The image of cinema marquees bearing blunt, boldface titles like I Was a Communist For the FBI, Confessions of a Nazi Spy and It Came From Outer Space harkens back to a specific moment in American history - or perhaps I mean US movie history. The distinction seems crucial, but looking back over the sweep of the so-called American Century, how easy is it to disentangle the two? Should one historicise mid-century patriotic mythmaking and fearmongering as "entertainment as propaganda or propaganda as entertainment?" asks J Hoberman, by way of introducing his wildly entertaining historical survey, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War.
Hoberman has reviewed new movies for the weekly Village Voice in New York for more than 30 years, amassing a cultural history almost by default. Army of Phantoms is the second book (but chronological prequel to 2003's Sixties-set The Dream Life) in an ambitious parallel project: a trilogy charting the postwar Hollywood cinema's symbiotic relationship with the national Zeitgeist.
This book sets the dawn of the atomic age - 1945 to 1956 - as its line of demarcation, leading us from the bombing of Hiroshima through the McCarthy hearings to the initial smoke signals of the civil rights movement and hippie counterculture. A scholar of mass media, with a keen eye for the semiotics of kitsch, Hoberman-as-historian is less swayed by artistic innovation or cultural cachet than by "the movies that best crystallise, address, symptomise, or exploit their historical moment - or, just as importantly, were understood to do so at the time."
Like most cultural criticism, Army of Phantoms uses aesthetic projections to map the contours of a national consciousness, but its subtitle also hints at a strident assertion: for Hoberman, movies helped make the Cold War.
During the Second World War, the Hollywood left operated at the height of its influence. Encouraged to exploit the big screen's hold on the public imagination, Popular Front screenwriters and directors served as foot soldiers in the anti-fascist propaganda brigade, turning out lurid anti-Nazi cheapies, and, more pungently, stuff like 1943's Stalin-boosting Mission to Moscow, a film requested and approved by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and directed by Casablanca's Michael Curtiz. But the end of the war and the Soviet Union's confrontational realignment quickly turned any progressive affiliations into a liability. "Better dead than red!" turned into a national clarion call, and the creation and augmentation of communist phantoms became Hollywood's patriotic duty. It may be difficult for contemporary readers to conceive of a culture industry devoted to anything but profit and escapism, but Hoberman makes the case that mid-century Hollywood maintained at least a limited and partial sense of social responsibility - only, of course, as long as it made economic sense.
America's designation of a Grand New Enemy agreed with Hollywood's shifting prerogatives, since the big screen had its own cunning phantom to pursue. The movies were waging war not only on behalf of the State Department, but against the existential threat of television. Some studio heads spent time and money developing garish new spectacles like the super-wide-screen Cinerama, and bankrolled massive biblical epics to fill out the contours of the expanded movie palace. Others in show business simply hoped the mobilisation for a new war might slow the production of television sets.
As a powerful propaganda wing, Hollywood seemed eager to deploy every weapon in the arsenal, even if some required retrofitting. One incredible footnote finds Howard Hughes demanding changes to an already-completed 1950 thriller, The Man He Found, about a Nazi sleeper cell in a small Minnesota town, in order to better reflect the shape-shifting nature of America's international enemy. "Hughes had new footage shot (and existing footage dubbed) so the Nazi agents became communists, Hitler was cut, and the movie was retitled The Whip Hand.Daily Variety called it 'a near masterpiece of suspense ... a little too close to contemporary history to be taken lightly'."
In its account of the prosecutorial zeal of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the book offers a stark reminder of how deeply the Red Scare penetrated Hollywood's elite. In 1947, after initially supporting the Hollywood Ten, a chastised Humphrey Bogart submitted to a public capitulation, calling his earlier position "foolish" and "impetuous". Elia Kazan decided to become the friendliest of friendly witnesses, and Hoberman notes that the six most renowned films he made afterward "all feature some form of betrayal". Hoberman also registers the vigilance of America's search for crypto-communism at the cinema. (Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan are depicted as two of Hollywood's most active culture warriors, and not always for the same army.)
He quotes one FBI informant who doubled as a private film critic, noting that movies the agent cited as communist propaganda were William Wyler's Goldwyn production The Best Years of Our Lives (utilising "a trick taught to all writers in the communist indoctrination schools": to associate criticism of Russia with anti-Semitism, Jim Crowism and Ku Klux Klanism), Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life ("demeaning" portrayals of bankers), Jules Dassin's Brute Force ("determined to arouse opposition to constituted authority") and The Farmer's Daughter (aims "to throw mud at the political factions known to oppose communism").
Along with FBI files and HUAC transcripts, Hoberman seems to have read every movie review ever written in the communist Daily Worker. He lets newspaper quotes substitute for audience feedback, and employs the little-remembered movie critic Bosley Crowther, middlebrow bellwether of The New York Times, as the most frequent voice in a Greek chorus. Criticism seems crucial - one of Hoberman's most piquant asides describes Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer attending the Hollywood gala premiere of an anti-fascist drama. The movies knew they had to toe the ideological line, and the ideological crusaders had a duty to entertain. Referring to an early HUAC hearing, Hoberman playfully notes that "poor reviews" in the newspapers prompted the committee chairman to "bring down the curtain".
Army of Phantoms moves at a breakneck pace and packs its historical information densely; at first, parsing Hoberman's linkages can be dizzying. Consider one notably chaotic contextual fragment: "February 5, 1946, two days before Paramount puts OSS into production and nearly a month into a steelworkers strike that will be the largest in history, Washington Post columnist Drew Pearson - acting on information furnished by J Edgar Hoover - breaks the story of the Ottawa spy ring. Four days later, as if on cue, Stalin declares that war between communism and capitalism is inevitable. Within a month, Winston Churchill makes his 'Iron Curtain' speech in St. Louis." Elsewhere, an over-reliance on exclamation points ("a Canada-based spy ring, its tentacles extending even into the US State Department!") too cheekily underscores the intersection of pageantry and paranoia. Even in hindsight, we can't all be expected to distinguish between far-fetched alarmism and genuine threat.
The book is most incisive when pausing for a more detailed assessment of a cultural artefact; though Hoberman is usually an opinionated critic, the aesthetic considerations in Army of Phantoms are distinguished by the author's engagement with multiple, often contradictory readings of major films. Are the "pod people" of Invasion of the Body Snatchers grotesque emblems of the Red Menace or the byproducts of suburban conformity? Does High Noon celebrate the grandeur of the individual or lament the failure to stand together against Hollywood's blacklist? (And if High Noon is thematically inscrutable, why is it the film screened most often for sitting presidents in the White House?)
Hoberman is eloquent on films that moviegoers of a certain age know scene-for-scene, and equally engaging when unpacking some of the more absurd projects we probably haven't seen. In the author's gleeful descriptions of outlandish movie plots, one senses his palpable nostalgia for an era - ahem, movie era - of exuberant hysteria.
The phantoms never vanished, but eventually assumed a different guise. Using Kazan's 1957 A Face in the Crowd - starring Andy Griffith as a folksy, cornball demagogue with a barely suppressed contempt for his proletarian audience - as a representative text, Army of Phantoms argues that "the notion of mass culture as a form of incipient fascism had become increasingly common among left and liberal intellectuals once the mission failed."
What if The Dream Life was itself the enemy? Banking on the credulity and paranoia of mass audiences, the dictators and mind-control mavens had moved from the world stage to the movie screen. And for all we know they - which is to say Them! or The Thing or the "It" that Came From Outer Space - might still be there.
Akiva Gottlieb writes about film for The Nation.