Hollywood Artists: The Directors Guild of America and the Construction of Authorship

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Professor Wexman does not lack ambition in her newest book Hollywood’s Artists: The Directors Guild of America and the Construction of Authorship, which outlines an impressive range of objectives. First of all, she wants to show how the Guild created the idea of directors as artists. She moves on to how directors adopted the image of charismatic leaders and then how they are recognised. Wexman then looks at how the Directors Guild of America (DGA) – which was initially called the Screen Directors Guild (SDG) – constructed a narrative about the famous meeting on 22 October 1950. Finally, Wexman examines the legal aspects of the Guild with its ownership rights.

Full review published in Film and History on:

https://muse.jhu.edu/article/842294

James Bond and the Herculean menace in film and TV

Dr Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The actor Daniel Craig delivered a Bond for the 21st Century, but his character has its roots in Greek mythology. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

James Bond is a figure that has dominated world cinema for close to 60 years. Underneath the character’s surface charm was a killer with a steely edge. Sean Connery was a marvelous Bond, but his style seemed out of touch in the more jaded politics of our time. The more light-hearted approach of Roger Moore was never going to resonate with today’s audiences. In the latest movie of the series and Daniel Craig’s last outing as Bond, No Time To Die, the creators have looked back to Greek mythology for inspiration – directly or indirectly  –  particularly the figure of Hercules.  After saving the world from yet another evil menace, Bond must decide if he returns to society or dies on the spot. If Bond does choose to return, he will almost certainly destroy his partner and their child.

This dilemma places him in the Greek mythological tradition. Hercules was an illegitimate son of Zeus and despised by Zeus’s wife: the Goddess Hera, who hated Zeus’s infidelities and did everything she could to destroy Hercules – who was a physical manifestation of them. According to one story, after victory in a war, Hercules’ return to his home was shattered by tragedy. Hercules’ wife Megara and their children were about to be murdered by Lycus. Defending his family, Hercules slew Lycus with an arrow. Hera then cursed Hercules to fall into a state of delusion and rage. Hercules shot his children with arrows, believing them to be his rival’s sons and not his own. As Hercules was about to kill his adopted father, Amphitryon, Zeus’s daughter Athena intervened and knocked Hercules unconscious. Upon awakening Hercules realised his crime and was suicidal.

For his misdeeds, Hercules was obliged to become the servant of Eurystheus who imposed the famous twelve labours: the slaying of the Nemean lion; the killing of the nine-headed Hydra of Lerna; the capture of the  Arcadian stag; the capture of the wild Mount Erymanthus boar; the cleaning of the Augean stables; destroying the monstrous Stymphalian man-eating birds; the capture of the mad bull that terrorized the island of Crete; the capture of the man-eating mares; the taking of the girdle of Hippolyte from the queen of the Amazons; the seizing of the cattle of the giant Geryon; the bringing back of the golden apples kept at the world’s end by the Hesperides; and the fetching up from the underworld of the triple-headed dog Cerberus, guardian of its gates. Each of these labours was a monumental demonstration of the strength and cunning of Hercules, but none could erase his familial crimes.

Literary scholar Eugene Waith wrote: “[Hercules]… is a warrior of great stature who is guilty of striking departures from the morality of society in which he lives.” That is the fundamental dilemma of Hercules, and it has proved irresistible to a significant number of writers. In The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden (1962), Wraith explored plays written in the16th and 17th Centuries that re-interpreted or reworked the Herculean myth for its time.[1] Wraith identified seven plays: Marlowe’s Tamburlaine;Chapman’s Busy D’Ambois; Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; and Coriolanus; and Dryden’s The Conquest of Granada, Aureng-Zebe and All for Love. Reworking the figure of Hercules is not restricted to these two centuries. Richard Rowland tracked depictions of the Demi-God through to the War on Terror initiated by United States President George W. Bush.[2]

The figure of Hercules remains a common one in popular film. Dating back to Marvelous Maciste in 1915, Bartolomeo Pagano is usually depicted as a Hercules-like figure, utilizing his massive strength to achieve heroic feats that ordinary men cannot. The idea can be seen in many films through to Arnold Schwarzenegger when he appeared in Hercules in New York (1970). In these films, Hercules is a super-muscular heroic figure. Most Hollywood or other cinematic depictions of Hercules highlighted his strength and heroism, downplaying the tragic roots of his feats – he was a straightforward hero. In recent times, a bleaker image of Hercules has emerged. In a 2014 version, Hercules, played by Dwayne Johnson, is haunted by the death of his wife and children.

One of the first figures who presented the strength of Hercules, Marvelous Maciste, was a popular figure in world cinema from 1915. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

The critical elements of the Herculean figure are some tragedy or tragic event in his past, which he tries to seek redemption by heroic deeds. He is haunted by a past injustice and can never be reconciled to God or man. The western was the main stamping ground for films with this character: the haunted figure redeemed by violence. But one figure dominates over all the rest – it was the character developed for John Wayne in the John Ford film The Searchers. Ethan Edwards rides out of the desert to visit his brother on his Texan ranch. He had fought for the Confederate Army in the Civil War and was unapologetic about his involvement at any level. He is menacing and antisocial, and his presence causes great unease at the Edwards farm. Several hints show that he has slept with his brother’s wife – or wanted to – and the passion lingers.

The tortured vision of Hercules is evident in many Westerns, but it is clearest in John Wayne’s portrayal of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

While staying at the farm, the Comanche Indians pull a ruse to get the area’s men to chase them for cattle theft. While they are out hunting the thieves out in the desert, the main body or tribe attacks the ranch. Killing all in the household, aside from the two young women who the Comanche keep as future brides, the raiders escape into the broad lands of the desert. The men follow them, but they are brushed off by the vastly superior numbers of the Indians. Edwards and Martin Pauley agree that they will continue to follow them to bring back the young women. As the trip continues, they track down the older girl Lucy who has presumedly been raped and possibly murdered by the Comanche Indians. Edwards is distraught: “I found Lucy back in the canyon. Wrapped her in my coat, buried her with my own hands, I thought it best to keep it from ya.”[3] Some critics note that Wayne repeatedly pushes his knife into the ground while speaking. These actions represent how you clean a knife after a hunting kill. There is a subtle hint that Edwards may have killed Lucy, possibly out of mercy, or perhaps to cover her shame as being violated by the Comanche. If so, we have the Herculean figure in full flight.

As the search continues, Edwards develops a pathological rage against Debbie – who may or may not be his daughter – vowing to kill her. Edwards seems to be furious that his niece – or daughter – could have had sex with the men from the Indian tribe. Edwards’s violent racism is on clear display, and in one scene, he looks at two white girls who are returned from a separate tribe to the community with a face of pathological hatred. His rage against Debbie, played by Natalie Wood, looks unstoppable.

At the same time, as a Herculean figure, Edwards is capable of incredible feats of strength and courage. He tells his companion Marty: “Injun [sic] will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then, he quits. Same way when he runs. It seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we’ll find ’em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ’em. Just as sure as a turnin’ of the earth.”[4] Yet, we also know that he plans to kill her when he finds her. This quote shows the dilemma of the Herculean figure, who is capable of great acts, but underpinning it, is a tremendous urge to destroy themselves and those close to them.

Yet Edwards does not kill Debbie. When he finds her, Edwards says she looks like her mother and holds her gently as he rides her home – apparently purged of his demons. The heavy black edges of a door enclose the film’s final shot. The audience looks out to the desert and sees the film’s various characters walk through it to reenter the house to gain entrance into society. Ethan Edwards stands momentarily at the door, considering his options. He has carried his niece Debbie Edwards to the doorway. Upon arrival, Debbie is greeted warmly and walked through the door with the Jorgensen family to rejoin the community. After they have walked through the opening, Edwards takes a hesitant step but then halts when a couple, Martin Pawley and his fiancé Laurie Jorgensen, move through the doorway – and onto an inevitable marriage. Edwards then looks through the door, pauses as if deciding what to do, and reluctantly turns his back to the door. The door closes, and he is stopped from entering a community – he has rejected it in any event. The Herculean figure has no place in the community. [5]

At a point earlier in the film, Edwards had shot out the eyes of an Indian corpse, cursing him to walk between the winds for eternity. He tells the disapproving Reverend, who remonstrates that it means nothing to those practicing the Christian religion, “But what that Comanche believes, ain’t got no eyes, he can’t enter the spirit-land. Has to wander forever between the winds. You get it, Reverend.”[6] As he walks away from the doorway, the wind picks up, and the wind picks up the dust that swirls around him.  It appears that the curse he had inflicted on the Indian had now returned to haunt him. Like James Bond in No Time to Die and the Herculean figures, he will destroy the community if he stays.

Several characters have followed in the path of Ethan Edwards, particularly Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a war veteran who rescues a young woman from gangsters, while flirting with the idea of being a political assassin. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The Searchers has influenced many films. Several characters have followed in the path of Ethan Edwards, particularly Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976), a war veteran who rescues a young woman from gangsters while flirting with the idea of being a political assassin. Bickle totters between being a psychopath and a hero.

Ciro played by Marco D’Amore (Centre.)

The figure is not confined to the cinema. In the epic Italian TV series Gomorrah, Ciro, played by Marco D’Amore is a violent gangster who strangles his wife in a fit of rage. Yet Ciro is also capable of great heroism in freeing an Albanian woman from forced prostitution.

The figure is not confined to men. among several candidates, an exemplary one is in the TV series Marcella (2016 – 2021), where Marcella Backland, played by Anna Friel, is a former London Metropolitan Police Service detective.  She decides to return to work after her husband says he is ending the marriage. Marcella resumes her investigation into the cold case of three unsolved Grove Park murders from a decade earlier, as it appears the serial killer responsible has returned. [7]

A shattered image of a detective. Marcella continues the tradition of Herculean heroes who are destructive to those around them, and capable of massive feats of courage.

The audience finds that Marcella has blackouts for unknown reasons in the first season. She has a disastrous relationship with her husband, a poor one with her children, a drinking problem that often results in physical violence. Despite these dreadful interpersonal relationships, she is a brilliant detective who can solve an incredibly complex murder case.

Marcella is after a serial killer of children in the second season. One with links back to her own family, and she endangers her children in the course of the investigation. Marcella must deal with a wretchedly complex and demanding case. Her former husband Jason is now engaged, putting their children in the middle of a custody battle that quickly becomes ugly. Marcella’s blackouts continue, and she seeks counselling to help her remember what happened during them,  discovering that she accidentally killed her newborn baby and blotted it out of her memory. At this point, the Herculean motif is repeated firmly. Marcella must face the simple fact that she is a more than capable detective but a poor parent. Accepting this sad reality, she eventually signs the papers allowing her husband and new wife to take care of their children.

At the end of the second series, Marcella thinks about suicide but then walks away from the police force. The Herculean hero has no place in any society and even her home. By the third series, she has disappeared from society. Picked up off the street, Marcella assumes a new identity as an undercover officer. Considered dead and with no links to the community, she appears perfect in this new role, where she can redeem herself for her destructive acts against her family.

The Herculean hero continues to fascinate writers in the 21st Century, and will do so as long as film, books and plays are written or performed.


[1] Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden. United Kingdom: Columbia University Press, 1962.

[2] Rowland, Richard. Killing Hercules: Deianira and the Politics of Domestic Violence, from Sophocles to the War on Terror. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis, 2016.

[3] Quotes taken from https://www.gradesaver.com/the-searchers/study-guide/quotes based on script by Frank S. Nugent, and novel by Alan Le May.

[4] Quotes taken from https://www.gradesaver.com/the-searchers/study-guide/quotes based on script by Frank S. Nugent, and novel by Alan Le May.

[5] Some sections of this blog have appeared in https://cinemahistoryonline.com/2021/03/10/news-of-the-world-and-the-searchers/

[6] Quotes taken from https://www.gradesaver.com/the-searchers/study-guide/quotes based on script by Frank S. Nugent, and novel by Alan Le May.

[7] https://www.mysterytribune.com/anna-friel-returns-in-uk-noir-thriller-series-marcella-season-three/

Andrew Dickos, Street With No Name. A History of the Classic Films Noir, The University of Kentucky Press, 2021. (review)

Geoff Mayer

The Glass Key directed by Frank Tuttle. Image courtesy of Mayer Collection.

As a single phenomenon, noir, in my view never existed. That is why no one has been able to define it and why the contours of the larger noir canon in particular are so imprecise. Many of the features associated with noir – the use of voice-over and flashback, the use of high contrast lighting and other ‘expressionistic” devices, the focus on mentally, emotionally and physically vulnerable characters, the interest in psychology, the culture of distrust marking relations between male and female characters, and the downbeat emphasis on violence, anxiety, death, crime and compromised morality – were certainly real ones, but they were separable features belonging to separable tendencies and trends which traversed a wide variety of genres and cycles in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood. [i]

What is film noir? Steve Neale (above) argues it is not a film genre. Essentially, he maintains that it is a discursive critical construction. Yet today, film and television producers and advertisers assume that its core qualities are self-evident as they attempt to exploit its appeal as a marketing strategy for their products, both narrative and non-narrative. It is assumed that the general public now shares the conventional perception of noir. They see it as emanating from those 1940s Hollywood melodramas that deployed, even intermittently, high contrast chiaroscuro lighting that projected deep shadows accompanied by unstable camera set ups that thematically envelope, or trap, the actors within the frame. This visual imagery was often accompanied by a bleak view of American society, especially in the immediate postwar period, that challenged the Hollywood happy ending.  This perception of noir developed for more than forty years. Scholars and film buffs such as Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward promoted the idea, arguing that not only did a “noir cycle” exist, but it was a “self contained reflection of American cultural preoccupations in film form. In short, it is the unique example of a wholly American film style.”[ii] Silver, with James Ursini, summarised the view of many when they claimed that if “observers of film noir agree on anything, it is on the boundaries of the classic period which begins in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon and ends less than a score of years later with Touch of Evil.”[iii]

Andrew Dickos shares Silver’s position, not Steve Neale’s.  Dickos ends his book by dismissing the complexities of discussing film noir raised by James Naremore in his excellent study, More Than Night. Film Noir In Its Contexts,[iv] by concluding that in conceptualising “classic film noir” “one may almost be forgiven for forgetting that to recognize the film noir as, above all else, a screen genre.”[v] Naremore’s nuanced study, on the other hand, points to the inherent paradox involved in any study by noting that “film noir is both an important cinematic legacy and an idea we have projected onto the past.”[vi]

Dickos, in his 2021 ‘updated edition’ of his 2002 book Street With No Name, rejects suggestions that film noir is a movement, a cycle, a visual style, a tone, or a mood. It is, he asserts, a genre. Yet this is difficult to verify for, unlike the classic Hollywood genres such as the western or the musical or gangster film, “film noir” as a description of a type of Hollywood film is never mentioned in-studio documents as the term was unknown in the United States until, at least, the mid-1950s. In fact, it was nearly another two decades before it was commonly used.  The lack of the term can be verified by a perusal of 1940s Hollywood trade magazines that now routinely label these movies as film noir. The films were described as “private detective melodrama in the hard-boiled manner” (Out of the Past), or “blood-and-thunder melodrama with psychological overtones” (This Gun for Hire) or“mystery melodrama with a psychological twist”(My Name is Julia Ross).[vii]  But never “film noir.”

Dickos, to his credit, points to the shifts in the application of the term when he notes that “film noir” has mutated into categories such as “teen noir” and “femme noir” along with generic hybrids such as “western noir,” “horror noir” and “tech-noir.” [viii] He also points to the continuing popularity and influence of the “classic American Film Noir” on other film cultures, including Scandinavia, Japan, Latin American, and South Korea.”[ix]

In Street With No Name, Dickos argues that “film noir [is) … a body of work conforming to generic standards.”[x] To support this view, he points to the “stylistic distinctiveness that transformed the conventions of the crime and private eye dramas into those peculiar to the noir.”[xi] The ramifications of this, according to Dickos, was a “technique that finally transformed a style into a new narrative expression.”[xii] Its “distinctive visual style” reached its apotheosis, Dickos argues, in the hands of “notable noir filmmakers, usually in collaboration with their cameraman.”[xiii] In this regard, he cites Otto Preminger and Joseph La Shelle, Anthony Mann and John Alton, Robert Siodmak and Woody Bredell, and Robert Aldrich and Joseph Biroc. In many ways, this highlights Dickos’s real interest throughout the book on the celebration of selected “auteurs” and the development of particular themes. To provide a conceptual framework for this idea, he consistently argues that film noir constituted a “genre status,”[xiv] characterised by  a range of “structural elements of noir narrative.”[xv] These elements are:[xvi]

  • an urban setting or at least an urban influence.
  • a modern, twentieth-century setting.
  • a lack of comic structure (the notable exception according to Dickos is Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity).
  • a denial by its main characters of conventional social and domestic happiness through unattainability or refusal.
  • an assertion of individuality as defined by the killing of someone in defiance of modern social mores and law.
  • the iconic representation of the features mentioned above by a definitive star of the screen or through a striking performance by a less recognized screen star or actor.

Dickos then proceeds to compile a list of “conventions of the film noir [that are] ensconced in its narrative structure, which make it distinctive yet are not exclusive to the noir.”[xvii]

These are:[xviii]

  • the femme fatale or her counterpart,  the homme fatal.
  • active/sexual and passive/nonsexual characters.
  • the use of voice-over narration and the flashback – usually from the male point of view.
  • frequent use of portraits.
  • telephones.
  • temporary amnesia, plus nightmares or daydreams.
  • cars as indispensable devices of escape.
  • apartments or bungalows.
  • art and its collection suggesting corruption, effeteness, and a European sensibility.
  • the inclusion of nightclubs and lounges, neon signs, cigarette lighters, trench coats, hotel rooms, both cheap and elegant, pool halls, boxing rings, gyms, guns, and smart fashion.
My Name is Julia Ross (1945) is one film that evades Dickos’s taxonomy. Courtesy of the Mayer collection.

This attempt at generic taxonomy is brave on  Dickos’s part as such attempts, even with more clearly defined genres such as the western, are always subject to contradictions and film outriders that its precise boundaries. Hence,  it is relatively easy to cite films generally classified as noir that evade most of these attributes. For example, My Name is Julia Ross (1945) or Ivy (1947) or So Evil My Love (1948), the last two films set in 19th Century England.

Dickos hints at a more sophisticated approach in his preface to the updated edition when he refers to film noir as “Melodrama narratives … cast in a noir haze.”[xix] This notion is intriguing, and it is a pity that the “updated edition” never explores this idea.  The main reason for this lapse is that the 2021 “updated edition” is the same book published in 2002. The only change is a two-page (new) preface replacing the seven-page preface in the 2002 edition. In fact, the 2002 book provides better value as the hardcover edition is printed of high-quality paper which showcases the excellent selection of images in a much better way than the 2021 edition.

The rest is this review is, by necessity, a review of the 2002 book – as nothing has changed. At least the publishers should have taken the trouble to disguise this a little better. For example, the index to the 2021 edition notes that Double Indemnity is supposedly mentioned on pages xiii and xiv. The trouble is that there are no pages xiii and xiv in the new edition – only in the 2002 edition. If one compares the 2021 edition with the 2002 edition, it reveals that both editions are identical –  the text is exactly the same, and the images are the same.

While Dickos mentions Jean Renoir’s 1938 film La Bête Humaine in his section on French cinema in the 1930s, he fails to extend this by discussing the Hollywood remake sixteen years later of Renoir’s film, titled Human Desire. Image courtesy of Mayer Collection.

Some brief comments on the 2002/2021 books. Dickos’s study, while not a comprehensive history of film noir, includes a valuable discussion of German Expressionism in the period from 1919 to 1933, along with trends in French Cinema in the 1930s. He sees these film cultures providing the genesis of what became known as “classic American film noir” a decade later.  However, even here, one suspects that Dickos is more interested in celebrating the virtues of selected European “auteurs” than providing a comprehensive outline of the precursors of American film noir. For example, the section on “German Expressionism and the roots of Film Noir” gives Dickos a licence to trace selected German and Hollywood films directed by Fritz Lang. But there is a notable and strange omission. While Dickos mentions Jean Renoir’s 1938 film La Bête Humaine in his section on French cinema in the 1930s, he fails to extend this by discussing the Hollywood remake sixteen years later of Renoir’s film, titled Human Desire. –  Even though it was directed by Fritz Lang, who is one of the directors singled out for comprehensive discussion of both his German films and his Hollywood films. And despite the fact that Human Desire featured two actors – Gloria Grahame (In a Lonely Place) and Glenn Ford (Gilda) – often considered as iconic noir actors. This omission is a pity as the basic plot of Human Desire is archetypal noir – a sensual woman (Gloria Grahame) attempts to seduce a seemingly naive train driver Glenn Ford to murder her abusive husband, played by Broderick Crawford. What makes this film especially interesting is the battle between the head of Columbia, Harry Cohn, and Lang over the presentation of the femme fatale. Cohn wanted a familiar, stereotypical image of the fatal woman who sexually manipulates a gullible male into committing murder. The commercial advantages of this association between sex and murder were self-evident to Cohn.  However, Lang, and screenwriter Alfred Hayes, resisted this simplistic presentation. They proceeded to show a mature, complex presentation of this stereotypically familiar character by transforming her into both seductress and victim. She is a sensual woman who is also a victim of physical abuse from her husband and sexual abuse as a teenager. Along the way, Lang and Hayes also emasculated the seemingly attractive male victim (Ford) by presenting him as vacuous, cold, and lecherous.

A valuable aspect of  Dickos’s book is his acknowledgment of the important contribution by Cornell Woolrich in considerations of film noir and, specifically, the shifts in the Hollywood crime melodrama in the 1940s. Although Dickos groups Woolrich with more traditional writers of hard-boiled fiction, such as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Woolrich was not interested in police detectives, private eyes, or continuing characters. Instead, his focus was on traumatised victims, not hard-boiled heroes. In his two dozen-plus novels and more than 200 short stories and novelettes,  Woolrich’s protagonists were mostly ordinary people trapped in a hostile universe, a world ruled by chance and fate.  His stories, as Frank Krutnik notes, were characterised by “tortuously passages of masochistic delirium.”[xx] Dickos captures this facet of Woolrich’s fiction when he writes:

Cornell Woolrich wrote of people caught in circumstances, arbitrary and destabilizing, that provoked fear, often terror, and the feeling of utter helplessnes in the face of it. No writer describes this interior world more vividly than he, and the psychology of Woolrich’s characters, often facile in itself, is complicated by the subtle modulations of impending dread, of that sinking feeling that always anticipates doom.[xxi]

Dickos ends his impressive overview of Woolrich’s fiction by cursorily lumping together more than fifteen film adaptations with an inaccurate comment that they were “compellingly transcribed” Image courtesy of Mayer Collection.

However, Dickos ends his impressive overview of Woolrich’s fiction by cursorily lumping together more than fifteen film adaptations with an inaccurate comment that they were “compellingly transcribed”[xxii] to the screen. Unfortunately, the Hollywood adaptations of The Black Curtain, renamed Street of Chance by Paramount, Phantom Lady, Black Alibi, renamed The Leopard Man by RKO, Black Angel, The Black Path of Fear, renamed The Chase, “And So to Death,” also known as “Nightmare,” which was filmed as Fear in the Night, “I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes,” and I Married a Dead Man, filmed as No Man of Her Own by Paramount, were generally emasculated by Hollywood screenwriters and producers. They often imposed a moral closure to stories that refused to endorse a sense of justice in an arbitrary world.[xxiii]

The other omission in Dickos’s study, which weakens the book’s claim to be a “History of Classic American Film Noir,” is the treatment of Double Indemnity. While the film is mentioned intermittently throughout the book, mostly in connection with “Barbara Stanwyck’s signature role as Phyllis Dietrichson”[xxiv] and its use of voice-over narration and flashbacks, the film played a significant part in convincing the major studios that it was financially viable to embark on the production of big-budget crime melodramas featuring morally flawed protagonists.  For example, James M.Cain’s novella Double Indemnity was published in 1936, and his first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, in 1934. Although MGM purchased the rights to The Postman Always Rings Twice in March 1934 for $25,000, Hollywood censor Joseph  Breen warned the studio not to go ahead with an adaptation. Similarly, following the publication of Double Indemnity in Liberty magazine, interest in the screen rights were expressed by MGM, Paramount, 20th Century-Fox, and Columbia. Again,  Breen opposed any adaptation. However, after Paramount executive Joseph Sistrom purchased the rights for $15,000, the studio submitted a treatment to Breen, who rejected it.

The treatment of Double Indemnity is an ommission of the book. Image courtesy of Mayer Collection.

Nevertheless, Billy Wilder persisted, especially after Raymond Chandler was hired to assist him to develop a screenplay from Cain’s story. The critical and commercial success of the film was a landmark moment in the history of Hollywood cinema. The film marked a major challenge to censorship practices at that time as the 1930 Production Code stipulated that “no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience shall never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin.” Wilder and Chandler changed that. Double Indemnity’s critical and commercial success resulted in a veritable flood of submissions to Breen’s office for similar films – including one from the most conservative major studio, MGM, to finally adapt The Postman Always Rings Twice. Fred Stanley, writing in The New York Times in 1944 after the release of Double Indemnity,  highlighted the importance of the film in initiating a dark, “red meat” cycle involving “certain types of storied sordidness and ultra-sophistication.”[xxv]

Dr. Geoff Mayer is a former Head of School, La Trobe University and Chair of the Cinema Studies Department and the author of Hollywood’s Melodramatic Imagination. Film Noir, the Western and Other Genres from the 1920s to the 1950s (Jefferson, McFarland, 2021).        


[i] Steve Neale,  Genres and Hollywood (London, Routledge, 2000), 173-174.

[ii]  Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (eds.), Film Noir. An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style New York, The Overlook Press, 1992) 1.

[iii] Alain Silver and James Ursini, “Introduction,” in Alain Silver and James Ursini, Film Noir Reader (New York, Limelight Editions, 1996) 11.

[iv] James Naremore, More Than Night. Film Noir In Its Contexts (Berkeley, University of California Press,  1998).

[v] Andrew Dickos, Street With No Name. A History of the Classic American Film Noir (Lexington, The University Press of Kentucky, 2021), 282.

[vi] Naremore, 11.

[vii] See Steve Neale, ‘Melo Talk: On the Meaning and Use of the Term “Melodrama” in the American Trade Press, the velvet light trap, Number 32, Fall 1993, note 28, page 78.

[viii] Dickos, x

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Dickos, 4.

[xi] Ibid., 5.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Ibid., 6.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] See Ibid., 6 -7.

[xvii] Ibid., 7.

[xviii] See Ibid., 7-8.

[xix] Ibid., x.

[xx] Frank Krutnik, In a Lonely Street. Film noir, genre, masculinity (London, Routledge, 1991) 41.

[xxi] Dickos, 99.

[xxii] Ibid., 103.

[xxiii] See Hollywood’s Melodramatic Imagination. Film Noir, the Western and Other Genres from the 1920s to the 1950s (Jefferson, McFarland, 2021) 228-243.

[xxiv] Ibid., 157.

[xxv] Quoted in Sheri Chinen Biesen, Blackout. World War 11 and the Origins of Film Noir (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005) 97.

Different visions of Hitchcock

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Each of these works provides some insight into Hitchcock, who continues to fascinate both critics and historians. With these recent publications and reissues, it is clear that interest will continue to grow. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The continuing stream of books on Alfred Hitchcock over the past few years underlines the immense popularity of this seminal director. The ‘master of suspense’ directed more than 50 feature films over six decades, and Hitchcock continues to create academic and cinematic interest 40 years after his death. Any reasonable list of the top ten directors in cinema history will almost certainly include him. The University Press of Kentucky has become a minor Hitchcock production line with several books published or re-published over the past few years. These cover a broad range of approaches to the director and cinema, from academic theorists to more grounded film critics and historians.

First released in 1995, Paula Marantz Cohen’s Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism gained polite reviews, and just over 25 years down the track, it is being re-released in paperback. Cohen is a respected academic whose work has also been widely referenced by many scholars working on Hitchcock. This book extends her ideas in her earlier work, The Daughter’s Dilemma: Family Process and the Nineteenth-century Domestic Novel, published in 1991. Despite her literary focus, Cohen had written on Hitchock as early as 1969, when she looked at Alfred Hitchcock Presents’s TV series. In 1994, she wrote a paper called “The Ideological Transformation of Conrad’s “The Secret Agent” into Hitchcock’s “Sabotage,”  which is the starting point for this more extensive work.

First released in 1995, Paula Marantz Cohen’s Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism gained polite reviews, and just over 25 years down the track, it is being re-released in paperback.

The book has an intriguing premise that Victorian values shaped Hitchcock, and the views were reflected in his cinema. She is focused on the literary sources of Hitchcock’s films. In the opening chapters, she employs Hitchcock’s comments to Francois Truffaut that he basically used the essential plot ideas of the novel and then created his cinematic version of it. She often takes issue with this point, arguing that Hitchcock drew a lot of his material from novels. Given her focus on 19th Century literature, it is interesting that she neglected to mention the extended discussion with Truffaut concerning Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Hitchock says the book was too dense, with every sentence carrying meaning, and he could not convert it into a film. Hitchock’s relationship with novelists is hardly unique. It is difficult to point to any significant director of Hollywood’s classical era who did not often use books or plays as a basis for their films. Under the studio system, the rights for the books were often highly contested and bought because they were bestsellers, with a ready-made audience. How they converted these works to cinema is an exciting field of study.

Having set up this framework, Cohen argues that Hitchcock eventually moved away from Victorian or novelistic values later in his career. Given Hitchcock’s English origins and the time of his birth, it was inevitable that his work would reflect some measure of Victorian values. Extending this idea, Cohen argues Hitchcock wrestled with: “[T]he two faces of Victorianism: the feminine legacy of feeling and imagination associated with the domestic novel and the masculine legacy and hierarchy – the world of the schoolyard – associated with institutions.” (3) This idea is intriguing, but some points raised by Cohen are debatable. For example, are these ‘two faces of Victorianism’ solely confined to the 19th century?  Can it also be argued that 19th Century fiction represented female concerns and the twentieth-century film focused on the male gaze? The evidence presented by Cohen is that literary and film theorists have decreed it so, but is it accurate or only true to an extent? Cohen makes these broad statements – and does not consider alternate possibilities – then uses them as a base to analyse Hitchcock’s cinema.

In doing so, the book often gets lost in a raft of theoretical positions. Given Cohen’s broad – or close to freewheeling – theoretical approach, which encompasses feminism, psychoanalysis, and family systems, it is hard to think of any significant classical-era director that wouldn’t fit her criteria to some degree. Take, for example, John Ford’s Rio Grande, which has the main character deciding between his family and the military traditions of the cavalry. Does this mean that Ford and all directors of this vintage shared or were attracted to the same type of dilemmas? Cohen never lifts her gaze to look at the wider studio system.

In presenting her case, Cohen often seems to be reading too much into simple scenes. For example, in the American version of The Man Who Knew Who Knew Too Much, she describes a scene where Jimmy Stewart has difficulty sitting at a table to eat some food in the Arab tradition. Stewart is quite tall, and the actor awkwardly places himself on the floor. The scene is a minor comic one in a tense thriller. Hitchock often juxtaposed comedy and suspense. Cohen sees the scene as depicting “two perspectives on masculinity.” Aside from being impatient with the customs of ‘other “less civilized” peoples,’ Cohen further sees: “The wife’s behavior, as it differs from his in this context, merely supports the conventional doctrine of separate spheres in which women concern themselves with trivial and domestic matters, men with issues that are really important (as a surgeon, he is, after all, confronted with matters of life and death on a daily basis.).” (117) That is quite a leap from someone finding it difficult to get their long legs under a small table. It is almost as if Cohen is attempting to drag too much meaning from the scenes. You can practically hear Hitchock’s dismissive response: “It’s only a movie.”

While it is a provocative approach, Cohen’s basic concept that Hitchcock moved from the Victorian to the post-modern is not entirely convincing. Other views have developed greater resonance. Around the time of the publication of Cohen’s book, Jane Sloan introduced her extensive Alfred Hitchcock bibliography arguing that Hitchcock was a “sponge”  who was “eager to adapt the point of view that would sell, and open to any idea that seemed good.” Sloan’s view of Hitchcock appears to have gained greater traction over the years and has been employed by many film critics such as Charles Barr (1999), Murray Pomerance (2004), Thomas Leitch (2011), Mark William Padillia (2016), Edward White (2021).

The cover of Hitchcock and the Censors, features the shower curtain from Psycho.

Another approach to Cohen is shown in John Billheimer’s Hitchcock and the Censors, also published in 2019 by the University of Kentucky Press and recently reissued in paperback. The book shows the constant struggle that Hitchcock had with the censors over his long career. Film directors had to deal with a raft of controls, and Hitchcock strained against the restrictions at every turn, trying a series of highly inventive moves to circumvent the Production Code. Billheimer details Hitchock’s struggles with the censors with his films from the 1930s through to the 1970s. Even though the Production Code was for films from the United States, British studios wanted an American release to boost profits and had to submit to the same restrictions. As early as 1934, the Production Code forced changes to a shootout in the conclusion in The Man Who Knew too Much. Billheimer shows how Hitchcock wrestled with complaints about sex, violence, and even the flushing of toilets in Psycho (1960).

When controls relaxed, Hitchcock presented more and more graphic depictions of sex and violence. In 1972, when the limits of the Production Code were lifted, he gave full vent to depictions of sexual violence in Frenzy (1972). Some critics designated the graphic rape scene as the most repulsive scene of Hitchcock’s cinematic career. This approach suggests that Hitchcock’s restraint had nothing to do with rejecting Victorian values. Hitchcock had been kept on the leash until the later part of his career. Billheimer concluded that: “Hitchcock had every reason to be pleased with the critical and box office response to Frenzy. Freed from the restrictions of the Production Code, he made the movie he wanted to make, from a story he selected personally.” It is a soild counterpoint to Cohen’s approach.

Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films, written by Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr provides new insights into the director.

One aspect of Cohen’s work that has been quoted frequently is her belief that “to study him is to find an economical way of studying the entire history of cinema.” The expression is mentioned in Phillip French’s foreword to Hitchcock Lost and Found: The Forgotten Films, written by Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr, again published by the University of Kentucky Press in 2015. The introductory chapter also repeats the idea. 

Charles Barr has a long pedigree of publishing in English cinema with a particular focus on Hitchcock. Alain Kerzoncuf has published several pieces on Hitchcock, including Hitch and the Remakes. The stated aim of Kerzoncuf and Barr is “to examine successive stages of Hitchcock’s career in a level-headed way […] providing solid data about a wide range of lost or neglected or otherwise problematic material” (2). The book is clear and focused in its aims and delivers a fascinating survey of Hitchock’s forgotten films. 

The book is aimed at the Hitchcock fanatic, and they are well served. The authors track down many of Hitchcock’s forgotten films, providing an interesting assessment of the movies and shorts to help reassess Hitchcock’s broader career. The writers range widely to discuss the alternate ending for Murder! (1930), highlight a virtually unknown film on the cotton industry in Let’s Go Bathing (1931), or a section cut from The 39 Steps. The authors are careful with their conclusions, using evidence from several sources to back their views. They are also scrupulous in citing other writers when presenting their judgments. The book is at its best when it compares some scenes of these minor or early films with the later canonical works. You get a sense of the director developing his skills and ability – no matter how minor the film or show may be. The book is backed by meticulous research that adds to understanding Hitchcock’s place in cinema history. It is astonishing how much material they find.

The book often takes the form of notes, as if it were a compilation of material – almost a series of blogs. However, in those notes is a host of valuable information about Hitchcock, beginning with the films he made before The Pleasure Garden (1925) when his directorial presence began to be felt. This opening section is a fascinating glimpse at the development of Hitchcock. Like all period historians, Kerzoncuf and Barr have to grapple with an incomplete record. Still, they have produced a book that sheds new light on a director by looking at the lesser films, documentaries, and TV shows. When cross-checking many movies listed in the book with the standard biographies and critical works, it is clear that Kerzoncuf and Barr have revealed many films that have been neglected or completely ignored. They have opened new avenues of research and discovery for people interested in the director. While Billheimer saw Hitchcock’s career essentially beginning in 1934 with the British version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Cohen is focused almost exclusively on American films, Kerzoncuf and Barr show he had a long history in the British film industry before he came to prominence.

The only caveat to the puclication of these books is that reissues should contain some updating or a new introduction to discuss the books and their impact on Hitchcock studies. Every author reconsiders their books to a greater or lesser degree, and it would be good to know how their ideas have developed.

And then there were many – origins and impact of Agatha Christie’s seminal novel

Kevin Brianton,

Senior Adjunct Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia

The template for many whodunnits. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In 1930, a clever whodunnit called The Invisible Host was published. The husband-and-wife team of Bruce Manning and Gwen Bristow wrote the book. The couple had worked as court reporters and had even met while covering a murder trial.[1] The novel enjoyed some popularity, and it was adapted to be a 1930 Broadway play, The Ninth Guest, by the prolific playwright Owen Davis, who also staged it. In a long career, Davis wrote or adapted more than 200 plays, and this one ran for 72 performances at the Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre.[2] Building on this modest achievement, a film version was released in 1934, also called The Ninth Guest. The film was only a second feature of little note from Columbia Pictures. Yet despite its minor profile, its impact can certainly still be felt in the movies and detective stories right up to the present day. The book, play, and movie disappeared without a trace, but it would open the door for other works.

Some critics have noted the book’s similarities with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, which was published in 1939 – almost a decade later.[3] In both novels, a disparate group of guests arrive at a place where they are informed all will die – and one by one, they do. To begin proceedings, an anonymous murderer announces over a speaker to the assembled guests that they will be killed for various crimes. Each guest has some secret that has marked them for murder. The ninth guest in the Manning and Bristow novel is death.

The Ninth Guest contains many elements of Agatha Christie’s novel. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The two stories indeed contain similar plotlines and devices which were employed in the film versions. In The Ninth Guest, a voice comes from the radio, announcing that the guests will die unless they outwit him. In the 1945 version of And Then There Were None, a record is placed on the phonograph, where a recording from a Mr. Owen announces their crimes and fate. This similar starting point is followed by a rapid build-up of bodies.

It is no disrespect to say that Christie produced a far better work. Her plots are amazingly intricate and remotely plausible, while The Ninth Guest lurches into the just plain silly. And Then There Were None was eventually ranked 19th in the top crime novels of all time by the Mystery Writers of America.[4] Even with the gap in quality, what is clear is that Manning and Bristow created one of the most influential ideas in entertainment history. Christie may well have developed it independently, but it is clear that Manning and Bristow got there first. Of course, the husband and wife did not invent the idea all on their own. The plot has its origins with the locked room murders of the nineteenth century whose distant ancestor was Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1844.

Christie certainly read and was inspired by another early locked-room mystery in Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room, published in 1907. The book has been made into a movie three times in France, but Hollywood has never made a version except for one in 1919. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

It remains a matter of conjecture if Christie had read the book or seen the film before writing the novel. She certainly read and was inspired by another early locked-room mystery in Gaston Leroux’s The Mystery of the Yellow Room, published in 1907. She had her fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot even praise the book; “And here is The Mystery of the Yellow Room. That – ah, that is really a classic! I approve of it from start to finish. Such a logical approach! There were criticisms of it, I remember, which said it was unfair. But it is not unfair, my dear Colin. No, no. Very nearly so, perhaps, but no, not quite. There is the hair’s breadth of difference. No. All through there is truth, concealed with the careful and cunning use of words. Everything should be clear at that supreme moment when the men meet at the angle of the three corridors.”[5]

Christie had experimented with the basic idea of a murder in a closed space with limited suspects in several of her novels. Her 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express, places the murder on a train. In Death in the Air, published in 1935, a man is killed on an airplane flying between France and England. In the 1937 novel Death on the Nile, a woman is shot while sailing down the Egyptian river on a cruise boat.  The critical elements of the novels are a range of characters, each with their secrets and motives, and physical boundaries prohibiting escape. No one can enter this shut-off world, so it is a closed box. This basic setting for a murder mystery remains a popular idea. One of the most recent examples has been the BBC crime series Vigil, where a murder takes place in a nuclear submarine – a mile beneath the sea. The detective is lowered into the submarine from a helicopter to solve the crime. Despite its high-tech premise, with its threat of nuclear meltdown and superpower conflict,  the setting has all the essential elements: an enclosed space; and a limited number of suspects of whom one is the murderer. 

Christie took the plot to the next level by having every character killed. How can there be a murderer if everyone is dead? The story defies any sense of logic to make a solution appear impossible. Then having created an impossible problem, Christie then disentangles it. While extremely popular, none of the previous novels ever succeeded as well as And Then There Were None. Whatever its origins or influences, the novel remains one of the most successful whodunnits of all time, as it has sold an estimated 100 million copies.[6] And Then There Were None is also Christie’s most adapted novel with at least ten films.

The novel’s impact has been enormous, and it constantly reappears in a vast range of works in various forms. Other writers immediately incorporated some elements into many other movies, such as Murder by Invitation (1941), directed by Phil Rosen, where relatives are invited to a house to gain an inheritance, and the murders begin. Some other films have reworked the premise in highly original ways. The Usual Suspects (1995) took the idea of a group being put together and murdered one by one and gave it a twist. In this film, an unknown figure calls together a group of criminals to commit one robbery or face death. Like the preceding films, The Usual Suspects presents a disembodied voice over a speaker that threatens the group with retribution. The criminals are given no choice; they will either be killed, or someone close to them will be murdered. When the killer is revealed, the solution would do credit to Christie herself. 

The Usual Suspects (1995) took the idea of a group being put together and murdered one by one and gave it a twist. image courtesy of eMoviePoster. Image courtest of eMoviePoster.

The original novel was also notable for Christie stepping away from her detective Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple using their logic and intuition to solve the crime. The killer gets away with it. When the BBC reworked the book as a miniseries in 2015, writer Sarah Phelps was shocked by its brutality. Phelps noted that it resonated with the time: “You can see it as a game; it’s a very, very clever plot. It’s a plot that you can tell someone delights in having pulled off, this extraordinary piece of sleight of hand conjuring. Still, within that, when you read it as a novel – rather than read it as an escalating series of tricks – it’s rather extraordinary. I was really surprised and interested by the fact it was published in 1939, just as war was gathering in Europe. It seems to be one of those books really about the time it is set in; it tells you more about the world than it would do if it attempted to address the complexities of the world.”[7] 

In the mid-1940s, such an approach was unacceptable to the Production Code in the United States. Rene Clair’s 1945 film and other versions were often based on the play, which had a more optimistic ending with a couple escaping the murderer – even Christie could not write a play where everyone dies. A stage with no characters is a difficult challenge for any playwright. Moreover, audiences in late 1945 had lived through a protracted conflict and welcomed some light-hearted entertainment. It was a murder puzzle where no one really got hurt. Seventy years later, when Phelps returned to rework the original book, she included its darker ending. It may be well a reflection on our times that we favour a bleaker interpretation.


[1] Theriot, Billie. Gwen Bristow: A Biography: With Criticism of Her Plantation Trilogy. Canada: Picasso Publications, Incorporated, 1998.

[2] Owen Davis, The Ninth Guest: A Mystery Melodrama in Three Acts. United Kingdom: French, 1932. Box office details at https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/the-ninth-guest-11139.

[3] Alison Flood, “And then there were two: novel thought to have inspired Agatha Christie gets UK publication,” The Guardian, 17 September 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/sep/16/the-invisible-host-inspired-agatha-christie-gets-uk-publication. The original UK title for And Then There Was None was Ten Little Niggers a clear racial slur, and it was printed as Ten Little Indians in the United States.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Top_100_Crime_Novels_of_All_Time

[5] Quoted in Wikipedia entry, The Mystery of the Yellow Room, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mystery_of_the_Yellow_Room

[6] Ed Grabianowski, “The 21 Best-selling Books of All Time,” Howstuffworks, https://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/arts/literature/21-best-sellers.htm.

[7] Sarah Phelps, “Adapting Agatha Christie’s ‘And Then There Were None’ for BBC One,” BBC Writers Room  17 December 2015, https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/writersroom/entries/8010ddc5-83eb-418c-9cf3-95cb6cfc8709.

Film Noir Furies: Leave Her to Heaven and Gone Girl

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Gene Tierney used her beauty to ensare a reluctant husband in Leave Her To Heaven. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The novel Gone Girl was one of the biggest sensations of the 2010s, with more than 20 million copies sold. Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne, who would be played by Rosamund Pike in the film version, was a fully realised, intelligent and dangerous villain – who systematically worked out a way to crush her philandering husband. When interviewed by wordsandfilm.com, the author Gillian Flynn was asked to name three films that she thought were great thrillers. One of the films she mentioned was Leave Her to Heaven (1945), which she described as ‘femme noir.’[1] Flynn had given a respectful nod to a film that covered similar terrain to her bestseller.

Leave Her to Heaven was based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams – and it was a bestseller for the prolific novelist in 1945. The studio 20th Century Fox snapped up the film rights for Leave Her to Heaven, and it was given a prestige release in 1945. Leave Her to Heaven features one of the most beautiful and deadly femme fatales in cinema history. Ellen Berent, played by Gene Teirney, is a socialite from Boston who marries novelist Richard Harland and then proceeds to destroy everyone around him in her desire to possess him.

Leave Her to Heaven appears to borrow freely from many different genres. The director John M. Stahl was mainly known for his melodramas, and this film can rightly be called one.[2] It is shot in brilliant colour, but the plot comes straight out of film noir, normally associated with high contrast black and white scenes.[3] It certainly has some visual components of westerns, with riders set against tremendous vistas of the New Mexico desert, complete with horses, which would do John Ford proud.

The film can also be called a psychological thriller with Berent as a serial killer, bent on destroying anyone who gets close to her husband, Richard Harland. The film also references Greek mythology ranging from Medea, who killed her children. Berent has an Electra complex as she marries Harlan because he resembles her father. One critic has even noted that she resembles Hippolyta – the Queen of Amazons – with her magic girdle. The girdle, which is the secret of her power, was given to her by her father. [4] 

Even the jaded audiences of the 21st Century find the murder of Danny, afflicted with polio, a discomforting scene. Image coutesy of eMoviePoster.

Even in the twenty-first century, Leave Her to Heaven still has the potential to shock audiences with just how far Berent will go to control access to her husband. The scene in Leave Her to Heaven that shocked contemporary audiences was the drowning of Richard’s brother Danny. The young boy is partially recovering some use of his legs after contracting polio. From the safety of a small boat, Berent watches him drown in the lake by making him swim too far, and it is still a scene that grabs an audience by the throat. The impassive face of Berent magnifies the impact as she watches the young boy go down repeatedly. There is not a flicker of emotion or regret. She is an ice-cold killer.

Such a range of genres would seem to create a chaotic film, but it is beautifully directed, although the courtroom scenes verge on the surreal. While it is a beautiful film to watch, it is also full of horror. But it is the horror of everyday events, and the scenes that worried the 1940s censors most were when Berent openly talked about despising being pregnant. [5] Here was a woman who revolted against the thought of being pregnant and arranged a fall down the stairs to cause a miscarriage. In the 1940s, any woman who did not want to be pregnant and enjoy motherhood was beyond the pale. Moreover, Berent’s domesticity was almost suffocating, and there is an undercurrent that this perfect marriage, with all its material comforts, is a façade.

The film’s influence stretches to the film version of Gone Girl (2014), with one critic arguing: “Leave Her to Heaven… fully wrestles with the ways obsession can warp us. Every time you think Ellen has done the worst thing possible, she goes another step farther, so much so that in many ways Leave Her to Heaven is a proto–Gone Girl. Rosamund Pike may not realize it, but her performance owes a lot to Tierney’s. Her face is like a lake where the smallest ripples feel profound, and she understands that beauty can be both weapon and wound. Her radiance blinds Richard to her true nature as a jealous and dangerous woman who will do anything to have him all to herself.”[6]

Dunne appears to be one of the mythological Furies. She is a goddess of vengeance and retribution, and she has meted out her version of justice to men for sins against the natural order. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

While both films are original creations, they explore similar territory. The houses in the film versions of Leave Her to Heaven and Gone Girl contain perfect interiors, and everything is neat and precise. Yet both domestic spaces are full of misery despite their material success. In sharp contrast to Berent, Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne seems to resent domestic life, and she even manages to make her pregnancy an act of malice. She impregnates herself to ensnare her hapless husband further. Her calculating mind worked out it was the best way to keep her husband and condemn him to a heartless marriage – of which he has little or no chance of escape.

In technical terms, the exceptional use of color is the first thing that strikes any viewer when watching Leave Her to Heaven. Every scene is beautifully composed with the liberal use of a brilliant palette – and it deservedly won an Academy Award for cinematography. Given the demonstrated mastery of Technicolor, it was surprisingly director John M. Stahl’s only colour film. When Berent stages a fall down the staircase to terminate her pregnancy, she wears a light blue nightgown, almost making her dissolve into the wallpaper. Colour is applied in a different way in Gone Girl. In Gone Girl, Dunne appears mostly in soft and dark colours throughout much of the film – almost in dark shadows. The clear exception is when she returns from her ‘kidnapping’ covered in bright red blood in full sunshine. Dunne appears to be one of the mythological Furies. She is a goddess of vengeance and retribution, and she has meted out her version of justice to men for sins against the natural order.

The most obvious similarity is the attitude of the central woman to men in each film. Men are simply playthings or toys for their power games. Both women will kill to keep their men or destroy them in the process. At least, Dunne is provoked by her husband’s infidelity. Berent attacks anyone who has any close relationship with her husband – but both will destroy innocent people as they share a lack of remorse. The quote ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ comes from the Shakespearean play Hamlet when the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells his son not to seek revenge against his duplicitous mother. “Leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge, to prick and sting her.”[7] It is a nice quote, but it is doubtful that at any stage, Amy or Ellen were troubled by their conscience for any of their actions. They are unrepentant sociopaths.

Both women plan to use their death – real or staged – to destroy someone. Berent wants to be rid of her sister, who her husband secretly adores. She poisons herself and leaves a trail of evidence that implicates her. Dunne wants revenge for an infidelity and arranges for clues linking him to a murder that did not occur. Through false diary entries and other deceptions, Dunne creates a narrative that directly points to her murder by her husband. After she reconsiders her position, she manipulates another man to build a case of kidnapping. In both cases, the legal authorities are fooled – at least for a while. The detectives investigating Dunne’s disappearance believe that her husband committed murder. In Leave Her to Heaven, we move straight to the trial of Berent’s sister as the evidence is so strong. These women make fools of the forces of law and order.

The difference is that Dunne gets away with it all – including a vicious murder. After all, Berent dies, and her plan to shatter her sister’s relationship with her husband is defeated. The ending is an indication of how community attitudes have shifted over the past 70 years. The Production Code of the 1940s could not allow Berent to triumph, but today it seems the villain can and does win.[8]


[1] “‘Gone Girl’ Author Gillian Flynn On ‘Dark Places’ Film Adaptation, Next Book,” Huffington Post, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/gone-girl-author-gillian-_n_1637888.  Originally posting on wordandfilm.com. The other films she mentioned were Fatal Attraction (1987) and  Silence of the Lambs (1991)

[2] Charles Barr,  The Call of the Heart: John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama. United Kingdom: John Libbey Publishing, 2018.

[3] It is one of the few colour films listed in Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (eds), Film Noir: London: Secker & Warburg, 1980.

[4] “Leave Her to Heaven (1945),” Filmsite Movie Review, https://www.filmsite.org/leaveher.html.

[5] “Leave Her to Heaven (1945),” Filmsite Movie Review, https://www.filmsite.org/leaveher.html.

[6] Angelica Jade Bastien, “On Femininity as a Prison in ‘Laura’ and ‘Leave Her to Heaven,’ a Great Noir Double Feature,” Village Voice, 9 September 2016.

[7] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act One, Scene Five.

[8] For another view on the relationship between Gone Girl and other films  see Imogen Sara Smith, “A modern noir marriage, Gone Girl,  filmnoirfoundation.org, Winter 2015, http://www.filmnoirfoundation.org/noircitymag/Gone-Girl.pdf.

The Criterion DVD of the film Leave Her to Heaven, also has an excellent interview with Smith, which covers similar areas.

Isolationism returns to Hollywood

Kevin Brianton

Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia

President Donald Trump was elected on the platform based around ‘America First.’ The slogan has a long ancestry in United States politics. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding had used it for their campaigns. Trump was certainly echoing a message of the America First Committee, which was a major isolationist group arguing against US entry into the Second World War.[1] Isolationism has arisen again in American political life. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have sought to bring back American troops from overseas postings in the Middle East and elsewhere. President Biden recently ordered the evacuation of troops from Afghanistan, and Trump constantly talked about removing armed forces from Syria.

Black Panther was seen as isolationist film by some conservative critics. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

In this era of pullback, one film certainly has shown its isolationist leanings.  Deliberately or not, Black Panther (2018) reflected the views of the Trump Administration. A reviewer for alt-right Breibart even declared strong similarities with Donald Trump and the central character.[2] As Daniel W. Drezner of the Washington Post noted, Black Panther was set in Wakanda, which “is a technologically sophisticated country that has pursued a grand strategy of isolationism. It purposefully shields knowledge about its power and capabilities from the outside world, exploiting stereotypes and prejudices about sub-Saharan Africa to sustain its subterfuge. At the start of the film, many of Wakanda’s power brokers are fine with this, though some have their doubts.”[3] It is one of the few examples of films promoting United States isolationism, directly or indirectly. The film can certainly be read in other ways, but it does have an isolationist message.[4]

Isolationism has not been a favoured topic for Hollywood. In the aftermath of the carnage of the First World War, some filmmakers tackled the stark reality of war in What Price Glory (1926) and The Big Parade (1927). The films bolstered isolationist sentiments in the United States.

Isolationists were more focused on stopping films than creating them. Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the film industry often had to follow an isolationist line. The Production Code Administration’s head, Joseph Breen, focused on stopping motion pictures that could create animosity toward Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Breen believed Jewish industry leaders would exploit Nazi treatment of Jews to create communist propaganda and blocked subject matter that might give offense to Berlin and Rome.[5] For example, Breen pressured MGM to drop Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here in 1935 and stripped Robert Sherwood’s play Idiot’s Delight of all references to Mussolini’s Italy.[6] Breen’s intervention also stopped the production of RKO studio film The Mad Dog of Europe.[7] Up until 1939, the American film industry ignored the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy.

Robert Sherwood’s play Idiot’s Delight of all references to Mussolini’s Italy when it became a film. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Isolationists lost ground in the Second World War, with Japan and Nazi Germany being the focus of Hollywood’s cinematic fury. The development of the United Nations in the post-war period set the cause back even further. The United States became a world power, and the Soviet Union then provided an enemy for the cold war period from 1947 to 1990. If you look at films such as The Magnificent Seven (1960), you see American gunfighters intervene to save a Mexican town. In film after film, Americans are the heroes who save lesser nations or peoples. It is an image of the United States as a type of world policeman freeing the world from tyranny.

When the USSR collapsed, the United States found itself without a clearly defined opponent, Islamic fundamentalism then filled the vacuum after the New York and Washington attacks on 9/11. China is often depicted as a rival superpower, but its army has not invaded a single country since its troops entered Vietnam in 1979, and disputes tend to be about trade or soft diplomacy.  By the time Joe Biden was elected President, diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia had deteriorated sharply, following its occupation of the Crimea. The media repeatedly used the term ‘a new Cold War” to describe the relationship between the United States and Russia. One book has argued that Russia is Hollywood’s new obsession.

The revival of isolationism in American political life runs counter to this long-term trend of its cinema promoting interventionist actions. In this era, where the United States seems to be torn between being a world power and putting up walls to keep people out, it remains to be seen if films such as Black Panther represent the beginning of cinema promoting American isolationism. It will be interesting to see if other films take up the theme.


[1] Wikipedia reference accessed at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_First_Committee accessed on 3 September 2021.

[2] John Nolte, “Black Panther Review: The Movie’s Hero is Trump, the Villain is Black Lives Matter,” accessed at https://www.breitbart.com/entertainment/2018/02/16/black-panther-review-great-actors-make-failure-launch/ on 3 September 2021.

[3] Daniel, W. Dezner, ‘The foreign policy of ‘Black Panther,’ Washington Post, accessed at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/02/28/a-very-important-post-about-the-foreign-policy-of-black-panther/ on 3 September 2021.

[4] Among others see Varda, Scott J, and Leslie A Hahner. “Black Panther and the Alt-Right: Networks of Racial Ideology.” Critical Studies in Media Communication, vol. 37, no. 2, 2020, 133–147.

[5] Joseph Breen to Daniel Lord, S. J., 5 December 1937, Daniel Lord papers, Jesuit Missouri Province Archives referenced in Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies, Free Press, Collier Macmillan, New York, London, 1987, 22.

[6] Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies, Free Press, Collier Macmillan, New York, London, 1987, 22 – 23.

[7] Michael E. Birdwell, Celluloid Soldiers: The Warner Bros. Campaign against Nazism, New York University Press, New York, 1999, 20-21.

Rising in righteous anger: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and The Drop (2014)

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

A figure that constantly re-occurs in American cinema is an even-tempered man – it is almost always a man – brought to the end of his tether, who reacts in righteous anger against a vile enemy. The plot usually concerns a series of provocations, and a final last straw, before a cathartic episode of violence, where the enemy is left dead, and order is restored. Various westerns have used the plot. It is based on a long lineage, with the American writer Richard Slotkin arguing that the myths developed from early American history represented “Regeneration Through Violence”.[1]  

Lee Marvin as Liberty Valance is one of the great screen villains. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

The character is central to director John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). An even-tempered lawyer Ranson Stoddard, played by James Stewart, is on his way to make a fortune in the west. In the opening scene, Stoddard is savagely beaten and left for dead. Recovering from the attack, he recongnises his attacker as Liberty Valance, but there is no law here to stop him. Stoddard is pushed beyond breaking point by Valance, who is played with malevolent glee by Lee Marvin. Yet Stoddard still believes in the law, but the power on the frontier belongs to those with guns and the ability and inclination to use them. After endless provocations, Stoddard must pick up a gun to fight Valance. His showdown with Valance leads him to being celebrated across the territory, and it forms the basis for a successful political career.

The idea of the frontier holds a strong grip on the American imagination. As the United States grew towards the west, the idea of a better life on the frontier took hold. But in no short time, the frontier as a physical entity disappeared, the land became settled, and towns and cities were erected. The frontier was no longer dangerous. The wild frontier in Shinbone begins to break down, and all that is left of the town’s origins is unreliable myths about its origins. When Stoddard and his wife Hallie leave Shinbone at the end of the film, Hallie tells him: “This country used to be a wilderness. Now it’s a garden. You helped to make it.” The town of Shinbone becomes a settled and civilised community, almost unrecognisable from its violent origins. The shootout helps heal the community and allows the town to grow under the rule of law.

The savageness and the violence of the frontier would return with a vengeance to the decaying cities. The shift can be seen from one of John Ford’s westerns, Fort Apache (1948), set on the western plains, providing at least partial inspiration for Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), where urban decay has caused crime on a massive scale. These inner-city areas appear lawless, with the police barely holding the line. Other films would follow in its footsteps. While Ranson Stoddard was not entirely a ‘righteous man,’ as his career is built on a lie, Bobby Saginowski, played by Tom Hardy, is even darker in The Drop (2014). Bob Saginowski appears to be a passive man working as a quiet barman at a neighbourhood bar in a rough working-class area of Boston. Little by little, we learn that Saginowski is not as harmless as he appears. Both he and his cousin Marvin Stipler, played by James Gandolfini, were low-level gangsters who lost out to a violent gang of Chechen mobsters. The cousins now work for the Chechen gang, who occasionally use their bar as a ‘drop’ for money for their various unlawful enterprises.

The Drop is a savage reworking of the themes in the Man who Shot Liberty Valance. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Bobby finds a battered pit bull pup abandoned in a rubbish bin on the way home from work. In rescuing the puppy, Saginowski meets Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace, and she guides him on how to take care of the injured puppy. Bobby keeps the dog while beginning to form a relationship with Nadia. Saginowski is threatened by Eric Deeds, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, a former abusive partner of Nadia. Deeds had injured the dog and left it to die where Nadia would find it. Deeds has a reputation on the street as a killer, and he finds various ways to intimidate Saginowski, demanding money for the dog and terrorising Nadia. Deeds eventually threatens to kill Nadia to get the money from the drop.

At which point, Saginowski shoots him twice in the face and yells at his corpse: “Go out for a dinner still dressed like you’re in your living room. You wear those big, you wear those big hippity hoppity clown shoes, and you speak to women terribly. You treat them despicably. You hurt harmless dogs that can’t even defend themselves. I’m tired of you, man. I’m tired of you, you embarrass me.” The righteous man had responded to the threats and taunts, and ‘nobody’ will hurt Nadia anymore.

Both Stoddard and Saginowski would win the woman in their respective films but at a cost. In rising in righteous anger, both have lost something. Unlike Stoddard, Saginowski is no innocent thrust into this position.  In the twenty-first century, the righteous man has become far murkier. A practicing Catholic, Saginowski believes he is damned for previous crimes – including a previous murder – for eternity. He ponders his fate: “There are some sins that you commit that you can’t come back from, you know, no matter how hard you try. You just can’t. It’s like the devil is waiting for your body to quit. Because he knows, he knows that he already owns your soul. And then I think maybe there’s no devil. You die… and God, he says, Nah, nah you can’t come in. You have to leave now. You have to leave and go away, and you have to be alone. You have to be alone forever.” Yet to survive in their respective worlds, they must make an impossible choice between violence or death or flight. The eruption of righteous anger taints both Saginowski and Stoddard.

Like Stoddard, Deeds is credited with a killing he never committed. For the slaying, Stoddard is given political glory, while Deeds gains street credibility. In other ways, Saginowski represents an amalgam of Stoddard and the figure of Tom Doniphon, played by John Wayne, who is the man who really shoots Valance in an act of cold murder. Unlike Doniphon, Saginowski faces his tormentor directly and shoots him in self-defence. But a decade earlier, Saginowski had also shot a man who posed no threat to him. Similarly, Doniphon shoots Valance from a darkened alley, giving the outlaw no chance to defend himself. The Drop is a savage updating of the themes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The frontier may have moved to the inner city, but the dynamics of the film have remained largely the same.


[1] Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Thawed out horror – The Thing from Another World and The Tomorrow War.

The Thing from Another World captured cold war tensions. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University

A hideous monster armed with massive powers lies frozen in the earth for centuries. An accident or something else causes it to thaw allowing for the creature to awaken and wreak havoc. The idea has been a staple for several films, TV shows and books. The most recent example is The Tomorrow War (2021), released through the streaming service Amazon/Prime. Many centuries previously, an alien spaceship carrying genetically engineered killer beasts crashed into the frozen Russian north. The beasts are bred to kill everything in their path and are virtually unstoppable. Even though the alien spaceship smashed into earth hundreds of years ago, the creatures have remained frozen but still alive. The alien monsters are released as global warming melts the ground around their frozen spaceship. As temperatures increase, the alien beasts come to life and threaten to destroy all of humanity.

Due to the discovery of time travel in the near future, soldiers can return to the present day to warn that civilization has 30 years to deal with the creatures or humanity will be extinct. In response to the threat, a rag-tag group of soldiers are sent to the future to fight the ‘Tomorrow War.’ The underlying fear is that global warming will destroy us all in the future if we do not do something about it now.[1]

It is surprising how long it has taken for filmmakers to address climate change. Given the amount of coverage and concern for global warming, it seems that Hollywood is reluctant to address climate change issues. In 2020, critic Nicholas Barber pointed out that Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004) was one of few popular films to deal with the issue. [2] Barber is correct that few films contain the theme, but it could be that climate change is just too fearful a topic for filmmakers to tackle at the moment.

This reluctance for filmmakers to wrestle with pressing topics has certainly been the case in previous decades. In the 1950s, direct treatments of communism proved to be highly unpopular, but allegorical treatments in science fiction, biblical epics, and even westerns could deal with this pressing issue. The famous horror author Stephen King recalled seeing Earth versus Flying Saucers when the Sputnik scare was in full flight. King wrote that the monsters flying the alien craft were a depiction of the feared Russians. The destruction of the American Capital brought to the surface fears of nuclear oblivion.[3] King saw the destruction of the flyers saucers as a mental respite for those self-same cold war tensions.

The Tomorrow War contains a nod to another science fiction film of the 1950s. The Thing from Another World (1951) has another monster being released from the frozen depths of the polar regions. The 1951 film depicted an Antarctic expedition discovering an alien frozen beneath the ice. The alien in The Thing from Another World (1951) was a popular depiction of communism controlling American society by stealth.  The ‘thing’ was a mobile vegetable, and its seeds were planted in soil at the laboratory, and they quickly grew.  If the alien escaped to more fertile ground, such as the United States – it could threaten the world.  This alien must be contained and stopped from going any further.  In other words, if the alien was not stopped at an early stage, then the threat would grow until it became impossible to resist.  This argument contains the logic of Cold War containment, which would drive the United States into a myriad of proxy wars.  To reinforce the point, after the alien had been destroyed, newspaperman Scotty warned people to remain vigilant: ‘Keep watching the skies.  Keep watching the skies.’

Stephen King believed The Thing from Another World (1951) was the first movie of the 1950s to show the scientist in the role of the misguided appeaser.[4]  He wrote that for average America, the scientists were vilified in American cinema in the 1950s. This group had developed the atomic bomb and ushered in the nuclear age.  According to King, when Dr Carrington faced the alien, the image that would have come into the minds of the American audience was Hitler and Chamberlain.[5]  Appeasement by the United Kingdom had led to a dreadful war with Nazi Germany, which had almost been lost.  It was better to fight than to appease.  When the alien pushed Carrington aside, an American audience could only see it in political terms.  Enemies had to be dealt with using a firm hand from the military.

Of course, fears are not always political. The same message of thawed horror is contained in the first season of Fortitude (2012), a British TV show about a community living well within the arctic circle, but in this case, the horror is decidedly different. A frozen carcass of a long-dead animal is left to thaw, releasing some insects that could rip apart the small community. The insects turn people into psychopaths, and the community begins to disintegrate as blame shifts from one person to another. The fears raised in Fortitude deal with the idea that each individual can turn into a psychopath given the right circumstances. The Tomorrow War (2020), made in today’s environment, deals with another set of fears about global warming. For The Thing From Another Planet (1951), it was the threat of communism. These works have the same basic plot of a frozen terror being thawed and then released. The story has stayed the same, but the fears have changed.


[1] Some critics argued that this film was unsuccessful in linking climate change fears to a science fiction film, but the message about global warming is undeniable. Peter Suderman, The Tomorrow War Is a Tortured Global Warming Metaphor Disguised as a Dull Action Movie, 7 February 2021, accessed at https://reason.com/2021/07/02/the-tomorrow-war-is-a-tortured-global-warming-metaphor-disguised-as-a-dull-action-movie/ on 20 August 2021.

[2] Nicholas Barber, Why does cinema ignore climate change?, BBC, 17 April 2020, accessed at https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20200416-why-does-cinema-ignore-climate-change on 20 August 2021.

[3] Stephen King, Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror, London: MacDonald  1981, 25-27.

[4] Stephen King, Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror, London: MacDonald  1981, 173.

[5] ibid, 174.

Radical Innocence reconsidered

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow, La Trobe University, Melbourne

The fate of one member of the Hollywood Ten, Dalton Trumbo, was recently the subject of a  widely released film. Trumbo (2015) foreshadowed a renewed interest in Hollywood’s Red Scare of the 1950s. The film premiered six months before Donald Trump began his Presidential campaign with its ‘America first’ message – the slogan was the title of another right-wing populist group dating back to isolationist debate before the Second World War. It appears that the rise of a new form of right-wing populism which culminated in the Trump administration from 2017 to 2021 has led to greater interest in the McCarthyite period of the 1950s. Links between the two periods are easy to find. Donald Trump’s one-time legal advisor was Roy Cohn, an assistant to the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose legal and political tactics gave rise to the term McCarthyism.

The reissue of Bernard F. Dick’s Radical Innocence, a 1988 critical study of the Hollywood Ten, is another indicator of that growing interest.[1] Professor Dick is a prolific writer on the film industry and has recently released a book on films that dealt with communism in the 1950s called The Screen is Red. His Anatomy of Film is a standard text. He has also written a history of American cinema in World War II, Second World War: The Star-Spangled Screen, which has been highly influential. Dick has recently published a book on Columbia Pictures and he has also written books on the playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman and directors Billy Wilder and Joseph Mankiewicz.

The Hollywood Ten – as they became known – appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in October 1947. The longwinded title for the committee quickly shortened to become HUAC, and its history is infamous. These HUAC hearings were highly unfair and vindictive. These investigations uncovered little or nothing about communism in the film industry that wasn’t already known and were more about pre-election publicity for the committee members. Many historians have labelled the hearings a ‘show trial’ for good reasons.[2] HUAC handpicked some conservatives to testify about the perils of communism in American cinema. They relied on the FBI to determine suitable communists or left wingers to interrogate.

These ‘unfriendly witnesses’ which came to be called the Hollywood Ten comprised Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, Alvah Bessie, Edward Dmytryk, John Howard Lawson, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, Albert Maltz, Herbert Biberman, and Ring Lardner, Jr.  They were called unfriendly witnesses as they refused to answer the committee’s questions about their political affiliations and were eventually imprisoned for contempt of Congress. One of its members, Ring Lardner Jr once said that the Hollywood Ten was a group of people who were thrown together. Some people he liked and others he didn’t. Right through the hearings and beyond, they argued over strategy and tactics and with each other. They were never a cohesive unit.

Dick agrees with Lardner that the Hollywood Ten were an accidental group of writers and directors selected by the committee. His conclusion is backed by the FBI reports that show the investigations were chaotic, with a constant reshuffling of witnesses right up to the public hearings in October 1947. Nonetheless, they were depicted as a homogenous group of left-wing writers and directors. Dick points out: “They did not come to a particular place for a particular purpose, nor did they have a common aesthetic; they represented different talents within the industry as well as different traditions within the arts.”

The reputation of the Hollywood Ten has always been looked at through a political prism, and the group’s critical reputation was never high. Dick noted that: ‘For more than forty years, they have also been stigmatized by Billy Wilder’s quip “Of the unfriendly Ten, only two had any talent; the other eight were just unfriendly.”’ Dick fails to mention that while the quote has been attributed to Wilder and has been widely used, it may just be a spurious Hollywood anecdote. It certainly sounds like Wilder’s sense of humour, but it has never been linked to him directly from any contemporary source.[3] It is also at odds with the actions Wilder took during the hearings. Wilder provided nominal support for the Hollywood Ten through the Committee of the First Amendment. Wilder was also not a man who routinely savaged the reputation of his fellow writers and directors. He was normally polite and often complimentary.[4]

Even if the quote is fictitious, Dick is correct in saying that the Hollywood Ten’s cinematic contribution has been largely ignored. Initially, the most visible figure was John Howard Lawson, whose highly volatile and adversarial testimony set the scene for the group. Lawson was dragged screaming from the hearings. Dick rightly notes that Lawson has been the subject of some academic research. Yet, the most prominent members of Hollywood Ten would be Edward Dymytrk and Dalton Trumbo, who took different paths to reinvigorate their careers. The others were largely ignored.

Crossfire, was nominated for the Best Director Academy Award.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

At the time of the hearings, Dmytryk looked certain to be a successful director. He had directed a series of low-budget films until he made a major film noir in Murder, My Sweet (1944).  Just before the hearings, Dmytryk had made a strong film about anti-Semitism called Crossfire (1947). Even though it was a low-budget B film, it received several Academy Award nominations. The producer was Adrian Scott, who was called to testify before  HUAC. Dmytryk would eventually distance himself from the group and then give names as requested by the committee in later years. Following his rejection of the Hollywood Ten’s approach, Dmytryk returned to Hollywood. In the later part of his career, he was celebrated for his films, such as The Caine Mutiny, and he had a successful film career that ran until 1975. Dick spends a great deal of time on the director and his work.

Dalton Trumbo’s script for Spartacus (1960) helped break the blacklist. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

In sharp contrast to Dmytryk, Trumbo would never testify and remained an unrelenting opponent of HUAC and was contemptuous of those who did. Trumbo would use ‘fronts’ to write a series of screenplays over the next ten years. He would then be noted as the man who broke the blacklist when he received credit for Spartacus (1960). Trumbo would return to Hollywood on his terms. He is also recognised for his “Only victims” speech at the Laurel Award dinner on 13 March 1970. It was a speech arguing that everyone involved lost from the HUAC investigation. The term was used by many, including Robert Vaughn, for his study of the blacklist and has become a defining statement of the period.[5] In this respect, Dick’s book is now a little dated. In 2021, Trumbo has become a hero since the release of a popular film and books about his life.

Dick looks beyond these three dominant figures and demonstrates that each of the Hollywood Ten contributed to film history. Some of the contributions were relatively minor, while others made major impacts. For example, Lester Cole made some interesting films, such as Among the Living (1941), described as a mixture of film noir, social drama, horror films with suspense. Samuel Ornitz wrote novels in a similar vein to James Joyce. Herbert Biberman would defy the blacklist and somehow direct Salt of the Earth, a film about a strike with strong feminist messages – everyone is equal.[6] Albert Maltz would write a highly regarded film noir in The Naked City (1948), his last screen credit for twenty-two years, and he was denied a screen credit for The Robe (1953) and many other successful films. Maltz would eventually return to being credited with Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). While Maltz was prolific, Alvah Bessie had not written a great deal for Hollywood. Still, Dick shows he made a strong impact through his novels, particularly Men in Battle, where he used his experiences as a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Ring Lardner Jr. left a legacy of sparkling wit with some of his screenplays, but Dick shows he had a broad range of skills. For example, along with John Howard Lawson, he was not credited for the legendary film noir Laura (1944). Lardner would revive his career in later years with films such as M*A*S*H (1970).

A Russian poster of Salt of the Earth, the 1954 Herbert J. Biberman historical melodrama starring Juan Chacon, Rosaura Revueltas, Will Geer, David Wolfe, and David Sarvis. Banned fron beingscreend at the time of its release. In 1992 the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Image and caption information courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Each of the Hollywood Ten is given a dedicated chapter, and Dick proves to be a fair-minded critic of their work. In doing so, Dick highlights the hidden tragedy of the hearings and the subsequent blacklist. The book shows that tremendously talented people were shunted aside for no good reason other than holding unpopular political views or engaging in lawful protest. Yet it is hard to agree with Dick’s general conclusion that: “It is a truism of American film history that the blacklist which followed the 1947 hearings contributed to the decline of the movie industry after World War II.” He further argued that “The greatest irony of the blacklist, then, was the way it backfired on the industry that set it in motion: it weakened the industry that it was supposed to strengthen; it strengthened some whom it was supposed to destroy by eliciting from them work that was often better than they had done previously. Yet some aspects of the blacklist transcend irony: the premature deaths and suicides it caused, the dull and sanctimonious films it spawned.”

The reality was that television was emerging after the Second World War, and it would undercut the industry far more aggressively than any political investigation. Yet even with its conservative slant, some of the cinema from the 1950s is among the greatest to reach the screen. Harvey (1950), Ace in the Hole (1951), High Noon (1952), The War of the Worlds (1953), Rear Window (1954), Night of the Hunter (1955), The Searchers (1956), Twelve Angry Men (1957), Vertigo (1958) and Ben Hur (1959) are among the films made during this time, and it is not evidence of a film industry in creative decline.

Moreover, the HUAC investigation was never about strengthening the film industry; it was about publicity for the Congressional investigators. Certainly, each of the Hollywood Ten suffered greatly due to the HUAC investigation. They suffered alongside tens of thousands of other people across the United States in the Red Scare period. In broad terms, American democracy was shown to have an Achilles heel regarding right-wing populism – a flaw even more evident today.

One clear shortcoming of the reissued book is that there is no attempt to update or place the work in its contemporary context. More than 30 years after its initial publication, the work deserves some form of updating. Even a short biographical essay or afterword would have been useful to examine the scholarship on the Hollywood Ten over the past decades. A revised bibliography should have been included to refer to works published after 1989. Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo’s work on Dalton Trumbo is an important addition to the literature,[7] as is Gerald Horne’s detailed study of John Howard Lawson.[8] Jennifer E. Langdon has written well about Adrian Scott and Crossfire.[9] Other articles on the critical and political contributions of individual members of the Hollywood Ten have should also have been noted. Radical Innocence remains interesting and important, but its publication represents a lost opportunity to refresh a key work.


[1] Bernard F. Dick, Radical Innocence, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1988 and re-released in 2021.

[2] Among others see Thomas Doherty, Show Trial: Hollywood, HUAC, and the Birth of the Blacklist, New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

[3] Most historians quote secondary sources or say it is widely quoted. See Ed Sikov, On Sunset Boulevard. New York: Hyperion, 1998 or Donald T. Critchlow, When Hollywood was Right, New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[4] Robert Horton (ed.). Billy Wilder: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2001.

[5] Robert Vaughn, Only Victims: a Study of Show Business Blacklisting. New York: G P Putnam, 1972.

[6] The remarkable history of this film is told in H. J. Biberman, and Michael Wilson, Salt of the Earth: The Story of a Film. Beacon Press, 1965.

[7] Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo, Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical. 2015.

[8] Gerald Horne, The Final Victim of the Blacklist John Howard Lawson: Dean of the Hollywood Ten. University of California Press, 2006.

[9] Jennifer E. Langdon, Caught in the Crossfire: Adrian Scott and the Politics of Americanism in 1940s, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2010.