Two crime movies based on the same play nicely illustrate the change in the mind of the American elite during the twentieth century.

Image from 'The Dark Past'

Two movies shown on Turner Classic Movies last night beautifully illustrated the change in the American mind, especially among the nation’s elites, between the first and second halves of the twentieth century.

The films, The Dark Past (1948) and Blind Alley (1939), were presented as part of the movie channel’s month-long look at psychologists in cinema. Both films were based on a 1930s play, Blind Alley, in which an escaped criminal and his gang take over a group of people gathered at a hunting lodge, to use the place as a hideout while they wait for a boat to take him and the gang to safety.

During a long night of waiting, the head of the household—a psychiatrist and college professor—psychoanalyzes the gang leader and figures out just what drives him to commit crimes.

The two movies are very similar in plot, but quite different in their meanings. The Dark Past exemplifies the common mindset among American elites during the second half of the twentieth century: that  criminal behavior is caused by bad environmental conditions that set people off on the wrong path, and that crime can be reduced by curing criminals of the mental pathologies caused by these conditions.

Hence in The Dark Past the psychiatrist, played by Lee J. Cobb, sets about to cure the gangster, Hal Walker (William Holden), through use of Freudian techniques. Ultimately, he discovers the single traumatic event that set Walker down the wrong path, and although the gangster must be taken into custody at the end, the psychiatrist announces rather proudly and with great certainty, "He’ll never kill again."

He’s probably right, in that Walker will undoubtedly be executed for having murdered a prison warden earlier in the film, but that’s not what the psychiatrist means, of course. In fact, to drive the point home, the filmmakers bookend the movie with a scene in which Cobb’s character, who works as a police psychiatrist, uses the film’s main story line, this event from his past, to illustrate his claim that people would not commit crimes if someone would just "give them a break" at some crucial tiime in their life.

Ralph Bellamy in 1936The 1939 version, Blind Alley, takes an entirely different approach. In this one, the psychiatrist, Dr. Shelby (Ralph Bellamy), analyzes the gangster, Hal Wilson (Chester Morris), with something entirely different in mind. The psychiatrist tells his wife, "I’m going to stop him. . . . I’m going to see that he doesn’t kill anybody else. I’m going to destroy him—take his brain apart and show him the pieces. It’s the only weapon I have."

Dr. Shelby knows full well that the gangster will have to kill the hostages, including Shelby, his wife, and their son, in order to avoid their informing the police as soon as he leaves, and also to ensure that they can’t testify that he killed one of their party earlier in the evening.

The Dark Past simply ignored the issue of the hostages’ likelihood of informing the police if left alive when the gangster leaves, and Walker has only wounded one of them in this version, not killed anyone in their presence.

It is interesting to note that the more "realistic" film makes less psychological and logical sense then the more frankly entertaining earlier movie. Some of the scenes in The Dark Past are nearly identical to scenes in Blind Alley, in fact, yet the meaning is entirely different—the very opposite, actually.

For in Blind Alley there is never any doubt that Wilson chooses to do the things he does, regardless of how circumstances may have pushed him about in life. And alIn The Dark Past, by contrast, Walker is forced into crime by an inner torment caused by a single trauma in his early years. It was, to be sure, a serious trauma, and it came on top of (and surely sprang from) physical (and, one presumes, mental) abuse by the boy’s father.

Hence, The Dark Past explicitly asserts that the criminal is ultimately not fully responsible for what he has done.

The ostensibly more realistic and sophisticated film, The Dark Past, actually reflects a need for certainty and easy answers, whereas those who made and appreciate the seemingly simpler and less ambitious film, Blind Alley, are more comfortable with ambiguity and philsophical complexity.

The Dark Past, after all, represents a belief that people aren’t ultimately responsible for their actions, and hence we must seek cures for what drives some of us to commit crimes. That makes things very simple: just cure these people, preferably before they harm others.

Blind Alley, by contrast, reflects the understanding that even if there are philosophical dilemmas to be considered, people will run wild if we don’t hold them responsible for their actions. So we will.

In addition, Blind Alley does not present Wilson as a monster; during the psychotherapy scenes he is shown quite sympathetically. However, while according the gangster the basic sympathy due any human being, Blind Alley refuses to whitewash his actions. Whereas in The Dark Past Walker’s trauma—his commission of a terrible betrayal while a young boy—is motivated by physical and mental abuse, in Blind Alley the same abuse is present, but Wilson admits that he committed the betrayal because the police offered him money to do so. In other words, he made a conscious choice to do it.

Another crucial difference is in the vitally important flashback scene in which the boy’s betrayal occurs. In The Dark Past, the man he betrays looks vicious and cruel. In Blind Alley, by contrast, he looks fearful and vulnerable. The betrayal is thus much less likely to be seen as justifiable in Blind Alley than in the remake.

All of this shows a far greater ability to tolerate ambiguity and philosophical complexity than is manifested in The Dark Past.

Finally, in the end of Blind Alley, Dr. Shelby uses the "cure" as a means of disarming the gangster Wilson, to render him psychologically unable to shoot the police in effecting an escape. In The Dark Past, the cure is real, as noted earlier—which means the fortuitous circumstance of Walker having spent some time with a psychiatrist transforms him from a criminal into a better man. Hence circumstances, not individual choices, are once again shown to be responsible for human actions.

Thus the two films represent two antithetical philosophical positions that have warred throughout modernity. On one side is the Rousseauian notion that human beings are inherently good and are corrupted only by society. On the other is the idea that people are neither born perfect nor perfectible, and that society is necessary to constrain people’s darker desires.

And this dilemma plays out even in the most seemingly simple places in popular culture.