Edited by David J. Hogan
Reviewed by Jim Burns
In the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis film, Artists and Models (1955), Lewis, the zany one, somehow memorises the secret formula that certain foreign agents (Communists? They’re never actually named as such, but we can all assume they are), want to obtain, and is injected with a truth drug in an attempt to make him blurt out the appropriate information. As part of the process leading up to the injection he’s been vamped by a beautiful spy.
The female foreign agents always appeared to be attractive and intriguing, just as were the femme fatales in film noir. And when I was young they certainly interested me more than the seemingly straight-laced ladies that the heroes finally got around to marrying, if they weren’t already hitched to them. In Artists and Models, Jerry Lewis has all the luck, and not only does he have a liaison with the spy, he also ends up with the delightfully oddball Shirley MacLaine, who is anything but straight-laced. Dean Martin, in the meantime, has been wooing, and eventually winning, the pretty but relatively conventional Dorothy Malone. I always figured that Jerry Lewis got the best deal.
As for The Three Stooges, they made their madcap way through Fuelin’ Around, where one of the trio is mistaken for a famous scientist (think of Larry, the Stooge with all the hair – he looks like the popular idea of a bemused boffin), and is kidnapped, along with his companions, and taken to an unnamed Eastern European country to be forced to divulge details of a “new super rocket fuel”. Needless to say, they eventually outwit their captors. Even slightly-idiotic Americans can teach the communists a thing or two.
There were, of course, many more films which offered a less-humorous account of what communists were supposedly getting up to, even if they sometimes pushed the limits of disbelief with outlandish characters and unlikely plots. There always seemed a contradiction at work in the notion advanced by dedicated anti-communists, that a communist could be anyone – your next-door neighbour, the man across from you on a bus, the woman serving you in a shop – and the Hollywood version where, as in westerns and thrillers, they needed to be visually identified as suspect (black hats for cowboys and square-cut suits for communists). Communists rarely smiled, and if they did, it was usually in a cynical or menacing way. They weren’t much different from gangsters in that respect, and in fact they were very much seen as such in films like The Woman on Pier 13 and Pickup on South Street.
But why the sudden spate of films in the 1950s identifying
communists as a threat to the American way of life? There had been a
few in the late-1940s once it became evident that, as the Soviet
Union spread its control across Eastern Europe, the so-called “Iron
Curtain” came down, the Berlin Blockade developed, Russia got closer
to making an atom bomb, and the Korean War erupted, that the wartime
consensus was no more. You couldn’t imagine
HUAC started its post-war investigations into communism in
It’s true that there were good grounds for being suspicious of
communists. There’s no doubt that the Russians had caught up in
terms of technical know-how in relation to the atom bomb thanks to
information supplied to them by scientists working at
On both a national and local level, communists, fellow-travellers, or those just not fitting in (bohemians, for example) were identified, vilified, fired from their jobs, and sometimes imprisoned. According to David J. Hogan, the Cold War “encouraged anti-intellectualism”, which led to a tendency to suspect anyone not associating with what the crowd wanted. Modern art was suspect and books, music, and films going beyond the popular were likely to raise doubts in the minds of many. Conformity - of tastes, interests, and beliefs - was considered desirable.
It was in this atmosphere that film producers encouraged writers to turn out scripts that would make it clear that Hollywood no longer made heroes out of communists or misfits, and that they knew they were bad and not to be trusted. Were the producers, directors, and writers genuinely concerned (some were, and always had been), or were they just opportunistic and knew a good bandwagon when they saw one? Or simply covering their backs by making anti-communist statements?
Whatever the motives behind them, the films began to roll out of the
studios. Interestingly, more than a few of them used a
science-fiction format to feature aliens invading earth, and in
One of the best of this genre was Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which might be about aliens arriving in the shape of giant pods and gradually taking over humans, but might also be seen as a warning against conformity where a kind of spiritual and emotional transformation happens because people don’t care to question it. They rather like the way that they no longer have troublesome emotions. When one of the characters realises what is happening and says, “I don’t want a world without love or grief or beauty”, you wonder how typical she is, and how many other people might be prepared to settle for such a world, provided their material requirements are assured?
Away from sci-fi, comedies, and westerns, the films, as noted
earlier, could border on the ludicrous, with
Shack Out on 101(1955)
being a classic example. Lee Marvin plays Slob, a short-order cook
at a greasy spoon somewhere in
Chase Winstead, writing about
Shack Out on 101, refers to it as a “dishevelled blend of
Steinbeck and Odets”, which seems to me a bit insulting to both
writers who, in my reading and play-going experiences, never came
close to being as silly as the writers of the film. It makes one
wonder what kind of circulation it had, and whether anyone took it
seriously, even in the paranoid atmosphere of 1950s
Bruce Dettman says that Walk a Crooked Mile is often placed in the film noir category, and that might bear out my earlier contention that communists in films were often shown to be little better than gangsters. Dettman raises an interesting point when he refers to the almost total absence of “characterisation and motivations” in the portrayals of the communists, and describes it as “a noticeable lack that leaves us searching for the political philosophy that drives their behaviour. They exist as simple, superficial creatures, ruthless and slavishly devoted to their tasks, with little if any regard for their victims”. Just like gangsters, in fact, and it’s possible to propose that, given a few amendments to the screenplay, Walk a Crooked Mile, could easily have become a film about tracking down “ordinary” (as opposed to political) criminals. It might be worth mentioning at this point that in another film, A Bullet for Joey, “an egregiously anti-social American hoodlum”, after dabbling initially in criminal behaviour that might benefit communists (he’ll be well paid), eventually does the right thing and turns against them, even though he dies by doing so.
It’s possible to carry on looking at individual films, and one of the strengths of the various essays in Invasion USA is that the writers do analyse in detail most of what they refer to. And there are little gems scattered among the curiosities like the Roy Rogers anti-communist films and the Three Stooges oddity. Split Second doesn’t really belong in the anti-communist camp, but it does have some relevance to the question of nuclear tests. In it, a criminal, played by the ever-reliable Stephen McNally, hides out with his gang and some hostages in an abandoned town, unaware that it’s located in an atomic testing ground. When the gangsters die at the end it’s because they’ve blundered into an explosion. As Americans, they’re killed by their own side. McNally crops up again in Violent Saturday, with a strong supporting cast including Lee Marvin and J.Carroll Naish, but the film has nothing to do with atom bombs, communist spies, or anything relating to those subjects. What is does, perhaps, suggest is that when hostile people arrive in town it might be necessary to use violence to suppress them. So, criminals and communists beware.
is a lively collection of essays which often avoid dealing with
films that might have become well-known through other surveys of
Cold War Hollywood. It even throws in a short consideration of a
tight British thriller, Seven
Days to Noon (1950), in which a scientist steals a portable atom
bomb (did such things exist?) and threatens to destroy