In the several decades that followed the end of the Second World War, threats of nuclear annihilation and fears about the "Red menace" permeated the American culture in ways that were both explicit and implicit. Behind the scenes in Hollywood, paranoia about these issues—and government responses to them—boiled over into open and ideological warfare that resulted in the infamous blacklist of the McCarthy era. But on screen, in films that both supported and challenged the dominant political agenda of the times, these widely discussed threats expressed themselves in works that ranged from the quietly subversive to the apocalyptic. In industrial films and B-movies to major studio productions, the anxieties of the period translated themselves into the stuff of science fiction, westerns, crime movies, and melodrama. This program includes a selection of films drawn largely from the HFA collection, including rarely screened prints of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly and Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three.
June 20 (Friday) 7 pm - Actor David Agee in Person
June 30 (Monday) 7 pm
In this program of educational hygiene and corporate promotional films selected from the Prelinger Archives, we examine the messages American citizens received in the postwar era extolling the virtues of a good clean life as an antidote to the perils of atomic destruction. Small children, teenagers, and adults were seen each to have a unique role to play in guarding the nation against these exterior forces and helping in the creation of one nation united against Communism, free to purchase new appliances. David Agee, star of one of the era’s films, The Sound of a Stone, will join us to discuss the background of the Centron corporation, one of the nation’s largest producers of educational films, and the tensions of the McCarthy-era climate in which many of these works were produced. Films include The Sound of a Stone, What You Should Know about Biological Warfare, Atomic Alert, The House in the Middle, In Our Hands: How to Lose What We Have, The Terrible Truth, American Look, and Design for Dreaming (total program length: 93 min.).
The HFA extends special thanks to Rick Prelinger of Prelinger Archives.
June 20 (Friday) 9 pm
June 30 (Monday) 9 pm
Directed by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, Pierce Rafferty
US 1982, 35mm, b/w and color, 92 min.
Made over a five-year period by a team of young documentary makers, The Atomic Café is a meticulously assembled independent production that focuses an amused eye on the duplicity of Cold War ideology in postwar America through a vast array of excerpts from newsreels, educational films, and government sponsored documentaries about "the bomb." The film displays such landmarks in the arsenal of nuclear propaganda as dispassionate test footage at the Bikini Atoll, the civil-defense "Duck and Cover" advisory (replete with an Andrews Sisters up-tempo tune), and newsreel clips of home bomb-shelter designs. Even twenty years after its release, The Atomic Café remains a compelling, amusing, and cautionary work that suggests the continuing power of the media to reflect, inform, and shape our fears and beliefs.
June 21 (Saturday) 7 pm
June 29 (Sunday) 7 pm
Directed by Robert Aldrich
US 1955, 35mm, b/w, 105 min.
With Ralph Meeker, Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman
In this most unconventional mystery, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is a private detective investigating the odd warning of a frantic hitchhiker: "Remember me." What follows is a virtual upending of the conventions of film noir, from the film’s unredeemable, often brutish anti-hero to its apocalyptic femme fatale. The atomic anxiety of the period is expressed through Hammer’s pursuit of a mysterious, white-hot apocalyptic object, the great "whatzit"—a "Pandora’s box" that is never specifically identified as nuclear but which has decidedly catastrophic results. The paranoia and nihilism are enhanced by the disorienting camera angles and unconventional compositions of Ernest Laszlo and the unique sound design by Jack Solomon.
June 21 (Saturday) 9 pm
June 25 (Wednesday) 7 pm
Directed by Billy Wilder
US/West Germany 1961, 35mm, b/w, 115 min.
With James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin
In one of his final screen performances, James Cagney stars as C. R. MacNamara, a manic Coca-Cola executive based in West Berlin trying to win favor in the company by brokering a deal to sell soft drinks to the Soviets. Meanwhile his boss’s daughter, who has been left in MacNamara’s care, has fallen for and married an unabashed Communist from East Berlin (played by the late Horst Buchholz). In the farcical style that only Billy Wilder could deploy, MacNamara schemes to convert the young Red to the ways of all good Americans. Although the targets are broad and at times painfully obvious, One, Two, Three succeeds thanks to both Wilder’s and Cagney’s impeccable comic timing.
June 22 (Sunday) 7 pm
June 25 (Wednesday) 9:15 pm
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
UK 1964, 35mm, b/w, 93 min.
With Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden
No major director seemed better able to plug into the zeitgeist of his era (particularly in the 1960s) than Kubrick, and no film so completely captured the country’s growing disaffection with the military-industrial complex as Kubrick’s adaptation (with writer Terry Southern) of Peter George’s political satire Two Hours to Doom. The resulting work is a chronicle, at once hilarious and frightening, of the fallout from the decision of the deranged General Jack D. Ripper (Hayden) to deploy a bomber wing of the Strategic Air Command to drop the big one on Russia. The inimitable Peter Sellers is cast in three roles: the President, the eponymous Dr. Strangelove, and Group Captain Mandrake.
June 22 (Sunday) 9 pm
Directed by Sidney Lumet
US 1964, 35mm, b/w, 112 min.
With Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman
When a computer malfunction prompts an air squadron to follow strict orders to bomb Moscow, the President of the United States (Fonda) must negotiate a resolution with the Soviets that will yield the fewest possible fatalities. Lumet is deadly serious in his tone and in his critique of the threats posed by the proliferation of weapons production. Set in an often claustrophobic space and constructed from a screenplay by blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein, Fail-Safe features intense performances from Fonda, Hagman, and—surprisingly—Matthau, who eschews his comic persona here for a turn as a coldly prophetic scientist.
June 23 (Monday) 7 pm
June 26 (Thursday) 9 pm
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
US 1952, 35mm, b/w, 85 min.
With Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges
In one of the first revisionist westerns to question conventional representations of heroism, Gary Cooper stars as a newly married marshal about to retire from his post who is forced into a last showdown with a murderous outlaw. As the clock ticks in real time toward the fateful confrontation, the marshal must face his nemesis alone, his most trusted allies in the town having dismissed his cause as futile and chosen to abandon him. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was blacklisted not long after the film’s release, and his script directly reflects the rising tide of distrust in Hollywood caused by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC hearings.
June 23 (Monday) 9 pm
June 27 (Friday) 7 pm
Directed by Samuel Fuller
US 1953, 35mm, b/w, 80 min.
With Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter
Iconoclastic writer and director Sam Fuller’s controversial thriller was dismissed by many critics at the time as an anti-Communist, McCarthyist tract, but Fuller’s position is far more ambiguous. With a gritty style and ironic subversiveness, he investigates the underbelly of New York in the 1950s through the story of a pickpocket (Widmark) who inadvertently obtains a top-secret microfilm when he lifts a wallet from a pretty girl (Peters).
Thelma Ritter is superb in the role of a Bowery denizen whose rejoinder "What do I know about Commies? Nothing. I just don’t like them" captures the irrepressible moxie of this cult masterpiece.
June 24 (Tuesday) 7 pm
June 27 (Friday) 9 pm
Directed by Robert Wise
US 1951, 35mm, b/w, 92 min.
With Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Sam Jaffe
In Robert Wise’s cold war sci-fi classic, a flying saucer lands on Washington, D.C., and the alien Klaatu emerges with a message for the nations of Earth: stop warring with each other or the world will be destroyed to protect the more civilized planets of the universe. In addition to the obvious anti-nuclear message it contains, the film addresses the xenophobia in American culture that suspects those who are alien of spreading communist propaganda. The cast features Sam Jaffe (also a casualty of the blacklist) as the one scientist sympathetic to Klaatu’s cautionary message and Patricia Neal as the deliverer of the fateful message, "Klaatu barada nikto."
June 24 (Tuesday) 9 pm
Directed by Gordon Douglas
US 1954, 35mm, b/w, 94 min.
With James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, James Arness
After an atomic blast in the desert of New Mexico produces a breed of giant radioactive ants, the genetically reengineered arthropods wreak havoc on the Southwest until they eventually descend on the helpless citizens of Los Angeles. In this surprisingly understated science-fiction classic, the pervasive nuclear anxiety becomes manifest in the mutated insects. While this was a common trope of many 1950s B-movies, Them! stands out as one of the few intelligent explorations of the potential physical consequences of atomic testing and, more important, the psychic impact on the culture at large of the uncertain effects of new technologies.
June 26 (Thursday) 7 pm
Directed by Elia Kazan
US 1954, 16mm, b/w, 108 min.
With Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb
Winner of the 1954 Academy Award for best picture, On the Waterfront features Marlon Brando’s immortal portrayal of Terry Malloy, a withdrawn tough-guy with a troubled conscience. Having committed a series of petty-crime "favors" for the New Jersey mob, Terry has been guaranteed a cushy job with good pay at the local harbor so long as he agrees to ignore the horrendous crimes and injustices that take place there. When he is made an unwitting accomplice to murder, however, Malloy must choose between turning his back on his friends and family and confronting the call of his conscience. Filmed at the height of the McCarthy hearings, On the Waterfront explores one of the most controversial issues of 1950s America: whether to name names.
June 28 (Saturday) 7 pm
June 29 (Sunday) 9 pm
Directed by Jack Arnold
US 1957, 35mm, b/w, 81 min.
With Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent
After Scott Carey is contaminated by a mysterious cloud, he undergoes a bizarre metamorphosis in which he gradually shrinks to the size of an insect. During the process, Carey witnesses not only the loss of his physical prowess but his position as head of his household and a debilitating impotence. Arnold brilliantly reworks the B-movie plot line to investigate the increasingly prevalent domestic anxiety then seeping through a culture that was struggling to reinforce traditional gender roles amidst great social change. The film provides an intelligent critique of the constraints of life in postwar American suburbia.
June 28 (Saturday) 9 pm
Directed by Don Siegel
US 1956, 35mm, b/w, 80 min.
With Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates
Hailed by the critics of Cahiers du Cinema as one of the great Hollywood auteurs, director Don Siegel is perhaps best know for his campy 1956 sci-fi classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As the intrepid town physician notes at the beginning of the film, something is terribly wrong with the inhabitants of Santa Mira, California. Physically, they seem normal enough, but their personalities are undeniably strange—they’re listless, emotionless, almost drone-like. Given that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is in many ways a B-movie genre film, it is not surprising that the cause of this bizarre phenomenon involves all the usual suspects: extraterrestrial infiltration, mass mind-control, and the misuse of atomic energy (all hallmarks of the Red Scare). Unintentionally hilarious at times, the film also has its moments of genuine creepiness.