Genres and Production Trends, 1955–1959

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Genres and Production Trends, 1955–1959

War Films
Film Noir
American New Realism39
Teen Films
Beyond Genre?

The changes that occurred in American film industry structure during the later 1950s—with the five major studios in continuing decline and independents on the rise—had a significant effect on the kinds of films that were made. Hollywood filmmaking began to evolve toward a broader spectrum of film types and spectator choices. Under the studio system of the 1930s and 1940s, dominated by the "Big Five" studios, the entire yearly output of Twentieth Century-Fox or Warner Bros. had to meet the expectations and preferences of the studio production head (Darryl Zanuck at Fox, Jack Warner at Warner Bros.). Under the independent production system of the late 1950s, a far larger group of decision-makers had more leeway (though certainly not total freedom) to attract and entertain movie audiences in new ways. The independents also had less loyalty than the studio moguls to industry traditions and to homogenizing institutions such as the Motion Picture Production Code.

Genres are always changing; indeed, the very notion of "film genre" relies on a tension between continuity and variation. The audience for a genre film expects both a familiar narrative experience and an increment of innovation. However, the late 1950s does seem to be the beginning of an important shift away from a relatively stable system of film genres (reflecting the studios' sense of the audience) and toward more variety and experimentation (reflecting the range of interests of the independent producers interacting with a changing, fragmenting audience). The period of increased variation in film genre is sometimes called "postclassical Hollywood": an era marking the end of the studio system and the beginning of something new. Critic/historian James Harvey described the "postclassical movie" as one that "emphasized and aestheticized" genre, "using the familiarity not to reassure but to astonish and even discomfit us."1 As Harvey suggested, individual films became more self-conscious and more complex in this period; two of his examples are Touch of Evil (1958) and Vertigo (1959). Genres considered in overview also changed in postclassical Hollywood, with Westerns, for example, becoming more diver-gent from one another. And some of the best films of the late 1950s do not fit comfortably into any one genre.

Though internal film industry conditions account for much of the shift described above, external sociopolitical conditions also had a strong influence on the films of 1955-1959. By the mid-1950s, the Cold War had eased, though not disappeared, both internationally and domestically. The Korean War ended in 1953 with disengagement and the armistice of Panmunjom. After Stalin's death in 1953 and the ascension of Nikita Khrushchev, the United States and the Soviet Union reached an uneasy "peaceful coexistence." Within the United States, the anti-Communist crusade gradually subsided. Joseph McCarthy was censored by the Senate in 1954, though various mechanisms of domestic anti-Communism, including the Hollywood Blacklist, continued through the decade. The return to relative normalcy allowed Hollywood to move beyond the paranoia and conformity of the early 1950s and to consider a wider range of subjects and themes.

The economic boom fueled by housing and consumerism continued into the late 1950s. Though the film industry itself was not particularly prosperous, the lavish homes, big cars, and stylish wardrobes shown on the cinema screen were a manifestation of American wealth and power. This "background" material, rather than film plots and themes, may have been the most influential message that Hollywood exported to the world. American films certainly charted the dynamics of the middle-class family, the pleasures of the wealthy, and the dating rituals of teenagers and urban professionals. The working class was under-represented but not completely absent. Hollywood also presented the many landscapes and subcultures of the United States and the world, often in color and widescreen and with an emphasis on the picturesque and the touristic.

Historian Elaine Tyler May has suggested that the emphasis on the family in 1950s America was not something separate from Cold War anxieties, but rather an attempt to find security in threatening times. In the 1950s American couples married earlier, had families earlier, and had larger families than in other decades of the twentieth century. Further, suburban families lived according to conservatively defined gender roles (husband as breadwinner, wife as homemaker) that were quite different from the prevailing attitudes of the World War II years, when women were encouraged to work.2 Thus, in focusing on the family and on intimate relationships the movies were actually presenting rather than avoiding (or presenting as well as avoiding) social issues of great currency. Many films described tensions within the couple and the family and were at least moderately critical of the status quo. This criticism was, however, undercut by the genres chosen to explore family and personal life: melodrama and romantic comedy. Both genres may posit alternative ways of living in society, but they conclude with a reaffirmation of social order. (Occasionally the reaffirmation is ironic; see the discussion of Douglas Sirk, below.)

In the 1940s and the early 1950s the American film industry generally presented teenagers as either miniature adults or children. It was in 1955, with the release of Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, that the teenage years began to be shown as a separate stage of life. Though the movies may claim some credit (or blame) for spreading this idea of the teenager, Hollywood films were largely reacting to a new youth culture made possible by a booming economy, technological advances (from inexpensive automobiles to the 45 rpm record player), and cultural blending (like the mixture of the popular music of both black and white culture, which produced rock and roll). Hollywood teenagers did not, however, fit into a narrow stereotype—they ranged from well-behaved rich kids (Bernardine, 1957) or surfers (Gidget, 1959) to troubled teens (East of Eden, 1955) and juvenile delinquents (Blackboard Jungle).

The subject of race relations was considered too liberal or even Communistic for Hollywood films at the height of the blacklist period (though No Way Out, 1950, and The Well, 1951, are exceptions to this rule). However, by the second half of the decade race relations, once again on Hollywood's agenda, were explored in a number of ways. Some films directly discussed black-white or Hispanic-white relationships—notably The Defiant Ones (1958) and Trial (1955). Other films indirectly broached the subject; for example, in The Searchers (1956), Trooper Hook (1957), and other Westerns, white-Indian relationships (often involving marriage, mixed-race children, and questions of mutual acceptance) can be seen as metaphorical explorations of white-black relationships. Race issues were handled in several different genres—melodrama, war film, teen film, prison film (if that is a genre), and Western.

The discussion of Hollywood genres here is not intended to be encyclopedic or to cover all of the "best" films. Rather, a sample of thirty-five films has been chosen to show the range of artistic accomplishments in the period and to highlight several characteristic concerns. Some major films have been omitted—for example, Hitchcock is represented by Vertigo (1958), but To Catch a Thief (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), and North by Northwest (1959) are left out. The advantage of this strategy is that the chosen films can be examined in detail.


The Freed Unit at MGM—a highly successful group of musical comedy actors, directors, choreographers, composers, and arrangers supervised by producer Arthur Freed—cut back on production in the late 1950s but did continue to create a few original musicals (not based on a Broadway show). It's Always Fair Weather (1955) was a sequel to On the Town (1949), the idea being that the three GIs from that movie would meet ten years later in the same New York bar. As with On the Town, the script was by Comden and Green and the star was Gene Kelly, but in a few important respects the latter movie is a step down in quality. Whereas the earlier film featured Kelly and Frank Sinatra, in It's Always Fair Weather Kelly dominates his male co-stars, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd. On the Town has a superb musical score by Leonard Bernstein, but André Previn's songs for It's Always Fair Weather are, by the composer's own admission, not strong.3 There is also a youthful exuberance to On the Town that is sadly lacking in the sequel. The three ex-soldiers have led very different lives, and each brings personal and professional problems to the meeting at the bar. Their resumed friendship takes a strange detour through a TV show (a version of "reality TV," based on the 1950s show This Is Your Life), which actually broadcasts part of their story. This leads to a satire of live TV and also complicates several strands of the plot. The film ends in a comic reunification—the perfect couple and the perfect friends—but it labors mightily to get there.

Silk Stockings (1957) is not an original. Indeed the story had been previously presented at least three times: as a play by Melchior Lengyel, as the Hollywood film Ninotchka (1939), and as a Broadway musical. The story behind all of the productions is that a serious, even grim, female bureaucrat from the Soviet Union travels to Paris on business where she is courted and converted to capitalism by a Western and therefore decadent man. The 1939 film version, directed by Ernst Lubitsch from a script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, is a sly and gentle satire of communism and a validation of the capitalist and hedonist West. The Soviet official was beautifully played on screen by Greta Garbo. In reprising this story, MGM was betting that the anti-Communist panic of the early 1950s had subsided enough so that audiences could appreciate a comic treatment of Communist-capitalist differences.

The 1957 film version of Cole Porter's musical Silk Stockings, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, features Fred Astaire as Steve Canfield, a gallant American film producer, and Cyd Charisse as Nina Yoshenko (Ninotchka), a pragmatic and suspicious Soviet envoy. Much of the conflict between political and economic systems is presented via singing and dancing, which is entirely appropriate for a film starring Astaire and Charisse. The title calls attention to Charisse's legs as well as to the frankly consumerist appeals of capitalism. The title specifically refers to a wordless dance solo in which Charisse replaces her dowdy underthings with stockings and lingerie—an early indication of her seduction/conversion. An amusing element of the musical is a trio of male commissars (Peter Lorre, Jules Munshin, and Joseph Buloff), who have preceded Ninotchka to Paris and have been seduced by Western life. These three oddballs slither through a couple of dance numbers, suggesting Russian "difference" and perhaps homosexuality. After many plot complications, the male commissars open a Russian nightclub in Paris, and Ninotchka accepts (by implication at least) a proposal of marriage from Steve.

Silk Stockings is neither serious nor fair in its consideration of Cold War issues, but it does have the virtues of a well-made film. The score, the star performances, the art direction, and the blend of dancing and drama all confirm that MGM was still making excellent musicals late into the 1950s.

Funny Face (1957) started out as another Freed Unit production, but moved from MGM to Paramount for two reasons: 1) the desired stars, Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, had contractual commitments to Paramount; and 2) MGM's top executives were not enthusiastic about the project.4 So, a number of MGM creative personnel, including producer Roger Edens, director Stanley Donen, writer Leonard Gershe, arranger Adolph Deutsch, vocal arranger Conrad Salinger, music supervisor Lela Simone, and choreographer Eugene Loring, moved to Paramount to make this film. According to Hugh Fordin, the personnel plus the story plus the Gershwin score were sold to Paramount as a "package."5 A third star, Kay Thompson, had once worked with the Freed unit as a vocal arranger, but she had been pursuing a singing career in New York for several years.

In Funny Face Astaire plays a fashion photographer—modeled on Richard Avedon—who works primarily for Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), the tyrannical editor of Quality magazine. Hepburn, an intellectual who wears dark, baggy clothing, is "discov ered" by Astaire in a Greenwich Village bookstore. Astaire persuades Thompson that Hepburn's "funny" face, though not conventionally beautiful, is just what the magazine needs for a Paris spring fashion article, and Hepburn agrees to go to Paris because of her passion for a French philosophical movement, Empathicalism (a parody of existentialism). In Paris, Hepburn slips away to spend time in an Empathicalist cellar club; she is a less-than-devoted fashion model. However, she eventually realizes that Professor Flaustre (Michel Auclair), leader of the Empathicalists, is a phony, and that Astaire is the man who truly has empathy and love for her.

Unlike An American in Paris, which did a good job of stylizing Paris on a studio set, Funny Face shows us the lyricism of the real Paris. A montage set piece, "Ici Paris," presents the three characters (each one alone in the frame) rushing around Paris and exulting in its tourist sights—the Arch of Triumph, Champs Elysées, Montmartre, Palace of Trocadero, the Seine, Luxembourg Gardens, and so on. Concluding the song, they all arrive at the Eiffel Tower. Later Astaire and Hepburn are together in the frame but exploring Paris as the backdrop for a fashion shoot. At the end of the film, they have connected with Paris as passionate human beings—they are married at dawn in the picturesque little church that they first encountered as a setting for photos.

The explicit theme of the film is that the beatnik/existentialist aspect of the Hepburn character must be tamed by American culture and values so that she can find true love. Beatnik characteristics, as portrayed in Funny Face, include the lack of feeling, culture, and good judgment. This is demonstrated by a scene where Astaire and Thompson, dressed as pseudo-beatniks, talk their way into an Empathicalist party and captivate their French hosts with a dreadful parody of American folk/country/rock music. Astaire is then able to rescue Hepburn from the unwanted romantic advances of Professor Flaustre, and to provide her with a picture-perfect romantic wedding.

However, the very presence of beatniks—wearing black, sitting in cellar clubs, listening to jazz, the males bearded, the females sexually aggressive—suggests a youthful rebellion against the conformity represented (and disseminated) by Thompson and Astaire. This rebellion is beautifully embodied by Hepburn midway through the film when she rejects an over-protective Astaire and expresses her feelings via a solo jazz dance (she is eventually joined by two male beatniks). The asymmetrical, unpredictable, sensual dance with rhythmic accompaniment is a powerful rejection of conventional Hollywood musical styles—and of Fred Astaire, a central figure in establishing those styles. The rejection of Astaire and romance is quickly recouped by a narrative that brings the two main characters together. But one can still dream of a Funny Face in which Audrey Hepburn abandons Fred Astaire and remains in Paris with the Empathicalists.

Gigi (1958), based on a novel by Colette, is another Freed Unit film set in Paris, this time early twentieth-century Paris. The title character (played by Leslie Caron) is a spirited teenager being raised by her grandmother and great-aunt to be a courtesan, a mistress of rich men. Both the handsome Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan) and his jaded uncle Honoré (Maurice Chevalier) are captivated by her youth, simplicity, and joie de vivre. Gaston works out an arrangement with the grandmother for Gigi to become his mistress. Gigi refuses, then accepts. But Gaston reconsiders, and asks the grandmother for Gigi's hand in marriage. The film concludes with Chevalier singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls." Despite the conventional denouement, this film's content would not have been acceptable under Production Code censorship even a few years earlier.

Stylistically, GIGI is different from the other top MGM musicals of the 1950s—it is a singing musical, an operetta, rather than a dancing musical. Film historian Gerald Mast complained that Gigi has the feel of a Broadway show rather than a movie (although it was not adapted from a play). He added that "Leslie Caron doesn't even dance—the one musical thing she knows how to do."6 Nevertheless, the film does achieve some of the synergy of the best Freed musicals because of the integration of story, music, and visual style. Director Vincente Minnelli, production designer Cecil Beaton, and cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg marvelously evoke a period Paris (shot on location) with rich colors and a gliding camera. The use of CinemaScope, which usually mandates shallow focus, here allows for composition in depth as well as width. Gigi won Arthur Freed his second Best Picture Oscar of the decade.

South Pacific (1958), based on the Broadway show by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, was released in 70 mm. Panavision in 1958. Though listed as a Buddy Adler production for Twentieth Century-Fox, this film was actually owned and controlled by Rodgers and Hammerstein with distribution by Fox. Despite wonderful songs, important themes, and breathtaking scenery, South Pacific is a disappointing film. The images are often static and shallow, with spectacular vistas presented as picturesque backdrops instead of lived-in realities. The production is very respectful of the Broadway original, with good performances by Mitzi Gaynor, Rossano Brazzi, John Kerr, and Ray Walston. Yet this film somehow lacks a spark—it has not been re-imagined for the screen. Mast commented that South Pacific and other Rodgers and Hammerstein films of the fifties (Oklahoma!, 1955; Carousel, 1956; The King and I, 1956) are "reverential attempts…to hang decorative sights on important music."7

The original film musical as a staple of Hollywood programming was essentially finished as of 1958. Arthur Freed produced only one more musical, Bells Are Ringing (1960), after Gigi; his last film was the non-musical Light in the Piazza (1962). Stanley Donen quickly followed Funny Face with two more musicals, The Pajama Game (1957) and Damn Yankees (1958), but these were adaptations of Broadway shows and they did not presage a continuing commitment to musical production. After 1958 Donen moved to non-musical films. Causes of the demise of the original musical have been much debated, but two main factors were probably involved: 1. original musicals were far more expensive than the average Hollywood film; 2. musical tastes were changing, particularly among the young people who now constituted Hollywood's most dependable audience.


In the late 1950s, many romantic comedies responded to America's changing sexual mores by considering the idea that adventurous but otherwise normal people might have sex outside of marriage. Often such comedies feature a playboy looking for casual love affairs who is eventually pushed toward marriage by the love of a beautiful and morally traditional woman. Or the playboy might lose the woman to a less exciting but more reliable man. In either version, the arc of the plot allows for both the thrill of a "new" morality and the security of the old ways.

Judy Holliday was a kind of throwback—an entertainer whose working class persona succeeded because of common sense and a good heart. She could have been a heroine of 1930s screwball comedy; in the 1950s her populist leanings seemed a bit out of place. It is probably not coincidental that Holliday worked for Columbia, which had produced It Happened One Night (1933), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and other populist fables directed by Frank Capra. In It Should Happen to You (1954), Holliday's character Gladys Glover loses her job and buys space on a billboard in Manhattans Columbus Circle to advertise her name (no other message). This is a simple and direct way to say "I exist" and it is also eccentric in the tradition of screwball comedy. Gladys's self-advertisement brings her to the attention of Evan Adams III (Peter Lawford), who needs the billboard space for his soap company. Adams, a would-be playboy, expects that his money, power, and favors will convince a grateful Gladys to go to bed with him, but she rejects him. Instead, she winds up with a poor but honorable documentary filmmaker (played by Jack Lemmon), who has admired her without forcing a romantic relationship. Lemmon's sliceof-life documentary work allows this Hollywood movie to make a not entirely convincing comparison between the falsity of advertising and the honesty of film.

An Affair to Remember (1957) is about two very experienced, even jaded, socialites (expertly played by Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr) who meet on a transatlantic liner, flirt at length, agree not to fall in love, and fall in love anyway. The film concludes with a series of melodramatic flourishes: the couple agree to meet at the top of the Empire State Building, but Kerr doesn't get there because of a car accident. Exactly one year later, Grant and Kerr both travel to the rendezvous point in the desperate hope that the other will be there; they meet and declare their love. An Affair to Remember was introduced to a younger generation by the hit romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle (1993), where it is presented via dialogue and film clips as the perfect romantic movie. This is an odd "afterlife" for a film that spends much of its time debunking the clichés of courtship and seduction.

Some Like It Hot (1959), directed by Billy Wilder and starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemmon, is undoubtedly the most screened and most written-about romantic comedy of the 1950s. It was based on the 1951 German film comedy Fanfaren der Liebe, in which two male musicians dress in women's clothes and play in a female band. Wilder and co-scriptwriter I. A. L. Diamond changed the setting to Chicago and Florida in 1929 so that everyone would be in costume and the men in drag would stand out less. Casting for Some Like It Hot was a lengthy process, with Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Curtis among those considered for the male leads.8 The film was finally cast with Curtis and Jack Lemmon as the men in drag, and Marilyn Monroe as the female lead.

Two unemployed musicians, saxophone player Joe (Curtis) and bassist Jerry (Lemmon), hide from the Chicago mob by dressing as women and taking a job with a touring all-female jazz band. Joe becomes "Josephine" and Jerry "Daphne." The two befriend Sugar Kane (Monroe), the band's beautiful singer, on a train going to Florida. During the band's long engagement at a luxury hotel, Joe begins courting Sugar, disguising himself as a millionaire playboy while at the same time using his female persona to become her close friend. At the same time, Jerry/Daphne resists the amorous advances of aging millionaire Osgood Fielding III, played by Joe E. Brown. At the film's end Joe reveals himself to Sugar as a penniless musician and she accepts him. Meanwhile, Osgood proposes to Daphne, who in desperation reveals that she is a man. Osgood then serenely delivers the film's ending line: "Nobody's perfect."

Some Like It Hot's virtues include wonderful casting and excellent comic timing. Curtis nicely juggles three personae, Joe, Josephine, and the mild-mannered millionaire, and it is the last character's diffidence that allows the usually aggressive and conniving Joe to connect with Sugar. Lemmon's Jerry is the sidekick here, aware of the craziness of Joe's schemes and yet deferring to his friend. Jerry also seems to enjoy the masquerade of drag, and this morphs into a willingness to take on the feminine role in courtship.

Billy Wilder was the director who best understood Marilyn Monroe's movie persona. Wilder's The Seven Year Itch (1955) was a wonderful vehicle for Monroe, the film that established her natural, naive, all-American sexuality. By the time of Some Like It Hot, Monroe was looking older and had put on a few pounds. So Wilder and Diamond created a character that was thirtyish and a bit dissipated, but still beautiful and sexy. This character is also warm and compassionate, accepting her own weaknesses and those of others. Monroe adjusts her performance so that she can convincingly be Josephine's sincere, intimate friend and at the same time a somewhat calculating (but not cold) woman angling to land a rich bachelor. Further, Monroe can be aggressive because the millionaire is shy, and this makes the relationship exciting and unpredictable.

Some Like It Hot's enduring popularity derives in part from star power, but it also involves themes of sympathy and understanding between men and women. Many romantic comedies of the 1950s present seduction as a game or even a war between men and women (as exemplified by titles such as The Tender Trap, 1955). Certainly the romance of Sugar and Joe is among other things a game, with each character trying to highlight certain things and hide others. But the comic device of putting men in drag allows the film to show women as warm, funny, interesting human beings instead of stereotyped objects of desire. Joe and Jerry get past many of the physical and social barriers that typically separate unmarried men and women. The result is at times titillating, but more importantly it reveals that despite appearances, the opposite sex is very much like us (whether "us" is male or female).

The romance between Daphne and Osgood stretches this sympathy between the sexes even further. If the other sex is like us, then why shouldn't Daphne remain a woman, as culturally if not physically defined? Her elderly suitor, it seems, would be quite content. This is a bombshell of an idea which Wilder and Diamond deftly throw into a madcap comedy.


The epic film was a staple of Hollywood in the 1950s, but "epic" can have a few different meanings. First, it can simply describe a large-scale film, which means one could have epic war films, or Westerns, or perhaps even melodramas (like Giant, 1956). More typically, "epic story" or "epic film" refers to a well-known story about a hero set in the past. Further, epics such as the Iliad or the Divine Comedy are founding or defining stories about a people, a nation, or a religion; readers or film viewers would therefore experience some part of their cultural identity in the content and symbolism of an epic. But a film epic need not be so ambitious in its reach; sometimes it is simply an adventure film set in a familiar era of the past.

The Vikings (directed by Richard Fleischer, 1958) was a film produced by and starring Kirk Douglas. United Artists had established a relationship with Douglas's Bryna Productions in the mid-1950s, and this film with its $3.5 million budget signaled UA's confidence in him. The Vikings is a beautiful film to look at, photographed in Technirama (Technicolor's widescreen process) by British cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The many scenes of eighth-century Viking ships on the water or hugging a rocky coast are absolutely breathtaking, and interiors in the Viking banquet hall are impressive as well. Douglas himself is an excellent swashbuckler in the role of Einar, son of the Viking leader Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine). Unfortunately, the film has story problems; as the New York Times put it, The Vikings is a "scrambled saga."9 The plot includes a complex intrigue about the succession to a small British kingdom, with Eric (Tony Curtis), whom we first meet as a Viking slave, as a possible heir to the throne. Another chunk of the plot involves the Welsh Princess Morgana (Janet Leigh), who is torn between three men: the evil King Aella, Einar, and Eric. Even though Douglas is by far the most charismatic presence in the film, it is the less impressive Curtis (Brooklyn accent and all) who gets the girl.

The Vikings does not have that extra dimension of epic-as-founding-story mentioned above. Possible connections to British history or the Viking exploration of North America are not pursued. So the film becomes an adventure story, with good visuals and lots of action scenes. The film earned $6,000,000, but after distribution expenses it did not return a profit.10

Ben-Hur (directed by William Wyler, 1959) was the single most popular film released in the 1950s, surpassing even DeMille's The Ten Commandments (for a detailed discussion of The Ten Commandments, see Chapter 7). This film was a "founding story" of Western culture and the Christian religion, since the life of the fictional Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) connects at several points with the life and death of Jesus Christ. MGM put $15 million into the project; such a large budget is always a gamble, but the silent Ben-Hur had been a huge hit in the 1920s and the success of The Robe and The Ten Commandments suggested a continuing interest in biblical epics. Also, the 1880 novel Ben-Hur by General Lew Wallace had been popular for many decades.

Filmed in Italy, Ben-Hur was a colossal undertaking, a 220-minute film involving three production units. William Wyler and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees headed the first production unit, which had the primary responsibility of filming the dialogue scenes. A second unit led by director Andrew Marton, cinematographer Piero Portalupi, and legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt filmed the film's major set piece, the eleven-minute chariot race. The huge set for the race extended over eighteen acres and took more than a year to build. The third unit led by director Richard Thorpe and cinematographer Harold E. Wellman filmed a sea battle and helped out on the chariot race."11

Judah Ben-Hur is a Jewish prince who lives in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus of Nazareth. He is arrested and enslaved by the Romans, serves several years as a galley slave, and eventually makes his way back to Jerusalem. Ben-Hur defeats his boyhood friend, now enemy, Messala (Stephen Boyd), the man who arrested him, in the spectacular chariot race. Then Ben-Hur and his family are redeemed (his mother and sister cured of leprosy) at the moment of Jesus's trial and crucifixion.

Ben-Hur was shot in MGM 65, a wide film process developed by Panavision. Like Todd-AO, this process used a 65 mm. negative to make a 70 mm. print. Image quality was much sharper than 35 mm. CinemaScope, but MGM 65 had an extremely shallow depth of field. The directors and cinematographers struggled mightily with this drawback, with many images composed in diagonals and in depth even if the backdrop was not entirely sharp. For example, in the early scene where Ben-Hur meets Messala, the two characters approach from opposite ends of a long hall, prefiguring their conflict. However, close-up scenes do become a problem, with the lead actors typically positioned in one plane across the foreground rather than in more varied arrangements.12

The film suggests at times that Judah Ben-Hur's suffering and redemption mirror the life of Christ. Ben-Hur is the same age as Jesus; in one scene he is almost mistaken for Jesus, while in another scene he is bound with a wooden pole to form a rough cross. But it is equally plausible that the story simply is about a man named Ben-Hur, with no allegory. This understanding supports one of the film's themes—that religion is the encounter between ordinary people and the divine. Judah Ben-Hur, a strong, passionate, angry man, lives through a series of troubles and adventures. He and his family are saved by Christ's death on the cross.

There are also some political ideas in Ben-Hur. First and foremost, the film comes out strongly against tyranny, as represented by the Romans, and for the liberty of conquered peoples. This has a Cold War resonance and may also refer to the Nazi conquest of Europe during World War II. A second idea is the independence of a Jewish state, only a dream for thousands of years but a reality since 1948 and the founding of Israel. Ironically, the film shows Jew and Arab working together for independence from Rome; such cooperation has not been part of the recent history of the Middle East.

Critical reaction to Ben-Hur was generally positive, and the film swept an unprecedented eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Color Cinematography, and Best Musical Score (Miklos Rozsa).

War Films

With the Korean War over and World War II receding a bit in memory, the war films of 1955-1959 do not cluster around a single theme or setting. Korean War and World War II dramas are most numerous, but also characteristic of the period are war comedies (Mr. Roberts, Stalag 17, Operation Petticoat), war love stories and (The Hunters Kings Go Forth), and contemporary Cold War films.

Strategic Air Command (1955), one of the Cold War films, is about a bomber unit of the U.S. Air Force, Americas primary deterrent force in the nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union. This film is notable for an unusually close collaboration between the Department of Defense and Hollywood. Screenwriter Beirne Lay Jr., a colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve (and co-scriptwriter of Twelve O'clock High, 1950), wrote the script at the prompting of Air Force General Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). The Department of Defense had some security concerns about publicizing SAC, but Paramount's request for cooperation was approved thanks to LeMay's strong support.13 A technical advisor was sought who would have "complete understanding of SAC mission, familiarity with B-36 and B-47 aircraft, inherent sense of public relations, and ability to work closely with demanding civilians and defend Air Force interests."14 The advisor chosen, Colonel Dick Lassiter, helped director Anthony Mann get everything he needed and even flew a B-47 himself to expedite a difficult scene.15

Strategic Air Command is about a major league pitcher who is recalled to active duty flying a bomber for SAC. (The part was played by James Stewart, who had been an air force pilot and was, like Beirne Lay, a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.)"16 The pitcher and his wife (June Allyson) go willingly on this assignment. After the Stewart character is injured in a plane crash, he is offered a choice: return to baseball as a coach or stay with SAC in a desk job. He chooses to continue serving his country. Though the story is quite conventional the film was a hit, probably because audiences were fascinated by the planes and the organization which constituted so much of America's military power in the Nuclear Age. Beirne Lay had anticipated this in his story outline, saying "Visually … the streaking jet bombers and the newest operational techniques of the Strategic Air Command—in other words the airplane—may be the star of the piece."17

Mister Roberts (1955) is a war comedy, based on a hit Broadway play, that shows, among other things, the monotonous routine of military service. The title character, played by Henry Fonda, is the cargo officer of the freighter Reluctant, which is stationed in the South Pacific. Roberts frequently defends the ship's crew from the captain (James Cagney), a petty and tyrannical officer who cares only for his own record of delivering cargo on time. Roberts requests, on a regular basis, transfer to a combat ship, and the captain regularly refuses. The film includes a number of comic set pieces but ends on a serious note, as Roberts finally succeeds in transferring to combat duty and is killed by a kamikaze pilot in the last days of the war.

Despite its skeptical view of the navy, Mister Roberts was approved for Department of Defense cooperation because of the participation of veteran director John Ford. Ford had made World War II documentaries for the navy, he was a retired rear admiral, and his support and affection for the armed services were beyond question. However, Ford left the production long before completion, because of quarrels with Fonda, heavy drinking, and an inflamed gall bladder. Doubts about the material may have been the underlying problem—Ford tried to change the film's humor, but Fonda and others resisted. Mervyn LeRoy finished the film, sticking closely to the play, and Joshua Logan (director of the Broadway version) also directed a few scenes. The resulting film is competent but visually bland.

Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957), based on the novel Paths of Glory by Humphrey Cobb, is a savage indictment of military organizations and modern war. United Artists was skeptical about this project and agreed to finance it only if a top Hollywood star could be cast. Director Kubrick and producer James Harris responded bysigning Kirk Douglas.18 The film was shot outside of Munich, and it has the look of an inexpensive, black and white European art film.

In the trench warfare of World War I, French General Mireau (George Macready) sends the battle-weary men of his regiment into battle in search of a promotion for himself. When the attack fails, General Mireau has three men, chosen more or less at random, court-martialed for cowardice. Colonel Dax (Douglas) pleads for their lives, both at the court-martial and in a private interview with Mireau's superior, General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou). The three soldiers are nevertheless killed by a firing squad. General Broulard then cynically offers to promote Dax as Mireau's replacement. Dax declines, and Broulard sends Dax and his troops back to the front.

This film's primary point is that the military enterprise is fatally flawed by its strict, inflexible hierarchy. The world of the officers is amazingly different from the world of the men, as shown by visual contrasts and by the commanders' complete authority. The top officers live in a spacious palace, the ordinary men in dark, cramped barracks or trenches. Colonel Dax tries to be a good officer, but even he can do little against the system. By undercutting Dax's heroism and letting innocent men be convicted and shot, Kubrick makes a simple, clear anti-military statement—a highly unusual stance for American war films of the 1950s. However, the film mutes its critique to some degree by singling out the French rather than the American military.

Paths of Glory was not a popular film in 1957-1958. Variety called it a "grim story" and summarized its marketability as "prospects dim."19 It was banned in France for many years, and was shown in Belgium only after a disclaimer was added calling the story "an isolated case in total contrast with the historical gallantry of the vast majority of French soldiers."20 However, the film was made for a relatively low budget ($850,000, of which $350,000 went to Kirk Douglas), and according to Balio it managed to break even.21

Pork Chop Hill (1959) presents a situation much like that in Paths of Glory, but comes to different conclusions. In the last hours of the Korean War, American soldiers are ordered to take a hill of no particular value to show the enemy that the United States remains willing to fight. The commanding officer in the field (played by Gregory Peck) and the rank-and-file soldiers know that peace is imminent, and yet they follow their orders and take Pork Chop Hill despite heavy casualties. One difference between this film and Paths of Glory is that here the staff officers understand grim irony of the situation and agonize over the inevitable casualties. Pork Chop Hill minimizes differences (of worldview, or social class, or privilege) between officers at headquarters and soldiers at the front. Also, Pork Chop Hill is ambivalent about whether the sacrifice was necessary.

Sy Bartlett, producer of Pork Chop Hill, thought that the film was a "very, very antiwar" story, but it can also be seen as a realistic film about American soldiers carrying out an unusually difficult mission.22 Director Lewis Milestone, here as in Halls of Montezuma (1950), has balanced a sense of war's futility with a generally supportive picture of the American military.

Film Noir

Film noir was in decline in the late 1950s. Many films were being made in color and widescreen, and film noir depends on low key black and white. ("Neo-noir," a style that uses desaturated color to suggest film noir effects, was some years away.) Thematically, film noir's romantic pessimism and decaying urban settings were out of fashion; audiences were more interested in comedy, melodrama, and teen films.

However, the film noir style did not entirely disappear. Fritz Lang continued making low-budget noirs at RKO, like While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both 1956) until the studio closed in 1957. Mark Robson directed The Harder They Fall (1956), starring Humphrey Bogart in his last screen role. And Orson Welles contributed the last great film noir—Touch of Evil (1958).

Orson Welles had not directed a Hollywood film for ten years when he was invited to write and direct Touch of Evil (based on the novel Badge of Evil, by Whit Masterson) for Universal. Both star Charlton Heston and producer Albert Zugsmith take credit for convincing Universal to hire Welles, and both may be correct.23 The medium-budget film was made on location in Venice, California, a West Los Angeles neighborhood that worked admirably as the script's Southwestern border town. Welles, who was by this time feared as a profligate, out-of-control director, finished production on time and on budget. Then he spent several months on the editing but left for Mexico before it was finished. Universal completed post-production and did not allow Welles to significantly alter the studio's cut.

Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston), a high-ranking Mexican narcotics investigator, and his American bride, Susie (Janet Leigh), are crossing the border to the USA when a car bomb explodes, killing wealthy rancher Rudy Linnekar and his young girlfriend. Vargas sends Susie to a hotel and joins the murder investigation. He finds himself in conflict with a hard-boiled police captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), who seems to rely on intuition and unethical shortcuts. Meanwhile, Susie is being threatened (first at the hotel, then at a rural motel) by a group of Hispanic juvenile delinquents trying to pressure her husband into abandoning a case. Quinlan's admiring sidekick, Sergeant Menzies (Joseph Calleia), proves that his boss has planted evidence; both Menzies and Quinlan are then killed in a shootout. Vargas rushes to the motel to save his wife.

Touch of Evil is a film noir, in both plot and style, but it is also a complex, ambitious, many-layered work. The film begins with a three-and-one-half minute crane shot, which follows Linnekar and his girlfriend (driving) and Vargas and Susie (walking) from Mexico through a border checkpoint and into the United States. This bravura piece of filmmaking, one of the most famous single shots in the history of film, ends with the car bomb exploding. Throughout the film, Welles combines the wide-angle, deep focus cinematography developed in Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) with the poetic use of darkness and shadows characteristic of film noir. As in Citizen Kane, characters compete for dominance of the frame—an interesting struggle, because Vargas is tall and charismatic and Quinlan is disheveled but enormous (he is typically filmed from low angles to enhance this effect). There is a strong "B"-movie element in Touch of Evil, seen especially in the stereotyped young delinquents and the snatches of rock and roll on the soundtrack. But there is also a Shakespearian nobility to the film, for example in Menzies's love for the boss he must sorrowfully betray. Quinlan himself is a complex character, "hateful" but very human, and Marlene Dietrich and TV star Dennis Weaver are unforgettable in minor roles.24

The 1998 revised version of Touch of Evil, edited by Walter Murch, uses an extraordinary fifty-eight-page cutting memo from Orson Welles (responding to the studio cut) as the basis for reshaping the film.25 The new version is perhaps more dynamic in a formal sense, but it does not drastically change Touch of Evil. Instead, the 1958 and 1998 versions can be seen as two variations on the same great work (just as a piece of music can be interpreted in more than one way). For example, in the 1958 version the famous opening shot is the credit sequence and is heavily overlaid with Henry Mancini's musical theme. The new version gets rid of the credits and uses rock music blaring from bars to give this shot a much more three-dimensional feel. So, the 1958 opening is a bit reductive and depends on Mancini's music to set the tone—but Mancini's music is very good! Throughout the film, the studio cut may be more stereotyped and simplified than Welles had desired. To give another example, Welles's memo asks Universal to tone down the entrance of the delinquents, male and female, when Susie is drugged at the motel. But such over-the-top moments are part of Touch of Evil's charm—it is both high art and exploitation fare.


The Western genre, once the dependable mainstay of Hollywood film production, was by the late 1950s a mainstay of network television. Numerous prime-time Western series were being made by Warner Bros., MCA, and other Los Angeles-based companies. Older Western films were also constantly appearing on television. Nevertheless, top quality Western films continued to be made, in surprising numbers. This chapter can only suggest a few of the high spots, leaving out such films as The Man from Laramie (1955), Trooper Hook (1957), Forty Guns (1957), The Left-Handed Gun (1958), The Big Country (1958), and Last Train from Gun Hill (1959).

Director Budd Boetticher, producer Harry J. Brown, and star Randolph Scott collaborated on six modestly budgeted Westerns for Columbia. All of them have fairly limited action but an interesting set of moral choices. According to writer Jim Kitses, the hero played by Scott has "a great serenity, the knowledge that we are fundamentally alone, that nothing lasts, that what matters in the face of all this is 'living the way a man should.'"26 In Ride Lonesome (1959), this hero must contend with a young killer, the killers more experienced brother, two outlaws who want to go straight, a beautiful widow (not a threat but a responsibility), and a band of Mescalero Apaches. With intelligence and nerve, he balances all the problems and saves his anger and passion for the older brother, who many years earlier had killed his wife. Boetticher's films of this period are simple, clear, and unpretentious.

The most notable Westerns of 1955-1959, however, are the "superwesterns"—meaning large-scale films which in some way redefine the genre. This redefinition can be political (as in High Noon), sociological Shane), psychological Winchester '73), or formal (as in The Far Country), and there are surely other possibilities.27 The self-conscious reshaping of a genre suggests that simpler formulae have lost their power, and thus the genre is entering a baroque or ironic period. However, a few films of the late 1950s manage to create a believable set of Western conventions (such as character or landscape) while at the same time complicating the themes and/or forms.

John Ford's The Searchers (1956) is a film in which Ford, the master of the genre, dramatically changes and deepens his ideas about the Western hero and the Indians/Native Americans. (Ford had been making important Westerns since The Iron Horse, 1924.) The story, based on a novel by Alan Le May, starts with former Confederate Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returning to his brothers ranch in Texas in 1868. Almost immediately, Ethan's brother, sister-in-law, and older niece are killed by a Comanche war party. The younger niece, Debbie, is kidnapped. Ethan sets off to look for Debbie along with Aaron's adopted son Marty (Jeffrey Hunter)—a third "searcher," the older niece's boyfriend Brad, is killed almost immediately by the Comanches.

Ethan and Marty spend years tracking the Comanche band led by Chief Scar (Henry Brandon). Much of the film explores their difficult relationship—Marty is one-fourth Cherokee, which to Ethan means he is a "breed." Marty also proves to be the voice of moderation, whereas Ethan is consumed by hatred of Scar and all things Indian. Late in the film, Ethan recognizes Marty's loyalty and makes Marty his heir. When they find the Comanches, Marty kills Scar, and Ethan scalps him. Marty considers Debbie (now played by Natalie Wood) his sister, but Ethan has announced his intention to kill her, because she has become one of Scar's wives. But at the last minute Ethan pulls her up onto his horse and says "Let's go home, Debbie."

The John Wayne character is not portrayed in a kind or heroic light in The Searchers, even though then as now John Wayne represented the archetypal Western hero. Ethan is an extremist, stubborn enough to ignore the surrender at Appomattox and remain a Confederate in 1868. He is very much like Chief Scar, indeed they are equivalent in their hatred (Scar's family was killed by whites, Ethan's by Comanches). In one memorable scene, Ethan and Scar meet in a parley; they are the same size in a two shot, they glower at each other and exchange insults. Ethan and Scar both have enormous determination and strength, but their values lead to endless revenge. Marty is equally determined, and yet he is able to see ways for the two communities, white and Native American, to come together.

In 1956 The Searchers was greeted by critics as an excellent John Ford/John Wayne Western.28 Later critics have seen the film as a passionate re-examination of race relations in America. According to Brian Henderson, who started this line of criticism in 1980, The Searchers is a metaphor for African American/white relationships in the era of Brown vs. Board of Education, the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation case. The message, per Henderson, is that assimilationist blacks (represented by Marty) will be accepted by the dominant community, but separatist or rebellious blacks (represented by Scar) will not be tolerated.29 Perhaps the best evidence that Ford really was thinking about race relations in 1956 is the series of films that he made a few years later: Sergeant Rutledge (1960) is about a black cavalryman who is charged with raping a white woman and found innocent; Two Rode Together (1961) is, like The Searchers, a film involving captives and race prejudice; Cheyenne Autumn (1964) is the story of an Indian tribe which is deceived and abused by the United States government.

Man of the West (directed by Anthony Mann, 1958) is a summation of the Western genre, as the title suggests. It begins with Link Jones (Gary Cooper), a reformed outlaw, catching a train to Fort Worth to hire a schoolteacher for his small frontier town. The train is ambushed by robbers, so Link and two other passengers—Billie (Julie London), a singer, and Beasley (Arthur O'Connell), a gambler—find themselves on foot a hundred miles from civilization. Link takes them to an isolated ranch where they find the train robbers, led by Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb). Beasley is killed, and Link and Billie are threatened. Link eventually kills all the gang members, but not before Dock rapes Billie—the rape is strongly suggested, but not shown or discussed. As the film ends, Link and Billie are driving a covered wagon back to society.

Man of the West takes place at a moment when civilization is replacing the frontier, but lawlessness is still a threat. Dock Tobin is old and half-crazy, his outlaws an unreliable bunch, but they still have guns and they still kill people. The film's originality lies in giving the frontier/civilization tension both familial and psychological dimensions. Link is the hero and Dock is the villain, but Link and Dock are also family—Dock raised Link as his "son." They once committed daring and outrageous crimes together. Dock is Link's past, and even his violent, amoral double. (This doubling is more apparent in Mann's Winchester '73, where hero and villain are brothers.) But the duality of goodness and violence also exists within Link. He is Billies selfless protector but at the same time a brilliant, ruthless killer. After wiping out Dock's gang, will he be able to meekly return to civilization? And should he deny the "dark side" that was necessary for his (and Billies) survival?

Visually, Man of the West's CinemaScope color images show a beautiful Western landscape—town, decaying ranch, ghost town, desert. The images are classic, but also in a sense wild, because civilization does not intrude too much. The town and the train disappear early. Though the frontier may be ending as a historical period, the complexities of human nature remain, and Man of the West is ultimately a psychological Western.

Rio Bravo (1959) supposedly originated from director Howard Hawks's disgust with High Noon (1952). In that film, the marshal played by Gary Cooper asks a cowardly town for help but is refused; in Rio Bravo Hawks substituted a sheriff who is reluctant and choosy about accepting help. Hawks may have objected to High Noon's liberal bias, and to its reliance on abstractions such as "the citizens" or "the town."30 At any rate, in Rio Bravo Sheriff John Chance (John Wayne) takes on an outlaw gang without support from the town but with a group of friends: an old man (Walter Brennan), a drunk (Dean Martin), a hotelkeeper (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez), a teenage gunman (Ricky Nelson), and a saloon girl (Angie Dickinson).

Rio Bravo's strength is also its weakness. The film displays an incredible grace and ease as it refines the Western down to a few characters and a few stock situations. The characters fill iconic roles yet interact with a great deal of warmth and individuality. However, the film's concentration and grace lead to a loss of context. Nothing exists except for the Hawksian group doing a difficult job on a Western street. Rio Bravo is so self-consciously a John Wayne/Howard Hawks Western that it loses credibility as a film about the nineteenth-century American West. There is a strange emptiness beneath its attractive surface.

A related problem is that Rio Bravo seems to be a studio lot Western. It was shot on one exterior set, the Western Main Street at Old Tucson, Arizona (the equivalent of a Western street on a studio back lot). The interiors were filmed at Warner Bros.' Burbank studio. In earlier periods, a studio Western would be normal and expected. But by 1959, after many fine Westerns had been shot on location, Rio Bravo seems artificial and limited.


Thomas Schatz has defined "melodrama" as a type of film "that depicted a virtuous individual (usually a woman) or couple (usually lovers) victimized by repressive and inequitable social circumstances, particularly those involving marriage, occupation, and the nuclear family."31 In the late 1950s this genre flourished, probably because American culture was so focused on the nuclear family and on sexuality. New themes including male anxieties, mental illness, homosexuality, and racism were added to the melodramas traditional concerns. Schatz lists eighteen important melodramas of 1955-1959, noting that his list is not complete: The Cobweb; East of Eden; Rebel Without a Cause; There's Always Tomorrow; Picnic; All That Heaven Allows; Giant; Bigger Than Life; Tea and Sympathy; Written on the Wind; The Long, Hot Summer; Peyton Place; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; The Tarnished Angels; Too Much, Too Soon; A Summer Place; Some Came Running; and Imitation of Life. Among the films he leaves out are The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Three Faces of Eve. Such a list is far too extensive for this chapter (even if Rebel Without a Cause is placed in another category, the teen film), so only a handful of films will be discussed here.

Giant (directed by George Stevens, 1956) is based on a large, sprawling novel by Edna Ferber. Novel and film chronicle the lives of a wealthy Texas family from 1925 to the early 1950s. Like The Searchers, the film has a subtext involving race relations. Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson), a Texas cattleman, courts and marries Leslie Lynnton (Elizabeth Taylor), an aristocrat from the Maryland hunt country. It's a stormy marriage, with Bick's sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) slow to accept the bride from the East, and Leslie and Bick arguing about treatment of the ranch's Hispanic workers. This argument comes to a head when son Jody Benedict (Dennis Hopper) marries a Hispanic woman. In another subplot, Bick refuses to join the oil boom sweeping Texas, but Jett Rink (James Dean), formerly a Benedict family employee, strikes oil on adjacent property. Jett is infatuated with Leslie from his years on the ranch, and as a newly rich oilman he thinks that a romance with her will affirm his social standing. But problems between husband and wife are smoothed over, and by film's end Bick comfortably accepts his daughter-in-law and his grandchildren.

Visually, this film constructs three different landscapes for its three main characters. Bick is the Texas patriarch, and the vast dimensions of the ranch reflect his power. Leslie comes from the upper-class horse farms of Maryland, so she brings a different culture and a more genteel tradition of wealth to the marriage. She is also an intelligent and independent woman, who at one point moves back to Maryland out of frustration with her husband. Jett Rink is the outsider, socially disadvantaged but with a tremendous energy and passion. His Texas landscape involves oil rigs and trucks, as opposed to Bick's cattle and wide-open spaces. The moment when Jett strikes oil and bathes in the gusher may be the film's emotional high point. Jett ends up as a lonely, embittered drunk; as Kevin Thomas notes, the film seems to be punishing him for his threat to the family.32

Written on the Wind (1956) is another film set in Texas, but this time traditional wealth lies with the oil tycoons. Jasper Hadley (Robert Keith), head of Hadley Oil, has two spoiled children—drunken playboy Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) and nymphomaniac Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone). Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson), a geologist for the firm, is almost another son to Jasper Hadley, though Hudson is always deferential and tries to keep the "real" children out of trouble. Kyle and Mitch meet Lucy Moore (Lauren Bacall) at Hadley Oil's advertising agency in New York; Kyle courts her and marries her. The film dramatizes at length Kyle's fears of inadequacy and his sister Marylee's promiscuity (which triggers her father's fatal heart attack). The action reaches a fever pitch when Lucy announces she is pregnant, Kyle strikes her (causing a miscarriage), and Mitch defends her. Then Kyle comes home drunk with a pistol, struggles with Marylee, and shoots himself. Mitch is tried for murder. At the trial, a subdued and lucid Marylee exonerates Mitch. Mitch is now free to marry Lucy, and Marylee will take over the oil business.

The reputation of Douglas Sirk, the director Written on the Wind, has strikingly changed over the last half century. In the 1950s, Sirk was known as a superior director of women's pictures. Now he is considered an ironist or perhaps a "hyper-realist"33—one whose films are so intense in their use of melodramatic convention that they ultimately explode conventional meanings. In Written on the Wind all the main characters are stereotypes, but the film suggests complexities beyond the stereotypes. Kyle Hadley is a frightened man presenting the facade of a millionaire playboy, and the root of his problem seems to be impotence—producer Albert Zugsmith later commented on the novelty of a Hollywood film dealing with impotence, even though it had to be played "down, down, down."34 Mitch Wayne really is attracted to Lucy Moore and vice versa, but the attraction must remain below the surface because of social convention. Marylee Hadley is much more aggressive than her brother, she is the father's true heir, but this manifests itself as drunkenness and promiscuity until her brother dies.

As an example of Douglas Sirk's visual style, consider the image at the end of the film of Marylee Hadley in a well-tailored suit sitting at her fathers desk and playing with an oil well statuette. Behind her is a portrait of Jasper Hadley with the same statuette. The denotative meaning is that Marylee is now in charge, she will be conducting the family business. Superficially, at least, order has been restored. There is also a sexual connotation, that the female sibling is more potent than the male, therefore she deserves to possess the phallus (Written on the Wind is often lurid in its symbolism). Beyond these two obvious levels, director Douglas Sirk points to a third implied meaning of the oil well statuette, the undercurrent of loss it represents. Marylee has lost her father, her brother, and the man she loves (Mitch); all she has left is the family oil business.35 She is fighting back tears as the movie ends.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (directed by Richard Brooks, 1958) is an adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play. Like most of Williams's work the film revolves around a dysfunctional southern family. Big Daddy (Burl Ives), a wealthy landowner, is seriously ill, and his family gathers around him on his birthday. Big Daddy reaches out to his younger son Brick (Paul Newman), but Brick rejects any family interaction and stays in his room, drinking. Brick also wants nothing to do with his wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), whom he calls "Maggie the Cat." He refuses Maggie's sexual advances and accuses her of having slept with his best friend Skipper, who then committed suicide. Maggie denies that this got beyond a kiss. Big Daddy and Brick have a long, violent heart-to-heart talk. Big Daddy tells Brick to grow up; Brick tells his father that the illness is cancer (though this word is never spoken). The two men create a bond by honestly confronting their fears. Brick then transforms another important relationship when he forgives Maggies lie about being pregnant and says he wants to make a baby with her.

From a modern standpoint, it is surprising that such a talky and static film was a popular success for MGM. Director Richard Brooks added a few outdoor scenes, but this still feels like a filmed play. However, Tennessee Williams's dialogue (with some adjustments by Brooks and co-screenwriter James Poe) is so intense and so dynamic that the pace never lags. Big Daddy is tyrannical and bombastic, thoroughly used to having his own way, and he is out of control because of pain and fear. Brick is passive yet stubborn, unwilling to yield anything and certainly unwilling to be polite. These two collide, literally and figuratively, in memorable ways. Maggie is yielding but also scheming, and her frank discussion of sexuality would have shocked viewers in 1958. A key issue, never resolved, is Brick's intimate friendship with Skipper, which he evidently preferred to his marriage. Much discussion of Williams's play centered around whether Brick was homo-sexual. This is toned down in the movie, but Brick and Skipper's friendship still seems unusual. With or without the homosexual element, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has a verbal directness verging on brutality that goes far beyond the 1950s norm. It is still a melodrama, however; it describes sympathetic people victimized by illness, death, and family quarrels who find their way to a positive conclusion.

Some Came Running (directed by Vincente Minnelli, 1959), adapted from a long novel by James Jones, features Dave Hirsh (Frank Sinatra), newly discharged from the army, returning to his (fictional) home town of Parkman, Indiana. Dave drinks, gambles, and gets in fights, but he is also a published novelist. Dave wanders between respectable Parkman society and the demi-monde of bars and poker games. He finds his brother Frank (Arthur Kennedy), a businessman and pillar of the establishment, to be hypocritical, but develops a warm friendship with professional gambler 'Bama Diller (Dean Martin). In particular, Dave is emotionally pulled between Ginny Moorhead (Shirley MacLaine), a sweet and surprisingly naive tramp who follows him to Parkman, and Gwen French (Martha Hyer), a schoolteacher who admires his writing but distrusts his morals. Rejected by Gwen, Dave marries Ginny, even though he doesn't love her.

Some Came Running is visually stunning, especially when the less reputable characters are on screen. Dave moves nervously through the CinemaScope image, never content, never knowing what he is searching for. 'Bama is more serene, perfectly at home in a world of bars and loose women. The alternative character of this world is underlined by Elmer Bernstein's jazzy, often dissonant music. In more middle class surroundings, the visuals are "tasteful" but bland, and the music is nondescript (as in the love theme associated with Gwen French). The film's visual tour-de-force is a carnival scene in downtown Parkman with most of the characters present. This scene and the film as a whole suggest that middle-class respectability is just too limiting, that people need the adventure of an "underworld."

Imitation of Life (1959) is another stylized melodrama directed by Douglas Sirk. The script, based on both the novel by Fannie Hurst and the 1934 film directed by John Stahl, involves a household of four women: Lora (Lana Turner), a Broadway actress; Susie (Sandra Dee), her daughter; Annie (Juanita Moore), Lora's African-American housekeeper; and Annies daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner). All of the characters have surface achievements but hidden failings. Lora, for example, is a successful actress who has sacrificed her personal life, at the expense of Susie and persistent beau Steve Archer (John Gavin). Much of the story focuses on the light-skinned Sarah Jane. As the daughter of an obviously black mother and a presumably white father (whom we never see), Sarah Jane is considered black within the universe of the film. But as a teenager, Sarah Jane decides she wants to "pass," to live as a white person. When a boyfriend discovers the truth and beats her, Sarah Jane runs away to Los Angeles, where she works in the chorus line of a seedy nightclub. Annie, whose health is failing, seeks out her daughter in L.A., but Sarah Jane denies their kinship and asks to be left alone. Annie dies, and the film's most emotional moment occurs at her funeral. Sarah Jane appears as the funeral procession is marching down the street, collapses on Annie's coffin, and sobs "I killed my mother!"

The film is basically over with this cry of anguish. Sarah Jane sits in a car with Lora and Susie, so one could say that the family has reunited, but Sirk noted that this was just a formality.36 With Annie's death, the family has really broken apart. However, the fault does not lie entirely with Sarah Jane. One could instead blame the American system of racial discrimination, which decrees that questions of skin color and parentage have an enormous effect on individual lives. Neither of the choices presented to Sarah Jane—to accept discrimination or to deny her mother and sell her good looks—had been acceptable. A third choice—to rebel, to demonstrate, to change the world for the better—lies beyond the conventions of melodrama. However, by suggesting the huge gap between existing choices and human needs this film creates a postclassical complexity within melodrama.

In visual style, Imitation of Life is a glossy "woman's picture" full of lovely things, most of them associated with Lora's profession and her upscale suburban lifestyle. The producer was Ross Hunter, who insisted on lavish sets, beautiful stars, and old-time Hollywood glamour.37 But Hunter's taste was subverted by his frequent collaborator Douglas Sirk, in whose films upper-middle-class opulence can look trashy and fake. Critic J. Hoberman described Sirk's visual strategy: "Imitation of Life revels in phoniness—snow-machine flurries, shiny Christmas props, a picture-perfect suburban house furnished with generic postimpressionists and unopened leather-bound books."38 It is important to note, however, that Sirk's ironic visuals do not destroy this film's emotional range. The decors may be phony, but Sarah Jane's pain is real.

American New Realism39

Reacting against the mid-1950s trend toward color and widescreen spectacle, a group of fiction films stressed black and white realism instead. This set of films might be called a "cycle," indicating a short timeframe, instead of a genre. It included several much praised films: On the Waterfront, Marty, Blackboard Jungle (to be discussed in the next section, "Teen Films"), The Bachelor Party, Trial, Night and the City, Twelve Angry Men and Shadows, among others.

On the Waterfront (1954) has a relatively simple crime film/social problem film plot. Dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) unwittingly helps thugs working for his union kill a would-be reformer, Joey Doyle. Terry, a former prizefighter who at 29 is still not quite mature, is devastated by his involvement. He starts a tentative romance with Joey's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) and agrees to help a social activist priest (Karl Maiden) clean up the corrupt dockworkers' union. Union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) sends Charlie Malloy (Rod Steiger) to stop his younger brother Terry from testifying; Charlie lets Terry go. Charlie is then killed, but Terry testifies against the union, and he beats Johnny Friendly in a fistfight. (For discussion of this film in political context, see Chapter 3).

Stylistically, On the Waterfront combines two distinctive influences: Italian Neo-Realism and Method Acting. Neo-Realist films of the late 1940s, including Open City (1945) and The Bicycle Thief (1947), opposed Hollywood glamour and substituted simplicity and immediacy. Among the key ideas of Neo-Realism were:

  1. Stories should come from the everyday lives of the working class;
  2. Films should be made on real locations (exterior and interior);
  3. Films should use non-actors in at least some leading roles;
  4. Films should stay away from genre patterns and happy endings because reality is unpredictable.

In On the Waterfront, Budd Schulberg's thoroughly researched script comes out of the experience of New York-area dockworkers. To add authenticity, the film was made on location in Hoboken, New Jersey. The film has an impressive feel for life in a gritty, working-class community.

On the Waterfront does not, however, emulate the Neo-Realist experiments with non-actors. Instead, director Elia Kazan relies on Method Acting, which might be described as an "internal realism" to complement the external realism of location shooting. This approach, usually associated with the New York-based Actors Studio (Kazan was one of its founders), teaches an actor to develop a part based on his/her emotional experiences. Instead of creating a character out of exterior details (the more traditional approach of film acting), actors delve into their own experience of love and fear and anger and grief. In On the Waterfront, all the principal actors had been trained in the Method, but Marlon Brando is its most brilliant exponent. The Brando character is inarticulate and a bit slow but also sensitive, courageous, and instinctively fair.

Brando's love scenes with Eva Marie Saint are very good, but his tour-de-force comes in a taxicab scene with Rod Steiger. Here, the two brothers have an intimate conversation in the shadow of death. When Terry realizes his brother has been sent to stop him (and perhaps to kill him), he complains about how a fixed fight ruined his boxing career—"I coulda been a contender!"—not because he expects anything, just to set the record straight. Charlie starts by trying to manipulate his brother, then threatens him, then gives up and hands Terry a gun. Terry gets out, and the cab careens into a garage. Johnny Friendly is in a nearby window, and the implied meaning is that Charlie will be killed. According to critic James Naremore, Charlie sacrifices himself for the sake of his younger brother.40 The taxi driver's swerve into the garage comes as a surprise, but it was set up by an earlier scene in which Johnny threatened Charlie.

Marty (1955), another important realist film, stems from an unexpected source: American television. For a few years in the early 1950s, live drama was a staple of the emerging television industry. Hundreds of original teleplays were produced in New York, which provided wonderful opportunities for a generation of young writers, directors, and actors. Marty, a teleplay written by Paddy Chayefsky about a butcher living in the Bronx, caught the eye of film producer Harold Hecht (Burt Lancaster's partner). Hecht convinced United Artists to finance a film version, which became an Academy Award winner and a commercial success.

Marty's secret was almost certainly "counter-programming": it was so different from the established cinematic norms that it drew a great deal of attention. Like the Italian Neo-Realists, Paddy Chayefsky decided to find his dramatic subjects in the lives of ordinary, working-class people. His butcher, played on screen by Ernest Borgnine, is a stocky, unhandsome bachelor who lives with his mother. The film is about thirty-four-year-old Marty's loneliness and shyness: his inability to find a date, let alone someone to marry. The lines exchanged by Marty and his friends on a Saturday night—"What do you feel like doin' tonight?" "I don't know, what do you feel like doin' tonight?"—still evoke the sadness of empty evenings. But on this particular Saturday night, Marty meets Clara Snyder (Betsy Blair), a twenty-nine-year-old schoolteacher, and they talk for hours. The film aims for "slice of life" realism rather than narrative closure, and so it ends with a very small decision: Marty calls Clara on Sunday.

John Cassavetes's Shadows (1959) draws from both Neo-Realism and the Method, but establishes its own unique approach to cinematic realism. Cassavetes, a well-known young actor of the 1950s, was also the co-founder of an acting school, and from this school came an exercise in collective creation. Over a period of three years, Cassavetes and several young actors developed characters and situations, and through a process of improvisation, the story line for Shadows began to form. The story focuses on three siblings and presents once again the problem of racial "passing." The oldest sibling, Hugh (Hugh Hurd), is obviously African American. He wants to be a singer, and he has a manager, Rupert (Rupert Crosse), to help him along. Unfortunately, Hugh's gig at a nightclub in Philadelphia reveals that he can't sing. The middle sibling, Ben (Ben Carruthers), is a light-skinned jazz musician who is passing for white. Ben is supposed to be a trumpeter, but we never hear him play; instead, he roams Manhattan trying to be hip, in a beatnik way. According to Ray Carney: "Ben would rather talk trumpet than play it. He goes around feeling sorry for himself and pretending to be hip, but not doing very much at all." Carney argues that posing or "masking" is a key part of Cassavetes's style, in Shadows and the films that follow it.41 The youngest sibling, Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), is light-skinned and socializes with both whites and blacks. She takes Tony (Tony Ray), a young white man, back to the family's apartment (all three siblings live there, without parents) and has sex with him. She then becomes disturbed by his reaction to her obviously black brother. The white boyfriend is asked to leave, and not allowed to come back. In this film, unlike Imitation of Life, discrimination is a problem for the majority culture (because Tony punished for his reaction to Hugh) as well as for the minority.

Shadows is not a mainstream film. It is set in a milieu of New York beatniks and jazz musicians, and takes their values for the norm. A musical score from jazz bassist Charles Mingus adds to the sense of time and place. The film was shot largely on the street, Neo-Realist style, but it is more fragmented and less literary than a Neo-Realist film. For Cassavetes, the key unit of meaning seems to be the scene, not the story. Every scene has its own structure and tone, and the narrative that strings them together seems to be secondary. Scenes can be intense, they can explode into quarrels, or they can be calm. Cassavetes goes beyond Method Acting by having his actors thoroughly involved in developing characters and scenes; Method actors generally were limited to interpreting a script. Cassavetes's film has high points and low points, and many viewers miss the clear structure of a three-act plot. But in its emphasis on the "now," Shadows does give a sense of bohemian New York that would be hard to duplicate by more conventional means.

Teen Films

The Hollywood studios realized in mid-decade that teenagers were the backbone of the film audience, and therefore teen-oriented movies would be good investments. The events that catalyzed these rather tardy realizations were: 1) the great success of Black-board Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause; and 2) the emergence of rock roll as a major force in the music industry. Both of these phenomena showed that teenage buying power had become a crucial factor in American entertainment. For the film industry, like the record industry, catering to teens was an opportunity to establish firm ties to a group that had disposable income and free time and wanted to spend money on entertainment.

Film historian Thomas Doherty has persuasively argued that the "teenpic" of the late 1950s actually involved a handful of genres: the juvenile delinquency film, the rock film, the horror film (sometimes with a specifically teenage angle, as in I Was a Teenage Werewolf, 1957) and the "clean teen" film (for example, anything starring Pat Boone).42 All of these genres were aimed at teen audiences, and they often celebrated a teen point of view—with parents absent or wrong-headed, and teenagers in the foreground. Some films did look at teens from an adult perspective, but even here a reading "against the grain" was possible. For example, teenage audiences could ignore the silly main plot of The Girl Can't Help It (directed by Frank Tashlin, 1956) and concentrate on the performances by rock and roll headliners.

In narrative structure, Blackboard Jungle is not too different from other crime films or social problem films starring Glenn Ford in the 1950s. As in The Big Heat (1953), the hero played by Ford is confronted by something that is glaringly wrong. In The Big Heat, it is the corruption of organized crime; in Blackboard Jungle, it is a vocational high school terrorized by juvenile delinquents. Ford in both films refuses to be intimidated; instead he violently confronts the criminals and solves the problem. There is, however, a crucial difference between the films; in Blackboard Jungle the Ford hero is a teacher, and he manages to survive because of an alliance with some of the kids in his class. In The Big Heat he is a policeman, concerned only with punishing the "bad guys." So although juvenile delinquency is certainly scary in Blackboard Jungle, the film does not suggest that all the kids in a tough high school are unreachable.

Blackboard Jungle was made at MGM, but it has the "torn from the headlines" feel of a Warner Bros. crime film of the 1930s. Juvenile delinquency was headline news in American newspapers in the mid-1950s and was covered extensively by prestigious magazines including the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, Life, Time, Newsweek, Harper's and Atlantic Monthly.43 Widely publicized hearings of the Juvenile Delinquency Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee were held in 1953, 1954, and 1955. MGM's program booklet for Blackboard Jungle specifically refers to this national panic, clipping newspaper headlines ("Housewife Attacked"), citing statistics ("The F.B.I,'s report covering 1953 … disclosed that persons under 18 committed 53.6% of all car thefts…"), and quoting from J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower.44 Yet the film also seeks to contain the hysteria in two different ways: via a disclaimer at the beginning of the film, and more importantly via a positive conclusion. The use of a black student (played by Sidney Poitier) as the leader of those who aid the teacher suggests that cooperation between races, classes, and generations is possible in 1950s America.

Richard Brooks's decision to use the song "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley and the Comets over the first scene of Blackboard Jungle had important consequences. This was the first appearance of rock and roll in a major Hollywood motion picture. Within the movie, "Rock Around the Clock" suggests the separateness of the teenage culture (one of the teachers collects Bix Beiderbecke records) and invites viewers to identify with this joyous music. But rock is associated with the juvenile delinquents, so viewer sympathies are caught between the middle-aged hero and the teenagers. This complex perspective is resolved by a distinction between the "bad teen" Artie West (Vic Morrow), who pulls a knife on the teacher, and "good teen" Gregory Miller (Sidney Poitier), who defends him. "Rock Around the Clock" also showed the enormous potential for synergy between the film and popular music businesses. Before Blackboard Jungle, the song had been released in a couple of versions to general indifference; after the film's release, "Rock Around the Clock" became a best-selling single, listed on the Billboard chart for twenty-nine weeks.45

Rebel Without a Cause (directed by Nicholas Ray, 1955) addresses one of the more puzzling dimensions of 1950s juvenile delinquency: the spread of teenage crime to the affluent suburbs.46 High school student Jim Stark (James Dean) lives in a nice Los Angeles-area house and drives his own car; his parents belong to a fancy country club. Yet Jim is arrested for drunkenness, he gets in a fight the first day of school, and he participates in a "Chickie Run" (two drivers in stolen cars compete to see who will jump last as the cars race toward a cliff) that results in the death of another teen. This film is both sociological and psychoanalytic in its viewpoint. Jim's problem is that his father (Jim Backus) is a weak man and therefore not a good role model. The other teens central to the story have similar problems: Jim's girlfriend Judy (Natalie Wood) is rebelling because her father no longer shows her affection; and Plato (Sal Mineo) is the worst off because his wealthy, divorced parents have essentially abandoned him.

However, this distanced, more-or-less adult perspective on teenage problems is balanced by a teen-centered perspective. In the absence of credible adult guidance, Jim, Judy, and Plato have to work out their own ideas on honor, love, and friendship. Further, they have to respond to threats from a group of "bad teens." In one memorable sequence, the trio of friends explores an abandoned house and acts out a substitute family: Jim as the father, Judy as the mother, Plato as the child. Plato's problems with the law really begin when he wakes up and finds that Jim and Judy are gone. Plato dies, killed by the police, but Jim and Judy get the chance to reconcile with their families.

Much of this film's appeal lies with the acting and the visual style. Rebel Without a Cause was James Dean's most memorable film. His slouching, mumbling, perpetual motion acting accords extremely well with the character of Jim Stark. He is often reclining or partly reclining, showing that he doesn't match up with the everyday world of right angles. But Dean's unconventionally physical style can also create moments of joy. For example, when he is looking for Judy early in the film he jumps up to see over a high fence, and then almost bounces as he walks with her. These movements suggest a simple exuberance that would not be out of place in musical comedy. Natalie Wood, more conventional in her acting, is convincing as a sexy teenager not entirely separated from her daddy. And Sal Mineo, like Dean a Method actor, gives a strong performance as a twisted and desperate-for-love teen. The acting is beautifully supported by Nicholas Ray's widescreen visual style, which gives Dean and Mineo space to move while stressing off-center and sometimes tilted camera angles.

In the wake of Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause, and rock and roll's assault on the pop music charts, a number of rock stars were signed to motion-picture contracts. Of these, the most important was certainly Elvis Presley. Presley, age nineteen, made his first 45 rpm record for Sun Records in Memphis in 1954. He toured extensively and signed with RCA, a major label, in 1955. In 1956, Elvis appeared several times on national TV and signed his first film contract with Hal Wallis and Paramount. There is contradictory information about the size of the contract. Wallis's files show a three-picture contract at rates so low ($15,000 for the first film, $20,000 for the second, $25,000 for the third) that a waiver from the Screen Actors Guild was required. However, in his autobiography Wallis remembers a Presley contract suitable for a young star ($100,000 for the first film, $150,000 for the second, $200,000 for the third).47

Jailhouse Rock (directed by Richard Thorpe, 1957), Presley's third and probably best film, was made at MGM on a loan out from Wallis and Paramount. The film's script draws on the stories and myths of Presley's two great musical influences, African American rhythm and blues and Caucasian American country music. In both traditions, musical inspiration is born from bad luck, woman troubles, and prison time. In the film, Vince Everett (Presley) is serving a prison sentence for manslaughter. His cellmate, Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), teaches him to play guitar. When he is released, Vince and Peggy Van Alden (who has a low-level record industry job) form their own record label. The film at this point follows Presley's rags-to-riches biography—successful records, then TV appearances, and then a Hollywood contract. But Vince quarrels with Peggy, physically fights with Hunk, and even goes through a tracheotomy. The picture ends with Vince singing again and happily reconciled with those he loves.

Despite Presley's star power, Jailhouse Rock was a modestly made picture in black and white CinemaScope. The cost was $1,099,000, and the film made a profit of $1,050,000.48 What distinguishes this film is the careful handling of Presley's bad boy (but not too bad) rock and roll image. Elvis is presented as hot-tempered; he kills a man with his fists in a bar fight (thus the charge of manslaughter). Later, he breaks a guitar in frustration and he insults people or sulks when he doesn't get his way. But he is usually soft-spoken and good-hearted, and he ends up with the girl and his musical career. The film manages to combine the juvenile delinquent, rock and roll, and clean teen genres, all in one tidy package!

Presley's singing ranges from tender ballads to a few up-tempo rockers. He was famous, or notorious, in the 1950s for a wild, hip-swinging delivery (sample headline: "6000 Kids Cheer Elvis' Frantic Sex Show").49 Jailhouse Rock features this signature style primarily in the title tune, a musical comedy-like dance number (staged for a TV broadcast, according to the film's narrative) with a stylized, two-story prison set and numerous hip-swinging dancers dressed as convicts. This is an interesting number despite a lack of precision (Jailhouse Rock was made at MGM, but not by the Freed Unit), and it shows that Presley could have been an innovative star of film musicals. However, the film usually shows him singing in an unadorned recording studio.

Pat Boone, a wholesome, boy-next-door type, was almost as popular as Elvis Presley during this period. Another strand of clean teen films was represented by Sandra Dee, who became the leading star of films aimed at teenage girls. According to a trade press article, the characteristic problems of Sandra Dee's films "involve parental relationships and dating, and Miss Dee solves them by relying on decent instincts and common sense."50

Gidget (directed by Paul Wendkos, 1959), based on the best-selling novel by Frederick Kohner, is a coming-of-age story about Francie Lawrence (Sandra Dee), who discovers surfers and surfer boys at Malibu Beach in the summer before her senior year of high school. Gidget (the nickname comes from "girl" plus "midget") is presented as a slow-to-develop teen: although she turns seventeen during the film, she wears modest swimsuits, worries about her lack of bustline, and is just beginning to get interested in boys. Gidget is adopted by the Malibu surfers as a kind of mascot, and with a summer's practice she becomes a reasonably good surfer. She also develops a friendship with Kahuna (Cliff Robertson), an older surf bum who is a role model for the teenage boys, and a crush on Moondoggie (James Darren), who is closer to her own age. Through most of the film, Gidget cannot get the surfers to take her seriously as a young woman. However, as summer ends she accepts a blind date arranged by her parents, and the unknown "Jeffrey Matthews" turns out to be her beloved "Moondoggie."

The ritual of growing up in Gidget is unthreatening. Gidget's mother gives her lots of good advice. The surfer boys are nice kids, and when Gidget invites a seduction from the older (and presumably more dangerous) Kahuna, he tells her to forget it. Alcohol and drugs are absent except for a moment when Kahuna, alone and unhappy, takes a drink from a bottle of cheap wine. And although boys and sex are clearly on Gidget's mind, these topics are presented in a young teen, cleaned-up way. The light, comic tone of the story is accentuated by a few moments when the characters burst into song.

Surfing is the one original feature that pulls Gidget away from complete blandness. Adolescents grow up and prove themselves by mastering the waves, and Gidget has the additional distinction of proving herself in a previously all-male pastime. The film was based on the true experiences of Kathy Kohner, daughter of novelist/screenwriter Frederick Kohner, who as a high school student surfed with the boys at Malibu. The surfing close-ups were done with back projection, but the long shots, with top California surfers doubling the actors, evoked some of the beauty of the sport. Gidget, novel and film, helped change surfing from an obscure phenomenon to a worldwide craze.

Beyond Genre?

Many Hollywood genre films of the late 1950s seem to fit the self-conscious, "postclassical" paradigm advanced by James Harvey and others.51 Some examples from earlier sections of this chapter would be Touch of Evil, the superwesterns, and the Sirk melodramas. Another aspect of this move toward complication and self-questioning is that some of the most important movies of the period do not fit comfortably within a single genre. Movies that combine genres or work outside of genres can appear in any period—two examples would be Citizen Kane (1941) and Sunset Boulevard (1950). But it seems that in the late 1950s the genre system lost some of its sway, and films became more individualized narratives. This tendency accelerated in the 1960s and early 1970s with the films of Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Stanley Kubrick, and Bob Rafelson.

The Night of the Hunter (1955), based on a novel by Davis Grubb, is perhaps a horror film, though it has a slow buildup and very little violence. During the Depression of the 1930s, Reverend Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a self-styled preacher, pursues his two stepchildren, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), because they know where their real father hid $10,000 before he was hung. Fleeing from Powell, who has killed their mother, the children float in a small skiff down the river (the film is set in the Ohio River Valley north of Parkersburg, West Virginia). They are eventually found and taken in by the strict but good-hearted Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish), who already has a few orphans in her house. Powell comes for the kids, but Miss Cooper wounds him with a shotgun, after which he runs, weirdly screaming, into a barn. In the morning, the state police come for Powell, and John gives them the $10,000 he has hidden for so long. The film ends with Miss Cooper and her brood celebrating Christmas.

This film is uniquely and eerily atmospheric. Screenwriter James Agee and director Charles Laughton achieve an amazing feel for Appalachia in the 1930s,52 and for a child's-eye vision. The first part of the film is more or less realistic, though the Mitchum character with his broad-brimmed hat always stands out arrestingly. When the children take off on their own down the river, their journey gains a mythic feel from striking shots of the night or dawn sky and deep focus compositions with wildlife in the foreground. Cinematographer Stanley Cortez (who also shot The Magnificent Ambersons, 1942) does a marvelous job of setting the fairy tale mood.

Absolutely central to The Night of the Hunter is fundamentalist Protestant religion. The film suggests that religion can be used for great evil or great good, a duality represented by the tattoos on Harry Powell's knuckles (the left hand says H-A-T-E, the right hand says L-O-V-E). Within the story, Powell is the evil one, whereas Miss Cooper personifies the good. Both are larger-than-life characters, undoubtedly because the film privileges the children's point of view. And both are tied to religion throughout the film, but never more hauntingly than when Powell starts singing a hymn outside Miss Cooper's house (he is stalking the children). Miss Cooper joins in, and they sing an astonishing duet.

Sweet Smell of Success (directed by Alexander MacKendrick for Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, 1957) is a combination of film noir, social realism, and black comedy. It tells a noirish story of cynical, greedy men exploiting human weakness in nighttime Manhattan. James Wong Howe's lustrous black and white photography and Elmer Bernstein's strident score add to the feeling of film noir. The film is also a New York realist film, shot on the street and in the best nightspots. It describes a unique New York subculture: the world of columnists, publicists, and publicity-seekers. Sweet Smell of Success has comic elements as well: nobody dies and the innocent escape at the end.

Ernest Lehman, author of the original novella and co-writer of the script, conveys this strange subculture through two wonderfully drawn characters: publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) and gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). Falco is in constant motion about Manhattan, trying to make a living, trying to please Hunsecker, trying to find an angle, trying to manipulate everyone and everything. He is a ratlike character, with few if any scruples, and yet we appreciate his energy and sympathize with his problem. Falco can't get an item in Hunseckers column until he breaks up the courtship of J. J. 's kid sister Susie (Susan Harrison) and jazz musician Steve Dallas (Marty Milner), and Susie and Steve are set to announce their engagement.

J. J. Hunsecker (the character is based on 1950s columnist Walter Winchell) is simply the god of this particular segment of Manhattan: he gets everything he wants, he lectures a U.S. Senator, he demands complete loyalty, he never picks up a check. Hunsecker expects to control Susies life as he controls the world of publicity, and with amazing aplomb he farms out the job to Falco. Hunsecker floats through Manhattan uttering semi-profound statements, and when he has a cigarette in his mouth he commands "Match me."

At the film's end Susie escapes from her brothers control, but Sweet Smell of Success is not particularly about plot. It is, instead, a film of attitudes and one-liners, and a nasty portrait of a publicist's New York. Anti-glamorous and yet dependent on the star system, it may represent the producers' (Lancaster and Harold Hecht) complex feelings about the culture of celebrity.

What genre is Vertigo (directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)? Mystery? Romance? Suspense film? Horror film? This is one instance where the auteur theory may work better than genre analysis, for Vertigo is clearly a film by the director who made the Gothic romance Rebecca, as well as many variations on the theme of trust (for example, Notorious, and To Catch a Thief).

The film is based on D'entre les morts (literally "From Among the Dead"; in English translation this book is called Vertigo), a good mystery novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. Hitchcock changed the location from France to San Francisco, but he retained the plot of a man attracted to a beautiful, upper-class woman—her name is Madeleine in both book and film—who seems to be "possessed" by a long-dead relative. When Madeleine dies, the hero finds a replacement for his passion, a young woman of modest origins who physically resembles her. The second woman (Judy in the film) eventually confesses to having impersonated Madeleine as part of a complex murder plot in which the real Madeleine was killed by her husband. Judy then dies as well. The film provides impressive roles for James Stewart as Scottie, a former police officer now caught up in this strange mystery/love story, and Kim Novak as both Madeleine and Judy. Another major character, the very practical Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), does not exist in the book; Midge's presence, as Scottie's friend and potential lover, suggests that he could have avoided this strange and unattainable relationship and settled for an ordinary woman. Instead, however, Scottie plunges into the metaphysical. He wants Madeleine because she comes (or seems to come) "from among the dead."

Hitchcock has made this odd story marvelously concrete. Scottie sees Madeleine at Ernie's, an upscale San Francisco restaurant, and both he and the viewer are entranced by her restrained, classical beauty. In other scenes, Madeleine seems both part of and separated from the natural world—this effect is actually enhanced by the usually distracting technique of back projection. Judy is a more down-to-earth young woman, a salesperson at a department store. But we grasp some of the film's complexity immediately, because we know this is Kim Novak. Scottie's vertigo also gets a concrete manifestation; the film shows his inability to function on a roof or in a church tower with a shot combining zoom in and track out. "Vertigo" in the film has both physical and psychological/metaphysical meanings.

Vertigo ends without resolving all its mysteries, and therefore the story's unique aura lingers. Judy confesses to her part in the murder plot and she falls (or jumps?) to her death—this recapitulates what supposedly happened to Madeleine. So, she is "punished" for her crime in familiar Production Code style, but we are left uncertain about what Scottie is thinking. Is he guilty? Still in love? Still clinging to an idea of transcendence? Perhaps Scottie is responsible for both deaths because he cannot love a simple, flesh-and-blood woman.

Hitchcock is a master at controlling the audience's perception, and this includes playing with the idea of genre. In Vertigo, he never allows viewer to get comfortable with any one genre pattern. The "mystery" of Madeleine and Judy is solved halfway through, the suspense is only intermittent, and the love story veers in strange directions because the hero does not fully understand either himself or his loved one. Perhaps the true mystery here is Scottie's twisted subjectivity, and that is never resolved.

Vertigo was only a break-even film at the box office in 1958, but it was soon recognized by critics in France, England, and the United States as a classic. British critic Robin Wood's appreciation in Hitchcock's Films (1965) is representative: "Vertigo seems to me Hitchcock's masterpiece to date, and one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has yet given us."53

The Nun's Story (1959) is a highly unusual subject for a $3.5 million Hollywood production—seventeen years in the life of a nun, with an emphasis on interior rather than exterior conflict. Director Fred Zinnemann notes that the major studios had no interest until Audrey Hepburn committed to the project. After this, Warner Bros. agreed to finance and distribute The Nun's Story as a high-budget color film. Warners was understandably concerned about the film's commercial prospects, but it opened well at the Radio City Music Hall and went on to be a box-office success.54

The film was adapted from a best-selling book by Kathryn Hulme that reads like a novel but is closely based on the real life of Hulme's friend Marie Louise Habets. The story describes the life of Gabrielle van der Mal, renamed Sister Luke (Hepburn), beginning in the 1920s and ending during World War II. After a probationary period in Belgium and a first assignment in Italy, she leaves for the Congo as a nun and a trained nurse. A wonderful nurse, she struggles for years to become a perfect nun, a selfless servant of God. Unlike others in her order, she has a strongly independent nature. This is brought out by the brilliant but non-believing Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch), who analyzes the conflicts disturbing his favorite nurse. After her return to Belgium, the Nazi occupation of Western Europe, and the death of her father at Nazi hands, Sister Luke asks to leave the order. In a sober but beautiful final sequence, she takes off her habit and her ring (as a "bride of Christ"), puts on the clothes she shed seventeen years before, and exits onto an ordinary Belgian street in wintry light.

American films have featured priests and nuns in a variety of contexts—consider, for example, Going My Way (1944), On the Waterfront (1954), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957). The unique aspect of The Nun's Story is that it shows the spirituality belonging to a religious order. In semi-documentary fashion, Zinnemann and his crew present the demanding regimen of the nuns—early prayers, long hours of work, the Grand Silence (no talking between evening and morning prayers). The nuns' habits and the halls and rooms of the convent create an extraordinary black and white pattern that dominates the film's first hour. The constant repetition and variation of black and white become the approximate equivalent of a Buddhist mandala—a limited pattern that leads via meditation to a transcendental experience. Zinnemann had hoped to shoot this part of the film in black and white but Jack Warner overruled him; however, it is hard to imagine that black and white photography would have improved the powerful first hour.

The film moves to the Congo in the second hour, an explosion of color after the ascetic convent scenes. Here Sister Luke's vocation is challenged in a variety of ways. Her pride is tested when she is assigned to the white rather than the black hospital (her dream is to minister to the African poor). She encounters the earthy and practical world-view of the Africans, who describe her as "young enough to bear children" and ask "Where is your husband, Mamma Luke?" Her relationship to Dr. Fortunati is difficult because there could be a romantic attachment between them, but her vows make this impossible. Sister Luke survives all these trials as well as a bout of tuberculosis (which Fortunati attributes to internal conflicts). However, when she returns to Belgium she renounces her vows.

Zinnemann's approach to The Nun's Story is respectful but also some extent objective. Zinnemann, a Jew, sought out non-Catholics to play the film's most important roles (Audrey Hepburn was a Christian Scientist) because he wished to avoid "the emotional involvement a faithful believer would bring."55 We can thus observe the seriousness and beauty of Catholic ritual while retaining independent judgment. It is not surprising that Catholic authorities were initially cool to such an enterprise, but a few Catholic institutions did eventually provide crucial help. A French order of nuns invited the lead actresses (Hepburn, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft) to spend several days in a convent—each one in a different location. The filmmakers had lengthy discussions with many nuns, over a period of months. In Rome, where the convent set was built, the Dominican Order of nuns advised and assisted the production.56

The Nun's Story is both an atypical Hollywood film of the 1950s and evidence period's high level of achievement. Audrey Hepburn is magnificent as the strong-willed Sister Luke, and Peter Finch, Edith Evans, and the other cast members give her excellent support. Cinematographer Franz Planer crafts lovely images in both the convent and the Congo. Fred Zinnemann's intelligent yet unobtrusive directorial style meshes beautifully with the subject matter. The Nun's Story was nominated for eight Academy Awards but won none—1959 was the year of Ben-Hur. Nevertheless, this is a wondrous film.


If the early 1950s were marked by a strong and relatively stable genre system, by 1955 that system was beginning to break down. Original screen musicals were on the way out, though Jailhouse Rock and Gidget suggested the possibility of teen musicals. Film noir disappeared; Touch of Evil is sometimes described as film noir's last hurrah. A number of interesting Westerns were made, but they often added a layer of reflexivity or irony to traditional Western concerns. War was presented from a wide variety of perspectives, ranging from the cheerleading Strategic Air Command to the antimilitary Paths of Glory. Prestigious and high-quality melodramas seemed to be increasing. Filmmakers were scrambling to find material that would please the teenage audience. Some of the best films did not fit into any one genre.

Another sign of change was that people from outside the Hollywood system were getting involved in feature films. A "New York school" of filmmaking, including such figures as writer Paddy Chayefsky and actor/director John Cassavetes, brought a greater realism to the screen. Stanley Kubrick, another New Yorker, released his work through United Artists but was already making films that were closer to the European art film than to Hollywood norms.

Thematically, some films had moved from the blandness of the early 1950s to suggest new oppositional figures—the beatnik, the artist, the juvenile delinquent. In Funny Face, Audrey Hepburn's beatnik character ultimately conforms by falling in love with the aging Fred Astaire. But Some Came Running, Blackboard Jungle, Rebel With out a Cause, and Jailhouse Rock all express sympathy for the new rebels, and Shadows is presented entirely from the beatnik point-of-view. This broad but unfocused rebelliousness would become a crucial part of 1960s popular culture.