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.

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.

Cold War or old war?

Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia

Edited by Tatiana Prorokova-Konrad, University of Mississippi Press, 2020.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University

By the time  Joe Biden was elected President, diplomatic relations between the United States and Russia had deteriorated for more than a decade. The media repeatedly used the term ‘a new Cold War” to describe the relationship between the United States and Russia. The first Cold War was a term developed in 1947 by the American writer, journalist and political commentator Walter Lippman. The Cold War was the conflict between the USSR and the West from the end of the Second World War to the collapse of the Soviet Union around 1990. The Cold War was depicted as the clear ideological conflict between communism and liberal democracies across the world – a claim open to debate. Of course, the current state of US – Russian relations has little or nothing to do with communism. This new “Cold War” appears to have been running from 2012 to today when Russia became more aggressive, particularly in the Ukraine. The iciness of world diplomacy has widespread implications, including a renewed interest in Russians as villains in American cinema. The editor of Cold War II: Hollywood’s Renewed Obsession with Russia, Tatiana Prorokova-Konrad, “examines the recent growth in Russia-related films as well as the effectiveness of understanding the current US-Russia political crisis; through the lens of recent Cold War films and T.V. shows.” (4)  A clear influence to many of the writers in the book is Edward Lucas’s The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West, which maps out the recent menace of the re-emergence of Russian hostility.[1]  The book hopes to enrich the conventional understandings of the Cold War during both the Trump and Obama administrations.

This collection of articles does not have a uniform methodological or theoretical approach. Still, the editor  Prorokova-Konrad attempts to draw the essays together with an introductory discussion about Hollywood’s previous cold war spasms in the late 1910s and 1950s. Prorokova-Konrad only makes a faint mention of silent films with anti-communist sympathies, and she dates anti-communist films as far back as Ninotchka (1939). However, anti-Soviet films have had a much longer pedigree than the late 1930s. A mention of the film A Bolshevism on Trial (1919) showed that anti-communism had a long lineage, dating back to the Russian Revolution. Some of the 1950s anti-communist films are referenced, but it is an incomplete listing. Even key films in the 1950s, such as Leo McCarey’s anti-communist film My Son John (1952), are only mentioned in passing. If the book’s title is a “renewed obsession,” the reader might be expected to be introduced to what exactly Hollywood was revisiting more thoroughly.

Bridge of Spies is seen as part of Cold War Nostalgia. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The opening section, called “Enduring Clichés,” begins with the article: The Warm Glow of Cold War Nostalgia by Vesta Silva & Jon Wiebel. It is difficult to see how the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis could create a warm glow in any sensible person. Still, the authors argue that “the second decade of the twenty-first century has seen an explosion of Cold War stories in American films and television series that highlight a nostalgic desire for a return to the more certain.” Looking at the issue through the lens of  The Bridge of Spies (2015) and Atomic Blonde (2017), they examine how the Cold War has been depicted through the actions of cinematic heroes. The films promote a sense of certainty that is lacking in the present-day War on Terror and the rise of Russia. The idea of nostalgia is also present in Big Rewards for the Small Screen by Helena Goscilo, and it is the best paper of the opening section. The essay looks at how The Man from U.N.C.L.E was depicted in TV series in the 1960s and a later film version directed by Guy Ritchie in 2015. As well as mentioning some films from the early stages of the Cold War, Grocilo uses the programs as an opportunity to look at the cultural responses within their cultural settings.

Red Sparrow is referenced by many of the essays. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

With any disparate collection of articles, some essays are better than others. There is a mixture of heavy-handed theoretical works, and others are free of such concerns. One of the more impressive articles is  Ian Scott’s examination of the various films that have used Berlin as its setting, such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965).  It is an interesting and perceptive survey of the topic, and it is refreshing to see a writer who sees this recent crop of films as part of a tradition. The same comment can be made about The Shape of Water and the Cold War Revisited by Cyndy Hendershot. This essay is a highly observant one looking at how The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was reworked in the 21st century. Another good essay is “Your Body Belongs to the State by Dan Ward, which concentrates on the depiction of heroines in Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow. Perhaps the most successful essay is Laughing at the Early Cold War by Lori Maguire, where she provides a good introduction to these films. Again, she shows that films such as Hail Caesar (2016) and Death of Stalin (2017) have many predecessors. By referencing films such as the British comedy Our Man in Havana (1959), Maguire demonstrates a sound grasp of cinema history and the long lineage of these films.

Part of long lineage of Cold War satire is Our Man in Havana. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Yet in presenting a case for a ‘Hollywood obsession,’ some selections are quite dubious. Many of the films are not even American – and cannot be considered part of Hollywood’s cinema – for example, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) was a British, French and German co-production. The Death of Stalin (2017) was a British, French and Belgium co-production, and both films are repeatedly referenced. However, it is not just the film industry. To place TV shows as part of a ‘Hollywood obsession’ is stretching the boundaries a little. One of the essays: Of Mothers and Motherlands by David LaRocca, focuses on the American TV show The Americans (2013 – 2018). The Americans was a popular program that told the story of two agents who passed as the heads of an all-American family. LaRocca provides an excellent survey of the show. Astonishingly for an American program, audiences supported the two Russian spies as they killed and attempted to destroy American democracy. It is a complex program with multi-levels showing how spies had to balance their family lives with their intelligence work.

Each of the essays has various strengths and weaknesses, but what is generally missing from the book is any discussion of the long-running diplomatic rifts between the West and Russia. This group of papers barely looks beyond the Second World War. The end of the Cold War meant that the USSR was no longer a superpower, and Soviet Communism was a spent force in world affairs. Russia imploded but was always going to reassert itself in some form as a regional power. One exception was Lori Maguire, who connected Putin’s rule back to Stalin, but there are other possible historical resonances. Putin represented another version of Russian authoritarianism that has impacted the country’s history for centuries.

Indeed, since the rise of the nation-states in the nineteenth century, tensions and conflicts between countries have ebbed and flowed. Russia has always been a player in the world and European politics. Britain and Russia wrestled for control of Afghanistan for many decades. “Cold War II” is a great title for the marketing department, and it makes for racy headlines for newspapers – but it is just not the case. The world is simply facing the same geographical dilemmas that have faced diplomats for centuries – albeit with nuclear weapons. Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography certainly outlined the continuities of Russian history.[2] The essayists could have also looked further afield at books such as Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of Red Czar,[3] and Steven Lee Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, which links communism and Putin’s rule as back to the Romanovs. Of these writers, Myers is mentioned once and crudely dismissed.[4] These books highlight that authoritarian rulers or Tsars have existed throughout Russian history, and both Stalin and Putin are part of that tradition – there is no new Cold War. The essayists could even have looked back to the reign of Catherine the Great for inspiration to explain some of the depictions. Interestingly, she was also the subject of two TV series: Catherine the Great (2019) and The Great (2020) and, but these were released after the book was written. 

What is also missing is any discussion of the box office success of these films, which might indicate the acceptance or take-up rate of ideas contained in the film. Few of the films examined were highly successful, which raises the question of what impact, if any, they made. It is one thing to say the films contained these ideas, but if the films were not watched, their impact is minimal. Look for the term ‘box office,’ and it is confined to one footnote in an essay discussing representations of US – Russia foreign policy by Thomas J. Cobb as represented in the film Black Panther, which did resonate with United States audiences in a way that Red Sparrow did not. Yet, it is the less successful Red Sparrow that is the focus of several writers.

Black Panther is one ofthe few successful films discussed at any length. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The timing of the book is also a little unfortunate. The Queen’s Gambit (2020) did not make the cut for these essays due to its launch after publication. It is a highly popular TV series with an interesting depiction of the Soviet Union. The central character Beth Harmon is based on Bobby Fischer, a United States chess genius who broke the Soviet Union’s stranglehold in a cold war showdown in 1972. The TV show cuts against the book’s central premise that most television and film depictions of Russia are menacing. While the Soviet Union is depicted as a harsh regime, the people in it are human. The American Beth Harmon goes up against Russians who are ruthlessly competitive, but they are also courteous and dignified. While her opponent Bogrov can destroy any opponent, he is polite, respectful in defeat and triumph, and appears to be a dedicated family man. He even seems genuinely happy at Harmon’s triumph. The show then depicts Harmon’s friends rallying to her assistance to meet the Soviet team on equal terms. They eventually adopt the Soviet collegiate system, where players support each other. If the book had been issued a little later, the success of The Queens Gambit (2020) might have made the book’s tone more optimistic. It is not the only example, as The Courier (2020) also highlighted a positive relationship between a London businessman and a Russian spy that may have helped defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. Aside from a few exceptions, the papers have little or no optimism about the relationship. It is both an interesting and pessimistic book.


[1] Edward Lucas, The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West. Rev. ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

[2] Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography, London: Scribner, 2016

[3] Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin : The Court of the Red Tsar. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.

[4] Steven Lee, Myers, The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin. First Vintage Books ed. 2016.

The cinematic anti-communist crusade

Dr Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

The anti-communist crusade of the movie moguls began when they signed the Waldorf Declaration on 24 November 1947 which was the same day that Congress met to approve the HUAC contempt citations. 

The anti-communist crusade of the movie moguls began when they signed the Waldorf Declaration on 24 November 1947 which was the same day that Congress met to approve the HUAC contempt citations.  The declaration was supported by the Motion Picture Association of America, the Association of Motion Picture Producers – the studio heads – and was signed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan.[1]  They voted to sack any employee who would not say under oath that he or she was not a communist.  This meant that the Hollywood 10 were sacked without compensation.  The studio heads also voted to refuse to employ any person with communist beliefs.[2]

The Waldorf declaration was the action of men who were quite prepared to sacrifice their political independence of financial gain.  Attacking the communists did not appear to be a high price to pay; after all it was only a small group of writers who were being sacked.  Moverover, the spirited resistance against the HUAC-style investigation in 1941 was done at a time when Roosevelt was firmly entrenched in power.  The political pendulum had swung to the right and the studios were attempting to appease their new political masters.

The Hollywood 10 soon lost most of its support when many in the Committee for the First Amendment dropped their backing for the group.  Some believed that they also could also lose their jobs and others thought the Hollywood’s 10’s behavior before the committee as unforgivable, and support for the group began to fade quickly in the film industry.[3]  In subsequent HUAC investigations, there was little or no effective organised opposition.

The HUAC investigations were, in part, a reaction to the Roosevelt years and the close relationship of the film industry with its administration.  But there were other links between the HUAC investigators and Hollywood.  The film industry had encouraged the myth that America was the unblemished ‘good guy’ of world politics, it now had to reap some of the bitter fruits of that wartime propaganda.  The myth helped give Americans a feeling of infallibility which assisted in their massive war effort.  In fostering the belief that to fight America was to do wrong, the films of the Second World War helped create the mental framework for the cold war.  The adjustment from Nazi Germany to communist Russia as the Untied States central enemy was surprisingly swift.[4]  But it did raise some nagging problems.  If America was always right, and Russia was wrong, why was the United States allied to the country in the first place?

The answer for the American right – and in particular the HUAC investigators – was a vast conspiracy stretching from Russia, to the White House, onto communist screenwriters in Hollywood.  Historian Richard Hofstadter has written about the attractiveness of the conspiracy theory to Americans and its frequent explosions in American life.[5]  A common theme of these theorists was that small groups with outside backing were seeking to control the United States by nefarious means.  Conspiracy theories were a well established part of American political culture and they flourished during the uncertain post-war period.  According to the conspiracy theorists, the Roosevelt administration had a long term plan to undermine capitalism in order to bring the economy under the control of the Federal Government and to pave the way for socialism or communism.  HUAC Investigator Robert E. Stripling believed that Hollywood was in danger of falling under the control of communists, just as other industries had already done.[6]

The scapegoats for the conspiracy theorists were the communist and left-wing writers who worked on the ‘praise Russia’ films of the Second World War.  Screenwriter Howard Koch had been ordered by Warner to make Mission to Moscow and is efforts had been praised by Warner.[7]  Koch was subpoenaed but did not testify, he placed full page ads in the Hollywood trade papers saying that he was not and had never been a communist, but reserved the right not to say it to HUAC.[8]  Koch’s strong liberalism had shown out in films such as In This Our Life (1942) and his talent in Sergeant York (1941) Casablanca (1943), and Letter From an Unknown Woman (1947).  His efforts counted for nothing and his refusal to answer HUAC’s questions, on the principle of his constitutional rights meant that he did not work in Hollywood for another 12 years.  The studio heads were not interested in Justice, they were interested in scapegoats and Koch was one of those blacklisted as a result.

For other members of the Hollywood 10, there were more sinister motives for their blacklisting.  Action in the North Atlantic screenwriter John Howard Lawson was a central figure in the formation of the Screenwriters Guild.  Eradicating him would also relieve the studio heads of a radical and determined union leader.  Ring Lardner Jr had always been a thorn in the side of the ultra-conservative Hollywood leaders.  In November 1945, Lardner wrote a long, highly critical and funny article for Screenwriter on the ultra-conservative Cecil B. DeMille where he relentlessly attacked and satirized the director and his politics.  He focused sharply on the Cecil B. DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom writing:

All policy and action are determined by the self perpetuating board of directors, yet every rank and file member is assured his political freedom to read and listen to whatever pronouncement Mr DeMille is moved to make.[9]

He described the foundation as essentially a right-wing organisation which had attacked the rights of unionists to make a united stand.  The editor of Screenwriter was Dalton Trumbo and the managing editor was Gordon Kahn.  All three became member of the Hollywood 19.  The article was specially transcribed the DeMille and left in his papers in a file on background information on communists for his autobiography.[10]  DeMille was often accused by his political opponents of providing names to HUAC and it seems clear that the selection of Lardner, Trumbo and Kahn was no accident: Hollywood’s right-wing was exacting revenge.

Many have argued that it was the economic decline of Hollywood which forced the studio heads to retreat so vigorously.[11]  However, he moguls had opposed intervention strongly before the war.  It was not economic pressures which drove them to make the Waldorf declaration.  The year 1947 was the second most successful year for the cinema in its history.[12]  There was a slight dip from the figures for 1946 which had been a record year for the industry, but they were not under savage pressure.  Anti-trust legislation and television were on the horizon, but in general the motion picture industry was sound.  The Waldorf declaration and the consequent blacklisting was a personal failure of nerve by the studio heads to fight the HUAC investigations.

The studio heads did not realize that the declaration opened the way for constant sackings and suspicion.  In trying to get a quick fix to a complex problem, the studios had allowed themselves to be held hostage by any patriotic organisation which called any actor, director or writer a communist and promised to picket a film carrying their name.  These organisations were extremely demanding.  When a person was named as a communist by a patriotic organisation of some description, the studio heads either had to get the person concerned cleared through certain channels or have them blacklisted.  Red Channels was one example of the publications circulating at the time which itemized the various offences of actors and writers supposedly in communist from organisations.  The evidence was often wafer thin, but as the introduction to Red Channels showed the editors were not interested in subtleties.

The information set forth in the following report is taken for records available to the public.  The purpose of this complications is threefold.  One, to show how communists have been able to carry out their plan of infiltration of the radio and television industry.  Two to indicate the extent to which many prominent actors and artists have been inveigled to lend their names,  according to these public records, to organisations espousing Communist causes.  This, regardless of whether they actually believe in, sympathize with, or even encourage actors or artists from naively lending their names to Communist organizations or causes in the future.[13]

The Waldorf Declaration and the acquiescence of the studio heads to the HUAC investigators opened the way for chaos in the filmmaking industry.  Blacklisting could occur for being a member of a political group, attending a meeting or signing a petition.  The Blacklisting of an actor was not a one way street.  His or her name could be cleared by approaches to the various agencies concerned.  Certain shadowy figures during the blacklist era made a living attempting to clear people so that they could return to work.  Indeed some groups would cast aspersions on a person’s character and then offer to redress the balance.  This led to a continuing round of clearances of actors and writers through various organisations.  Blacklisted writers could also still write for the studios using fronts to submit their scripts.  People were told to avoid blacklisted people or at least not to meet them in public.[14]

The third phase of the crusade against communism was the release of a series of anti-communist films.  Actor Adolphe Menjou, one of the friendly witnesses before the HUAC hearings, demanded that the studios produce anti-communist films.

I believe it would be an incredible success… I think it would be a very wonderful thing to see one made.  I would like to see a picture of the Bulgarian situation; … I would like that shown to the American public to see communism as it actually is.  I would like to see the brutal beatings, the stabbings and killings that go on through Europe… We showed many anti-Nazi pictures.  I see no reason why we do not show anti-communist pictures.[15]

The studios responded quickly to Menjou’s call.  The first anti-communist film to roll out of the studios was Ninotchka which was re-released by MGM in November 1947.  Earlier the State Department had been so impressed with the film’s anti-communist message that it helped release it in Italy to help undermine the Italian communists in 1946 elections.[16]

Ninotchka was quickly followed by The Iron Curtain which was released by RKO in May 1948.[17]  The title of the film was the image for Churchill’s famous speech of an iron curtain descending across Europe which he made on 5 March 1946.[18]  This film was similar in style to the successful Confessions of a Nazi Spy released before the war, and it also shared the same writer in Martin Krims.  The film concentrated on the defection of a Russian clerk Igor Gouzenko, played by Dana Andrews, who defected in Canada.  Even with its novelty value, and the huge publicity of the HUAC hearings, the film was ranked 64th in the year’s rentals.[19]


[1] Otto Friedrich, City of Nets, Headline, London, 1986, p. 332.

[2] Phillip French, The Movie Moguls, Penguin, Harmonsworth, 1969, p. 154.  Producers Sam Goldwyn, Walter Wagner and liberal Dore Schary opposed the declaration.

[3] Barry Norman, Talking Pictures: The Story of Hollywood, Hooder and Stoughton, London, 1987, p. 205.

[4] Les K. Alder and Thomas G. Paterson, ‘Red Fasciasm: The Merger of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the American Image of Totalitarianism, 1930s-1950s, ‘American Historical Journal, vol. 75, no. 4, April 1970, pp. 1059 – 1061. Alder and Paterson discuss how easily the substitution from Germany to Russia occurred as a totalitarian enemy.

[5] Richard Hofstadter The Paranoid Style In American Politics and Other Essays, Jonathan Cape, London, 1966, pp. 3 – 40.

[6] Robert E. Stripling, The Red Plot Against America, Bell, Pennsylvania, 1949.

[7] Jack Warner to Howard Koch, November 24, 1942, Howard Koch Collection, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theatre Research in David Culbert (ed.). Mission to Moscow, Wisconsin Warner Bros Screenplay Series, University of Wisconsin Press, Wisconsin, 1980, pp. 264 – 265.

[8] Norman, Talking, p. 205

[9] Ring Lardner Jr., ‘The Sign of the Boss’, The Screen Writer, November 1945, pp. 1 – 12.  Transcript in Box 29, Folder 7, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.  The Cecil B. DeMille Foundation for Political Freedom was formed to campaign for right-to-work laws and against communist infiltration.  DeMille set up the foundation when he refused to pay one dollar to the American Federation of Radio Artists to fight right-to-work legislation on the California state ballot in 1944.  The foundation was closed soon after his death in 1959.

[10] Other names in the files include writers Albert Maltz, Sidney Buchman, and John Howard Lawson who were all blacklisted.  Edward G. Robinson and Elmer Bernstein were described as not communist.  Actor Howard Da Silva was also described a ‘commie’ out to get DeMille.  All appeared before HUAC. Box 29, Folder 7, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[11] French, Moguls, p. 153.

[12] Garth Jowett, Film: The Democratic Art, Little Brown, Boston, 1976, p. 473.

[13] American Business Consultants, Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, New York, 1950, p. 9.

[14] Larry Ceplair and Ken Englund, I, Doubleday, New York, 1980, pp. 386 – 397.

[15] HUAC Hearings, p. 106.

[16] Dorothy Jones, ‘Communism and the Movies’ in John Cogley, Report on Blacklisting, The Fund For The Republic, New York, 1956, p. 300.

[17] For a complete discussion of the film see Daniel J Leab, ‘The Iron Curtain (1948): Hollywood’s First Cold War Movie’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 8, No. 2, 1988, pp. 153 – 188.

[18] Rhode, Robert James (ed.), Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1879 – 1963, Chelsea, London, 1974, p. 7285.

[19] Variety, 5 January 1950 estimated that the film made $2 million in rentals.  No other 1949 anti-communist made the lists.