An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War 
by J. Hoberman.
New Press, 383 pp., £21.99, March 2011, 978 1 59558 005 4
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‘They’re not going to stop,’ Joe McCarthy said of the Communists. ‘It’s right here with us now. Unless we make sure there’s no infiltration of our government, then just as certain as you sit there, in the period of our lives you will see a Red world.’ So began the 1954 Senate hearings on subversive influence in the army. But those hearings turned out to be McCarthy’s last crusade; in a formal and spectacular sense, his career ended when Joseph Welch, a Boston lawyer and counsel for the army, replied to the ascription of Communist connections to a young lawyer on his staff: ‘Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.’ McCarthyism had been launched in Wheeling, West Virginia only four years earlier, in the speech where the senator claimed to have the names of 205 Communists employed by the State Department. No one then could have predicted his hold would break so soon. Yet the time of the fear lasted longer than the investigations; in Hollywood, perhaps, longest of all.

An Army of Phantoms is an energetic and adventurous book, in a curious hybrid genre; scholarly, even encyclopedic, yet written occasionally in a style akin to the Hush-Hush columns of L.A. Confidential:

November 16 [1943], six thousand rally at the Shrine Auditorium to celebrate the tenth anniversary of US-Soviet relations, complete with a speech by Olivia de Havilland … The next day, John Wayne learns that the Selective Service board has extended his 3-A deferment. Hot dog! The star celebrates Thanksgiving Day by carving turkeys at the canteen, even as Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin meet in Tehran to plan the US invasion of Europe.

The stereoscopic mix of world and Hollywood requires a fair number of ‘even as’ constructions. Yet the book has a generous plan and keeps up a lively pace. Hoberman interprets his chosen films as works of commercial art and as symptoms of a popular culture sealed off like a sickroom. This goes for political movies like I Married a Communist and The Red Danube but also for many others (Westerns, biblical epics, space invader fantasies, dramas of teenage rampage) which Hoberman takes to be in some manner allegories of the Cold War. Aesthetic, commercial and cultural contexts are held in solution, with exactly what aim is not always clear. In a few cases the specimens offer a diagnosis of the world they spring from. The book closes with an account of Kazan and Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd: an instructive parable, Hoberman thinks, because it exhibits an enemy no longer traceable to a foreign source. A Face in the Crowd tells of the rise of a country singer and cracker-barrel politician, Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes, of his authentic talent and the authenticity merchants who sell him, of his contempt for his audience and the self-contempt that grows with his facility at pleasing the people.

A Face in the Crowd comes from 1957: a post-McCarthy production, in which the ‘sponsors’ of Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith in the performance of his life) could be shown as creators and manipulators of a home-grown political evil. The early pages of An Army of Phantoms take us back to a different era and almost a different country. During the last two years of the Second World War, Americans knew they were good, and the enemy was obvious: Hitler and Japan. Self-confidence and collective self-love warmed the popular culture in the narrow margin after the defeat of the German army at Stalingrad, but before Stalin moved on Eastern Europe, before Russia exploded its own atom bomb, before the Hiss, Bentley, Fuchs and Rosenberg cases sowed a suspicion that there were agents everywhere.

Hoberman often writes history by compiling lists, but the lists themselves are interesting. For example: Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, James Wong Howe, Dudley Nichols, Clifford Odets, Robert Rossen, John Garfield, Charlie Chaplin and Leo McCarey all attended a reception in July 1943 for the Soviet director and administrator Mikhail Kalatozov. At that time Russian and American propaganda methods dovetailed nicely, and everyone seemed to approve of the results. ‘If you have something worthwhile to say, dress it in the glittering robes of entertainment,’ Darryl Zanuck had declared a few years before. ‘No producer who is worthy of the name will reject entertainment, and without entertainment no propaganda film is worth a dime.’ This was the time of the pro-Soviet political memoir Mission to Moscow by the American ambassador Joseph E. Davies. It quickly became a film dedicated to the good of mutual understanding, Davies played with avuncular benignity by Walter Huston, and the film introduced by Davies himself.

The movies actually written by Communists in the late 1930s (the harvest years of the Hollywood CP, after the ‘fair seed-time’ of the Popular Front) are almost all unwatchable. Murray Kempton in Part of Our Time entertained himself by naming some of them: They Shall Have Music, I Stole a Million, Army Girl, The Kid from Kokomo, Mama Runs Wild, Tenth Avenue Kid. One can think of exceptions (Angels with Dirty Faces, for instance), but the trend is clear. ‘There was hardly a scriptwriter among the Communists,’ Kempton judged, ‘who came to witness the trial of Albert Maltz who had not sold himself and betrayed the revolution with his typewriter to make a living every day he worked in Hollywood.’ Yet propaganda without the shame of prostitution did somehow seem possible in the climate of 1943. Proof of the benefits of the mixing of aesthetics and politics was naturally postponed to the end of the war.

Hoberman places the German surrender at Stalingrad close to the release of Song of Russia, a movie about the invasion as experienced by ordinary Russians. Again, there was nothing peculiar then about such a treatment and such a title. Robert Rossen, the most gifted member of the far left milieu, was advised about this time to join the Communist Party as a career move: ‘You will meet big people.’ By the end of that year, David Platt, the Daily Worker’s movie reviewer (a witness frequently summoned by Hoberman for counterpoint), announced that ‘never before in the history of the screen have there been so many forward-looking people in positions of responsibility as in Hollywood.’ ‘Forward-looking’ and ‘progressive’ in the late 1940s were the understood euphemisms for ‘Communist’. They attained their apogee in the 1948 third party campaign of Henry Wallace, an operation managed by ‘very, very progressive people’.

Not only the threat of Soviet rivalry but the emergence of facts about Stalin’s tyranny destroyed a mood of comity based on expediency and fiction. Another circumstance was no less important. The new president, Truman, seeking bipartisan approval after the war, felt the need to secure his standing against the patriotic fervour of Republicans, so he went one better by going one worse. On 21 March 1947 he issued Executive Order 9835. This created the Federal Employee Loyalty and Security Program, a decision, as Truman’s White House counsel Clark Clifford later admitted, driven by the prospect of the 1948 election and not by any security menace: ‘We did not believe there was a real problem. A problem was being manufactured.’ Truman himself, in private correspondence, said much the same. Nevertheless, a domestic purge was in this way instituted, the device of a Democrat to pre-empt the opposite party, and one that would have tremendous effects on the national mood. It marked the beginning of the Cold War in domestic politics. Truman’s loyalty programme would eventually trigger more than 500 dismissals and more than 2600 resignations, losses that weakened the mental power and competence of the civil service for decades to come. It took Eisenhower, a less anxious president, to revoke the order in April 1953.

In Hollywood the fear began on 8 May 1947, when the House Un-American Activities Committee, led by its chairman, Parnell Thomas, and its chief investigator, Robert Stripling, ‘set up shop’ at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. The first response by the industry to notice of an investigation appeared forthright and dignified. A Committee for the First Amendment was formed, and counted among the signatories of its petition for freedom of expression an impressive range of talents: Lucille Ball, Eddie Cantor, Kirk Douglas, Melvyn Douglas, Deanna Durbin, Melvyn Frank, Daniel Fuchs, Henry Fonda, John Garfield, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, Henry Hathaway, Van Heflin, Fritz Lang, Burt Lancaster, Audie Murphy, Burgess Meredith, Groucho Marx, Vincente Minnelli, Gregory Peck, Vincent Price, Robert Ryan, Edward G. Robinson, Donna Reed, Nicholas Ray, Robert Siodmak, Frank Sinatra, Sylvia Sidney, Claire Trevor, Franchot Tone, Walter Wanger, Keenan Wynn, William Wyler, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, Jerry Wald and Robert Young.

Ronald Reagan, a New Deal Democrat at the time (and an FBI informant since 1941), decided after considerable brooding not to join the First Amendment protest. He spoke out anyway in roughly the same cause, from his new position as president of the Screen Actors Guild, assuring the congressional investigators that the industry would police itself. Yet the studios capitulated one by one. Leading the collapse was Jack Warner, just four years out of Mission to Moscow, who anticipated HUAC by naming the writers he thought political activists and notifying the committee that he had fired them. Among the writers in question: Philip and Julius Epstein and Howard Koch (authors of the screenplay for Casablanca), Irwin Shaw, Albert Maltz, Clifford Odets and Ring Lardner Jr. This surrender occurred at a key moment, Hoberman says, as reports of flying saucers turned oddly epidemic in the summer of 1947. As for the Washington watchdog apparatus, it grew more exacting in its attentions. An FBI report on Mr Smith Goes to Washington now called it ‘decidedly Socialist in nature’, while It’s a Wonderful Life was ‘an obvious attempt to discredit bankers’.

The first of the three invasions of Hollywood by HUAC came in 1947, the others in 1951 and 1953. On every visit the congressmen trawled for witnesses with a maximum of tabloid publicity. Richard Nixon’s career was partly forged on the first of these occasions. He served on the original committee, and would soon run for the Senate. Reagan’s earliest thoughts of switching to politics seem to have come just after the war during a sojourn at Lake Arrowhead. Temporarily without work himself, he had come along with his wife, Jane Wyman, on location to shoot The Yearling. He took out a motorboat, communed with his conscience, and saw that something in America had gone badly wrong. Was he meant to be a leader more than an actor, and might his second career pass through leadership of actors? His change of political allegiance was accomplished painlessly. Reagan began the 1950 California Senate campaign as a supporter of Helen Gahagan Douglas – slandered by her opponent, Nixon, as the ‘Pink Lady’ – but ended it as a patron of Nixon. Looking back, he would give this transition a more compelling gloss and allude darkly to the period when he had to carry a gun in Hollywood.

Some of the resentment of Communist influence was sincere. A number of people who made movies were learning, as late as 1951, that their fellow workers had once led a second life as Fellow Workers Before the Dawn, and all along had reported to the Party on the progress of everyone’s views. There was a betrayal in this, as all watching and reporting in secret involves a betrayal. Yet dramatic avowals of ‘Americanism’ by compromised artists such as Elia Kazan would scarcely have been delivered had there not been clear consequences for future employment. The most dismaying anecdotes in An Army of Phantoms turn on the effects of non-co-operation. Dorothy Comingore (now mostly remembered for her part as the second wife of Charles Foster Kane) had been disgusted by the friendly testimony of her ex-husband, Richard Collins. ‘So,’ she said, ‘I went out and had my hair shaved off.’ Comingore joined the picket line outside the HUAC sessions in Los Angeles, appeared as an unfriendly witness in October 1952, and three weeks after her testimony found herself in court ‘where – accused of excessive drinking and allowing her children to frolic in a swimming pool belonging to “persons of doubtful loyalty” – she was losing a custody battle with her ex-husband’. On 19 March 1953, she was picked up by two men in a West Hollywood bar, taken to Plummer Park, given a marked ten-dollar bill and placed under arrest.

The fate of John Garfield was more terrible. Garfield had been the hope of the Hollywood left for more than a decade, and his sentimental aura remains sufficiently intense, even now, to warrant a heroic catalogue of his films in the middle of Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel. He testified on 24 April 1951 and denied that he had ever been a Communist, or ever known anyone who was a Communist. All his work in Hollywood had dried up after he was listed by the watchdog publication Red Channels a few months earlier: the testimony was a transparent attempt to redeem himself without humiliation. Following this public denial, he was subjected to FBI surveillance and threatened with prosecution for perjury. Garfield then went to work, Hoberman writes, on a confessional memoir for Look magazine, ‘I Was a Sucker for a Left Hook’. The Fifth Amendment gives Americans the right not to testify against themselves, and Garfield may have been heeding the example of Kazan, who initially took a ‘diminished fifth’, admitting to membership himself but naming no one else. Yet Kazan did finally name names: he had become convinced, he said, that ‘the American people need the facts.’ Garfield for his part now spoke to the FBI, and apparently, Hoberman says, ‘he was asked to give evidence against his wife, an active member of the Hollywood CP, and refused.’ Not long afterwards, at the age of 39, he died of a heart attack.

If the 1947 investigation was the earthquake, 1951 brought the flood. Liberals dominated the industry in numbers, but not in money, and they had never fully reckoned the meaning of that disparity. In-school apologies for one’s misspent youth were commonplace, but public retractions now became necessary, too. Already in 1947 Bogart, to shore up his credentials against insinuations that he was Red, had published an open letter to the Hearst columnist George Sokolsky, set up in separate lines of type as a credo: ‘I am not a Communist sympathiser. I detest Communism just as any other decent American does. I have never in my life been identified with any group which was even sympathetic to Communism.’ This earnest affirmation ended: ‘I am an American. And very likely, like a good many of the rest of you, sometimes a foolish and impetuous American.’ On the studio side, many producers followed, though with less fuss, the protocol indicated by Howard Hughes when he shut down RKO for six months in 1949 and deployed his project I Married a Communist as a test for weeding out subversives. Thirteen directors turned it down. A rare missing detail in Hoberman’s story is a footnote on the subsequent fortunes of those 13.

Yet in the late 1940s, good work could still be done by mainstream artists, even on subjects that invited propaganda. Fort Apache (1948) is one of the two dozen films Hoberman analyses at some length, and it rewards the close scrutiny, without quite confirming the view of it as a Cold War allegory. Hoberman thinks that it ‘merged the 19th-century war against the Indians with the World War Two combat film. Manifesting a new fascination with the post-atomic south-western landscape, it was set in a mobilised world and dominated by the personalities of rival military leaders.’ The rival leaders are the Apache chief, Cochise, and the commanding officer of the fort, Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday (Henry Fonda). A martinet and an opportunist, Thursday breaks an agreement with the Apache and, against the advice of his more good-natured and practical-minded subordinate Captain Kirby York (John Wayne), leads his men down a narrow defile where they are ambushed by Cochise. The film was shot in Monument Valley, and the breadth of view is a wonder, from horizon to horizon, but what is this about a ‘post-atomic landscape’? The bomb tests in the desert South-West were several months ahead; sky-effects due to the fallout would anyway be invisible in black and white. The scene in fact looked much as it had in the 19th century and that was why Ford chose it.

But Hoberman never quits the chase early: ‘Fort Apache is a vision of total mobilisation with an appropriate emphasis on order and eternal vigilance: militarised suburbia.’ Again, a bold conjecture but what does it mean? The cavalry base that is the setting and in some degree the subject of Fort Apache is a kind of home, all right, but there is nothing suburban about its rigours and dangers, its loyalties and its stunted pride in the maintenance of gentility. The commentator in a passage like this is doing some fancy bookkeeping to add an inch or two of historical-looking specification. Rio Grande, Hoberman says of the third film of the trilogy that starts with Fort Apache, ‘dramatised a blithe mixture of resentment and megalomania that characterised Korea’s brief second act.’ Well, not quite its second act, since Rio Grande began shooting ten days before the outbreak of the war. But it is true that Ford in the following months completed his turn from the populist Democrat he had seemed to be in the decade of The Grapes of Wrath. The Wayne character, Kirby York, in the opening minutes of Rio Grande, bitterly denounces a government policy that compels him to halt his pursuit of marauding Indians on the American side of the river. So, too, General MacArthur after the success of the Inchon landing followed the North Koreans across the 38th parallel and wanted to bomb China on the other side of the Yalu River. Some time after They Were Expendable (1945) Ford had struck up a friendship with MacArthur. He made the documentary This Is Korea! And (a fact from Joseph McBride’s Searching for John Ford that Hoberman might have used) when Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination, Ford made his change of view official. He took down Truman’s portrait from the wall of his office and put up MacArthur’s.

There is a good deal more to the story of Ford in the Cold War, much of it unpleasant to learn. In the autumn of 1950, a meeting was held of the Screen Directors Guild, at which Cecil B. DeMille (then ‘special agent’ for the FBI) had moved to lead the industry in a demonstration of political impeccability. DeMille proposed a loyalty oath. The president of the SDG, Joseph Mankiewicz, on vacation in Europe while this was agitating, returned to oppose the DeMille plan. The supporters of Mankiewicz petitioned for a general meeting, and the confrontation took place on the evening of 22 October at the Beverly Hills Hotel – a meeting attended by almost 300 people, which continued past 2 a.m. As expected, DeMille slated his opponents as leftists and subversives, but he was booed and demands were aired for his resignation from the board. John Ford now stood up and said: ‘My name is Jack Ford – I make Westerns.’ He surprised the crowd by defending Mankiewicz and moving that the entire board resign. This was to become a legendary moment in the annals of Hollywood resistance, but the fact is odder than the legend and it gives off a queasy odour. Mankiewicz was re-elected. He asked the membership of the SDG to sign a voluntary loyalty oath. Five days after the meeting, this attenuated pretence of upright dissidence was passed. Meanwhile, on 23 October, Ford had written to DeMille (as Hoberman puts it) ‘to commend him on his behaviour under fire’; after receiving an appreciative reply, Ford soothed the great man’s ego with a final masculine flourish: ‘That meeting Sunday night was a disgusting thing to see – not a wolf pack, but a mice pack attacking you. That was your greatest performance. I just wish you could have seen yourself – a magnificent figure.’

Another well-regarded Western, High Noon, was widely taken to be an anti-McCarthy movie. The reason lay in its portrait of the craven mob of respectable citizens who affect a courage that evaporates when put to the test. They leave the marshal (Gary Cooper) to confront alone a villain with eyes and ears who is capable of hurting them individually. Carl Foreman wrote High Noon when he was being hunted by the committee, and many of the details belong to that period of constant apprehensiveness. But Foreman’s testimony before HUAC, as well as the reading offered by other defenders of High Noon, allowed the movie to be taken not as a portrait of a lonely dissident in America, but of lonely America itself, defying the timidity of her supposed allies in the fight against Communism. It is a plausible line of tactical defence but not a convincing reading. Hoberman points out that ‘after the subpoena became known’, Foreman found that his ‘friends and acquaintances began avoiding him – even crossing the street as he approached.’ The memorable scenes of moral surrender in the film were drawn from his daily experience in 1950 and 1951: ‘The scene in the church is a distillation of meetings I had with partners, associates and lawyers. And there’s the scene with the man who offers to help and comes back with his gun and asks: where are the others? Cooper says there are no others.’ External evidence, too, confirms a domestic interpretation of the movie as the truer account. John Wayne accepted the Oscar for Cooper, with an ungracious aside about not getting the part himself, but he later called High Noon ‘the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life’ and summed up his feelings: ‘I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of this country.’

Yet High Noon unquestionably appeals to a boyish-manly keenness for turning justice into agonistic sport. The movie, we learn from Hoberman, has been a particular favourite of American presidents. Eisenhower screened it three times in the White House, and Clinton 20 times. What to make of the presidential enthusiasm for a lawman who becomes a one-man posse and throws down his badge in disgust at the people he has had to defend? Even the most powerful want to regard themselves as heroic, besieged and alone, and the movie flatters their egotism. This reaction would surely have troubled Foreman, as well as the director, Fred Zinnemann, a left-wing social democrat whose unrealised final project was a movie of La Condition humaine.

Only one other film of the period, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has proved so susceptible of dual interpretation. Here the story carries a magnetic charge of justified paranoia: we see the effects of the terror in the faces and the posture of minor characters long before we see the cause. Family and friends and neighbours who seem suddenly bereft of human affect have actually been replaced by aliens who use their bodies as vehicles. Between loss of life and loss of identity, the latter is the more dreadful prospect, and yet, in the conditions of the mass society portrayed in the movie, the process seems impossible to thwart. The film finds ways of rendering banal, almost non-existent, the differentiae of individual persons. So it touches a fear that concerns both the horror of compelled conformity and the human aversion to every change that disturbs life’s comforts. When the panicked get out of hand in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, they are told that things are normal. If they stay overwrought, they are injected with a sedative.

Should this movie be seen as a satire on the anti-Communist reign of fear, with its endorsement of the serenity of the small town and the happy household, or as a satire on the Communist ‘substitution’ of collective for personal values? The images will take you either way. ‘Mother, mother, I’m scared!’ was among the cries overheard at the Encino preview by the film’s art director, Ted Haworth. ‘I have never worked on a suspense film that generated an audience fever like this,’ he said in a memo to the producer. ‘They were scared, and they resented it because they were shamed by their own obvious cowardice.’ The most dreadful fancy provoked by the movie corresponds to its most tantalising invitation: the fight to preserve yourself might not be worth the trouble. Just give way to sleep and be glad that a body exists in the world that looks like you. The only consoling moment comes from a lovely voice heard singing in Spanish, but its source turns out to be a truck radio. The invaders have kept the radio on for further instructions while they unload the latest shipment of pods.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is chronologically post-Scare (1956), but it is strange enough to belong imaginatively to the early 1950s. The wildest product of that time was Leo McCarey’s My Son John (1952), which presented the HUAC doctrine pure and uncut. We see an all-American family, the father straight-arrow, an American Legion type but gentle, the mother deeply tender to her children and a devout Catholic. Two good (football-playing) sons are headed for Korea as the movie opens. The third is John: an evident aesthete (to judge by how much he cares about his clothes), spoiled, intellectual and Eastern-educated. On a rare visit back home, John deserts his eager parents to dine with a favourite professor of questionable views, whom we see retreating in the afternoon shadows, the glimpse just enough to reveal from a rear angle the white hair, the glasses, the Trotsky beard. John, played by Robert Walker with a hint of the malice of Bruno in Strangers on a Train, turns out to be a Communist agent. His mother, sickened by his treachery, ferrets out the truth and asks him to surrender, in a scene centred on her rosary, with John cowering in the background. ‘Just because my son John has been poisoned,’ she says, ‘I’ll not let him poison other mothers’ sons and daughters.’ The FBI agent who gave her a clue has said to his partner: ‘It’ll be quite a contest – God and country or her son John!’ Mother and country win, awakening the conscience of John, and it is John who dies, shot by the Communists, but not before he records a Whittaker Chambers-like confession on a tape that is played as the commencement address at his alma mater. The salient combination in this elixir is anti-intellectualism and Catholicism. The genuine oddness of the insistence on Catholicism may be hard to recover in a year when six of the nine justices on the US Supreme Court are Catholic. But even in 1952, My Son John underlined a discernible coalescence in American politics. Cardinal Spellman was among the warmest defenders of Senator McCarthy, and is said to have ‘blessed’ bombs that were dropped in Korea and Vietnam.

The Korean War locked in the Cold War, and it was necessary for the purpose. If Men in War is the only good American film about Korea, a sign of the fear is that it had to wait until 1957 – directed by Anthony Mann, written by the blacklisted Ben Maddow (with Philip Yordan fronting) – and that it worked by draining the war of particulars. It could be any war. By contrast, Strategic Air Command, directed by Mann just two years earlier, looks ahead to a Cold War mood that would last far into the 1960s. Here the esprit de corps of the small group, a familiar trait in war movies like A Walk in the Sun and Air Force, has all but vanished. What has replaced it is the respectful relation between the flyer-technician and the top brass. The only obstacle to the return of Robert ‘Dutch’ Holland (James Stewart) to the air force in 1955 is his wife (June Allyson), who regrets his sacrifice of a happy baseball career. Since she is pregnant, her resistance is taken to be understandable. Dutch tries to reason with her: ‘Sally, if there was a war on, you wouldn’t question any of this.’ ‘Well that’s just it, there isn’t.’ ‘But there is – a kind of war. We’ve got to stay ready to fight, without fighting.’ How a professional athlete might come to enjoy the game aspect of nuclear war is revealed in a line by Stewart to a member of his crew on a secret training mission. ‘We’ve been bombing cities,’ Dutch says, ‘all day and all night, all over the US. Only people never know it.’ The strongest emotion of the picture, however, is neither sentimental nor strictly military, but aesthetic. It comes with Stewart’s glimpse of a new B-47 bomber. A tremulous run over strings and harp as the camera enters the hangar: ‘She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’ And again, to the general standing beside him: ‘I’d sure like to get my hands on one of these.’

When did the Cold War in Hollywood end? Billy Wilder felt free to direct a ‘madcap’ comedy about Berlin, One, Two, Three, in 1961, but the fundamental sanity of the anti-Communist brinkmanship was still taken on trust in the early Kennedy years. When Stanley Kubrick ran ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ over the mid-air refuelling of a B-52 in the credits to Dr Strangelove (1964), it may have marked a deeper slackening of taboos. But the hope of political criticism through movies, the dream that spurred on the Hollywood left of the 1940s when they were not acting as stenographers for Mikhail Kalatozov, and that drove the exiled left of the 1950s: this was not to be realised. Its scattered remnants are barely recoverable in the following decade, in an anti-militarist thriller like Seven Days in May, or a parable of mob psychology like Planet of the Apes.

Count up the movies of some lasting worth that emerged in the decade 1947-1956 and the Hollywood left may be credited with a few. Body and Soul and All the King’s Men (Rossen). On Dangerous Ground and Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray). Viva Zapata and On the Waterfront (Kazan). Clash by Night (Fritz Lang, from a play by Clifford Odets). But as soon as you remember the credits in detail, you are struck by the ambiguities. Kazan made better films, with a harder left-wing edge, after he confessed than before. Lang, who escaped a grilling but was, according to Hanns Eisler, for a time a Party member, needed the friendly testimony of Odets to clear the publicity for Clash by Night. Ray, who was scarcely an artist in the sense that the others were, yet who in the 1950s made more memorable films than any of them, was doubtless a fellow traveller and possibly a Communist, and might have suffered as badly as any under the ministrations of HUAC, except that Howard Hughes cherished a special fondness for him and got the FBI to lift the surveillance. Weighed against the expectations of the artists themselves and the high ambitions of the 1930s, the achievements are sparse and cramped, but compare the films above with those on Murray Kempton’s list and the matter looks different. Alienation from power had let in a quantum of reality.

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Vol. 34 No. 4 · 23 February 2012

‘The movies actually written by Communists in the late 1930s … are almost all unwatchable,’ David Bromwich sniffs (LRB, 26 January). Well, let’s see. Bromwich also refers to this Popular Front era as ‘fair seed-time’ so let’s be generous and extend a bit to the 1940s, which is when HUAC slapped subpoenas on the Hollywood Ten and sent them to jail. Keep in mind that in those days, studio-hired screenwriters, if they were to survive, had to take whatever job was on offer. Even so, depending on whether your taste is for crass entertainment (like mine) or more elevated (like Bromwich’s), among the films written, directed or produced by those Communists were: Naked City, Graham Greene’s This Gun for Hire, Murder My Sweet, Crossfire, the sentimental but utterly watchable Till The End of Time, Thieves’ Highway (great!), Brute Force, Laura, Woman of the Year, Cry the Beloved Country, Algiers, the UK-made and rather beautiful So Well Remembered, Hotel Berlin, He Ran All the Way, Tender Comrade (oops, sorry). For brevity I have omitted the wartime and prewar anti-fascist movies some of which – always excepting Mission to Moscow – are still watchable.

Clancy Sigal
Los Angeles

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