Genres and Production Trends, 1950–1954

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Genres and Production Trends, 1950–1954

Musicals: The Freed Unit
Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe
Film Noir
War Films: World War II
Anti-Communist Films
Anti-Communism and Film Noir

In social/political terms, the 1950s can be summarized as a period of half-war, half-peace. In the Korean War, which began in 1950 and ended in 1953, the United States entered into military engagement not only with Communist North Korea but also with the far stronger People's Republic of China. More than 30,000 American servicemen died in this undeclared war. However, the Korean conflict was a faraway engagement that did not immediately threaten the stability of the United States or its European allies. A greater threat to the United States was the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its allies, with its complex issues of diplomatic and economic competition, border disputes (Berlin, Korea, Hungary), nuclear gamesmanship, espionage, and internal subversion. Competition with the Soviet Union led to a quick buildup of U.S. nuclear forces in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which was countered by the Soviet development of both atomic and hydrogen bombs.

Hollywood films responded to these sociopolitical tensions in a variety of ways. Korean War films were rushed into production, with the strong support of the Department of Defense. Among the first to reach the theaters were The Steel Helmet (1951) and One Minute to Zero (1952). Occasionally films plumbed the almost-unthinkable subject of nuclear war (On the Beach, 1959), while many others indirectly invoked the concept of nuclear threat by focusing on a fear of new or alien technology (as was the case in science fiction films like The Thing, 1951; Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951; and Forbidden Planet, 1956). Internal subversion and the threat of communism at home was another theme pursued in films both directly, via the anti-Communist cycle of films and indirectly, in science fiction and other genre films. A general set of themes in the time period was distrust, hatred, and anxiety among humans, explored in such varied genres as suspense thriller, film noir, Western, and even love story. One cultural critic has declared that virtually all the anxieties of popular culture in this period are ultimately nuclear anxieties.1

However, for many Americans the early 1950s was an era of peace and prosperity. Americans were marrying and having babies at a record rate. New suburban towns modeled on Long Island's Levittown were springing up around the major cities. Homebuilding, automobiles, and electric appliances were the foundations of a very strong consumer economy. With a political move toward the Right came an attempt to shake off the internationalism of the New Deal and to return to the insularity of the pre–World War II period. In domestic terms, the move to the Right meant a suspicion of unions, minorities, and liberals and a return to such basic concerns as family and community. Many Hollywood films of the period stayed away from political causes and delineated the values of a prosperous and increasingly suburbanized society.

The description of film genres in this chapter is not intended to be complete. It includes about thirty representative films, but leaves out entire genres (such as romantic comedy) as well as many fine pictures. Science fiction films will be considered later (in Chapter 8). This chapter does, however, hope to suggest some of the richness and diversity of Hollywood cinema in the early 1950s. The film industry was suffering in economic terms, but its output was surprisingly accomplished.

Musicals: The Freed Unit

A widely quoted poll of the 1940s found that the Hollywood musical was the genre most appreciated by American audiences.2 Following this indication of their audience's taste in movies, the studios turned out a steady stream of musicals through the 1940s and into the 1950s. Because of the requirements of the genre—music, choreography, art direction, costumes—musicals were substantially more expensive than the average Hollywood film. Therefore, it was the four largest studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Paramount, Fox, and Warners, that produced most of the musicals of the period. Columbia, Universal, RKO, and Goldwyn made an occasional effort.

MGM was the studio most identified with the musical genre, and producer Arthur Freed supervised MGM's most elaborate and ambitious musicals. Freed was largely responsible for the development of the "integrated musical"—a seamless combination of music, dance, narrative, art direction, and camera movement. Freed's efforts as producer were supported and realized by an impressive array of talent, sometimes known as the Freed Unit, including associate producer Roger Edens; designers Cedric Gibbons, Cecil Beaton, Irene Gibbons, and Irene Sharaff; arrangers Conrad Salinger, Johnny Green, Saul Chaplin, Adolph Deutsch, and André Previn; directors Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and Stanley Donen; and musical stars Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor.3

An American in Paris (1951) was the Freed Unit's most acclaimed success of the 1950s, winning six Academy Awards including Best Picture. This brilliant collaboration featured pre-existing songs by George and Ira Gershwin, a script by Alan Jay Lerner, direction by Vincente Minnelli, and costumes by Irene Sharaff. Gene Kelly, then at the peak of his career, was both star and choreographer. The plot features Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, an American painter trying to make a name for himself in Paris. He is torn between two women, Milo (Nina Foch), a rich American who can help his career, and Lise (Leslie Caron), a French shopgirl whom he loves. Following the musical genre's pursuit of the "perfect couple" and the "perfect society,"4 Mulligan chooses Lise and an idealistic rather than materialistic view of art.

An American in Paris is known for its dance numbers, and particularly for the Artists' Ball and the ballet scenes that conclude the film. In the former, Jerry (Kelly) and Lise (Caron) play out a bittersweet drama of misunderstanding while clinging to their "logical" but emotionally wrong partners, Milo (Foch) and Henri (Georges Guetary). Costumes and sets for the Artists' Ball are entirely in black and white (though color film is still employed), which suggests both the artistic daring of bohemian Paris and the main characters' repression of their true feelings. The idea to use black and white evidently came from Vincente Minnelli, a director with a wonderful visual flair. After Lise leaves the ball, Jerry has a daydream represented by a long ballet sequence—seventeen minutes long! Here the pursuit of Lise mingles with Jerry's need to find himself as an artist, which is represented in a series of decors based on French Impressionist painters. The ballet unfolds a revelation that Jerry's identity as an artist connects him to Lise, France, and painting. After this revelation, Lise reappears at dawn outside the ball. The couple embrace, without words.

These final scenes are an ambitious attempt to link American popular culture with an older, more artistic European tradition. It is easy to see why both Vincente Minnelli, a director with a painterly sensibility, and Gene Kelly, a dancer seeking artistic recognition, would be attracted to such a project. The success of this project can be gauged from the 1952 response of a French critic, Claude Mauriac. Mauriac, writing in the conservative arts weekly Le Figaro Littéraire, said that Paris "includes Gershwin as much as Utrillo," and that this film "gives evidence" of a love of the city. He found the sequence based on French painting inconsistent—lauding the Toulouse-Lautrec and Rousseau scenes, questioning those starting from Dufy and Renoir. However, Mauriac praised the dancing and choreography of Gene Kelly and found the studio sets to be interesting and respectful transpositions of Paris. Overall, Mauriac described this French-American hybrid as an exciting new development in the arts.5

The next Arthur Freed-Gene Kelly collaboration, Singin' in the Rain (1952), was less successful at the Academy Awards and the box office than An American in Paris, but in the last half-century it has become one of the most beloved American films. Set in Hollywood in the late 1920s, the film follows Don Lockwood (Kelly), a silent film star, as he negotiates the difficult transition from silence to sound. Don's on-screen love interest in a series of silent films, dumb blonde Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), wants to extend their relationship to real life. However, Lina is crude, petty, and uneducated; she will never make it in sound films. Don is attracted to a young would-be actress, Cathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). In a clever ending, Cathy dubs Lina's singing voice onstage at a movie premiere, and Don reveals the artifice by opening the curtains. We presume that Don and Cathy will be the new Hollywood couple, combining talent and a genuine love for each other.

This project began with a catalog of songs written by Nacio Herb Brown (music) and Arthur Freed (lyrics), in the days before Freed became a producer. Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green were brought in from New York to build a script around the songs. They eventually hit upon the Hollywood-based plot described above, which would respect the period-specific qualities of the songs. Comden and Green describe working in a comfortable and supportive atmosphere; they were sheltered from the film industry's economic and political turbulence by Arthur Freed.6 Gene Kelly once again was star and choreographer, and for this film he added the title of co-director. The other co-director was Stanley Donen, a young protégé of Kelly who was soon to be a fine director in his own right. Kelly successfully lobbied for Donald O'Connor, a strong dancer, rather than non-dancer Oscar Levant as his male co-star. The female lead, Debbie Reynolds, was an MGM starlet without singing or dancing experience; however, she was a hard worker who, in Kelly's words, "proved able to master the basics of dancing" via "long hours of demanding physical effort."7

The artistic tone of Singin' in the Rain is quite different from the "high art" aspiration of An American IN Paris. Here the emphasis is on the traditions of American dance, vaudeville, and musical theater. The pretentiousness of high art is parodied in an early scene where Don Lockwood speaks ironically to an interviewer about the "Dignity!" of silent movies, and a better indication of the film's artistic values comes from Donald O'Connors solo number "Make 'em Laugh." (Freed more or less plagiarized this song from Cole Porter's "Be a Clown." Stanley Donen had asked Freed for a "'Be a Clown' type number," and Freed responded with an almost exact duplicate.) "Make 'em Laugh" becomes the basis for a wild celebration of pratfalls and acrobatics, including a dance up the wall and onto the ceiling. Even the long and lavish ballet that ends the film, featuring Cyd Charisse rather than Debbie Reynolds, is simple and unpretentious in theme. Titled "Gotta Dance! Gotta Dance!," it shows a young rube coming to New York to be in the theater. When, after many adventures, he finally establishes himself as a Broadway dancer, the sequence ends as another talented hay-seed arrives in the city.

Singin' in the Rain is a remarkably integrated musical, with the musical numbers presenting the thoughts and feelings of the characters as the story progresses. The "Singin' in the Rain" number itself is a Gene Kelly solo which expresses his character's joy over falling in love with Cathy and being loved in return. The rain and the puddles add naturalness as well as novelty to the situation. Stanley Kubrick's twisted homage to this number in A Clockwork Orange does not negate the power of the original. Another lovely representation of the lovers' feelings occurs in a deserted sound studio where Don sings to Kathy ("You Are My Lucky Star") and manipulates lights, props, and wind machines to create a romantic atmosphere. The theme here is that song, dance, and visuals can create a kind of transparency, an artificial but perfectly re-created version of human emotion.

Beyond its celebration of romantic love, Singin' in the Rain can be considered as a commentary on the film industry. The explicit subject is the difficult change from silent to sound films in the 1920s; symbolically, it may also make a statement about Hollywood's troubles of the early 1950s. If so, the message is that these troubles will pass, that Hollywood's language of image, music, story, and dance is still in touch with the audience.

Gene Kelly, MGM and Hollywood's most prominent musical star, abruptly left for England in late December 1951 and stayed away until August 1953. Biographer Claude Hirschhorn explains that Kelly went to Europe for tax reasons, and that his agent Lew Wasserman had originated the plan of spending eighteen months abroad and thus avoiding U.S. income taxes.8 Critic/filmmaker Peter Wollen has suggested an alternate motivation: that the liberal Kelly went abroad with MGM's blessing to avoid being connected with the second wave of blacklisting in 1951-1952. Kelly's wife, Betsy Blair, was blacklisted between 1949 and 1955, but she was able to find work in Europe. As for Kelly himself, he had been threatened with blacklisting by an article in the American Legion Magazine, and he may have decided to leave the country rather than face further harassment.9 Kelly's own explanation for the long stay in Europe was that "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is my employer. They decide what I am to do."10 His statement is not inconsistent with Wollen's intriguing theory.

With Kelly in Europe, the next big production of the Freed Unit was The Band Wagon (1953), starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. (Kelly had been tentatively slated for a musical version of Huckleberry Finn, which was never made.) It is interesting to speculate on the change in tone between leading male roles, from Kelly starring in Singin' in the Rain to Astaire starring in The Band Wagon. Kelly was a hot-blooded, physical dancer who, if cast in The Band Wagon, would have created a stronger romantic bond with Cyd Charisse. Astaire's cooler, more ironic persona distracted attention from the theme of the couple—also, at age 53, Astaire was twenty-two years older than Charisse. With Astaire in the lead, The Band Wagon became a brilliant musical evocation of unusual moods, via such numbers as "By Myself and "Triplets " ("We hate each other very much, We hate our folks"). It also presents an interesting conflict between high-art elements represented by Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), an actor/director performing Oedipus Rex on Broadway, and unpretentious American entertainment. The Band Wagon is a fascinating moment in the careers of Astaire, director Vincente Minnelli, and producer Freed, but it was not a hit in 1953.

As for Gene Kelly, he made two mediocre non-musicals in Europe, then launched into the ambitious ballet film Invitation to the Dance. This was originally planned as a four-part film spotlighting the talent and stylistic diversity of European ballet. Only three parts were ever filmed, and Kelly was prevailed upon to appear (as a recognizable Hollywood star) in all three. Without the support of the Freed Unit's behind-the-scenes talent, production was difficult; as costs rose, MGM worried about the commercial possibilities of the film. Invitation to the Dance was not released until 1957, and at that point it did almost no business. It is a beautiful film, but far outside the Hollywood mainstream.

When Kelly finally returned to Hollywood in 1953 to star in Brigadoon, both his personal prestige and the prestige of the Freed Unit had diminished. Kelly found him-self working for director Vincente Minnelli in a film planned for Scotland but eventually shot, for economic reasons, in Hollywood. Kelly probably could not have greatly affected the changes sweeping through MGM and all the studios in the 1950s had he remained in the United States after Singin' in the Rain, but with Huckleberry Finn or other projects he might have protected the Freed Unit for a few more years.

Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe

Doris Day's musicals at Warners were typically conservative in both theme and approach. In By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), for example, the subject is coming of age in a well-off Indiana family circa 1920. The story is taken from Booth Tarkington's "Penrod" stories, but there is clearly a strong debt to the film Meet Me in St. Louis (a Minnelli-Freed musical from 1944) as well. Both films center on a marriageable daughter, with comic relief provided by a younger sibling. In both films the father threatens the stability of the home—in the earlier film, he plans to move the family to New York; in the later one, he seems to be romantically involved with an actress. To clinch the connection, the father in both films is played by the same actor, Leon Ames.

Marjorie (Doris Day) in By the Light is having problems with her boyfriend William (Gordon MacRae) as well as her father. William, just back from the army, will not marry before he has a good job, and Marjorie feels she is becoming an old maid. At another moment in the story, Marjorie stalls on marriage because she is embarrassed about her father. Both complications are easily resolved, and the father turns out to be blameless, but the film has more substance than this. Marjorie is a competent and intelligent young woman, but she needs to learn how to trust the men in her life (that is, to take a woman's traditional role). This is sometimes hard for her to do. For example, in one funny vignette Marjorie and William are driving on a snowy night and the car breaks down. The mechanically gifted Marjorie gets under the car and solves the problem. Then William announces "I got her going," and Marjorie responds with a resentful "Yeah." More generally, the Doris Day of this film is a full-figured woman trying to fit into modest, girlish clothes. The contrast between her mature 1950s look and the "appropriate clothing" of 1920 suggests that she is being constrained here by a limited role.

Stylistically, By the Light is a well-made period piece in color with a number of songs but only a few dances. Doris Day's big dance number involves an onstage parody of being a farmer. Its childlike tumbling and baggy costume are a way to stress Marjories lack of sophistication (playing once again with the woman/girl theme). A more successful musical number is the ice-skating rendition of the title song that closes the film. Here all problems have been resolved and happy couples skate hand-in-hand in the moonlight. The harmony of the couple, the community, and nature suggest the wonderful benefits of following convention.

The Marilyn Monroe-Jane Russell musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (directed by Howard Hawks, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1953) gives a different view of women and sexuality in the 1950s. Here Lorelei Lee (Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Russell) are showgirls and best friends. Their livelihood and social status are entirely due to their attractiveness to men, but they enjoy a surprising amount of independence. Though Lorelei acts like a dumb blonde, she carefully chooses and manipulates her ideal man, Gus Edmond (Tommy Noonan), a docile and generous rich man's son. Dorothy also carefully chooses her man. While she doesn't care about money, she does care about sincerity. Both women are strong, active, aggressively sexual characters (very different from Doris Day), and the men in the film are curiously passive. Director Howard Hawks was known for playing with role reversals in his comedies, and here neither Gus, nor Dorothy's romantic interest Malone (Elliott Reid), nor the elderly rich man Piggy (Charles Coburn) is able to exert the traditional masculine control. The theme of female independence is made most strongly in the musical number "Is There Anyone Here for Love?," set on an ocean liner taking Lorelei and Dorothy to France. Dorothy strides through a workout of the U.S. Olympic Team (they are en route to a competition in Europe), singing in thinly described terms about her appetite for sex. The athletes in tracksuits are handsome but interchangeable, without personality—one could label them "beefcake "—whereas Russell is powerful, controlling, and appreciative of the masculine physique.

Jane Russell gets first billing in the film, but Marilyn Monroe is its revelation. With her blonde hair, red lips, curvy figure, and shiny costumes, she is the embodiment of male fantasy. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes made Monroe a star in 1953, and in the same year she appeared on the cover of the first Playboy magazine. Yet Monroe is certainly more than a body in this film. She has a childlike side (though it may be consciously put on), as when she sings "Bye Bye Baby" to the hapless Gus. She can be charming, attentive, and deferential to men, and she is careful not to appear too smart. Critic Richard Dyer suggests that the secret to Monroe's appeal is that she is sexual without being threatening. Her innocent persona breaks the link between sex and guilt, thus reassuring a still-conflicted audience.11 Supporting Dyer's argument is the fact that most audiences pick out the innocent and deferential Monroe rather than the more aggressive Russell as the star of the film.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes does give an interesting view of the early 1950s' woman, and it has been praised as a proto-feminist film, but in some respects it remains traditional in its woman-as-spectacle approach. Like the Jean Harlows, Marlene Dietrichs, and Betty Grables of previous eras, Monroe and Russell are paraded before the male gaze. On occasion they are framed in profile, from the waist up or the knees up, to emphasize breast size—this might be called the exploitation shot, borrowed from the world of the pin-up. They are also verbally demeaned: One athlete asks "If you were in a shipwreck, which one would you save?" and the reply (based on the women's generous figures) is "Those two couldn't drown." Finally, although the men are weak and the women strong, this film ends with the most conventional of comic denouements—a double marriage. Women's independence does not threaten the established social order.

Film Noir

American film noir, which flourished in the 1940s and 1950s, is distinguished by dark visuals and stories of corruption, betrayal, and violence. Many scenes are set at night, and characteristic shots show deep shadows broken by undiffused pools of light. Other visual motifs include unusual camera angles (high angle, low angle, canted angle), diagonal compositions, deep focus shots, and repeated use of stairways, mirrors, and prison-like bars. The stories present crime, paranoia, and severe tensions between men and women.

Tthe Asphalt Jungle (directed by John Huston, MGM, 1950) is a caper movie, a detailed study of the planning, execution, and ultimate failure of a jewel robbery. It takes place almost entirely within the criminal milieu, showing us a gallery of unique characters: the brilliant planner Doc (Sam Jaffe), the hooligan Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden, in the starring role), the socially prominent but corrupt lawyer Emmerich (Louis Calhern), the bookie Cobby (Marc Lawrence), plus the safecracker, the driver, the corrupt cop, and so on. Two women with supporting roles are Jean Hagen as Dix's girlfriend and Marilyn Monroe (three years before Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) as Emmerich's mistress The film is so focused on the underworld that criminals become more or less the norm, and most of the characters are viewed sympathetically. Only at the end of the film do we find a police commissioner re-establishing the point of view of law-abiding society, and his remarks are undercut because he calls Dix Handley "a man without human feelings or human mercy." Viewers have seen by this point that Dix has complex human feelings, and so they may choose to ignore the commissioner's message.

Visually, The Asphalt Jungle mixes carefully composed, expressionistic images with a more realistic, documentary look. Many of the night exteriors have a lustrous quality, with very dark blacks broken by occasional gleams. Interiors are carefully composed, with strong shadows and a few deep focus images. But at least some of the exteriors show realistically worn urban buildings, and the interiors vary from Emmerich's lavish surroundings to the modest apartments of Dix and the other crooks. Director Huston and cinematographer Harold Rosson did a nice job of giving noir a documentary feel, following the lead of such earlier films as Call Northside 777 (1948). The withholding of music until the last few scenes adds to the sense of realism. Huston and producer Arthur Hornblow had wanted to go further in this direction, identifying the setting as an actual American city (e.g., Kansas City), but they were overruled by MGM's legal department.12

In a Lonely Place (directed by Nicholas Ray, Columbia, 1950) is about a murder and a love affair. Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a Hollywood screenwriter, is the prime subject in the murder of a hat-check girl. Though Dixon is innocent, his potential for violence ends a romance with Laurel (Gloria Grahame), an aspiring actress who is his neighbor. This is an unusual film noir, since the murder happens off-screen and the on-screen violence consists of a couple of fistfights. However, it is at least as threatening and anxiety-producing as The Asphalt Jungle or other films about criminality and corruption, because here the danger comes from within the smart, witty, sympathetic hero. The "lonely place" may be the capacity for violence within ourselves.

The film noir visuals of In a Lonely Place come primarily at the end of the film. Dixon, furious with Laurel, drives through the night like a maniac. A mix of objective and subjective shots shows Dixon's anger, the careening of the car, and Laurel's brave acceptance of whatever happens. Dixon scrapes another car, then picks a fight with the young driver and almost kills him. A bit later, Laurel has a dream, shown in expressionistic double exposures, of Dixon as a murderer. Laurel can no longer trust Dixon, and the love affair is over. All that remains is regret.

The Hollywood setting adds a few more levels to the film. The disaffected view of Hollywood from a screenwriter's position is hardly unique. However, the film noir stylistics of In a Lonely Place may evoke the specific anxieties of 1950—the experience of World War II, the Cold War, and the mistrust between men and women. The absence of glamour and success in a film about Hollywood also suggests the film industry's grim prospects in 1950. Finally, Nicholas Ray's biographer Bernard Eisenschatz proposed that the mood of In a Lonely Place derives at least indirectly from the blacklist period. Like a blacklisted Hollywood writer, Dixon is isolated by the film industry and pursued by the law.13

Director Fritz Lang was one of the German émigrés who brought the expressionist film style to Hollywood, but in The Big Heat (Columbia, 1953) he is working with limited resources. Compared to The Asphalt Jungle or In a Lonely Place, The Big Heat looks like a threadbare "B" film. Character and theme provide most of the interest. Glenn Ford plays Dave Bannion, a police detective trying to solve a murder in a thoroughly corrupt town. When Bannion persists in his investigation, his wife is killed by a car bomb intended for him. Bannion, a representation of the average American, becomes completely taken over by his impulse for revenge. This is a familiar theme for Fritz Lang; to quote the song from Lang's Western Rancho Notorious (1952), he tells stories of "hate, murder and revenge."14 Bannion eventually solves the murder and returns to his desk at the police department (normal life), but doubts and insecurities remain. Bannion is a homicide detective, which means that his job is based on the human propensity for violence.

There is only one extraordinary visual motif in The Big Heat. Debbie (Gloria Grahame), a gangster's girlfriend, breaks rank with the criminals and pays a visit to Bannion. Her reason seems to be personal attraction, not informing, but nevertheless she is punished by having scalding-hot coffee thrown in her face. Debbie is permanently disfigured, and from this point she wears a mask of bandages over half her face. Lang later noted that the film conveniently ignores the option of plastic surgery.15 Debbie is confused about moral responsibility: Is she just an innocent bystander, or does she share the guilt for Mrs. Bannion's murder and other crimes? The half-mask hauntingly suggests the duality, and this is reinforced by Debbie's crazed musings about her "good side" and her "bad side." The scenes involving the half-mask aptly present a "beauty and the beast" symbolism; one imagines Lang devoting a great deal of energy to this motif.

Kiss Me Deadly (United Artists, 1955) is based on a novel by Mickey Spillane, whose violent and misogynist detective fiction was enormously popular throughout the 1950s. The film adaptation, written by A. I. Bezzerides and directed by Robert Aldrich, departs from the novel in important ways. The female characters are given more substance, and a wonderful new character, the auto mechanic Nick (Nick Dennis), is added. Most crucially, whereas the novel's first-person narration strongly involves the reader with Spillane's hero Mike Hammer, the film's third-person approach allows some distance. In an early scene, Christina (Cloris Leachman) tells Mike that he loves only himself, and this charge of narcissism seems to hold true throughout the film. Mike has his secretary/girlfriend Velda (Maxine Cooper) seduce men as part of divorce investigations, and when asked to assist law enforcement agencies he responds "What's in it for me?" Of the several innocent victims killed during the film, he mourns only his friend Nick. Mike is aggressive, independent, and sexy, but not necessarily sympathetic.

The world of Kiss Me Deadly is kinetic and unstable. Mike Hammer is usually in motion—driving, walking, running—and is often accompanied by a moving camera. Even in static close-ups, Mike seems to be straining toward the camera. He is an alwaysthreatening presence. Nick adds to the frenetic mood by moving very fast and punctuating his speech with motor sounds: "va-va-voom!" Instability, typical of film noir, here reaches a peak as various male authority figures—a gangster, a doctor, and Mike Hammer himself—appear to be in control but are not. False or hidden identities are everywhere, indeed for most of the film Mike's leading antagonists are a pair of shoes (glimpsed when Mike is tied to a bed) and a voice on the telephone. Numerous characters in the film, including the protagonist, are at one time or another shot, beaten up, or kidnapped.

Whereas most noir films suggest an existential anxiety, not reducible to a simple plot, in Kiss Me Deadly this anxiety is ultimately linked to the atomic bomb. Mike spends most of the film looking for "the great whatsit," something of great value that no one seems willing or able to define. When he finally learns the secret in indirect terms ("Manhattan ProjectLos Alamos … Trinity"), Mike keeps looking for the "whatsit" and ultimately finds a bomb in an unrealistically small, lead-shielded box. Another character opens the box at a beachfront house and creates a fire and a powerful explosion. The film ends with this nuclear apocalypse, but even here there is ambiguity. For many years, prints of Kiss Me Deadly concluded with the opening of the box and then an explosion in exterior longshot. However, a restored version of the film includes a sequence of Mike and Velda escaping from the house and wading into the ocean as the explosion occurs. Robert Aldrich insisted that this was the only correct ending of the film, adding that "Mike was left alone long enough to see what havoc he had caused, though certainly he and Velda were seriously contaminated."16

War Films: World War II

World War II has been a subject of continuing fascination for the Hollywood film industry for more than sixty years. In American popular memory, this is the "good war"—a global conflict between good and evil that the United States and its allies clearly won. After a lull in war films from 1946 to 1948, a new cycle of World War II movies began in 1949, including such titles as and Task Force, Battleground, Sands of Iwo Jima, and Twelve O'Clock High. These films redefine the American World War II experience in ways colored by contemporary needs and values.

Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) is the film most responsible for creating John Wayne as the American military hero. A medium-budget film by the Poverty Row studio Republic, it was shot primarily at Camp Pendleton in southern California, with some documentary footage added from island landings in the South Pacific campaign. Allen Dwan was the director. The film shows its Poverty Row origins in the performances of a few supporting actors (officers with no trace of presence or authority), but overall this is a well-scripted and well-performed film.

John Wayne plays Sergeant Stryker, an experienced marine drill sergeant who knows just when to be tough with his men and when to take it easy. Stryker has some personal problems, notably a wife who has left him, taking their son with her, but when on duty he is an exacting teacher and a good role model. His teaching methods include physical contact (he hits one clumsy soldier with a rifle and has a fistfight with another), thus giving obvious meaning to the name "Stryker." Stryker can also be unorthodox. For example, he teaches the footwork needed for bayonet drill via a folk dance. The film follows Stryker's platoon from training to the landings at Tarawa and Iwo Jima. Stryker requires some risks, forbids others, and bonds with even those marines who were against him during training. Then Stryker dies in combat on Iwo Jima. His men read his inspirational letter to his son, and carry on.

Sands of Iwo Jima clearly includes a mythic dimension. The title of the movie echoes the cadence of the Marine Corps hymn, adding a famous World War II engagement to "the halls of Montezuma" and "the shores of Tripoli." Stryker's final mission is the raising of the U.S. flag on Mount Suribachi overlooking Iwo Jima, a moment which has become emblematic of the entire U.S. war effort in World War II. Though Stryker himself dies on the way up, his men continue to the summit and raise the flag in a shot closely based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph by Joseph Rosenthal of the raising of the flag atop Mount Suribachi. Emotionally, the sense is that John Wayne, American hero, dies in the course of this mission and hands off the responsibility to the Everyman figures of his platoon—that is, to us.

Given this mythic dimension, it is not surprising that Sands of Iwo Jima has attracted continuing attention, both pro and con, as a portrait of the marines. Historian Lawrence Suid commented in 1978 that for both the marines and the American public, John Wayne in this movie "remains the symbolic Marine."17 He quoted Marine General David Shoup, a hero of the Tarawa landing, who said that Wayne represents the "hell for leather, go and get 'em attitude" of the Marine Corps. On the other hand, Ron Kovic's memoir Born on the Fourth of July views the John Wayne military hero image as a distorting and unrealistic representation of war which contributed to America's debacle in Vietnam. Kovic, a paralyzed veteran of the Vietnam War, specifically mentions Sands of Iwo Jima as a film which profoundly impressed him in childhood.18 He also calls himself "your John Wayne come home" in the short, bitter poem that opens his book.19

Operation Pacific (1951) is a John Wayne-starring war movie from Warner Bros. involving two central issues: when should the life of one man be sacrificed for the good of many?; and when (if ever) should a woman abandon a man who is a single-minded soldier? Duke Gifford, the John Wayne character, puts himself under a cloud of suspicion by ordering a submarine to submerge even though Pop Perry (Ward Bond), the badly wounded captain, is on the conning tower. Gifford later resolves this issue by heroically saving a navy pilot—who is Captain Perry's younger brother—despite substantial risk to his men and his submarine. The pilot also happens to be his rival for the affections of his ex-wife, Mary Stuart (Patricia Neal, playing a navy nurse). Having proved himself to be the bravest and biggest-hearted man around, Wayne is re-united with Mary, who is now willing to make great sacrifices for her man, even if he neglects her. Operation Pacific is formulaic entertainment, but it does present exciting scenes of submarine warfare.

At Twentieth Century-Fox, the war films were more complex and more reflective than the gung-ho John Wayne movies. Bernard F. Dick, in his history of the American war film, attributes this to the experience and personality of studio production head Darryl Zanuck. Zanuck made training films as a colonel in the Signal Corps during the war, and he became friendly with General Eisenhower, Lord Mountbatten, and other military leaders. According to Dick, Zanuck continued making World War II films through The Longest Day (1962) in part because of his own need to "rethink and relive" this war.20 A further index of the Fox studio's interest in military matters is that Frank McCarthy, who had been secretary to General George C. Marshall during World War II, was hired as a Fox executive in 1949. McCarthy was, naturally, involved in the planning of war films; he was also in charge of censorship matters. McCarthy eventually became the producer of Patton (1970) and Macarthur (1977).

Twelve O'Clock High (directed by Henry King, 1950), one of the very best Fox war movies, concerns a hard-luck squadron of American airmen stationed in Britain. After many losses, a new commander, played by Gregory Peck, is brought in to restore morale. Peck makes the pilots believe in themselves, and establishes the squadron as an excellent fighting force, but eventually cracks psychologically because of the strain of sending men to their deaths. The squadron continues on, succeeding in a crucial mission without the commander. The film is presented in moody black and white and in flashback. It honors Peck as a hero without glossing over the terrible stress of leading men into war. This film is as patriotic as Sands of Iwo Jima, yet more nuanced in its treatment of the day-to-day realities of war.

Halls of Montezuma (1950), directed by Lewis Milestone for Fox, is similarly complex in its attitudes toward war. Here Richard Widmark, as Lieutenant Carl Anderson, leads a group of marines in an assault on a Japanese-held island in the Pacific. Widmark suffers from debilitating migraine headaches, but he forces himself into battle because of loyalty to the seven men who have been with him for some time. He depends on pills supplied by Doc (Karl Maiden) in order to keep going. At the film's end, most of Anderson's cherished comrades are dead or wounded, but the lieutenant himself fights on. Halls of Montezuma offers no resolution and no patriotic victory, but simply a view of dedicated men in combat. Though supportive of the American military, this film also has an undercurrent of despair.21 It is probably not irrelevant that Lewis Milestone was the director of the antiwar classic All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

The Desert Fox (another film from Fox, directed by Henry King, 1952) tells an unusual story in a pedestrian style. It includes some documentary combat footage, but most of the film is studio-shot material about headquarters officers. The interest of this film is ideological: it focuses on the German general Edwin Rommel (James Mason), and presents him as both a great soldier and a leader of an anti-Hitler conspiracy. Since West Germany was clearly a U.S. ally by 1952, this film seems to be an attempt to create a German past that is not defined solely by Nazism. Dick comments that Zanuck was "mildly revisionist" in his view of the Axis.22

The most important war film of the 1950s came not from Darryl Zanuck's Fox but from Harry Cohn's Columbia Pictures. As part of his strategy to compete with the five major studios after the Paramount case, Cohn bought the rights to James Jones's controversial best-seller From Here to Eternity in 1951. There was some doubt that this huge, sprawling novel could ever be fashioned into a Hollywood film since it featured prostitution, homosexuality, venereal disease, an affair between an enlisted man and an officer's wife, several instances of brutality within the peacetime U.S. Army, and a general lack of reverence for the rules and the hierarchy of the army. On the other hand, the novel had been both a critical and a popular success, and it offered wonderful characters, picturesque Hawaiian settings, and a dramatic ending—the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Screenwriter Dan Taradash pitched his ideas for adapting From Here to Eternity to producer Buddy Adler and then to Harry Cohn, and was hired immediately. Homosexuality—the contacts between G Company's enlisted men and rich Honolulu "queers"—was entirely excised. Many other controversial points were toned down. Taradash retained three centers of interest: the conflicts between Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra), and the army; the romance between Prewitt and Lorene (Donna Reed); and the romance between First Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) and Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr), the wife of Warden's boss, Captain Dana Holmes.23 Though Taradash was frustrated by Harry Cohn's insistence that the finished film must run less than two hours (final running time was 1:58), he managed to protect all three narrative strands through pre-production.

The stellar cast outlined above was signed for the film, and Fred Zinnemann, fresh from the success of High Noon (1952), was brought in to direct. The creative team of Taradash, Zinnemann, Adler, and Cohn next had to contend with two very different oversight agencies. First, the Production Code Administration of the Motion Picture Association of America looked at every Hollywood film in order to enforce a consistent set of moral standards. The PCA was concerned about a lack of "recognition of the immorality of the relationship" between Karen and Warden. The relationship could exist (without it, a big chunk of the book would be lost), but only if a "voice for morality" said it was wrong. Second, the PCA wanted to be very sure that the New Congress Club where Lorene works could not be identified as a brothel in the film.24 The filmmakers conceded on the second point; the New Congress Club in the film is a rather sanitized social club, and Lorene's job becomes dance hostess. On the first objection, however, Taradash, Adler, Zinnemann, and Cohn held firm. Karen announces near the end of the film that her romance with Warden would never have worked, but she does not say it was wrong.

The second oversight agency was the United States military. Any film requesting assistance from the Department of Defense (DOD) was required to submit a script to the Pictorial Branch, Office of Public Information, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Legislative and Public Affairs), the office supervising film industry/DOD cooperation. This was not exactly censorship, since filmmakers were never obliged to use DOD equipment, personnel, footage, or expertise. However, many war films would be difficult or even impossible to produce without Department of Defense resources. The DOD's policy on cooperation was that films would be supported if they were "accurate and authentic"; complied with "the highest standards of propriety and dignity"; were not "detrimental to Department of Defense policy regarding operations, morale, or discipline"; and benefited the DOD and the "Public good."25 Officials within the DOD were skeptical about to whether From Here to Eternity met these conditions. However, Don Baruch of the Pictorial Branch felt that the DOD should offer assistance and work with the filmmakers to revise some of the more questionable aspects of the film.26 This point of view eventually prevailed.

A memo from Buddy Adler responding to the DOD's objections to the script shows that the military was mainly concerned with toning down the scenes of brutality. Adler and Taradash agreed that Fatso's (Ernest Borgnine) brutality toward Maggio (Frank Sinatra) should be presented as a personal thing, not as standard army procedure. Taradash and Adler also agreed that the lazy, vindictive, and incompetent Captain Holmes should not be promoted (as in the book), but should be removed from the army for his persecution of Prewitt. Taradash and Adler did not agree to add a rollup credit saying that From Here to Eternity shows a special case, and that "these conditions CAN NOT and DO NOT exist today."27 In general, the Department of Defense showed respect for Taradash's script and tried mainly to contextualize the brutality (which Taradash had already greatly reduced from the book). As to Captain Holiness forced resignation rather than promotion-for-incompetence, this was not a central part of the script.

Under the direction of Fred Zinnemann, From Here to Eternity became one of the very best films ever made about the American military. Location shooting was done at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, the setting for James Jones's book. The performances are remarkable. Montgomery Clift as the stubborn Prewitt gives an original and haunting twist to the soldier-as-outsider. Burt Lancaster is, if anything, even better as the ultracompetent but also passionate Sergeant Warden. Frank Sinatra is thoroughly believable as the hot-headed Maggio, and Deborah Kerr catches some of the bitterness and yearning of Karen Holmes. As to Donna Reed, her cool and calculating Lorene suggests that her range as an actress went well beyond the role for which she is most remembered, the suburban mom she played in the TV sitcom The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966). The scene between Warden and Karen on the beach, which combines several scenes from the book, is deservedly known as one of the most erotic moments in American cinema (even though both actors wear modest bathing costumes). And, despite the many romantic scenes, this really is a film about the military, about the complicated men who serve in the army and the system that supports them and at times abuses them. Both Adler and Taradash pointed out, in defending the film from DOD criticism, that Prewitt is basically a good soldier and Warden is a great soldier.28 They could have added that G Company in the film, as in the book, responds quickly and effectively to the Japanese attack on Hawaii on 7 December 1941—at this level, at least, the system works.


Korean War films are patriotic but also surprisingly ambivalent about the importance and impact of that war. One Minute to Zero (RKO, 1952), directed by Tay Garnett, was one of the first films about Korea to appear. Like Operation Pacific, it blends combat scenes with a love story, in this case involving Robert Mitchum as an army colonel and Ann Blyth as a United Nations relief worker. As in Operation Pacific, the male lead's dedication to duty is vindicated and the female lead's reservations are swept away. But the moral problem raised by One Minute to Zero is not only difficult but still unresolved—almost fifty years after the Korean War ended! In a key scene, Mitchum orders artillery fire on a column of refugees approaching American positions because there are North Korean troops among the refugees. Ann Blyth's character is horrified because her suitor is killing innocent people, the very people she is in Korea to help. However, in the terms of the film Mitchum's action is correct—his troops really were in danger. Ann Blyth eventually sees the justice of this point of view, and welcomes Mitchum back into her arms.

Part of the drama of One Minute to Zero occurred behind the scenes. The script RKO submitted to the Department of Defense as a condition of cooperation did not include the controversial scene of Americans firing on the refugee column. The scene was filmed without the prior knowledge or approval of the DOD—this is another example of Howard Hughes not following through on agreements he had made. When the DOD discovered the problem, they requested that the scene of firing on the refugee column be removed. Hughes carefully inquired if the dispute over One Minute to Zero would affect the major defense contracts held by Hughes Aircraft. When told this would not affect his business interests, Hughes refused to cut the offending scene.29

A fascinating aspect of this film is that the controversial scene bears some resemblance to a still-disputed historical incident. In July 1950 American troops fired on Korean refugees at No Gun Ri and killed many civilians (the South Korean government says that 248 died). Very little is known about the circumstances of the attack, which is why President Clinton in January 2001 offered a statement of regret rather than a formal apology to the South Korean government.30 One Minute to Zero seems to be alluding to and even justifying an incident similar to No Gun Ri. However, as Lawrence Suid comments, "the Army felt it did not want to be associated with a film that showed its men killing innocent civilians."31 Since production was complete, the DOD Office of Public Information had little leverage, but it did announce that it would not aid the release of the film.

The most commercially successful Korean War film was The Bridges at Toko-Ri (Paramount, 1954; directed by Mark Robson), based on a novel by James Michener. It centers on navy pilot Harry Brubaker (William Holden), a World War II veteran recalled to action in Korea. In the first two missions we see, Brubaker is: 1) fished up from the sea by a rescue helicopter; and 2) forced to make an emergency landing on an obstructed carrier deck. He is a physically and psychologically worn-out flyer, and in a dialogue scene with Admiral Tarrant (Fredric March) he questions both his personal need to be in the war and the rationale of the Korean War in general. Tarrant replies with an early statement of the domino theory: "That's rubbish, son, and you know it. If we did [withdraw from Korea] they'd take Japan, Indochina, the Philippines. Where would you have us make our stand, the Mississippi?"

Further dramatizing Brubaker's problems, as well as the pull between wartime and peacetime values, is a long sequence of Brubaker on leave in Japan with his wife, Nancy (Grace Kelly), and two daughters. The interweaving of combat and romance is a familiar part of war films—see, for example, Operation Pacific and One Minute to Zero—but here we find an unusual juxtaposition of domestic bliss and wartime mission. Indeed, Rick Worland considers The Bridges of Toko-Ri a blending of the war film and the family melodrama. According to Worland, the film questions the war effort and "creates an off-balance combination of resolve and regret" through its contrast of "family relationships with their inevitable ties to individual, domestic concerns" with "the military mission described in global, strategic terms."32 The casting of Grace Kelly, whose film persona is romantic, smart, and competent (here and in other films such as Rear Window, 1954), adds to the main character's dilemma.

Brubaker tears himself away from his family and returns to the carrier to face a dangerous mission—the bombing of the bridges at Toko-Ri. As squadron leader, he carries out this mission successfully, but is forced to bail out over enemy territory. Brubaker and the helicopter pilots sent to rescue him are then killed on the ground by North Korean soldiers. This is a grim conclusion to a patriotic war movie. In the final scene, Admiral Tarrant is left to reflect on the character of Brabaker, a reluctant fighter who performed heroically. Tarrant looks out at the choppy sea and gives a brooding speech beginning "Where do we get such men?" The film cuts to a short action sequence of planes taking off from the carrier deck. Then we see a calmer Admiral Tarrant, his spirits restored because there is still a job to do. The film ends.

The Bridges of Toko-Ri could be taken as a relatively formulaic war movie, with the scenes of Brubaker and family on leave demonstrating the values Americans are fighting for. But as Rick Worland suggests, this film with its melancholy tone also embodies the doubts and regrets many Americans felt about the Korean conflict.33

Anti-Communist Films

From 1948 to 1954, the Hollywood studios released between thirty-five and forty films on the dangers of domestic and international communism.34 Most of these films were unsuccessful at the box office, and they may have been made primarily for political rather than commercial purposes. If Hollywood's loyalty to the United States was under question during the McCarthyist period, what better way to demonstrate that loyalty than through specifically anti-Communist films? However, there was a problem: the writers of films about domestic communism seemed to have great difficulty finding an effective storyline.

In RKO's I Married a Communist (1950), Brad Collins (Robert Ryan) is a reformer trying to clean up a corrupt union. This reformer has a hidden past; under another name he once belonged to the Communist party and even committed a murder under Communist direction. When confronted by local Communists, he drops all anti-corruption activity until his brother is killed. Then he courageously reveals his past to his wife (Laraine Day) and fights against Communist domination of the union. Despite being the hero, Collins must die at the end as punishment for: 1) his previous crime; and 2) his previous adherence to communism. Aside from connecting communism with union corruption, I Married a Communist has absolutely nothing to say about Communist ideas or values. In this film, Communists are thugs, pure and simple.

Big Jim McLain (Warner Bros., 1952) has similar problems. Here John Wayne plays the title character, a House Un-American Activities Committee investigator assigned to Hawaii to search out Communist activity. McLain discovers a cell of Communists led by Dr. Gelster (Gayne Whitman), and also begins a romance with Gelster's secretary Nancy Vallons (Nancy Olson). When McLain eventually uncovers a plot to sabotage American shipping, he teams up with the police to raid a Communist meeting and thoroughly enjoys the ensuing fistfight. That HUAC's charge was not law enforcement but rather to lay the groundwork for legislation is entirely forgotten by the makers of this film. Big Jim McLain, like I Married a Communist, has nothing to say about Communists except that they are bad. John Wayne was very good in a number of Westerns and war films of the 1950s, but in Big Jim McLain he does not rise above the mediocrity of the film.

Leo McCarey's My Son John (Paramount, 1952) is probably the American film which best dramatizes anti-communism in the early 1950s. McCarey and screenwriter John Lee Mahin present their anti-communist theme within the framework of a family melodrama blended with some comic elements. Lucille and Dan Jefferson (Helen Hayes and Dean Jagger), an Irish Catholic couple, have three sons: Chuck and Ben, former high school athletes who are in the army and leaving for Korea, and John (Robert Walker), an intellectual who has a desk job in Washington. When John returns home after a year's absence he is in constant conflict with his father, a member of the American Legion, and uneasy even around his mother, who loves and admires him. John turns out to be part of a Communist spy ring, and his mother, her health destroyed, after much hesitation cooperates with the FBI to expose him. John tries to turn himself in but is killed (presumably by a Communist gunman) en route. He leaves a speech on tape in which he confesses to Communist activities and tells others not to follow his example.

John's major "crimes" through most of the film are that he disrespects his father, lies to his mother, and cannot meet the gaze of his parish priest. The parents' simple faith in God and country is presented as correct and not open to question. The parents do have their flaws—for example, the father drinks too much, which triggers one of the humorous scenes. But John's alternate values—he is an intellectual, an internationalist, a reformer—do not measure up to the traditional values of the family. My Son John's political position is reductive and carries the implication that any deviation from the norm is subversive. John's taped speech makes this explicit, saying that he started as a liberal do-gooder and found himself pursuing more radical (indeed treasonous) solutions. But at least there is a position here. I Married a Communist and Big Jim McLain are about nothing at all.

Anti-Communism and Film Noir

According to James Naremore, noir films of the 1940s often had a liberal or progressive slant, recognizing the unequal power relationships in society and favoring the less privileged.35 However, in the early 1950s this correlation between a style and a political position broke down. Film noir became either apolitical or an expression of the anti-Communist hysteria of the time. I Married a Communist, already discussed in this chapter, could be considered a film noir because of its dark images and crime-film plot. It is, however, thoroughly undistinguished in visual style. On the other hand, Pickup on South Street (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1953), written and directed by Samuel Fuller, is a stylistically exciting film which deals—somewhat bizarrely—with domestic communism.

In Fuller's film, the pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) steals a woman's wallet on the New York subway. It turns out that she, as a favor to a boyfriend, is couriering some stolen microfilm for the Communists. Skip hides the microfilm and refuses to cooperate with the Communists or the police. Candy (Jean Peters), the woman on the subway, becomes his accomplice and romantic interest. When the Commies kill Skip's friend Mo (Thelma Ritter), Skip solves the case himself, tracking down the Communists, beating them up, outwitting the police and the FBI. And, naturally, he gets the girl. All this is shown in an exaggerated film noir style, with tight close-ups, canted angles, low key lighting. Skip is presented as an anarchist loner who lives in a poetic setting—a wooden shack on a pier at 66 South Street in Manhattan. He and Candy (very sexy in low-cut outfits) are cartoonish rather than realistic characters, but they do suggest the dangerous sexuality of urban outlaws in film noir.

The explicit theme of the film is that even American criminals hate Communists. Skip, Candy, and Mo, three mostly amoral characters, all despise communism and resolve to fight against it, though Skip's action might be revenge more than anything else. This rather silly premise allows Fuller to make a fast-moving crime movie with no attention to defining or describing communism. However, an implicit theme can be found in the style of the film, with the film noir mood creating an impression of America under threat of internal subversion. Communists could be anywhere; they might be next to you on the New York subway at night.

Strangers on a Train (Warner Bros., 1951) is usually discussed as a well-constructed Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Guy (Farley Granger) meets Bruno (Robert Walker) on a train; Guy expresses frustration with his wife, Miriam; Bruno takes this as an invitation to murder Miriam, which he does. Then Bruno asks Guy to return the favor by murdering Bruno's father. Guy has done nothing wrong, but he feels guilty; at some level he wanted to kill Miriam. This is the famous Hitchcock "transfer of guilt."

Critic Robert Corber has added to contemporary understanding of Strangers on a Train by pointing to elements of homosexuality and politics. First, he says that Bruno is homosexual, and thus the encounter with Guy involves not only murder but also a threat to sexual identity. Guy is attracted to Bruno, Guy is like Bruno, Guy's sexuality is there-fore fluid and changeable rather than fixed. Corber also points to an interesting change between Patricia Highsmith's novel and Hitchcock's film—the film adds the setting of Washington, D.C., where Guy is the assistant to a senator and in love with the senator's daughter. The Washington setting allows the threat of homosexuality to connect with threats to political security, for in the McCarthyist period both gays and Communists were investigated and at times were lumped together.36 In one memorable image Guy walks by the Jefferson Memorial with a policeman and sees Bruno on the steps of the Memorial. Bruno's "dark silhouette" seems very out of place on the "gleaming white marble" of the monument, and this suggests not only Guy's personal troubles but also Bruno's threat to the Republic.37

Homosexual and political elements are present, but they do not entirely explain Strangers on a Train. Bruno is not explicitly a homosexual in the film—indeed, the Production Code allowed no presentation of homosexuality. The spectator can intuit this character's sexual orientation through such clues as Bruno's dependence on his mother and his exaggerated attention to personal grooming. Political symbolism is even more hidden than sexual identity. The Washington setting is never explained, except perhaps by showing that Guy as a would-be politician has much to lose if he is involved in any scandal. Strangers on a Train is not primarily about anti-Communist and homosexual panic, but it uses these elements to help create the background of anxiety so characteristic of film noir and of Hitchcock films in general.


The late 1940s and early 1950s were an important time of transition for the Western film. The simple, formulaic Westerns of the early sound period were no longer attractive to audiences. Westerns of the 1950s had to provide something more: in theme, in setting, and in technique. French critic André Bazin referred to this moment of change as the era of the "superwestern," meaning that a successful Western had to be innovative in "aesthetic, sociological, moral, psychological, political, or erotic" terms. (Bazin's essay on the Western distinguishes between "superwesterns," where something extrinsic has been added to the genre—examples are High Noon and Shane—and "novelistic" Westerns, where traditional themes are treated with more complexity than in previous decades, in cases such as Anthony Mann's films. This discussion of the Western considers both trends under the heading of superwesterns).38 The Westerns of the late 1940s met this challenge to be innovative with such memorable films as Duel in the Sun (1947), Pursued (1947), and Red River (1948). In the early 1950s the period of experimentation continued, and a number of excellent films were made.

John Ford, a celebrated director of both silent and sound Westerns (The Iron Horse, 1924; Stagecoach, 1939; My Darling Clementine, 1946), was still working in a fairly traditional vein in the early 1950s. Rio Grande (Republic Pictures, 1950), the third film in Ford's Cavalry trilogy, was about efforts to defeat the Apaches in the 1870s. In the film, bands of Apaches have been raiding the United States and then retreating across the Rio Grande to sanctuary in Mexico. With the support of General Sheridan and the immediate stimulus of the abduction of children, a U.S. Cavalry force led by Colonel Kirby York (John Wayne) crosses the Rio Grande, attacks the Apaches, and rescues the children. The film does present a conflict between father and son—Colonel York and Trooper York (Claude Jarman)—and it gives unusual importance to Mrs. York (Maureen O'Hara). This begins to suggest the psychological complexity of many "superwesterns." However, in Rio Grande these conflicts are quickly resolved and the film ends with a show of family, military, and national unity.

Rio Grande is highly traditional in its treatment of the Apaches. They are the Enemy, dangerous adversaries who can strike at any time. Their history and motivations are not discussed, and they are rarely given names. The film does avoid some negative stereotypes—the Apaches have no bizarre or bloodthirsty customs, and they do not harm or even greatly frighten the children. But Ford's emphasis is very strongly on the Cavalry and its bonds of family, friendship, and military regulations. He is simply not interested in the Indians (or Native Americans);39 however, in a few years this would change.

Broken Arrow (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1950), set in Arizona in 1870, takes a different view of the conflict between the army, the settlers, and the Apaches. In this film prospector and army scout Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) helps a wounded Chiricahua Apache teenager in the desert and as a result he is well treated after he is captured by the Apaches. Stewart's unique experience allows him to assist in the signing of a treaty between the U.S. Army and the Apache chief, Cochise. A younger Apache, Geronimo, refuses the treaty and leads a group of dissidents into exile and banditry. Stewart's experience of the Apaches as human beings results in his marriage to an Apache woman. However, his bride is killed by white settlers, implying the film's point of view on the imperfect nature of the accord between Caucasian Americans and Native Americans. Though Broken Arrow is described as historically accurate in an opening voiceover narration, critic and historian Frank Manchel has found numerous inaccuracies. For example, the film shows Native Americans unfamiliar with prospecting for gold, but by 1870 prospectors had been illegally exploring Indian lands for many years. The story of Geronimo is falsified, because Geronimo remained with his people on the reservation until after Cochise's death in 1874. Most troubling of all, the film does not show the results of the treaty, the horrible conditions on the Chiricahua Apache reservation including malnutrition, disease and harassment by government authorities.40 Clearly, Broken Arrow is an idealized version of history. However, within the traditions of the Western genre, it takes an innovative position. It humanizes the Apaches, presents Cochise as a great leader, and includes a marriage between a Caucasian American and a Native American. If historical films address both the present and the past, then Broken Arrow suggests the possibility of reconciliation between the white Americans of 1950 and a variety of minority groups (including, but not limited to, the African American community). This line of argument is developed further in Chapter 9.

Director Anthony Mann was one of the key figures in the 1950s reworking of the Western genre. Mann's Westerns were notable for psychological complexity and bleakness of tone. The Furies (Paramount, 1950), centers on a conflict between father and daughter. T. C. Jeffords (Walter Huston), owner of a huge ranch in New Mexico called "The Furies," rules his domain "like a feudal lord" (quoting the opening credits of the film). T. C. is strong, passionate, impulsive, generous; he is also proud, petty, violent, and often blind to the emotions of others. Daughter Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) has most of her father's vices and virtues. Their conflict comes to a climax when Vance stabs T. C.'s fiancée with a scissors, mutilating her face, and T. C. responds by hanging Vance's friend Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland) as a horse thief. The Herreras have lived as squatters on the ranch for generations, and by custom they take what they need—so Juan and his family are an affront to T. C.'s self-image as lord and master. Vance breaks with her father, and eventually schemes successfully to buy out the ranch, revealing her identity only at the last moment. T. C. takes his daughter's victory in good grace, but just after their reconciliation he is shot dead by Mrs. Herrera, Juan's mother.

When it presents drawing rooms, banks, and city folks, The Furies is a very ordinary film. However, the family and clan conflicts, often shown in day-for-night exteriors, have an extraordinary power. T. C. is a kind of demigod, a force of nature; he can rescue a calf from mud or throw the strongest bull. His cowboys make him a legend in his own life-time via a campfire song. Vance also has a half-mythic status; entirely comfortable on horseback even at night, she is born to power on the ranch. Vance is often shown from low angles (like her father) to emphasize strength. The Herreras are equally elemental, a part of the land, as their rocky fortress suggests. Thus when T. C. hangs Juan, breaking his promise of safe conduct for the Herreras to leave the ranch, nature has been violated. The moonlit hanging scene, with the actual deed inferred from Vance's reactions and Mrs. Herrera's screams, has an astonishing emotional charge.41 The Furies is not quite Greek tragedy (The Furies is the name sometimes given to the third play of the Oresteia, by Aeschylus) but the reference is far from trivial.

The Far Country (1955) is similarly shocking and violent, but with the element of color spectacle added. This film starts in Seattle, with Jeff Webster (James Stewart) and his partner Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) boarding a boat for Alaska. Most of the film takes place in the gorgeous scenery of Skagway, Alaska, and the Yukon Territory, where the visual beauty contrasts powerfully with the depths of human cruelty. James Stewart here plays somewhat against type as a nasty, selfish cowboy accused of two murders. He is, however, less venal than the corrupt judge and businessman Mr. Gannon, played by John Mclntyre, who rules the frontier North by both legal and illegal terror. With his partner killed and the mining town in shambles, the selfish Stewart ("I look after me") finally turns on Gannon and saves what is left of the community. The hero's concluding change of heart resembles the final scenes of Casablanca (1942), but with far less uplift. Even in a "happy ending" film, Mann focuses on human weakness and cruelty.

Shane (1953), directed by George Stevens, is another superwestern of visual spectacle, shot in the high plains of Wyoming. It is also an innovative Western in its emphasis on the narrative position of a young boy, Joey, who makes the film's conflict between homesteaders and ranchers seem larger-than-life. Joey mythologizes the gunslinger-turned-farmhand named Shane (Alan Ladd), who in the iconography of the film becomes almost a Messiah figure. In Joey's vision of the story, the conflicts between adults are overcharged with emotion, creating exhilaration and terror. Even little things take on power and beauty, as in the scene where Shane and Joe Starrett (Joey's father, played by Van Heflin) uproot an enormous stump. The attraction between Shane and Joey's mother (Jean Arthur) is also interesting—Joey feels it but never quite understands it. The film's narrative strategy is apt because Westerns are, in large part, a genre intended for young boys. By placing an "ideal spectator" within the text and having this spectator to some extent create the text, Stevens and his scriptwriters create a meta-Western, a Western about the experience of Westerns.

High Noon (United Artists, 1952), directed by Fred Zinnemann, is an innovative Western in both theme and narrative structure. Like The Far Country, High Noon questions the effectiveness of community in the face of evil. Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) can find no one to help him in a noon showdown with four notorious gunmen, the Miller gang. No citizen of the prosperous town of Hadleyville is willing to risk his life to protect law and order. Kane faces the gunmen himself, though he does get a last minute assist from his new bride, Amy (Grace Kelly). Kane prevails, then throws down his sheriff's star and leaves the town in disgust.

The structural innovation is that High Noon takes place in "real time"—one minute of screen time equals one minute of time within the story. The film diegesis starts a bit after 10 a.m. and finishes just after noon. This rarely used approach adds greatly to the tension and narrative drive of High Noon. Decisions must be made; the crisis looms at twelve o'clock. The simple premise of the film is clearly established over the first hour and a half, and then the last fifteen minutes becomes an almost wordless montage. Here every camera angle and every cut serves to heighten the drama—with the clock ticking, only the most essential actions can be shown.

Many commentators on the film, including the filmmakers, agree that it makes a political statement. However, they disagree on exactly what is being said. For screenwriter Carl Foreman, High Noon is a political allegory stemming from his personal experience with HUAC and the blacklist (an ex-Communist, Foreman testified as an unfriendly witness before HUAC in 1951). Foreman said that the film was about "Hollywood and no other place but Hollywood."42 For producer Stanley Kramer, it is a film about "a town that died because no one there had the guts to defend it."43 Kramer also stresses the simplicity of the film, calling it "a story about right versus wrong."44 For director Fred Zinnemann, "it was the story of a man who must make a decision according to his conscience."45 Zinnemann adds that the hero is old and tired, not a mythical hero, and that the town is a "symbol of a democracy gone soft."46

One aspect of the film that is not much discussed is Amy Kane's shooting of one of the Miller gang, despite her Quaker (and therefore pacifist) beliefs. In the context of the film, it seems that she, like her husband, has made a difficult decision. One could also say that the filmmakers so mistrust human reactions to crisis that they are confident only of the husband-wife bond. More generally, this might be a comment on the need for violence in certain situations—as in the fight against Hitler, or against communism.


"Melodrama" in the American cinema defines a film genre that centers on tensions within an intimate group. It involves extremes of emotion and often but not always privileges a feminine point of view. In melodrama, the protagonist works through conflict and suffering to find her or his place in the social world. Though the surface message confirms traditional social patterns, this genre can also have a subversive charge, because it explores the tensions and contradictions within gender roles and families. Melodrama has therefore become a favorite genre of feminist critics.

All About Eve (written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, Twentieth Century-Fox, 1950), takes place in the world of the Broadway theater. There are many fascinating characters—a critic, a director, a producer, a writer, the writer's wife—but the film centers on an aging star, Margo Channing (Bette Davis), and her young, theater-obsessed protégé, Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). In the first part of the film, Eve is attentive and adoring to Margo and her circle. In the second half, she manages by unethical means to supplant Margo and become a Broadway star herself. The tempestuous Margo realizes she is past her prime and accepts the decline of her career with a surprising generosity and grace. She affirms her identity as woman first, actress second, and strengthens her bonds to a fiancé (Gary Merrill, who plays the director) and friends. On the other hand, Eve wins a prestigious award but has no friends to share it with—except for a star-struck young woman who wanders into her hotel room, thus perpetuating the cycle which began with Margo and Eve.

All About Eve lends itself to two quite different interpretations. The first and most direct would be that Margo is a wise woman with a sense of proportion, whereas Eve is a monster. By accepting a woman's place in society, Margo can look forward to a life beyond her acting career. But this interpretation does not adequately present the excitement and possibility of life in the theater. A second interpretation would stress that in the world of theater, women are the approximate equal of men. Certainly, Margo is the strongest and most successful character in the film, but there are other strong women as well: Eve Harrington, Karen Richards (the playwrights wife, played by Celeste Holm), and Birdie Coonan (Margo's dresser, played by Thelma Ritter). The theater milieu is filled with private and public intrigues, and the women negotiate them at least as well as the men.

Sunset Boulevard (directed by Billy Wilder, Paramount, 1950) is a hybrid film, part melodrama, part film noir, part black comedy. The black humor begins with the choice of narrator—a man whom we see floating face down in a swimming pool. The dead man, Joe Gillis (William Holden), then tells us in flashback how he got to this point. A struggling screenwriter, Gillis comes by accident to the door of an aged and reclusive Hollywood silent film star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Norma thinks that she is still the ultimate screen star: "It's the pictures that got small." He becomes her script collaborator, then her lover, filling the role once taken by her butler and ex-husband Max (Erich von Stroheim). Joe is so humiliated by this that he turns away a beautiful young woman (Nancy Olson) who tries to rescue him from Norma's bizarre mansion. When Joe does start to leave, Norma shoots him (thus the swimming pool scene). As the police arrest her, she parades down the mansion stairs for columnists and newsreel cameramen, content that her stardom has returned.

Sunset Boulevard is far more bitter than All About Eve about the contradiction between stardom and aging. Norma Desmond has nothing to substitute for the glamour of the studios—though wealthy, she is literally insane. Adding to the cruelty of this presentation, director Billy Wilder has cast actual silent film stars in a number of parts. Gloria Swanson was a first-rank star of the 1920s, Erich von Stroheim was an enormously important director and actor, and they are joined by Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Ç. Â. Warner in bit parts. There is a certain amount of pathos to Norma's situation, but she does not attain Margo Channings philosophical acceptance of a change of life.

Sunset Boulevard can also be seen as a pessimistic and bitter comment on contemporary Hollywood. It shows that Hollywood is an unstable, rapidly changing place, where creative giants may be forgotten within their lifetimes. Unlike Singin' in the Rain, which presents Hollywood entertainment as flourishing despite technological change, in Sunset Boulevard Hollywood may be a "haunted house," crippled by the emergent medium of television. Cecil B. DeMille plays himself in Wilder's film, working on a Paramount soundstage, but others of his generation have been abandoned by the industry. The implication is that this could happen again—today's stars could be tomorrow's Norma Desmonds.

Hard, Fast, and Beautiful (RKO, 1951) is a film directed and co-produced by Hollywood's only female director of the 1950s, Ida Lupino. Lupino (better known as an actress) and her husband, Collier Young, were the principals of Filmakers, a company which released a series of films through RKO. The Lupino-Young films were well-made and intelligent and cost only about $350,000 per picture. In Hard, Fast, and Beautiful, an ambitious mother takes advantage of her daughters tennis skills to move to a different social level. Millie Farley (Claire Trevor), the mother, and Florence Farley (Sally Forrest), the daughter, leave a modest neighborhood in Santa Monica, California, to tour the United States and Europe. Millie essentially abandons her husband Will (Kenneth Patterson), though without getting a divorce, and throws herself into the social whirl of the tennis circuit. She is encouraged by Fletcher Locke (Carleton G. Young), her daughters socially prominent coach. The daughter wins two U.S. Open championships at Forest Hills, but after the second championship she immediately quits tennis for love of her hometown boyfriend. The mother is abandoned by everyone.

This film uses both narration and visual storytelling to indicate shifting emotional loyalties. Millie's narration, which occasionally punctuates the first half of the film, suggests empathy for her daughter and husband and a willingness to be critical of herself. The visuals here also present Millie's point of view: difficult decisions, surprising success, motherly devotion. Later on, the narration disappears and Millies view of things is more open to question. For example, Will is suddenly taken ill and Millie thinks the next day's tennis match is more important than a visit home. Wife and daughter do visit a dying Will, who takes the occasion to bond with Florence and berate Millie for her selfishness. Then Millie gets involved with exploiting Florence's fame and keeping her on the tennis tour and away from the boy she loves. When Florence finally quits and Fletcher goes off to speak to another young player, Millie is left alone and devastated.

So, is Millie a sympathetic mother trying to give her daughter opportunities, or a nasty and selfish character prone to self-delusion (as presented in the voiceovers)? The film gives no explicit answer, but it does maintain a sense of balance. Florence's life is certainly not ruined; her independence and her common sense are ultimately affirmed. Millie has made serious mistakes, and Florence breaks away from her. This may be as much the normal separation of adolescent from parent as a response to Millie's selfishness. There are no female monsters here, no episodes of hysteria, no use of violence to ratchet up emotions. The spectator is free to decide whether Millie is destroyed by the final scene or whether she is lonely and hurting but still whole. One is tempted to ascribe the subtlety of the final moments to the presence of a woman behind the camera.47

A Streetcar Named Desire (directed by Elia Kazan, Warner Bros., 1951), based on the hit play by Tennessee Williams, is a brutally honest melodrama about desire and illusion. The central characters are Blanche Dubois (Vivian Leigh), a former schoolteacher; her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter); and Stellas husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando). Blanche leaves the family plantation, lost because of debts, to stay with Stella and Stanley in their small New Orleans apartment. She is a dreamer and a romantic, someone who hides the truth from herself and others. She prefers shadows, makeup, elaborate flirtations, anything that allows her to escape from the realities of an unhappy life. Stanley, on the other hand, is direct and physical, and his relationship with Stella is based on sexual satisfaction. Stanley eventually discovers that Blanche lost the family plantation, had a scandalous relationship with one of her students, and left her small town in disgrace. When Stella is in the hospital having a baby, Stanley rapes Blanche (this could not be shown or even talked about in the Hollywood of 1951, but Kazan does manage to suggest it). After Stella returns home, there is tension and hostility between husband and wife, but also an agreement that the delusional Blanche must go. Stella, Stanley, neighbors, and friends collude to send Blanche to a mental asylum (as with the rape, this destination is only suggested).

If melodrama is about accepting the limits of society, A Streetcar Named Desire fits the definition, but in a cruel and extreme way. Blanche is weak and full of illusions; she is destroyed. Stanley and Stella fulfill one of the basics of marriage, they produce a baby. And though Stella punishes Stanley by withholding herself and the baby from him, this seems to be temporary. The sexual attraction is still there. Desire is a streetcar that runs over people. A Streetcar Named Desire is an astonishing film to be made in Hollywood in the early fifties. Though it contains no nudity or profanity, its powerful and transgressive view of sexuality is far outside the periods norms—the norms of the screen, that is. Part of Streetcar's attraction (play and film) is that it describes real but generally unspoken matters.


In general, the early 1950s was a period of high-quality films made within socially and aesthetically conservative parameters. As producer John Houseman explained in 1950, the movies had to be good, because audience loyalties were waning. In the mid-1940s customers would line up to see almost any film; by the 1950s movie spectators were much more selective.48 But this did not immediately translate into creative innovation for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the major studios with their thousands of employees and extensive physical plants were set up to make a certain kind of film. MGM, for example, had the resources and the expertise to make top-quality musicals according to traditional patterns. The blacklist and related pressures also encouraged conventional thinking: war films were expected to be patriotic (though Twelve O'Clock High, Halls of Montezuma, and The Bridges of Toko-Ri all introduced a degree of complexity) and even film noir invoked anti-communism (as in Pickup on South Street).

Some films fled social controversy by situating stories in a nostalgically remembered past. For example, Singin' in the Rain is set in the 1920s and features Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown songs from that period. By the Light of the Silvery Moon is set in approximately the same period. Even Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a brassy con-temporary film, is based on a novel from the 1920s. Other films stuck determinedly to a small, enclosed context with little sense of a broader social world; consider, for example, the theater in All Arout Eve, the movie business in In a Lonely Place, Norma Desmond's mansion in Sunset Boulevard. Sometimes this emphasis on a small, tight universe becomes mannered; both All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard have a comic, campy element because they insist on the crucial importance of their respective "worlds" (though Margo Channing in All About Eve has a healthy ability to move on from the life of a Broadway diva).

Paradoxically, it is the Western, among the most traditional of American film genres, which shows the greatest capacity for innovation in the early 1950s. The superwestern described by André Bazin involves experimentation with both film form and film content. Films such as Shane and The Far Country redefine the Western's visual scope for color and widescreen. Shane adds the narrative innovation of privileging the Brandon de Wilde character's youthful point of view. Anthony Mann's The Furies invests the Western with elements of Greek tragedy. High Noon provides both a formal innovation, the identity between narrative (or on-screen) time and real time, and a strategy for indirect social criticism. Broken Arrow revises the Western's traditional account of the relationship between Caucasian American and Native American communities.

With hindsight it seems clear that the Hollywood films of the early 1950s needed to change, but that both film industry conditions and broader social factors mitigated against change. Hollywood was, for example, late to respond to teenagers as a crucial audience segment. Later periods showed that teens wanted to see films about their own generation, but the film industry's traditional structure and aging personnel circa 1950 were ill-equipped to make such films. Hollywood also shied away from films about social issues and changing sexual morality, even though both subjects (especially the latter) had been film industry staples in the past. Here the logical explanation must be social pressures (the blacklist, threats from Congress, censorship), even though the exact mechanisms of influence are not always clear.

The result of this need to change/blockage of change was a form of "High Classicism"—well-made but conventional films. Both the musical and film noir were relying on the styles and the creative personnel of the 1940s. Melodramas insisted on conventional morality, and a fairly large cycle of films dramatized (and supported) McCarthyist anticommunism. More critical social commentary was largely limited to indirect expressions in adventure genres such as the Western and science fiction (see Chapter 8), and to the mood (more than the narrative) of film noir. The films of the period do sometimes have a "timeless" quality—and certainly the Freed musicals and films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, Sands of Iwo Jima, High Noon, and Shane have retained an enthusiastic audience, but this has both positive and negative aspects. The positive element is the familiar set of themes, styles, and narrative patterns that make these films easy to understand. The negative element is that films from this era maintained an isolation from what Robert Sklar calls "the changes and movements in the dominant culture at large."49 A Streetcar Named Desire and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes suggest a new frankness about sexuality, Kiss Me Deadly begins to criticize the macho male, and High Noon may be describing the anti-Communist panic (depending on how one interprets the film), but overall the films of the early 1950s are curiously detached from the issues of their time. In the later 1950s, films connected to social, political, and cultural issues reappear, as Chapter 10 will demonstrate.