The Evolution of American Cinema (Robert B. Ray)

The Frontier Myth and the Evolution of American Cinema

(The Imaginary Innocence of Casablanca to the Symbolic Irony of Taxi Driver)

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


Classic HW Era


Postwar Era


New American Cinema


Major Film(s)

Casablanca (1942) It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962)  The Godfather (1972, 1974): Completed the Left cycle.Taxi Driver (1976): Completed the Right cycle.

Major Trends

 – Form → the invisible style (continuity editing).– Theme → the dichotomy between individual freedom (the reluctant outlaw hero) and community (the official hero), embodied through the frontier setting.  – The discrepancy between form and content.– Official optimism (the rise of the official hero) vs. crevasses (an uncontainable appeal of the outlaw hero or an enduring sense of crisis).  – The loss of frontier and the Right-Left polarization (and convergence).– In the Right films, particular aberrant individuals are identified as villains and social ills to be eliminated so that society can return to normal.– The persistence in both of the reconciliatory pattern’s abiding advocacy of individualism, embodied in the reluctant hero with a deep-rooted distrust of institutions (a new type of the frontier spirit arising from the soul-searching necessitated with the frontier’s closing).


– Major HW studios coming to prominence (MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers, RKO, Paramount, Columbia, Universal, United Artists, and Disney).– HW as the melting pot due to its relatively stable political and economic situation compared to that of Europe (Garbo, Jannings, Dietrich, Bergman, Laughton, Colman, Eisenstein, Murnau, Lang, Renoir, Clair, Pabst).

– The determinedly commercial nature of HW filmmaking managed to (re)adjust incoming external elements to the logistics of the U.S. film industry.

– Sound as the foremost internal factor that solidified HW’s already established continuity system.

 – The victory in the war vs. a partial loss of freedom, self-reliance and exceptionalism due to the increasing responsibilities for world affairs.– The collapse of the Studio Era (the Paramount antitrust ruling-1948)/ the congressional witch hunts (1947) / European import tariffs (1947-50).– Influences of European cinemas (particularly, Italian neo-realism).

– Encouraged a conservative approach to filmmaking.

– A rise of the art-house audience.

– An emergence of the cult film and the cult star.

– A good number of unrecognized masterpieces.

– A series of epochal events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the Kennedy Assassination (1963), the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal (1972-74), etc.– A growing self-reflexive posture toward American myths.

– A proliferation of films heavily dosed with parody, irony and camp.

– The rise of new generation directors from various backgrounds: film criticism (Bodganovich, Schrader), photojournalism (Kubrick), theater (Nichols), film schools (Forman, Coppola, Lucas, Polanski, Malick, Scorsese, Milius), television (Altman, Penn, Spielberg, Mazursky, Peckinpah) and acting (Beatty, Hopper)

– The rise of new stars through self-reflexive, self-doubting personae: Elliot Gould, Walter Matthau, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Woody Allen, Gene Wilder, Gene Hackman, Mel Brooks, Jack Nicolson, Jane Fonda, Gold Hawn and Jill Clayburgh.

Other Films

It Happened One Night (1934)Swing Time (1936)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) (A translation of the western into a gangster movie).

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Stagecoach (1939)

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

The Philadelphia Story (1941) 

Anticipatory films

Alfred Hitchcock

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

The 39 Steps (1935)

Orson Welles

Citizen Kane (1941)

Billy Wilder

Double Indemnity (1944)

Shane (1953) (An indication of both the anachronism of the outlaw hero and the indefinite postponement of his demise through his departure for some more remote frontier).Popular

The Best Years of Our Lives (1947)

Duel in the Sun (1947)

Red River (1948)

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Samson and Delilah (1950)

An American in Paris (1951)

Quo Vadis (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

The Band Wagon (1953)

From Here to Eternity (1953)

On the Waterfront (1954)

White Christmas (1954)

The Caine Mutiny (1954)

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

A Star Is Born (1955)

East of Eden (1955)

The King and I (1956)

The Searchers (1956)

The Ten Commandments (1957)

Around the World in Eighty Days (1957)

Giant (1957)

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)

Love Me Tender (1957)

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

Loving You (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1958)

Imitation of Life (1959)

North by Northwest (1959)

Psycho (1960)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

West Side Story (1962)

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

The Sound of Music (1965)

Unrecognized masterpieces

My Darling Clementine (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Body and Soul (1947)

Out of the Past (1947)

Fort Apache (1948)

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

They Live by Night (1949)

On the Town (1949)

White Heat (1949)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Stage Fright (1950)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

The Third Man (1950)

Wagon Master (1950)

Rio Grande (1950)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

The Steel Helmet (1951)

High Noon (1952)

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Pat and Mike (1952)

The Wild One (1953)

The Big Heat (1953)

Pickup on South Street (1953)

The Naked Spur (1953)

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Beat the Devil (1954)

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

The Far Country (1955)

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

The Big Knife (1955)

Blackboard Jungle (1955)

The Wrong Man (1956)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The Wrong Man (1957)

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Run of the Arrow (1957)

Vertigo (1958)

Touch of Evil (1958)

Man of the West (1958)

Ride the High Country (1962)

Corrected genre filmsLeft                                                  

The Graduate (1967)                      

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)                 

Cool Hand Luke (1967)                     

2001: Space Odyssey (1968)            

Midnight Cowboy (1969)                  

Easy Rider (1969)                            

Walking Tall (1973)                      

Butch Cassidy and

the Sundance Kid (1969)               

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Little Big Man (1970)

McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Billy Jack (1972)

A Clockwork Orange (1972)

One Flew Over

the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)


Bullitt (1968)

Coogan’s Bluff (1968)

Patton (1970)

Dirty Harry (1971)

The French Connection (1971)

Death Wish (1974)

Heavily corrected genre pictures

Badlands (a Bonnie and Clyde variant)

New York, New York (musical)

The Conversation (private eye)

Mean Streets (gangster)

Payday (musical bio)

The King of Marvin Gardens (noir romance)

Nashville (musical)


M*A*S*H (1970)

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973)

Thieves like Us (1974)

Three Women (1977)

This entry was posted in Film History, Film Industry, Film Theory, N. American Cinema and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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