sinister overgrown mustache. They tied women to railroad tracks, and lit bombs with ridiculously long fuses before tip toeing away into the shadows with a psychotic smile on their face. As if their appearance wasn’t obvious enough, their presence was often accompanied by heavily played old time piano music. They were stereotypical criminals, and their murders were often insinuated or hinted at. Maybe viewers would see a lifeless arm hanging off the armrest of an easy chair or a pair of legs lying in a darkened doorway. Most villains in early cinema had limited screen time and they only appeared on screen for the leading star to subdue so he could save the day. There was no explanation to their actions. Viewers just knew they were bad because they were depicted as maniacs. Little room was left for personal interpretation. 

The Lodger: A Story Of The London Fog (1927)

In 1927, a 28 year old English director by the name of Alfred Hitchcock introduced his soon to be influential take on murder to silent film audiences. Based on Marie Belloc Lowndes’ story about Jack the Ripper, The Lodger opens with a shot of a blonde haired woman screaming before fading into darkness. The next scene finds the same woman laying in the street with a horrified crowd gathered around her dead lifeless body. It wasn't exactly the shocking portrayal Hitchcock would later be known for, but it was a start. Although we never see the murders, the film connects with audiences by focusing on the nervousness of the public as each new blonde haired victim is discovered. 

Serial killers have long been a fascination in cinema. From films portraying actual real life crimes, to scripts written and based off psychological studies conducted by the FBI, audiences have always been curious when it comes to psychotic criminals. The anatomy of an actor portraying a serial killer is an ever-changing entity. While often relevant to the times, these films shock viewers with their cold portrayal of murder without remorse or repentance. It's an intimate look at the evils of men, with the most disturbing being those who pray on children. The edgy subject was first tackled in 1931.

M (1931)

Fritz Lang's film M was decades before it's time. It's not only considered the first serial killer film, but also the first to showcase the behind the scenes police procedural. The German film stars Peter Lorre as child predator Hans Beckert. While the murder of children in film has always followed the laws of decency, Lang is still able to add depth to the implication. The image of a child's ball rolling away on its own, or a balloon entangled on a telephone line lets the audience know the murder has happened. It's a tasteful approach, especially considering we see the children with the same objects moments before. What puts this film ahead of its time are the scenes where Lorre tries to fight his urges, struggling to suppress them. It was a deeper look at the psyche of a killer, and more importantly, its focus on mental illness. The most memorable scene is Lorre's confession speech near the films end. It’s an exposé of a man who can not control himself, who is haunted by his anxieties (child lust), and how the only way to rid himself of the feeling is to extinguish those that provoke it. M was deeper and far more advanced than anything Hollywood was putting out at the time. While the film lacks the gruesome details, it offers a grizzly explanation for the occurred murders, and gives it a face that blends in with society. 

Murder! As a comedy!? 

Filmed in 1941, Arsenic and Old Lace sat on studio shelves for three years until the popular play finished its run on Broadway. Directed by Frank Camera, the film follows the antics of two sweet elderly women who poison lonely old men out of sympathy. "It's one of our charities", they tell their concerned nephew Mortimer, played by Cary Grant. The aunties would later admit, with pride, to poisoning 12 men and burying them in their basement. It's a humorous film, one that would later be considered one of the pioneers of the black comedy genre. While we never see the poisoning happen, or even a body, it's an interesting advancement in cinema that actually had audiences laughing despite the fact the woman were technically serial killers.

The Film Noir Movement

The film noir movement continued to push forward with more dark and edgy portrayals of murder. As a result, plots became more gritty and sophisticated. Double Indemnity (1944) was groundbreaking for openly discussing plans to commit murder as a scheme to collect a life insurance policy. It went deeper than the “shoot em’ up” gangster films of the same era, where "problems" were simply eliminated because they were in the way. Bad guys were no longer just on screen to serve as the hero's adversary, they had background stories and a method to the madness. It gave the audience more of an emotional involvement, and the opportunity to play detective. In edition, censors were becoming less restrictive, especially when it came to scenes involving murder and the deceased. From the simulated underwater shot of Joe Gillis' body floating in a pool in Sunset Boulevard, to Gene Tierney watching/ allowing a crippled boy she despises to drown in Leave Her To Heaven. Directors were beginning to present realistic portrayals of death. The noir movement also further developed the depiction of police investigations. Hard nosed pistol carrying detectives worked the beat, searching for clues. They questioned what provoked criminals to do such a thing, what drove them to kill. It was the primitive beginning of the behavioral task force depicted in many of today’s popular crime shows.

The Bad Seed (1956)

In 1956, director Mervyn LeRoy introduced audiences to a sweet eight year old girl named Rhoda. Based on the the novel by William March, and the play by Maxwell Anderson, The Bad Seed shocked audiences with a new breed of killer. The film quickly builds momentum as a series of horrific events unravel. Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly) discovers the events all have one thing in common: her daughter Rhoda. While Christine struggles with her suspicions, her landlady (Evelyn Varden) provides a naive counterpoint, constantly praising the darling girl. As suspicions lead to facts, Rhoda (Patty McCormack) eventually fesses up to the murder of a fellow classmate. McCormack gives a frightful performance, explaining in detail how the crime was committed. Rhoda’s anger filled confession introduced audiences to the remorseless behavior of a sociopath. McCormack and Kelly would both earn academy award nominations for their memorable performance as mother and daughter.   

To the disappointment of many fans of the novel and play, the ending of the film adaptation was dramatically changed from the source material to comply with the Motion Picture Production Code. The MPPC did not allow for the portrayal of criminals to escape without punishment of moral justification.

The Abolishment of the Motion Picture Production Code

The Motion Picture Production Code enforced a long list of moral guidelines for films made in the United States. It was Hollywood’s own laws of decency; what a movie could, and could not get away with. It forbid profanity, nudity, and ridicule of the clergy. It also overseen the "tasteful" interpretations of heavy affection, prostitution, and violence; including rape, the use of firearms, and murder. By the mid 1950's the American movie industry was struggling to compete with the more edgy films that were being introduced by foreign markets. These films weren't bonded to the laws of the MPPC, and their more explicit and intimate content quickly caught the attention of American audiences. Hollywood was also discovering that television was proving to be a major competitive force. There was no longer a need for audiences to leave the comfort of their home. Hollywood needed to offer something new to lure viewers back into the theater. Despite relaxing the severity of its enforcements in 1960, studios continued to ridicule the system, complaining it was nearly impossible to comply with its numerous restrictions. The Motion Picture Association eventually abandoned their efforts, much to the delights of the industry. In 1968, they reevaluated their approach and introduced the film rating system. With the abolishment of the code, many directors were eager to get behind the camera. Films that portrayed real life crimes were a fast growing trend, with serial killers being a popular subject. With moral hurdles being a thing of the past, many in Hollywood took advantage of their new liberties. 

Alfred Hitchcock

Much can be owned to Alfred Hitchcock for the advancements of murder in cinema and television. The plots to many of his films revolved around the dark subject, and his fondness for twist endings endeared him the nickname "The Master of Suspense." Throughout his career the famed director presented his memorable spin on the subject with films such as Shadow of a Doubt, Frenzy, and Dial M for Murder. Although many of his plots revolved around murder, its portrayal was still cautiously executed (with the strangulation scene from Strangers On A Train being an exception). That all changed in the summer of 1960 with the release of Psycho. The film's infamous showers scene shocked viewers. No one had seen anything like it. The knife plunging silhouetted killer left audiences bewildered. And lets not forget the grotesque stabbing sounds and all the blood! This was murder, a cold blooded killing on the big screen. Equally gruesome is the slow fade away shot of Janet Leigh’s corpse, forcing viewers to look into her still open eyes. Psycho helped ignite the serial killer genre. Norman Bates, (based partially on the horrendous crimes of Ed Gein) is a psychopath - a troubled man with multiple personalities that motivate his murders. His actions weren’t committed as a means of escape or greed, it was the desire to do so as a result of his condition. With its graphic depiction, the shower scene is famously remembered as one of the most notorious scenes in cinematic history.

Richard Fleischer’s Murder Trilogy

Compulsion (1959)

While viewers never see the lone act of murder committed in Compulsion, the film is highly recognized for its focus on capital punishment. Based on the real life crime committed by Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold Jr, Compulsion documents two intellectual law students who kill a boy just to prove they can get away with it. The same murder (committed in 1942) also inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rope a decade earlier. Believing their superior intellect lends them the advantage to get away with murder, the film is the first in a trilogy of real life crime inspired films from director Richard Fleischer. Fleischer’s approach often focused more on the killers than the victims. Overall the most unique aspect of Compulsion is the guilty party. They were two respected young men (renamed Artie and Judd in the film) from wealthy families. Neither fit the stereotypical mold of a killer, nor did they gain anything from their actions which at the time was dubbed "The Crime of the Century".  The question of sanity was brought up several times throughout the film, which would be a reoccurring theme in Fleischer's real life inspired murder trilogy.

The Boston Strangler (1968)

Using the unique format of multiple on screen panels, Fleischer's Strangler offers an intimate perspective of both the killer and his victims before the fatal act of murder is committed. It's a casual, yet disturbing look at the victims final moments, each unaware of the evil lurking just outside their door. In all, Albert DeSalvo, played by Tony Curtis, killed 13 women. The film focuses heavily on mental illness, and implies DeSalvo suffered from a multiple personality disorder. It further suggests that psychologically, each one of DeSalvo’s personalities is only aware of its own conscious being, and completely oblivious of the others. Strangler is an impressive look at man whose impulse to kill goes beyond his ability to control it. It’s one of the first serial killer films that seriously investigates what pushes a man to kill, why he feels compelled to take another person’s life. The film also was a turning point for the on screen depiction of violence. While most of the murders are implied in Strangler, the film gets more graphic as more victims are introduced, mirroring DeSalvo's actions. In one scene Curtis rips a woman’s blouse, briefly exposing her breasts. It was just enough imagery for the audience to fill in the blank as to what would happen next. The film also exposes the hysteria and fear experienced by the woman of Boston before the Strangler was apprehended. Fleischer’s use of multiple panels gives the audience the opportunity to witness dozens of single woman as they cautiously double lock their doors and windows, load newly purchased guns, and struggle to sleep at night. While a solo shot would have been sufficient, the use of multiple panels exposes the magnitude of fear many women experienced before DeSalvo’s incarceration.  

10 Remington Place (1971)

The last of Fleischer's real life murder trilogy focuses on serial killer John Christie. As if bringing Christie's crimes to the big screen wasn't disturbing enough, Fleischer chose to film the murder scenes in the same London flat the actual crimes occurred, and for which the film is named. Overall it’s a subtle telling of Christie's monstrosities, leaving out most of his disturbing psychopathic behaviors, such as post death rape and his affinity for collecting balls of pubic hair from his victims. Yet the film is significant for it's focus on another man, Timothy Evens. Evans was tried and executed for the murder of his wife and infant child, both who were victims of Christie. The actual miscarriage of justice would lead to the abolishment of capital punishment in the United Kingdom. While not as graphic, 10 Remington Place is a tension filled film, and it introduces audiences to the cunning nature of a criminal who was able to manipulate the system despite police investigations. 

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

With the MPAA restriction code nearly abolished, director Arthur Penn decided to test his new cinematic liberties with his film Bonnie and Clyde. The film gained fast recognition for it's graphic depiction of violence. Starting Warren Betty and Faye Dunaway as the infamous crime duo, the film follows the pair’s blood filled spree in explicit detail. Many critics despised the film, accusing Penn of going too far in his display of bloodshed and sex. Nor did they like the carefree lack of remorse of the film’s title characters. The movie’s ending remains one of the most violent scenes in cinematic history. Bonnie and Clyde successfully kicked down the Production Code barrier, thrilling audiences with its realistic and shocking portrayal. It was a cinematic trailblazer that set a new standard on how films would be made. Mirroring the real life cult following Bonnie and Clyde gained during their notorious run (20,000 people attended Bonnie Parker's funeral), the film reigniting societies fascination with the the notorious outlaws who inspired the term “celebrity criminal.”

In Cold Blood (1967) 

One of the most impressive films to focus on the homicidal behavior of a killer is Richard Brooks' adaptation of Truman Capote's ground breaking novel In Cold Blood. Brooks does Capote's book justice, producing a near perfect adaption of the author’s work. It would break new ground in cinema on the perception and presentation of criminals. Following the novel's theme, the film goes beyond the motive. Perry Smith's delusions and daydreams are brought to life, giving audiences a look inside the mind of a killer. The film's multiple flashback sequences often focus on Perry's upbringing, at times merging the past with the present. In one scene both the adolescent and adult Perry sit in the same room, watching their mother engage in the sexual act of prostitution. The result is a convincing look at a man still traumatized by his past, bringing to light the cause and effect of a troubled childhood. Brooks choose to film In Cold Blood as accurately as possible. Filming took place in Holcomb, Kansas at the same farmhouse the Cutter family was murdered in. It gives the film an unsettling feeling, putting viewers incredibly close to the unfathomable crime. The uneasy tension continues after Dick and Perry are apprehended. The film continues its staggered timeline, building up suspense until finally exposing the details of the fateful night the Cutter family was executed. It's a tragic story told with incredible realism. While In Cold Blood offers an explanation on how a man could commit such a heartless crime, it never allows it to be an excuse. Brooks' film is an impressive accomplishment, presenting Capote’s vision to fascinated and equally horrified audiences. Blood would eventually inspire a tv mini series, and two more films - Capote and Infamous. Both focus on the Cutter family murders and the author's unique and obsessive research he conducted while writing his monumental novel. 

-End Part One -

Lee L. Lind

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