There’s almost nothing you can’t see nowadays by simply opening a laptop screen, connecting to the Internet and clicking the mousepad a few times. It’s strange to imagine a time when films, once one of the few forms of widespread entertainment, were routinely censored by a few high-powered executives operating under the Motion Picture Production Code, or Hays Code. Other nations were (and often still are) subject to their own censorship laws.
It’s all the more interesting to see what directors and films were able to sneak past the censors to deliver films filled with disturbing events and themes, relying on artful suggestion and implication. These are nine classic movies with disturbing implications buried beneath the surface.
1. M (1931)
Legendary German director Fritz Lang abhorred violence, which partially explains why his movies were so fixated upon the topic. The director’s first sound film and one of the last he made before fleeing his native Germany and eventually beginning a successful career in Hollywood, M focuses on a small German town that succumbs to hysteria in response to a series of child murders. The murders are never shown but evocatively conveyed through imagery, like a child’s balloon bobbing against power lines after his abduction. Peter Lorre plays the child murderer, captured by a vigilante group of criminals angered that his actions have made local police more proactive. During an underground trial, the murderer makes an impassioned speech about the compulsions that drive him to commit crimes, while the other criminals break the law by choice. M is far more disturbing for giving its killer a voice and for suggesting that the residents of this tiny German town might be just as sick as he is.
2. Lolita (1962)
Stanley Kubrick was tasked with adapting an apparently un-adaptable book — Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, concerning a pedophile who embarks on a cross-country relationship with the flirtatious preteen daughter of a woman he married to be closer to the daughter. The relationship between child-loving narrator Humbert Humbert and the titular Lolita is far more explicit in the book (who was aged up a few years for the adaptation), whereas the film never once makes the sexual aspect explicit, which Kubrick vocally regretted later. I remember watching the film in high school with no knowledge of its content and completely overlooking the undertones of pedophilia that shine through most disturbingly in scenes like the one wherein the slimy Humbert paints Lolita’s toes.
3. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense himself, named Shadow of a Doubt as his favorite of his own films in multiple interviews. The plot revolves around a suburban family that takes in their beloved uncle, who is secretly a serial murderer of wealthy widows. Joseph Cotten plays the conniving sociopath Uncle Charlie whose depths of hatred occasionally surface through his friendly facade, particularly when he repeatedly attempts to murder his niece, also named Charlie (Teresa Wright). The relationship between the two Charlies isn’t disturbing for the murder attempts alone, but for the incestuous undertones that come beforehand, as the young Charlie flirts with her uncle and is proud to have her friends mistake him as a boyfriend. With Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock brought his murderous brand of suspense into the home of an average American family, with chilling results.
4. Le Corbeau (1943)
The French film Le Corbeau, which translates to The Raven, concerns a small town driven to paranoia and betrayal by a series of anonymously penned letters accusing esteemed members of the society of various indiscretions. One letter accuses a doctor of performing illegal abortions, and another informs a patient that his cancer is terminal, prompting him to slash his own throat with a straight razor — offscreen of course. The film ends with said patient’s mother slashing the throat of the self-named Raven in revenge just after he’s triumphed over the town and his primary rival Dr. Germain (Pierre Fresnay). The film caused quite a stir in France upon release, as it was seen as vilifying the French people and director Henri-Georges Clouzot was briefly banned from making films in the country.
5. The Big Heat (1953)
Fritz Lang directed this hardboiled crime thriller during his lengthy filmmaking career in the US. The plot is typical of such genres, following rogue cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) as he tries to take on a too-big-to-fail crime syndicate with sway in the police department. The film isn’t disturbing for what it shows, but the events themselves, some of which would still shock audiences even today with their daring. At the end of the first act, Bannion’s beloved wife Katie is killed by a car bomb, a horrible blow in context. Later, the put-upon girlfriend of abusive low-level mobster Stone takes a pot of boiling coffee to the face, rendering her permanently disfigured for the rest of the film — though her disfigurement is mostly concealed by bandages. For all the genre trappings and romanticism of Hollywood, Lang found a way to show the true brutality of crime in a studio production — even if he didn’t actually show it.
6. The Virgin Spring (1960)
Beloved Swedish arthouse director Ingmar Bergman unknowingly inspired the Wes Craven-directed snuff film The Last House on the Left with his medieval-set masterpiece The Virgin Spring. While Craven’s remake was filled with deranged b-movie madness, the original is an artful depiction of an innocent child’s rape and murder and the ungodly response of her God-fearing family. The characters are nothing if not complex, as the characters include a young boy who feels guilt for his part in the murder and the murdered girl’s pregnant servant who secretly wished for her death before it happened. Bergman uses his humanism and religious imagery to make a film as beautiful as it is disturbing.
7. The Night of the Hunter (1955)
The Night of the Hunter is a regular fixture in film schools for its expressionistic black-and-white imagery and harsh lighting, which faithfully reflects this harsh tale of a terrifying murderous priest. Robert Mitchum, who Roger Ebert proclaimed his favorite actor, plays Harry Powell as a baritone-voiced demon of destruction who believes he’s doing God’s work in tracking down a pair of children orphaned when their bank-robbing father is arrested. Powell wants the money their father hid and soon becomes a near-unstoppable force in his quest to find it using the children. The film depicts police brutality and heavily implies multiple murders. The effect is heightened by showing the events as they relate to a pair of innocent children.
8. Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
It’s hard to imagine now why Anatomy of a Murder caused such a splash upon its release. It takes place almost entirely inside a single courtroom where no blood is shed, though plenty of accusations are tossed around, regarding a small-town murder that may have been an act of revenge for a woman’s rape. The film never flashes back to the events, meaning the truth is a matter of speculation for the audience as well as the jury. Most of the sordid details discussed are no worse than what you’d hear in a modern police procedural, but in its time, it was so shocking that then-mayor of Chicago Richard J. Daley tried to ban its release. Today, the most disturbing bit of the movie might not be the details of the murder and rape, but the reaction of the spectators in one scene. The defense attorney mentions the rape victim’s “panties” in reference to them being ripped off, and the spectators howl with unreserved laughter. Har har.
9. Peeping Tom (1960)
Director Michael Powell took a break from crafting acclaimed British films with his creative partner Emerich Pressberger to make one of the most controversial films of the 1960s. Peeping Tom‘s would-be protagonist is a handsome but shy film crew worker whose benign exterior masks a disturbed murderer who compulsively records his own movies. The film is perhaps the first major motion picture to adopt the point-of-view of a serial killer, and it chronicles the killer’s eventual capture as well as the childhood abuse he suffered at the hands of his psychiatrist father. Upon its release, the film was condemned for glorifying murder but it has since been praised for its psychological complexity, implicating the audience as well as Carl Boehm’s killer for their voyeuristic blood-thirst.
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