Postwar American Cinema

Challenges and Responses in the Postwar American Cinema

Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980

America had won the war, but in doing so had lost some essential part of its self-definition, the freedom, perhaps, to lead a remote, unentangled existence, interrupted only occasionally by threats that could always be quickly defused.  The enduring appeal of America’s great myth—the reluctant outlaw hero…who briefly emerged from his solitude to help society before lighting out again for the territory—suggests how basic this image of an unencumbered life was to the American self-image.  Now, ironically, by virtue of its success, America could no longer entertain that lifestyle as a possibility (134).

The success of foreign imports (particularly Italian neorealist films) (the discovery that there was an audience sizable enough to make even these bleak movies [e.g., neorealist films]) profitable unsettled the American film industry.  Of course, the homogeneous audience did not disappear.  The rise of the art-house audience, however, signaled that the old consensus, on which the Classic HW movie had depended, had come at least partially undone.  An answer to the sudden development of an audience for sophisticated non-commercial films lies in the divergence of responses to the changed situation of America.  America’s involvement in the community of nations through WWII and the Cold War led to an Europeanization of America, which turned the European film into a new model for a coterie of intelligentsia who became the art-house patrons…The declining popularity of standard HW movies, in Leo Braudy’s terms, indicated that their simplicity no longer corresponded to the increasingly complex world views held by at least a part of the audience.  This search for alternative possibilities was also reflected in the sudden emergence of the cult film and the cult star, phenomena unheard of before the late forties and fifties…In no other period in the history of the American popular film had there existed such an enormous discrepancy between the most commercially successful movies and those that have ultimately been see as significant [that is, commercially unrecognized masterpieces].  This trend had a theoretical echo: the auteur theory, which arose as an elaborate justification for cult films in a period of audience fragmentation and industry confusion—that is, the shock value of auteurist aesthetics depended on the existence of a gap between popular and critical tastes that originated in the fifties.  The cult audience and the art-house crowd had discovered that the Classic HW movie was not the inviolable model for the market; other forms were not only available but also available and more capable of dealing with the serious matters of the time…HW’s first response was to blend the serious social consciousness of the foreign movies with old-fashioned storytelling (141-44).

  • The problem picture such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1947) and On the Waterfront (1954) (144-147).
  • The epic as the most superficial attempt of a mix of genres and serious themes (anticipatory of this trend is Sunset Boulevard (1950) where the anachronism of outmoded stars such as Norma is suggestive of aging America) (149).
  • The street film that typically dealt with big-city crime and where the realist style borrowed from the Italian neorealists was nothing more than a kind of mannered primitivism (149-50).
  • Stylistic and thematic inflations in genre films (the western and others) → amplifications of stock western stories into epics (elaborate stylization or stylistic aggrandizement and a marked split between content and form or between the moral center and sources of pleasure) (150-51).

Stylistic consciousness (against the effacement of style as the basic goal of the continuity system) and unsettling resolutions (or the abrupt containment of unresolvable issues in contrast to the Classic HW Cinema’s reconciliatory bent).

The Discrepancy of Intent and Effect in the Postwar American Cinema

Outwardly, the old pattern of reconciliation was being maintained.  But in the crevasses of these films (postwar genre films), one could sense that some things had changed (174).

  • Hicthcock’s thrillers (mixes of a personal sense of Cold War realities with genre conventions) (155-58).
  • Film noir (a pronounced discrepancy between the ordinariness of its plots and the baroque radicalization of its style derived from an odd pairing of American scriptwriters and European directors such as Wilder, Curtiz and Lang) (159-60).
  • Youth rebellion movies (The Wild One, East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean, indicative of an actual spirit of disillusionment among the period’s adolescents) (161).
  • Musicals (particularly along with Elvis Presley as an equivalent to Brando and Dean in Love Me Tender, Jailhouse Rock, and Loving You—all released in 1957) (163-4).
  • The western (along with an emerging awareness that the passage of time might have discredited certain values and attitudes previously assumed immutable) → a prototype of this new, more pessimistic western was Howard Hawk’s Red River (1948) (169-70).  Fort Apache (1946) with Henry Fonda as an archetype of the official hero whose failure is remembered as an act of heroic valor, The Far Country (1955) with a reluctant, battered outlaw hero, The Searchers (1956) with John Wayne as a neurotic caught up with racial bias (169-174).

Hitchcock and Auteurism in the Postwar American Cinema

The gap between official optimism and hidden fears or disorientations → so-called auteurists looking into the intersection between personal historical senses and official (and/or popular) subjects/forms à the auteurists studies the tension between their personalities and the material in hand for its ability to reveal idiosyncratic styles; in addition, the tension indicated a general shift in the American popular cinema far more fundamental than that effected by serious films.

In an age marked by an extreme unwillingness to face the inconsistencies threatening for the first time to discredit traditional American attitudes, institutions, and values, it was inevitable that Hitchcock would become the great filmmaker.  His theme, as Andrew Sarris pointed out, was complacency; his method, duplicitous and voyeuristic.  Working in the thriller form, he could satisfy the most pressing commercial requirements of a Hollywood fearful of leaving its audience behind.  But to the conventions of the formula picture, he brought strong doses of anxiety and dread…Hitchcock’s pessimism about the effectiveness of ruling principles turns previously positive values into instruments for unlocking chaos: adventure, energy, humor, naivety, curiosity, love, reconciliation, and so on lead to trouble and danger…His view of the world was more profoundly pessimistic than that of the serious films, whose outward bleakness hid an optimistic faith in the possibilities of reform.  Hitchcock’s pessimism, a constant throughout his career, depended noticeably in the postwar era, almost as a response to the blandly confident face of fifties America…Of all his films’ great sequences, the most memorable was the crop-dusting sequence in North by Northwest, an image that took the very basis of the American dream, open space, and revealed its hidden capacities for danger and claustrophobia.  For the postwar popular movie, Hitchcock’s chief significance was his ability to mix his personal sense of Cold War realities with entertainment movies (155-158).

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This entry was posted in Comedy, Film History, Film Noir, Film Theory, Musical, N. American Cinema, The Western, Thriller, Violence and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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