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New Directions in Post-War Film

Digital History TOPIC ID 128

During the 1940s, a new film genre--known as film noir-- arose, which gave tangible expression to the psychic confusion of a nation that had won the largest war in history but faced even greater uncertainties in peacetime. Though film noir received its named from French film critics and was heavily influenced by German expressionist film making techniques, it stands out as one of the most original and innovative American movie genres.

World War II had produced far-reaching changes in American life: it accelerated the mobility of population, raised living standards, and profoundly altered race relations and the roles of women. Film noir metaphorically addressed many anxieties and apprehensions: the disorientation of returning GIs, fear of nuclear weapons, paranoia generated by the early Cod War, and fears aroused by the changing role of women. Characterized by sexual insecurity, aberrant psychology, and nightmarish camera work, film noir depicted a world of threatening shadows and ambiguities--a world of obsession, alienation, corruption, deceit, blurred identity, paranoia, dementia, weak men, cold- blooded femme fatales, and inevitably murder. Its style consisted of looming close ups, oblique camera angles, and crowded compositions that produced a sense of entrapment. The film's narratives were rarely straightforward; they contained frequent flashbacks and voice-overs.

After the war, Hollywood's audience not only shrank, it also fragmented into distinct subgroups. An audience interested in serious social problem films expanded. During the postwar period Hollywood produced a growing number addressing such problems as ethnic and racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, sufferings of maltreated mental patients, and the problems of alcohol and drug addiction.

Although the early postwar period is often regarded as the golden age of the American family, the popular family melodramas of the 1940s and 50s reveal a pattern of deeply troubled family relationships. These films depicted sexual frustration; anxious parents; cold, domineering mothers; alienated children; insensitive or fretful fathers; defiant adolescents; and loveless marriages. In part this obsession with the theme of marriage and family life "as a kind of hell" reflected a popularized form of psychoanalytic thought, which offered simplistic formulas to explain human behavior. Films of the early postwar period laboriously repeated the theme that sexual frustration inevitably led to neurosis and that harsh, neglectful, or uncomprehending parents produce alienated children. It was a far cry from the soothing and funny fare available on TV.

According to many of the popular films of the period, the source of family woes lay in a lack of familial love. Love was treated as the answer to problems ranging from juvenile delinquency to schizophrenia. Adolescents in films like Splendor in the Grass were rebellious because their parents "won't listen." Husbands and wives drank too much or stray sexually because they cannot communicate adequately with their spouses. While many films of the early postwar era appear to offer a critical and ambivalent view of marriage and family life, their underlying message was hopeful. Even the most severe family problems could be resolved by love, understanding, and perseverance.

At the same time that it turned out serious social problem films about drugs and family life, Hollywood produced movies that explored disturbing changes in the lives of American youth. Films such as The Wild One (1954), Blackboard Jungle (1955), and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) portrayed adolescents as budding criminals, emerging homosexuals, potential fascists, and pathological misfits--everything but perfectly normal kids. On close inspection, cultural critics concluded that something was indeed wrong with American youth, who like Tony in I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) seemed closer to uncontrollable beasts than civilized adults. As Tony tells a psychiatrist, "I say things, I do things--I don't know why."

Many factors contributed to a belief in adolescent moral decline. J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, linked a rise in juvenile delinquency to the decline in the influence of family, home, church, and local community institutions. Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist, emphasized the pernicious influence of comic books. He believed that crime and horror comic books fostered racism, fascism, and sexism in their readers.

In fact, these fears were grossly overstated. During the late '40s and '50s, for example, juvenile delinquency was not increasing. But changes were taking place, and popular movies suggest some of the responses to these broader social transformations. In retrospect, it appears that the proliferation of juvenile delinquency films reflected adult anxieties and also the growth of a distinct youth market. During the 1950s, a new youth culture began to arise, with its distinctive forms of music (rock-and-roll), dress, and language, as well as a deep disdain for the world of conventional adulthood. Marlon Brando captured a new attitude when he responded to the question, "What are you rebelling against-" with the reply: "Whadda ya got-"

The growing popularity of science fiction thrillers also reflected the emergence of the youth market and the spread of a certain paranoid style during the Cold War years. Historian Richard Hofstadter defined the paranoid style in these terms:

The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is...that its exponents see...a 'vast' or 'gigantic' conspiracy as the motive force in historical events...The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms - he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values.

As Nora Sayre has shown, science fiction films of the '50s can be viewed as allegories of the Cold War, reflecting broader social concerns with domestic subversion, infiltration, and the pressures for conformity in a mass society. Unlike the cheerful, humorous, quasi-religious science fiction of the 1970s and '80s, the films of the 50s conveyed an atmosphere of paranoia and foreboding, and dealt with themes--like mind-control and the after-effects of atomic bomb tests--that tapped into deep-seated anxieties of the period.

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