Ayn Rand and the Motion Picture Alliance

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

during the Cold War, while the studios were beginning to bring out anti-communist films, the right began to look for other targets. Not content with driving communists out of Hollywood, the right turned its attention to films with liberal messages. Ayn Rand wrote a Screen Guide for Americans in 1947 for the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals which said that free enterprise, industrialists, and the independent man shouldn’t be smeared; that failure and the collective shouldn’t be glorified; and that communist writers, directors and producers shouldn’t be hired. The alliance did not see it as a ‘forced restriction’ on Motion Picture studios, rather that each man should do ‘his own thinking’ and for the guide to be adopted as a ‘voluntary action’. Rand wrote that the guide aimed to keep the screen free from any ‘collective force or pressure.’ The irony being that this was precisely what the alliance was doing.

The real point of Rand’s pamphlet was that only a conservative vision of America should be allowed on the screen. The alliance wanted the present wave of films which attacked or criticised capitalism halted. One of alliance’s supporters, Cecil B. DeMille was making similar speeches:

The American people know that with all its faults capitalism has given them the highest standard of living and the greatest personal freedom known in the world. The communist cannot deny that. But they can – and do – make a banker or a successful businessman their villain. They can – and do – pick out the sordid and degraded parts of all America, leaving the audience – especially the foreign audience – to infer that all America is a vast Tobacco Road and successful people are all ‘little foxes’.

The impact of the guide has been overstated. Rand later claimed her ‘Screen Guide for Americans’ was printed in full on the front page on the drama section of the New York Times.[1] The claim has then repeated by historians such as Steven J. Whitfield, and then in turn by Rand scholar Robert Mayhew.[2] In reality only a short article appeared on the screen guide with a few sentences describing its contents on page 5 of the supplement.[3] The article only took up one third of a regular column.

[1] Barbara Branden, The Passion of Ayn Rand, Anchor, USA, 1987, p. 203.

[2] Stephen J. Whitfield, The Culture of the Cold War, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1996, p. 131. Robert Mayhew, Ayn Rand and Song of Russia : Communism and Anti-Communism in 1940s Hollywood, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Md., 2005, p. 176.

[3] The New York Times, 16 November 1947

The Wild Bunch

The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film by W.K. Stratton

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


Stratton has written a highly entertaining account of the creation of the Wild Bunch. Beginning with the premise that it is the greatest film ever made, he is clearly besotted with the film. It would have been good to have some critical distance to give the book a bit more weight.

The film has its problems, particularly with the depiction of women, and Stratton is not equipped to deal with such issues. It rewrote how violence was depicted on the screen and reset the boundaries for westerns. A great film – yes. The greatest – well it does not stand up that well against the classic Ford or Mann westerns. At least he lays his cards on the table from the beginning.

Stratton is too fixated on colorful stories of drinking and carousing to really understand how such a shambles of production, became a great film. Still the account gives an insight into the creative chaos of Peckinpah. A director who lived in the space between genius and madness.

The highest compliment I can pay the book is that it made me watch the film again.

Legacies of Buster Keaton: Jackie Chan and Malcolm (1986)

Keaton wrestled with huge objects and performed amazing feats in his films.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton,

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

In almost every Buster Keaton film, there is a scene where the audience gasps at the actor’s astonishing athleticism. It can be when Keaton wrestles with huge pieces of wood on his steam engine, The General or when a building collapses on him. In an era, well before CGI, Keaton does make that leap or have a house fall on him. Keaton’s career peaked in the 1920s but then declined with the introduction of sound. Interest in the comic actor rose from the 1940s but then declined from about 2000.[1] While Keaton’s career descended from the 1920s great matinée idol to cameos on Sunset Boulevard in the 1950s, his legacy has lived on. His films are now considered some of the greatest of the period, and many would argue that they are the greatest of all.

The legacy of Keaton’s great directorial skills can be seen in two unrelated from different countries producing two vastly diverse films. Malcolm (1986) was an Australian comedy, written by the husband-and-wife team of David Parker and Nadia Tass, who directed the film. The film stars Colin Friels as Malcolm, a tram enthusiast who becomes involved with a pair of would-be bank robbers. The film has a lot of nods to silent cinema. But if there is one clear predecessor to Malcolm’s character, it is Buster Keaton in The General (1926). In this film, Keaton plays a Southern railway engineer, just before the civil war breaks out, who loves his locomotive called The General and a young woman. It is easy to speculate that the train probably comes first. Keaton’s character is devoted to the railway engine, just as Malcolm surrounds himself with trams and is devoted to their upkeep.

Colin Friels plays a character who is obsessed with trams and other vehicles in Malcolm (1986).
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Like Keaton, who directed The General, Tass does use the overacted double-take employed by many other silent comedians. Keaton played it with his “stone face,” while Colin Friels employs a boyish smile in response to whatever is happening.[2] It is a similar space to Keaton, who shows little or no emotion. While he is ostracised by the Confederate Army, Keaton employs all sorts of inventiveness to defeat the Union forces who stole his train. Like Keaton, Malcolm is an outsider who triumphs. While the Keaton character loved trains, Malcolm is entranced with Melbourne’s trams. Through his ingenuity, he triumphs.

Consciously or unconsciously, the film also echoed some other characters of silent cinema. Despite their modern uniforms, the police are almost direct descendants of the Keystone Cops. This group of highly incompetent officers made shorts for Mark Sennett. Their only purpose was to chase the central characters, with their batons waving in the air, only to lose the chase, with various pratfalls and explosions. The police depicted in Malcolm hark back to the silent period of cinema.

Like Keaton, Chan does not use stuntman and he makes sure that audiences know it.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Like Tass, the police officers in Chan’s films are nothing more than Keystone cops, who wave around guns and are just useless. The martial arts actor Jackie Chan comes from a different cinematic tradition and has been in many films, but one film clearly shows his relationship with Keaton. Rumble in the Bronx (1995) was directed by Stanley Tong, with the stunts developed by Chan and Tong. Released in Hong Kong in 1995, Rumble in the Bronx had a successful worldwide run, and the film announced Jackie Chan’s arrival to United States audiences. As a result of this film and many others, Chan is now one of the most successful actors on the world stage.

Like Keaton, Chan does his own stunts, including a leap from one building to another. It is the type of stunt that Keaton did routinely. Chan did it without wires, and it is astonishing viewing. But it is again a link back to The General, with a climax involving a preposterous use of a hovercraft. Chan does a series of stunts around the hovercraft that are more than a nod to Keaton’s theatrics with a railway engine. Chan injured his foot so badly in this film; he required a moon boot for the rest of the film. Chan continued to work, even engaging in water-skiing without skis. Keaton’s similarities to Chan are obvious: he once broke his neck in a film and continued working.

Many critics have often equated Jackie Chan to Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd, who was Keaton’s central rival in the action-comedy – of course, Charlie Chaplin overshadowed both. Jackie Chan has even stated: “I wanted to be like a Chaplin or Buster Keaton, but all the martial arts directors I worked with wanted me to copy Bruce Lee,” he said. “So after I got famous, I started to change a lot of things. When I was filming ‘Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow’ in the late 1970s, I sat down with the director and watched a Bruce Lee film. I decided, when Bruce Lee kicked high, I’d kick low. When Bruce Lee yowled, I’d punch doing a funny face like it hurt. Whatever Bruce Lee did, I’d do the opposite.”[3]

The conscious or unconscious tributes in Malcolm and Jackie Chan show that one of the cinema’s original masters still influences a new generation of directors. When we see Tom Cruise jump out of a building or any other action-adventure figures, we are looking at one of the descendants of Keaton and Lloyd, who opened the door for a whole branch of cinema.

A pebble dropped in a pond will create waves that ripple out forever. Keaton’s influence is still very much with us.


[1] Figures based on https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=buster+keaton&year_start=1800&year_end=2019&corpus=26&smoothing=3&case_insensitive=true

[2] The film was dedicated to John Tassopoulos, Nadia Tass’s younger brother who died after being struck by a car. When interviewed by from The New York Times, Nadia Tass said the central character reflected her brother a great deal. “Basically, he was very similar to Malcolm, who was withdrawn, and socially inept. He had a very difficult time being accepted in society because of his inability to communicate verbally. However, he was a very clever person.” Lawrence Van Gelder,  “At The Movies,” New York Times, 18 July 1986.

[3] Strauss, Neil. “Faster than a Speeding Bullet, but also Humanly Fallible: [Biography].” New York Times, Jan 30, 1995, Late Edition (East Coast). http://ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ez.library.latrobe.edu.au/docview/429993898?accountid=12001.

The Screen is Red – book review

Bernard F. Dick, The Screen Is Red: Hollywood, Communism, and the Cold War, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2016. 282 pp., illus. Hardcover: $65.

During the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities – or HUAC – investigations of Hollywood in 1947, chairman J. Parnell Thomas told journalists that he had a media bombshell. He would link the investigation of communism in the film industry to the leaking of atomic secrets to the Russians. Journalists were intrigued and showed up in droves to find it was a media stunt and Thomas had nothing. Hollywood, communism and nuclear fears proved to be an irresistible lure for journalists in the 1940s, and they remain a fascinating topic for film historians. The political cinema of this turbulent period and its impact is the focus of a new book by Bernard F. Dick, a prolific writer on the film industry. Professor Dick is a classical scholar who has produced critical accounts of the Hollywood Ten, as well as books on the playwright and screenwriter Lillian Hellman, along with directors Billy Wilder and Joseph Mankiewicz. His Anatomy of Film is a standard text. He has also written a history of America cinema in World War II, Second World War: The Star-Spangled Screen, which has been highly influential. His ambitious aim with The Screen is Red is to tell “the story of the culture that formed a generation’s political conscience, and fuelled its suspicion of technology capable of world annihilation, as science fiction films of the period imply.” [4]

Many commentators writing on similar terrain start with the pro-Russian ally films of the Second World War. Dick takes a longer perspective and his chapter on Hollywood’s various approaches to communism in the run-up to the Second World War is impressive. It is a pity that Dick did not step even farther back and look at the anti-communist cinema produced after the First World War when the United States had its first red scare. Bolshevism on Trial (1919) was one of many films of the period to show that Hollywood’s anti-communism was part of its political DNA.

During the 1930s, both liberal and conservative political certainties started to crumble in the face of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. The tone of films such as Gabriel Over the White House (1933) often verges on the hysterical. Dick captures the faint desperation in the political solutions offered by both the left and the right. He concludes the section with an analysis of the more gentle anti-communist satires, Ninotchka (1939) and Comrade X (1940). In 1939, the Nazi-Soviet pact placed both left and right-wing assumptions under greater strain. A political consensus did emerge in the United States after Pearl Harbour, when it was shaken out of its isolationist stupor and became a reluctant ally of the Soviet Union. The seismic political and cinematic shifts of the period are covered well in The Screen is Red, particularly when it treats the films of the Second World War. In this section, Dick examines pro-Russian ally movies, including the infamous Mission to Moscow (1943), the closest film to Stalinist propaganda that Hollywood ever produced.

Dick focuses on Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952) in some detail. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Another profound dislocation occurred in Hollywood as the Soviet Union moved from ally to bitter opponent following the war. Reacting to the sharp rise in Cold War tensions, and the 1947 HUAC investigations, Hollywood produced a series of anticommunist films of varying quality over the next few decades. Dick provides an impressive examination of the anticommunist cinema of the 1950s. Films such as I was a Communist for the FBI (1951) and Walk East on Beacon (1952) were part of this group. Dick focuses on Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952) in some detail. My Son John is undoubtedly one of the more feverish films of the Red Scare period. The film’s production fell into a shambles with the death of lead actor Robert Walker, and an ending of sorts was created – with some unheralded assistance by Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock. The remaining film is uncomfortable to watch; it contains one disturbing scene in which an angry father attacks his communist son for laughing at his conservative jingoism. Despite the contrived conclusion, Dick describes McCarey as a master of plot resolution. He argues that McCarey gave viewers an ending that was “dramatic and reflective,” [117] providing an accurate description of America in the early years of the Cold War. His respectful analysis is at odds with both contemporary reviewers and later critics, who see it as a mixture of hysterical anti-communism tinctured with a vague homophobia – along with some disturbing ideas about motherhood. Most reviewers slammed the film, aside from Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, who praised some aspects of it; but even he had grave concerns about its political dogmatism. Dick rarely references contemporary media commentary and he fails to mention that My Son John also proved unpopular with audiences, along with other overtly anti-communist cinema.

Unlike most writers, Dick also covers the Korean War and its corresponding cinema. Again, he provides a solid summary of the films that centered on the engagement, concluding that Hollywood did not romanticize the conflict as it had done in the Second World War. Dick examines films such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), which present war as a thankless undertaking. Sometimes his selection of films is odd. He does not look at important films such as The Rack (1956) which offers many ideas about collaboration, brainwashing, informing, and the Korean War in general. Also absent is Strategic Air Command (1955), a box office success, which directly focuses on his central topic of nuclear annihilation in the post-Korean War period.

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is not examined in any great detail. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Where Dick is far more comprehensive is in the science fiction genre. The alien invasion and subversion films of the 1950s reveal many of the era’s fears about communism and nuclear war. Dick presents an extensive and energetic discussion of these films. However, in some cases, his analyses could be more thorough. For example, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) depicted the fight by a doctor (Kevin McCarthy) against aliens who can hijack a body when it falls asleep. The horror and suspicion gradually increase until, at the film’s conclusion, McCarthy’s character is (famously) shown running down a freeway yelling hysterically while being pursued by human-like aliens intent on stripping away his personality. Dick initially describes the film as containing a hidden anti-McCarthyite critique as well as dumbed-down communism but does not expand on these ideas. Critics remain sharply divided over whether the alien force represents McCarthyism, communism, or even suburban conformism. Dick presents his view with little evidence or consideration of these other possibilities and moves on to the next film. His only nod to audience reaction is to say that “politically astute audiences might have interpreted the film that way.” [74]

The focus on science fiction films also means that other genres receive little attention. Dick barely mentions westerns. Even High Noon (1952), considered one of the prominent anti-McCarthyite films of the era, is given only part of a paragraph. A more glaring omission is biblical epics. Dick remarks on The Robe (1953), but other films such as The Ten Commandments (1956) contain many ultra-conservative statements that refer indirectly to the strength of the monotheistic religions as a spiritual shield against the atheistic Soviet state. Contemporary media commentary on The Ten Commandments (1956) directly related it to both the Suez Crisis and the Russian invasion of Hungary. Dominating the box office, its ideas of American moral superiority over totalitarian regimes permeated or simply reflected political debate in the United States – indeed it still does.

At times, the book appears to be a loose collection of essays and ideas with an overly relaxed arrangement of thematic and chronological chapters. As the book draws to a close, the director Alfred Hitchcock and actor John Wayne are each allocated a chapter; both sit uncomfortably with the rest of the text. Despite these flaws, The Screen is Red offers an extensive survey of Hollywood from the 1930s through to the present, representing the nation’s central political obsessions of nuclear annihilation and communism. Professor Dick is excellent at describing the plots and contexts of his films, but he has his blind spots. Box office, contemporary film reviews, publicity campaigns, fan letters, and media commentary also play their part in how cinema contributes to shifting attitudes and there is little use of these sources. The Screen is Red is not an entirely successful book, but it is a valuable one.

Kevin Brianton, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Original citation at Brianton, Kevin Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2018, Vol.48(2), 64-67

Copyright Center for the Study of Film and History Winter 2018

Did Cecil B. DeMille have a foot fetish? Probably not.

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

Charles Higham in 1969 made the claim of DeMille’s foot fetishism in his discussion of Feet of Clay (1924). Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

One of the persistent myths about Cecil B. DeMille was that he had a foot fetish.  DeMille Biographer Charles Higham in 1969 made the claim of DeMille’s foot fetism in his discussion of Feet of Clay (1924) where he wrote that there was ‘no doubt’ that DeMille’s obsession with feet drew him to the title.[1] This entry would create a claim of a foot fetishism which would be repeated by many people over the years, even though the evidence is against the idea. Film historian Robert Birchard in 2004 pointed out that Higham had no opportunity to watch Feet of Clay as the print was lost and the case for foot fetishism was weak. Moreover, Feet of Clay was about a man who lost his foot – hardly a sexual image at all, and the film was imposed on DeMille by the studio.[2] The fetish claim possibly came from DeMille’s niece Agnes who repeated it in a TV documentary about DeMille in 1982.[3] The evidence is pretty thin. DeMille told Photoplay magazine in 1930 that ‘pretty feet and trim ankles are something he always admired in a woman.’[4] Even so, it is doubtful that his niece Agnes DeMille understood the precise use of the term and she certainly had no detailed understanding of the intimate details of her uncle’s sex life. A foot fetishist enjoys sexual stimulation by the use of the feet. Liking the look of a woman’s feet and a foot fetish are quite different.  A ‘well turned ankle’ is an old fashioned phrase that DeMille might have used to describe an attractive women.

Writing in 2001, David Wallace discussed DeMille’s alleged foot fetish in some detail, saying that DeMille was enchanted with his wife Constance when he saw her feet walking up a stair case.[5] DeMille’s autobiography is the only available account of their romance and he did not mention his wife’s feet at all.[6] DeMille wrote that she was beautiful and had wit.

Paulette Goddard did appear barefoot in North West Mounted Police, but it is not a sexual image.

Other evidence was that Paulette Goddard was rumoured to have got her role in North West Mounted Police by showing her bare feet during an audition. The reality is probably more mundane. DeMille’s grand daughter Cecilia deMille Presley suggested that the possible reason for the rumour was that DeMille liked to see an actor’s feet if they were to appear barefoot on screen.[7] Her eventual role in the film does depict her barefoot, but it is a stretch to say it is a sexual image.

The final piece of threadbare evidence given by Wallace is that DeMille ‘probably’ suggested that people leave footprints in the concrete outside Grauman’s Theatre. No source is given for this weak claim. As weak as the evidence, the idea has permeated critical and biographical writing about DeMille. It is quite possible over the course of 40 years in film making to identify any number of bare foot scenes, but given DeMille directed more than 70 films, the evidence is just not there.

Originally published on kbrianton.com.

[1] Charles Higham, Cecil B. De Mille: A Biography of the Most Successful Film Maker of Them All, Scribner, New York, 1973, p. 129.

[2] Robert S. Birchard, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood, University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2004, p. 195.

[3] Barry Norman, The Film Greats, ISIS, Oxford, 1985, p. 186. Certainly

[4] Rosalind Shaffer, ‘I never choose beautiful women,’ Photoplay, Volume 38, No. 4, September 1930, pp. 30, 31, and 114.

[5] David Wallace, Lost Hollywood, St Martins Press, New York, 2001, p. x.

[6] DeMille, Autobiography, p. 45.

[7] Interview with Cecilia DeMille Presley, January 2008.

George Stevens Jr. and printing the legend:

Review of George Stevens Jr., My Place in the Sun: Life in the Golden Age of Hollywood and Washington, Lexington: University of Kentucky 2022

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

According to Hollywood legend, in 1950, veteran ultraconservative director Cecil B. DeMille fought to oust Joseph Mankiewicz as head of the Screen Directors Guild over Mankiewicz’s unwillingness to impose a mandatory anti-communist loyalty oath for members. The dispute that split the guild came to climax at a meeting in October 1950, at the height of the blacklist’s reign of terror in Hollywood. After hours of contentious debate, George Stevens and then John Fordsupposedly stepped forward and condemned DeMille, leading to his fall from power.

In 2016, I wrote Hollywood Divided: The Screen Directors Guild Meeting and The Impact of the Blacklist, which disputed a great deal of the conventional wisdom about the meeting.[1]It built on the work of Robert Birchard that the story of the meeting was inaccurate and overstated. Most of the errors were derived from a series of inaccurate interviews by one of the participants, Joseph Mankiewicz. In Mankiewicz’s account, Ford is praised as the destroyer of DeMille with his famous speech that began: “My name is John Ford. I make westerns.” The myth has defined the reputations of Ford, DeMille, and Mankiewicz.

George Stevens Jr. used one of the Mankiewicz interviews for his excellent documentary on his father, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey. The documentary has been influential, and many historians have repeated its claims and quoted from it. Mankiewicz praises George Stevens as a fine man who took on DeMille. The account accuses DeMille of misdeeds, yet most of the interview’s content is highly debatable. The errors became evident after a court stenographer’s transcript of the meeting surfaced, which demolished most of Mankiewicz’s claims.

George Stevens Jr. recently returned to his father’s role in his memoir My Place in the Sun, published by the University of Kentucky Press. The account provides an insight into recent American history. Overall, the book is an entertaining recollection of growing up in the shadow of a tremendous film director and looks at Stevens Jr.’s own fascinating life in film, politics, and media. George Stevens Jr. has had an intriguing life, and almost every page has something of interest.

Concerning the meeting, the book repeats a raft of simple errors and exaggerations that have created one of Hollywood’s most enduring legends. In this case, Stevens made a conscious decision to recite the popular version. He writes: ‘Mankiewicz’s heroic story about John Ford has been repeated through the decades, but new research and writing tell a different story. Ford’s comments, were, in fact, more evenhanded toward DeMille, and he wrote to him the next day saying he was “a great gentleman.” But Ford made a film called The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with the newspaper editor’s famous line, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” So, I am printing the legend, with this alert to the reader.’

Liberty Valance being shot: George Stevens Jr uses a line from the film: The Man who Shot Liberty Valance to justify printing the legend. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

At least George Stevens Jr. is honest that his version of events may not be entirely accurate, and he has even warned the readers, but the approach leads to a flawed segment of the book. Stevens Jr.’s account is far more valuable when he does research, such as when he quotes a letter from DeMille to Stevens after the Academy gave the Irving Thalberg Award to DeMille in 1952. DeMille thanked Stevens for his support in gaining the award. George Stevens was his political opponent, but it did not extend into personal animosity on either side. The book would have been more substantial if Stevens Jr. had followed this path more closely. Stevens Jr. could have added that his father and John Ford almost certainly had a hand in Cecil B. DeMille winning the inaugural Screen Directors Guild D. W. Griffith Lifetime Achievement Award in 1952. This move was essentially a peace offering to calm residual tensions within the guild. Both John Ford and George Stevens would win the award in later years. The letter also shows that DeMille was also a courteous man, at least in his correspondence, when he thanked Stevens. More of this type of material would have built up a better book.

The fundamental problem with George Stevens Jr.’s approach is that ‘printing the legend’ actually does a disservice to his father. If anyone is to be singled out for having defeated DeMille at the SDG meeting, it should be George Stevens. Stevens was the hero of the meeting, and his integrity, honesty, and courage shine through the entire sad episode. It was Stevens who spent the week researching the background of the recall. Stevens directly confronted DeMille and accused him of undemocratic maneuvers in back rooms. Mankiewicz’s recall had been defeated before the meeting was called to order, but Stevens’ first speech, resigning from the Guild, opened the door for others to demand DeMille’s resignation. Ford had resisted this move, but it was Stevens’ second speech with its “little man” theme, arguing for a return to directors’ business that ended any hopes for DeMille’s survival. Stevens tore DeMille apart at the SDG meeting, not Ford. It is not surprising that Stevens got into his car after the meeting and drove deep into the night in triumph. In sharp contrast, Ford wrote a letter of condolence to DeMille on the day after the meeting. The myth gives undue credit to Ford and neglects the pivotal role of Stevens.

Stevens Jr. is entitled to restate the Hollywood legend. Yet the quote from a Ford film only provides a type of cover for this account. While John Ford may have directed a film with the line, “print the legend,” Ford never printed the legend in his films. Any viewer of the film knows exactly which man shot Liberty Valance.


[1] Kevin Brianton, Hollywood Divided: The 1950 Screen Directors Guild Meeting and the Impact of the Blacklist. United States: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.

Ceremonial links between The Godfather  and The Searchers

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

Ethan Edwards storms out of a funeral to begin the pursuit of his nieces in The Searchers (1956). Both The Godfather and The Searchers feature disrupted ceremonies. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

At first glance, The Godfather (1972) would seem to have little or nothing to do with The Searchers (1956). One is a gangster film, and the other is a western. One is filmed in Monument Valley, Arizona, and it is set after the American Civil War, while the other is set in urban New York after the Second World War. The films were made more than a quarter-century apart, in radically different genres, by two exceptionally talented but different directors. John Ford was politically conservative with a pro-military stance, while Francis Ford Coppola was highly ambivalent about the role of the military and his films are more left-wing. Yet it is striking how much Coppola was influenced by John Ford, particularly with The Searchers (1956), when he came to make his gangster epic.

The most obvious comparison between the films is the closing scene. When Ethan Edwards rides up to the homestead at the end of The Searchers to return his niece, it is set in bright sunshine. Ford then shoots the final scene from a fixed camera – presumedly from the darkness inside the house. The heavy black edges of the door enclose the film’s last 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 the community. Ethan Edwards stands at the door to consider his next step for a moment. 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 enter, 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  – with a sure integration back into the community. Edwards then looks through the door, pauses as if deciding what to do, and reluctantly turns his back to it. The door closes, and he is barred from entering a community that has reunited.

The use of the door also features at the end of The Godfather (1972), but the underlying relationship is quite different. The new Godfather, Michael Corleone, has just completed a deadly and systematic series of assassinations to avenge his first wife, father, and brother. In a bold series of moves, Michael retakes his father’s empire, crushes his enemies, and solidifies himself as the most powerful mafia don in the country. The last murder is a gruesome and protracted garrotting of his brother-in-law Carlo, which he witnesses without emotion as he settles the “family accounts.” Following the murder of Carlo, his wife Connie – who is Michael’s sister – confronts Michael about the death. She screams at him while he remains unemotional. The scene takes place in full view of Michael’s second wife, Kay. After Connie has been escorted away, Kay demands to know if it is true that he killed Carlo. In a rare burst of anger, Michael slams the desk and then settles down, permitting Kay to ask one question about his business – or rather criminal – affairs. Michael lies to her face about the murder, and a wave of relief spreads over Kay’s face, but after she leaves the room she looks back at Michael, who meets his henchman, and she realises he is a murderer. Looking directly at Kay, his bodyguard Al Neri walks to the door, nods at Kay, and closes it. This scene leaves Kay outside the inner workings of the Corleone Family. In Godfather Part II (1974), the scene is almost repeated, except Michael goes one step further and closes the door in Kay’s face denying her contact with her children as well. Despite being Michael’s wife, Kay has been exiled from the family in the same fashion as Ethan Edwards. [1] While Edwards makes his own decision, Kay has little or no choice. Of course, in Ford’s universe, the community is central and supportive. In The Godfather, the family is evil at its core. In Ford’s film, the community exists in the darkness of their rooms – a shade from the fierce sunlight. In Coppola’s reworking, Kay is in a sunny room, while Michael is in the moral gloom of his office.

Another link between The Godfather and The Searchers is its use of ceremonies. The film critic Danny Peary has pointed out that rituals are disrupted at every turn in The Searchers. The arrival of Sam’s rangers disrupts Ethan’s homecoming. In turn, Edwards storms out of a funeral to pursue his captured nieces. Edwards shoots a dead Comanche in the eyes to destroy his burial. A wedding is called off when Ethan returns to the community.[2] Throughout the film, ceremonies are wrecked, cut short, or abandoned. The film is in sharp contrast to earlier ones by John Ford, such as Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), where ceremonies bring the community together.

The same disruption is also evident in The Godfather, but in different terms. At his daughter’s wedding, Vito Corleone must also deal with a vast range of requests from his community, even as the celebrations continue. Vito seems to move seamlessly between dealing with his business and enjoying the wedding. The opening sets up the idea that the work of the Corleone family never stops. Even a momentous occasion such as his daughter’s wedding does not distract the family head from his duties.

At his daughter’s wedding, Vito Corleone must also deal with a vast range of requests from his community, even as the celebrations for Connie and Carlo continue. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Indeed, the only ceremony that does not involve mixing family events and the criminal enterprise of the day is Michael and Apollonia’s wedding in Sicily. Michael is allowed one short period of marital bliss before Apollonia is killed in a bomb explosion. Business discussions interrupt even the burial of Vito Corleone. At the gravesite, Michael Corleone agrees to arrange a meeting with his rival Barzani to ensure peace between the mafia families. In the final ceremony, bursts of violence punctuate the christening of Michael Corleone’s nephew as his enemies are systematically cut down while as godfather to the infant he rejects: “Satan and all his works.”

The films have other parallels. The film critic Jim Kitses observed that The Godfather was part of a set of films from the 1960s which “allegorise a fallen nation in flawed protagonists.”[3] Kitses sees a predecessor to Michael Corleone in the mercenaries of The Wild Bunch (1969), directed by Sam Peckinpah. Jitses could look further back as The Wild Bunch had strong and clear links to The Searchers. Charles Bramesco wrote: “John Ford’s The Searchers had set the deconstructive ball rolling in 1956 by uncovering a wounded reactionary soul beneath the leathery, commanding exterior of the cowboy archetype, a pop-cultural revisionism that Peckinpah extended to its most extreme conclusion.”[4] Like Ethan Edwards, Michael Corleone is out to destroy those who have injured his family. Unlike Edwards, Corleone is unemotional, cold, and calculating. Initially, Corleone is bright and happy and not part of the criminal enterprise. The shooting of his father Vito by Vincent Sollozzo, combined with the foiled attack on his father at the hospital, wrenches Michael Corleone from an outsider to central participant – and eventually crowns him as family head. His clothes become darker, as does his character.

In more general terms, the similarities between Michael Corleone and Ethan Edwards reflect yet another Herculean anti-hero, capable of great deeds but destructive to the family they are trying to protect. The theme became more pronounced as the series of Godfather films continued. Both Godfather Part II and Part III deal with the further unraveling of the family, as Michael seeks to protect it. In the trilogy’s final episode, Michael hands over control to his nephew Vincent Mancini, warning that he can head the Corleone family, but he must give up any prospect of family life. The two cannot co-exist. Like Ethan Edwards, Mancini must walk away from a chance of domestic family life. Edwards turns his back to the audience and returns to the desert to live much like the Comanche corpse earlier in the film; Ethan is fated to “wander forever between the winds.” For all his power, achievement, and efforts, Corleone loses his family and dies alone in a foreign country. Both figures are outcasts.


[1] The similarity is mentioned in discussion on the Internet Movie Data Base at https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049730/movieconnections/ accessed on 28 February 2022. Such similarities have been made noted by other commentors. Among others see Wes D. Gehring, Gehring Lost & Found: Selected Essays. N.p.: BearManor Media, (n.d.).” “What Does the Final Shot of “The Searchers” Mean?,” https://the-take.com/watch/what-does-the-final-shot-of-the-searchers-mean, accessed on 28 February 2022. Zachary Cruz-Tan, “Hollywood Retro Film Festival – The Searchers,” https://hookedonfilmwa.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/hollywood-retro-film-festival-the-searchers/.

[2] Danny Peary, Cult Movies, The Classics, the Sleepers, the Weird, and the Wonderful, London: Delacorte Press, 1981, 313.

[3] Jim. Kitses, Horizons West: Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood, United Kingdom: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019, 202.

[4]Charles Bramesco, “The Wild Bunch at 50: the enduring nihilism of Sam Peckinpah’s western,” The Guardian,  18 June 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jun/18/the-wild-bunch-at-50-sam-peckinpah-enduring-nihilism-western, accessed on 28 February 2022.

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.