It’s often asserted that the combination of the Hollywood Production Code and the studios’ preference for happy endings had an adverse effect of movie-making. But did these things really have a negative impact or did they in fact improve the quality of movie-making?
I was intrigued by something Foster Hirsch said on a commentary track to one of Fox’s Film Noir releases, that even though you’re aware that there can only be one ending, an ending that is pretty much mandated by the Code, a good screenwriter and a good director (helped by intelligent and subtle acting performances) can still make the viewer doubt the outcome.
In fact the response of good movie-makers to the Code was the same as their response to the restrictions on the depiction of sexuality and violence - they lifted their game. Working within tight restrictions can be inspiring to a creative artist. It sets a challenge.
Look at Hitchcock’s movies. In most cases you know how they will end. The hero will win through, the heroine will be saved. And Hitchcock’s own preference was always for suspense rather than mystery. Suspense requires that the audience should know the answer to the puzzle. The audience knows from the start what is really going on, but Hitchcock could still have them on the edge of their seats. Hitchcock didn’t like the Production Code but he made most of his masterpieces while working within narrow limits. .
A classic case is Suspicion, which as François Truffaut perceptively noted in his book on Hitchcock was actually made more psychologically interesting by the restrictions imposed by the Code and by the studio. Truffaut claims, quite rightly in my view, that the ending as it stands is more powerful than the ending Hitchcock himself had favoured but had not been allowed to film. By making things harder for the director they ended up forcing him to make a better film.
The result of forcing directors to portray violence indirectly was often to give the violence a greater impact. As any good horror film-maker knows, what you don’t see is more horrifying than what you do see. It lets the audience’s imagination take over.
It’s the same with sex. Sexual tension is sexier than portrayals of actual sex. And Hollywood movies of the Production Code era are packed with sexual tension. I suspect that most of the stars of the classical period of film-making understood that their sexual mystique was heightened by the fact that they didn’t take their clothes off. Just as strip-tease artistes understood that the tease was more important than the strip.
Freedom can be liberating, but it can also lead to lazy and obvious film-making.