Film Criticism, the Cold War, and the Blacklist examines the long-term reception of several key American films released during the postwar period, focusing on the two main critical lenses used in the interpretation of these films: propaganda and allegory. Produced in response to the hearings held by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) that resulted in the Hollywood blacklist, these films’ ideological message and rhetorical effectiveness was often muddled by the inherent difficulties in dramatizing villains defined by their thoughts and belief systems rather than their actions. Whereas anti-Communist propaganda films offered explicit political exhortation, allegory was the preferred vehicle for veiled or hidden political comment in many police procedurals, historical films, Westerns, and science fiction films. Jeff Smith examines the way that particular heuristics, such as the mental availability of exemplars and the effects of framing, have encouraged critics to match filmic elements to contemporaneous historical events, persons, and policies. In charting the development of these particular readings, Film Criticism, the Cold War, and the Blacklist features case studies of many canonical Cold War titles, including The Red Menace, On the Waterfront, The Robe, High Noon, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Film Criticism, the Cold War, and the Blacklist Reading the Hollywood Reds
A Bifocal View of Hollywood during the Blacklist Period
Film as Propaganda and Allegory
We have seen that a comparatively small but important group of postwar American films have been interpreted as Hollywood's response to the Red Scare. But what produced this consensus view of postwar American cinema? Along with the appearance of the earliest histories of the blacklist and the memoirs of blacklisted writers, as well as the industry's belated recognition of those writers' contributions, a third aspect of American film culture of this period fostered the impression that Cold War-era cinema was fertile territory for the exploration of political subtexts: the introduction of film criticism into the academy. Although this aspect was not specific to blacklist film scholarship, it was nonetheless a crucial element in establishing a framework within which this reading formation could develop and flourish.
As Dana Polan and others have pointed out, there is a long history of academic interest in film as a particular type of cultural artifact. But it was not until the 1970s that universities began awarding doctorates in film studies as a distinct and autonomous discipline. As the field developed professional organizations dedicated to film studies, academic journals turned away from evaluation and increasingly turned to the study of film theory and criticism. As David Bordwell notes, film criticism was an outgrowth of film reviewing by professional journalists, but the meaning of a work supplanted its aesthetic worth as the chief object of inquiry. "Now the author of a film book," writes Bordwell, "was apt to be an academic, whose professional career required publications bearing a scholarly imprimatur. In sum, the academicization of film publishing created an expanding institutional base for interpretive criticism." Not surprisingly, blacklist interpretations became more common as a result of this change. As film scholars combed through films of the 1950s for their implicit and symptomatic meanings, the field came to accept the premise that certain films, and even entire genres, allegorized the political tensions around the HUAC investigations and U.S. foreign policy.
Rather than trying to answer the question of what these Cold War-era films mean, this book asks how they came to mean. In this chapter I more closely examine the two particular strategies film critics employed in identifying specific examples of American cinema as commentary on the era's anti-Communist politics. On one hand, some critics, either explicitly or implicitly, describe the cycle of anti-Communist films produced between 1948 and 1958 as a type of propaganda. Although most critics acknowledge that Hollywood made these films to curry favor with investigative bodies like HUAC, the cycle contains an overt, polemical address to viewers that illustrates the potential threat Communist infiltration posed to the American way of life. This cycle of anti-Communist films contained its own ideological contradictions, however, partly because of Hollywood's reliance on established storytelling formulas. On the other hand, many critics also point out that films produced outside this cycle of anti-Communist propaganda sometimes found indirect ways to comment on the politics of the period. Most of these critics implicitly identify allegory as the means by which this commentary is offered. In its simplest dictionary definition, an allegory is "a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation." By this logic, blacklist allegories thematize the evils of political repression and the abrogation of civil liberties.
Rather than simply taking these two interpretive strategies at face value, I argue that they should be contextualized within a much broader understanding of propaganda and allegory as specific communicative acts. How, for example, is propaganda defined and how does this definition differentiate it from a more general sense that cinema functions within a structure of social, cultural, and political ideologies? Likewise, how does cinema "code" its representations in such a way that they can be interpreted as blacklist allegory? How do these blacklist allegories fit within a larger conception of allegory as a genre of literary or cinematic texts? This chapter's aim, then, is to situate blacklist criticism within an understanding of propaganda and allegory as rhetorical modes.
A Metacritical Approach to Framing Blacklist Film Interpretations
One of the chief inspirations for this book is David Bordwell's Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Bordwell's book proved to be quite controversial when it was first published in 1989. Because Bordwell disentangled and diagnosed the rhetorical strategies, reasoning routines, and interpretive protocols used by academic film scholars, some prominent critics believed that he was calling the entire practice of interpretation into question. More than that, Bordwell also identified several institutional pressures that seemed to favor film interpretation over other kinds of intellectual inquiry within the field. These included the pressure to publish felt by junior faculty in tenure-track positions, the "one film = one article" convention that developed among prominent journals in the field, and the conflation of interpretive practice with theorizing about cinema that encouraged critics to use single films as ways of explicating or complicating theoretical premises. These factors, among others, created a kind of "perfect storm" of interpretation across the discipline. With a text in hand and a widely shared set of tools to analyze it, virtually anyone could produce a publishable "reading" of a particular film title.
It would be wrong, though, to suggest that Making Meaning rejects film interpretation tout court. I say this both because Bordwell takes pains to emphasize he is not offering an outright rejection of interpretation and because Bordwell himself makes interpretive claims in some of his other books. In the last chapter of Making Meaning Bordwell acknowledges that innovative schemas for interpretation have played a genuinely salutary function within film studies as a discipline: "Many exemplars deserve our praise because they have introduced conceptual schemes that reorient our understanding. They have activated neglected cues, offered new categories, suggested fresh semantic fields, and widened our rhetorical resources. Innovative frames of reference have heightened our awareness of what can be noticed and appreciated in artworks." Although Bordwell praises certain kinds of interpretation in Making Meaning, he also calls attention to the drawbacks of ordinary-rather than innovative-film criticism. One such drawback is the fact that the veridical status of most interpretive claims is indeterminate. Says Bordwell, "Contemporary criticism, in aiming to interpret everything it can find, has usually set itself against theoretical principle by refusing to stipulate when something will not count as a valid interpretive move or as an instance of meaning."
By highlighting both the windfalls and pitfalls of film criticism, Bordwell provides a set of criteria for evaluating stronger interpretations over weaker ones. If a reading of a film seems facile or unenlightening, perhaps it is because the critic has indulged an overfamiliar interpretive heuristic or because the critic generalizes too quickly about a film's characterizations or formal properties. Most film scholars seem to acknowledge that the discipline is awash with weak interpretations of films. Making Meaning allows us to identify and catalog specific ways in which readings of films go horribly awry.
Making Meaning also proves quite useful for understanding blacklist and Cold War interpretations. Early in his book, Bordwell draws an important distinction between comprehension and interpretation. On one hand, comprehension involves the viewer's or critic's construction of referential and explicit meanings that are cued by the formal properties of the film. Referential meanings are built up by the viewer in the process of constructing the film's fictional world and the events of the story. Explicit meanings are a literal construal of a film's meaning, the message or "point" of the story that the film overtly communicates. Interpretation, on the other hand, involves the viewer's or critic's construction of a text's implicit and symptomatic meanings. Implicit meanings are covert or symbolic and are typically expressed as themes that the film critic explicates in reading the film. Symptomatic meanings are repressed, unspoken meanings in a text that critics extract by uncovering structuring absences within the work, which are then traced back to economic, political, or ideological factors.
The two main critical lenses used in blacklist and Cold War interpretations correlate with these processes of comprehension and interpretation. The postwar cycle of anti-Communist propaganda films, for example, fall under the concept of critical comprehension insofar as propaganda depends on an overt, didactic appeal to spectators. By identifying this cycle as propaganda, film critics acknowledge that the referential dimensions of these texts involve characterizations and story events that depict Communist Party members as duplicitous, subversive, and criminal agents of the Kremlin. The explicit message of these films is that Communists pose a dangerous threat to U.S. security. In contrast, films seen as blacklist or Cold War allegories fall under the concept of interpretation. In revealing the allegorical dimensions of these films, critics must "decode" meanings that are disguised through particular figurations, such as synecdoche and personification. Because these allegorical meanings are seen as expressions of their creators' political discontent, these readings, more often than not, seek to explicate implicit meanings of such films.
Pulling Back the Iron Curtain: Postwar Anti-Communist Propaganda
Despite important differences in their form and their overall aims, propaganda and allegory share one important characteristic, namely their didactic function. Although they communicate in a less direct manner, allegories traditionally have functioned as a form of moral instruction and educational tool. Not surprisingly, fable and parable are cognate terms for allegory, further indicating this shared propensity for conveying moral lessons. This sense of allegory as a didactic form dates back at least to the time of the ancient Greeks. Aesop, a Greek slave who lived about six hundred years before Christ, is credited with writing a number of popular fables that have been collected, translated, and revised in several guises all the way up to the present day. Indeed, the notion of "Aesop language" has long been associated with allegorical forms of expression intended to evade political censorship and would play an important role in the Smith Act prosecution of Communist Party leadership in 1949. This didactic function of allegory would hold until the early nineteenth century when romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge self-consciously rejected allegory in favor of symbolism, which was viewed as a more organic deployment of figurative language.
Like allegory, propaganda is a discursive form distinguished from other types of communicative acts on the basis of its didactic intent. Unlike allegory, however, propaganda's polemical qualities are much more overt and more explicitly directed toward social instruction and political persuasion. More important, the term propaganda also functions pejoratively. Used in a present-day context, propaganda usually refers to discourse that advances a position on the basis of misstatement, distortion, and untruth.
The idea that propaganda is a derogatory term is largely a twentieth-century invention. As J. Michael Sproule points out, this modern conception of propaganda derives from Progressive efforts in the 1910s and 1920s to analyze the dissemination of public information in search of nationalist or political bias. Describing the change in public understanding of propaganda augured by World War I, Sproule writes, "Before the war, propaganda, if it had any meaning for an ordinary American, signified chiefly the spreading of self-interested opinions through publicity. Under the influence of anti-German exposés, however, the term by 1915 had begun to take on more sinister connotations of manipulations and half-truths secretly sowed by society's avowed enemies." According to Sproule, the negative connotations of propaganda were promulgated through the emergence of specific institutions created to combat foreign propaganda and root it out of the public sphere. These institutions include Woodrow Wilson's Committee on Public Information, which sought to counter the dark shadow of German propaganda and, thus, build support for America's entry into World War I, and the Institute of Propaganda Analysis, founded in 1937 and charged with thwarting the efforts of "special interests to monopolize the channels of public communication." Along with these institutions, prominent public intellectuals like Walter Lippman, Gilbert Seldes, and John Dewey also contributed to the pejorative understanding of propaganda as self-interested expression colored by bias and untruth.
During the late 1930s the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) not only strove to uncover the most egregious examples of propaganda in the public marketplace but also sought to educate citizens about the best methods to detect propagandistic material. For example, in a November 1937 bulletin published by the IPA, Clyde R. Miller identified "seven common propaganda devices" that readers of the bulletin should watch for. Although Miller's schema was widely criticized for its oversimplification and logical fallacies, it nonetheless guided public understanding of propaganda analysis as a useful primer. Indeed, although there is no specific evidence that later film critics employed this framework in their treatment of anti-Communist films, the fact that many reviews call attention to these devices suggests that the wide circulation of Miller's ideas contributed to a common fund of knowledge about the way propaganda operated. Among the devices highlighted by Miller were the following:
1. Name-calling-the propagandist applies such bad names as "fascist" or "communist" to the opponent to stimulate hate and fear.
2. Glittering generalities-"the propagandist identifies his program with virtue by use of 'virtue words,'" such as truth, freedom, justice.
3. Transfer-"the propagandist carries over the authority, sanction, and prestige from something we respect and revere [often church and nation] to something he would have us accept."
4. Testimonial-to bolster an idea or plan by using a statement from someone recognized by the public.
5. Plain folks-when members of society's political or social elite court the public by appearing to be just ordinary folks and therefore wise and good.
6. Card stacking-the propagandist relies upon half-truths, distractions, and omissions, using "under-emphasis and over-emphasis to dodge issues and evade facts."
7. Bandwagon-the propagandist works to make us "follow the crowd, to accept the propagandist's program en masse."
The ability to detect propaganda qua propaganda proves to be one of the most important traits of analysis. By its very nature, propaganda does not advertise its rhetorical appeals but rather conceals them under the guise of public information. For this reason discourse only achieves the status of propaganda when one recognizes its attempt at persuasion. Propaganda, thus, might be defined as a type of discourse that tries, but fails, to conceal its didactic intent. In contrast, undetected propaganda is received as mere information.
This understanding of propaganda as a form of failed rhetoric, though, is not shared by every political theorist who has attempted to define it. In the early 1960s Jacques Ellul argued that modern propaganda is an almost necessary aspect of governance in contemporary societies insofar as all modern political systems depend to a greater or lesser degree on some form of public participation. Drawing on broad psychological appeals, propaganda works by making individuals feel a sense of belonging within the body politic and helps them conform to broad cultural norms. For Ellul, modern propaganda emerged as a response to the disintegration of smaller social groups, such as the family, the village, or the church. It supports governance by helping to organize society and creating a national sense of cohesion.
Because Ellul focuses so strongly on the sociological and psychological dimensions of propaganda, the question of its truthfulness is more or less irrelevant to its functions. Propaganda is defined by its effectiveness and utility rather than its veridicality. Some propaganda is factually accurate; some propaganda is based on false facts; and some propaganda falls somewhere between these two poles-that is, it is based on factually accurate information but is deceptive in the way it is used. In the latter case propaganda is based on some piece of factual information but encourages individuals to draw obvious, if wrong, conclusions from it.
Ellul's conception of propaganda has been influential in some academic circles, but it has not been widely adopted in film studies. I believe that one reason for this is that Ellul's definition of propaganda overlaps significantly with post-Althusserian theories of ideology. Indeed, by developing an extremely capacious and multifaceted concept of propaganda, Ellul identifies several aspects of propaganda that later scholars are more likely to identify as ideological in their nature. For example, Ellul distinguishes between political propaganda and sociological propaganda, describing the latter as diffuse and spontaneous, not the result of deliberate actions: "It is rarely conveyed by catchwords or expressed intentions. Instead it is based on a general climate, an atmosphere that influences people imperceptibly without having the appearance of propaganda; it gets to man through his customs, through his unconscious habits. It creates new habits in him; it is a sort of persuasion from within. . . . Sociological propaganda produces a progressive adaptation to a certain order of things, a certain concept of human relations, which unconsciously molds individuals and makes them conform to society."
Because Ellul sees the circulation of specific ideologies as the output of propaganda, his conception does not square with modern usage of these terms. Consequently, contemporary film scholars seem reluctant to embrace his theory of propaganda for fear of muddling their own theories of film as an ideological form. Instead, most current film scholars rely on a commonsensical definition of propaganda as something significantly different from ideology. For example, discussing the postwar anti-Communist cycle, Thomas Doherty writes: "Ironically, then, while in self-conscious service to an (overt) political ideology, the anti-communist films failed to fulfill the traditional (covert) ideological function of American cinema. This peculiarity arises not from their anti-communist content as such-after all, Ninotchka has that-but by their failure to achieve the two different 'ideological' missions simultaneously: to be both 'Hollywood' and 'agit-prop.'" As Doherty's usage makes clear, propaganda is overt and self-consciously strives to be persuasive while ideology is covert and lacks a particular message. Propaganda is prone to failure if audiences recognize its rhetorical tactics too easily. In contrast, ideology maintains its epistemic status even when it is analyzed.
As a rule of thumb, Hollywood filmmakers generally avoided making films that could be identified as propagandistic. The reason was fairly simple: making propaganda films was bad for business since such product inevitably alienated a significant portion of the public put off by such overt polemicism. As Ruth Vasey points out, the major studios recognized that political messages in films have the potential to generate controversy. Such controversy sometimes leads to consumer boycotts or resistance from exhibitors. By staying politically neutral, Hollywood attempted to preserve an audience for its products that was as large as possible.
Warner Bros.' release of I Was a Communist for the FBI in 1951 illustrates some of the risks in making anti-Communist films for a mass audience. The production file for I Was a Communist contains several letters to Jack Warner showing the divisive effect the film had on viewers. A number of letters praise Warner for his bravery in throwing a spotlight on the scourge of Communism in the United States. Bernice Mertes wrote, "It takes courage to make such a picture as this. . . . You have blazed the trail with a fine picture that was not only educational, but superb entertainment as well." Similarly Nancy Olwine of Trotwood, Ohio, lauded Warner for making a magnificent movie, adding, "I hadn't realized how much power the Communist party had in the United States until I saw this picture."
Yet an almost equal number of letters were extremely negative. Jack D. Zeldes of Galesburg, Illinois, attacked the film for misrepresenting basic legal principles: "My suggestion: When you are making a motion picture which involves Constitutional rights, please keep a copy of the Constitution handy. Any United States Senator or Representative will furnish Warner Brothers, or any citizen, a copy of the Constitution free of charge." Several other letters criticized I Was a Communist for its anti-Semitism, holding Warner himself personally responsible for whipping up hatred against Jewish people. In a protest from "a Jew to a fellow Jew," Julius Newman of Roxbury, Massachusetts, wrote, "What the hell are you trying to prove or do? I demand that this dangerous, rotten, + libelous bit of propaganda be withdrawn immediately before some Jewish mother somewhere, gets her son's cracked skull for Mother's Day." These polarized responses illustrate the problem that propaganda films had from a market perspective. Although it is impossible to measure the number of people who decided not to go to I Was a Communist on the basis of such comments, one might surmise that such negative word of mouth essentially cut the film's potential audience in half.
This perception was reflected in contemporaneous discussions of the anti-Communist cycle. In 1956 Dorothy B. Jones observed, "With a few exceptions, these films were not good motion pictures as judged by one of the industry's own criteria-box office success." Jones goes further, though, noting that studios continued to make these films despite their poor financial prospects. The reason Hollywood continued to place these losing bets had much more to do with response to external pressures than to the studios' usual development process. After the initial flurry of anti-Communist films made in 1948 and 1949 as a direct response to the HUAC investigations, their production slackened in 1950 and 1951. HUAC's return to Hollywood, though, led to renewed interest in anti-Communist projects in 1952, a year that saw the release of some thirteen films in the cycle. According to Jones, this number constitutes about 37 percent of the total number of anti-Communist films produced in the eight-year period covered in her study. Yet the cycle remained unpopular, as evidenced by Paramount president Barney Balaban's comments after the premiere of My Son John (1952). When an executive from a rival studio showered Leo McCarey's fervid family melodrama with praise, Balaban responded, "I'm glad you feel that way. I wish you had made it."
Jones doesn't mention it, but this anti-Communist cycle also failed on another important criterion for success: critical response. Although most films expect their share of bad reviews, there is some evidence that the negative response received by most anti-Communist films affected the distribution patterns for later entries in the cycle. In an item in the Indianapolis Star, Harold Heffernan noted that producers John Wayne and Robert Fellows opened Big Jim McLain in every key city in the United States before it went on to New York, hoping to avoid, or at least delay, the kind of critical lambasting that My Son John received. By saving New York until last, Wayne and Fellows tried to reap the benefits of the film's appeal to middle America before that appeal could be tainted by eastern elite tastemakers.
Additionally, anti-Communist propaganda films also faced challenges in international markets. Such overt partisan politics invited censorship from other countries when a film's political line ran counter to a nation's official foreign policy positions. As Gordon Mirams, censor of cinematograph films in New Zealand, explained in a letter to Warner Bros. distribution offices in Auckland, the New Zealand government expressed concern about the implication that criminal actions depicted in I Was a Communist for the FBI were performed under "direct instructions or guidance from the Kremlin, from Stalin, or from Moscow." Mirams added that "the Censor's official position here confers on him a special responsibility to take careful note of any references (whether in action, dialogue or commentary) as might conceivably be the subject of diplomatic protest or controversy and a consequent source of embarrassment to the Government."
I Was a Communist for the FBI was not alone in risking the approbation of foreign censors. Variety claimed that Sam Fuller's submarine thriller Hell and High Water (1954) was almost certain to run into difficulties in India, the Middle East, and the Netherlands because of its anti-Communist slant. A Variety editorial made Hollywood's stakes quite clear. With nearly 40 percent of a film's revenues coming from foreign rentals, "Hollywood-made jibes at the Soviet Union are poison for the box office" in countries that "cherish their neutralism or have sensitive political balances to respect."
The critical recognition of Hollywood's postwar anti-Communist cycle as propaganda developed quite early and has been steadily maintained all the way to the present. Time magazine, for example, described William Wellman's The Iron Curtain (1948) as "top notch anti-Communist propaganda." Moreover, in a 1953 issue of Sight and Sound, for example, the journal's editors wrote: "The Western world has never been very adept at propaganda, and it was not as propaganda but as entertainment that most of the films in which Hollywood has concerned itself with the cold war were conceived. But on such a subject every statement, of the dangers to be fought, of the values to be supported, is bound to be propagandist. Against the dynamic, growing force of Communism, Hollywood, as powerful a shaper of public opinion as any in the western world, has put up the weakest of counter attacks."
Even when critics and reviewers of the period didn't use the word propaganda, their comments often framed these anti-Communist films as failed polemics. In a review of John Wayne's Big Jim McLain, Milton J. Shapiro wrote, "The film's theme is anti-communism, the anti-communism popular today-thoughtless, hysterical, breast-beating anti-communism." Summarizing this cycle's long-term legacy, Tony Shaw contends that such "clumsily produced, overtly propagandistic Red-baiting material . . . may even have hindered rather than helped the anti-Communist cause by bluntly depicting Fifth Columnists as moronic and easy to spot."
To a certain degree the promotion of the films in the postwar anti-Communist cycle participated in their critical construction as propaganda. Advertising material created for the espionage thriller Walk East on Beacon (1952) invited audience members to participate in a national surveillance campaign: "The FBI needs your help in its fight to guard our freedom." Echoing the language of post-9/11 warnings from the Department of Homeland Security, the Walk East on Beacon ad asked viewers to report:
∙ Espionage, sabotage, or subversive activities
∙ Possession and distribution of foreign-inspired propaganda
∙ Chartering of aircraft for flights over restricted areas
∙ Unusual fires or explosions affecting vital industry
∙ Suspicious individuals loitering near restricted areas
∙ Theft or unauthorized possession or purchase of large quantities of firearms, ammunition, or explosives, or short-wave radio devices
∙ Foreign submarine landings
∙ Suspicious parachute landings
∙ Poisoning of public water supplies
∙ Possession of radio-active materials
Undoubtedly, such pressbook materials were shaped by the FBI's cooperation with the Louis de Rochement production, but the overt attempt to recruit citizens as surrogate agents certainly enhanced the film's reception as anti-Communist propaganda.
Many of these films also employ the kinds of devices that Clyde R. Miller of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis saw as central to its appeal. "Name-calling," for example, was a common rhetorical device in anti-Communist cinema. Films like The Red Menace and I Was a Communist for the FBI depict party leaders as racists, catering to a sense of political alienation and anomie among racial minorities at the same time that they privately harbor prejudices toward these groups. Similarly, The Red Menace, My Son John, Red Planet Mars (1952), and other anti-Communist films utilize the device of "transfer" by relying on the authority and sanction of the church as part of their rhetorical appeal. Finally, as some critics of the period recognized, all of the films engaged in "card stacking" by dramatizing incidents that were riddled with half-truths and distortions.
Among critics the most serious objections involved the films' systematic association of the Communist Party with sex and criminal violence. Dorothy B. Jones, for instance, notes that the films themselves rarely offer an explanation for Americans' attraction to the Communist movement. "But in more than a few instances," adds Jones, "the main attraction is shown to be a woman, a formula which not only conforms to the Hollywood tradition, but often underscores the 'free love' viewpoint associated with radical movements." Likewise, as Karel Reisz observed in 1953, the cycle puts forward the contention that the "American Communist Party is run by a gang of cheap though diabolically clever crooks, distinguishable from other hoodlums only in that their boss lives in the Kremlin."
Jones's and Reisz's comments are a reminder that these films draw on traditional patterns of storytelling as much as they do the ideological mission implicitly mandated by HUAC. As Daniel J. Leab notes: "There can be no doubt that these post-World War II anticommunist films are clearly a product of the cold war. Yet it is important to note that the themes highlighted, the characters portrayed, the story lines set forth, and the images presented all had their roots in films produced twenty years earlier in the United States. Because of the cold war, these movies heavily emphasized certain aspects, but the concept of the films was in the mainstream of American filmmaking." As we will see, in their reliance on the conventions of crime melodramas, legal thrillers, and social problem films, Hollywood's genre norms inflect the political message of these films in unusual and sometimes surprising ways.
Moving Picture Parables: Blacklist Cinema and Political Allegory
While a sizable corpus of anti-Communist films has been read as propaganda, a similar number of films have been read as political allegories offering disguised commentary on the operation of the blacklist, both pro and con. It is fair to say, however, that film critics and reviewers do not employ a precise concept of allegory for the films under consideration. The term allegory tends to be used very loosely and is often treated as though it were synonymous with other symbolic or figurative forms of storytelling, such as fables or parables.
Allegory itself has a complex history that stretches back at least to the ancient Greeks. Yet the term's current meaning also proves to be remarkably fluid as several modern film scholars are drawn to the concept through its usage by twentieth-century thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, Paul de Man, and Gilles Deleuze. Whether it is conceived as a rhetorical device, a narrative genre, or an aspect of deconstruction, allegory remains an important interpretive filter for critics writing about American cinema during the Cold War. In each of these interpretive contexts, allegory is viewed as a tool for filmmakers interested in offering indirect political commentary on the institutions and operations of the Hollywood blacklist.
One of the simplest definitions of allegory, going back to Quintilian, describes it as saying one thing but meaning another. Although such a definition captures something necessary about allegorical narratives, it does not provide sufficient grounds for distinguishing allegory from other tropes, such as hyperbole or understatement, that also involve indirect forms of expression. To define allegory more precisely, literary theorists frequently point to the importance of extended metaphor as a distinctive trait of allegorical expression. In allegorical literature or allegorical paintings the literal surface of the text contains representations that are metaphorical substitutes for persons, places, things, ideas, concepts, or values not explicitly represented.
Indeed, for some critics one of the most distinctive traits of allegorical expression is that the text signals these patterns of substitution to the reader in a way that effectively channels its own preferred interpretation. According to Northrop Frye, "We have actual allegory when a poet explicitly indicates the relationship of his images to examples and precepts, and so tries to indicate how a commentary on him should proceed." Although a definition of allegory based on this conceit is likely too narrow to cover all cases, it is nonetheless true that this kind of figuration is common to core examples of allegory, such as The Romance of the Rose, Piers Plowman, and Pilgrim's Progress.
These different definitions of allegory, though, skirt an issue that many critics see as central to traditional definitions of the form. As Jeremy Tambling notes, classical Roman writers initially treated allegory as a term that refers to both the mode of writing or rhetoric that employs allegorical tropes and to a particular form of interpretation. Modern writers, though, have tended to split off the latter element from allegory, referring to it as allegoresis-that is, the practice of interpreting a text in an allegorical manner. For texts conceived as allegory there is a fairly unproblematic fit between allegory and allegoresis since such works typically prescribe their interpretations through their use of extended metaphor, linguistic punning, or visual iconography.
Yet, having split off allegoresis from allegory, there is nothing to prevent the critic or reader from applying allegorical interpretation to any text. Because allegories are thought to conceal their didactic message to a greater or lesser degree, allegoresis can lead to a search for hidden meanings that is maddening at best and impoverished at worst. As Maureen Quilligan puts it, "Hunting for one-to-one correspondences between insignificant narrative particulars and hidden thematic generations, he [the reader] is frustrated when he cannot find them and bored when he can."
Quilligan's implicit condemnation of allegoresis, however, begs an obvious question: how do allegories produce a degree of intersubjective meaning in their texts such that there is wide public agreement about what they signify? In an attempt to establish allegory as a particular literary form, Quilligan notes the importance of linguistic cues in allegorical literature, arguing that its status as genre arises from "the generation of narrative structure out of wordplay." Quite often, this wordplay is evident in the naming of characters and settings. A canonical example is Prudentius's Psychomachia, in which the characters are named after virtues and vices, such as Chastity and Lust, and their battles come to represent the inner struggle for their souls. John Bunyan employs a similar strategy in The Pilgrim's Progress, where the protagonist, Christian, must bypass the Slough of Despond, Vain Confidence, and Mr. Worldly-Wiseman in his journey to the Celestial City. As Quilligan notes, such naming conventions are a defining characteristic of premodern allegories, but they also crop up in the work of some modern writers. Quilligan cites Thomas Pynchon's novels as emblematic of this strategy, particularly The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow.
Very few of the films commonly deemed blacklist allegories employ the kind of wordplay or allusion that Quilligan sees as characteristic of literary allegories. Moreover, films like Quo Vadis and The Robe depart from the model established by The Pilgrim's Progress insofar as the diegetic content used to dramatize Christian martyrdom and salvation serves as an extended metaphor for the blacklist rather than the other way around. Punning or other forms of wordplay crop up from time to time as a localized feature of blacklist allegories and interpretations, but we must look elsewhere for a device that establishes the patterns of extended metaphor that link together textual features with their implicit meanings.
Besides the emphasis on wordplay in literary allegory, Quilligan further notes that allegories commonly contain a pretext, an embedded feature that channels the text's preferred interpretation. Quilligan describes the relationship between pretext and text in allegory:
By pretext, I mean the source that always stands outside the narrative. . . . The pretext is the text that the narrative comments on by reenacting, as well as the claim the narrative makes to be a fiction not built upon another text. The pretext thus names that slippery relationship between the source of the work and the work itself; this relationship deserves a special term, for it is more complicated than the usual connection between a work and its sources, which are often no more than places where the author found stimulating ideas for fictional treatment of a given subject.
In the case of medieval and Renaissance allegory, the Bible is the pretext. It need not be the whole of the Bible but rather may be simply an individual book or some passage within it. Because of its wide circulation within medieval and Renaissance culture, the Bible furnishes a set of shared assumptions about the universe's origin, the nature of sin, and the future rewards that await those who live a pious life and take Christ as their Savior. Indeed, one reason why texts like The Psychomachia, The Romance of the Rose, The Inferno, and The Pilgrim's Progress all function as canonical narrative allegories is that their manifest contents ultimately lead back to the Bible as a pretext, one that furnishes latent signifieds that can be mapped in one-to-one correspondence with the manifest signifieds that constitute the surface text of such works. As Quilligan further notes, the Bible also functions as a pretext for many modern allegories, such as Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Melville's The Confidence Man, that tell stories of sin and redemption or the search for spiritual meaning. Many films made by Vittorio De Sica, Ingmar Bergman, Luis Buñuel, and Federico Fellini also have a distinctly allegorical cast, in part because they either employ Christian iconography or because they pose questions about the possibility of grace and salvation.
Yet given the multiplicity of contexts in which political allegories circulate, it seems clear that the Bible cannot provide a consistent frame of reference in all cases, even for texts that make use of Christian themes or iconography as part of their manifest content. Instead, in political allegory the relation between text and pretext is much more topical, with the pretext furnished by the reader's awareness of current events or policies. Indeed, it has become a truism to note that allegory is commonly used by artists laboring under oppressive regimes. In these circumstances the relationship between manifest content and latent signifieds proves useful to the artist since it circumvents the official censorship of political speech while at the same time it shrouds the artist in a veil of plausible deniability.
Often cited as a canonical example of political allegory, L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz offers a useful illustration of the way artists make reference to recent political events. Indeed, the story is now routinely taught in introductory economics courses to explain the history of monetary policy. While many readings of Baum's book differ slightly in their details, all authors agree that The Wizard of Oz offers disguised commentary on Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan's "free silver" campaign of 1896. In this reading the colors green, gold, and silver serve as coded references to money: green refers to greenbacks or paper money, gold refers to the gold standard that was then current monetary policy, and silver-especially Dorothy's silver shoes-refers to Bryan's desire for the Treasury to coin silver bullion as a way of increasing money supply. A linguistic pun further supports Baum's allegorization of debates about a bimetallic money standard; the name Oz is inspired by the conventional abbreviation for ounce, the basic unit of measure for pricing precious metals.
The Wizard of Oz is a particularly lucid example of political allegory, but it is hardly the only one. Indeed, if we focus just on some recent examples, several films have been read as allegories of the 9/11 attacks. In these cases the U.S. battle against jihadists provides the pretext for the allegorical meanings of these works. Douglas Kellner, for example, describes contemporary alien invasion films like The War of the Worlds (2002) and Cloverfield (2008) as allegorical representations of Al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center. Andrea Comiskey summarizes the work of several reviewers and pundits who argue that Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008) functions as an allegory of Bush-era Homeland Security policies. Even trade publications like Variety are not immune from this tendency. As Justin Chang said in an editorial that examined Hollywood a decade after 9/11, "Serious-minded fantasy films such as Peter Jackson's 'The Lord of the Rings' trilogy and the later installments of the 'Harry Potter' series (both franchises hit theaters in 2001) are informed by a sense of evil palpable yet elastic enough to invite a host of allegorical readings."
During the period of the blacklist two texts were widely understood as Cold War-era political allegories: George Orwell's Animal Farm and Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Animal Farm was first published in Britain in 1945 and appeared in the United States about a year later. Within just a few months of its U.S. debut Animal Farm became a publishing sensation. The book received several favorable notices from mainstream critics, and nearly all of these initial reviews identified recent Soviet history as the target of Orwell's satire. The fashion magazine Vogue, for example, featured a profile of Orwell in which the magazine attributed Animal Farm's success to its trenchant critique of "the policies and philosophies of Soviet Russia." Indeed, the anti-Stalinist message of Animal Farm was so widely recognized that Daniel J. Leab concludes, "No reader, either then or now, with even a smattering of knowledge of Soviet history from 1917 to 1944 could miss Orwell's obvious targets."
Using Soviet history as the allegorical pretext for Orwell's zoomorphic fable, one can readily identify Animal Farm's various characters as stand-ins for important figures in the Russian Revolution (see table 1). Although, in principle, the text of Animal Farm and its allegorical pretext function at discrete levels, Orwell deploys several references and allusions to Soviet history that connect the two levels:
∙ The farm animals' use of the term comrades as a form of address to one another
∙ The citation of October 12 as the anniversary of the Battle of Cowshed, a reference to the Bolshevik's October Revolution
∙ The episode of the confessions and executions overseen by Napoleon, a barely disguised allusion to the Soviet "purge" trials of the late 1930s
Through such references to these aspects of Soviet politics and history, Animal Farm easily fits Quilligan's definition of allegory as a literary genre that signals its preferred interpretation to the reader.
If Animal Farm is the prototype of anti-Communist allegories of the Cold War period, Arthur Miller's The Crucible is perhaps the era's quintessential anti-McCarthy or anti-HUAC allegory. Miller's play debuted on Broadway in January of 1953, just a few years after the publication of Marion L. Starkey's popular history of the Salem witch trials, The Devil in Massachusetts (1949). As Brenda Murphy points out, The Crucible essentially formalized parallels between past and present that were already well established in the critical reception of Starkey's history. In a 1949 review of The Devil in Massachusetts McAlister Coleman wrote, "In this time of the prevalence of witch hunters the book should serve as a horrible warning, but it won't be read by those who most need warning."
The renewed interest in the witch trials proved to be a crucial factor in Miller's decision to dramatize them on the Broadway stage. As Miller recalled in his memoir, "as though it had been ordained, a copy of Marion Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts fell into my hands." Starkey's book was like a bolt of lightning for Miller, who had dimly remembered learning about the witch trials in his college days but now saw the contemporary relevance of the story. Noting similarities in the way that HUAC informers and accused witches recanted their earlier statements, Miller wrote, "The hearings in Washington were profoundly ritualistic. . . . The main point of the hearings, precisely as in seventeenth-century Salem, was that the accused make public confession, damn his confederates as well as his Devil master, and guarantee his sterling new allegiance by breaking disgusting old vows-whereupon he was let loose to rejoin the society of extremely decent people."
After reading Starkey's history, Miller traveled to Salem, where he spent three weeks conducting research in the village records. Drawing on this archival material and on Charles Upham's two-volume history of Salem witchcraft, Miller found all the details he needed to fashion a historical allegory that indirectly represented the events of the postwar Red Scare. When Miller found himself the target of HUAC's inquiry in 1956, Richard Arens directly asked the playwright about his awareness of the drama's allegorical dimensions: "Are you cognizant of the fact that your play The Crucible, was the case history in a series of articles in the Communist press drawing parallels to the investigation of Communists and other subversives by Congressional Committees?" Miller responded, "The comparison is inevitable, sir."
Like Arens, several contemporary critics recognized the analogy that Miller drew between HUAC and the Salem witch trials. Eric Bentley, later an important historian of the HUAC hearings, wrote, "At a moment when we are all being 'investigated' or about to be 'investigated,' it is moving to see images of 'investigation' before the footlights." In its review of The Crucible the New York Post added, "It is inconceivable that Miller is unaware that the year is 1953 and that a play about Salem's witch hunt was inevitably bound to stir contemporary echoes." Even reviewers who disparaged Miller's treatment of his historical subject grasped his overall intent. Robert Warshow, for example, wrote, "Mr. Miller has nothing to say about the Salem trials and makes only the flimsiest pretense that he has. The Crucible was written to say something about Alger Hiss and Owen Lattimore, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Senator McCarthy, the actors who have lost their jobs on radio and television, in short the whole complex that is spoken of, with a certain lowering of the voice, as the 'present atmosphere.'" Warshow's summary of The Crucible's message follows the pattern I discussed earlier for other political allegories such as The Wizard of Oz and Animal Farm. He reads the text of The Crucible allegorically by bringing together a group of recent historical events that then serve to endow the play with covert significance.
Notably, though, Miller himself preemptively attempted to distance himself from the rather straightforward allegorical readings later offered by contemporaneous theater critics. In a 1953 profile of Miller written by Henry Hewes just prior to The Crucible's premiere, the playwright averred:
I am not pressing a historical allegory here, and I have even eliminated certain striking similarities from The Crucible which may have started the audience to drawing such an allegory. For instance, the Salemites believed that the surrounding Indians, who had never been converted to Christianity, were in alliance with the witches, who were acting as a Fifth Column for them within the town. It was even thought that the outbreak of witchcraft was the last attack by the Devil, who was being pressed into the wilderness by the expanding colony. Some might have equated the Indians with Russians and the local witches with Communists. My intent and interest is wider and I think deeper than this.
Although The Crucible is undoubtedly the most widely recognized allegory of McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist, the Salem witch trials also proved to be fodder for political commentary on the small screen just weeks after the play's premiere. On March 29, 1953, You Are There, a CBS program devoted to recreating historical events as though they were breaking news stories, broadcast its own dramatization of the Salem witch trials. Unbeknownst to viewers at the time, the teleplay for You Are There's dramatization of the Salem witch trials was written by the blacklisted screenwriter Arnold Manoff.
In fact, Manoff was one of three blacklisted screenwriters-the others being Walter Bernstein and Abraham Polonsky-who collectively contributed more than fifty scripts during the show's five-year run. The trio worked through fronts and pseudonyms to deliver their scripts to the show's producer, Charles Russell, who in turn concealed the writers' identities from the show's sponsor. Manoff, Bernstein, and Polonsky's clandestine participation in the show lasted until 1955, when a CBS executive, William Dozier, revealed to the brass that Russell had deceived the network about the provenance of these scripts. By then, though, the trio had written several additional episodes that offered allegorical commentary on McCarthyism and the HUAC investigations, including shows on Galileo, Joan of Arc, Socrates, and the Dreyfus case. Summarizing You Are There's political slant, J. Hoberman writes, "Blacklisted writers managed to suggest that Communists or suspected Communists were being treated like the great martyrs of history; from McCarthy's point of view, Joan, Galileo, and Socrates were Commies avant la lettre." Or as Bernstein colorfully put it, with Russell running interference for CBS, "we fought a kind of guerilla war against McCarthyism."
Scholars have noted that a similar sort of political critique pervades producer Hannah Weinstein's series, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Since the series was shot in Britain, where the blacklist was not enforced, Weinstein was able to hire several blacklisted screenwriters, such as Ring Lardner Jr., Adrian Scott, Norma Barzman, and Ian McLellan Hunter, to pen individual episodes under pseudonyms. Because of these writers' backgrounds, some critics discern a clear left-wing perspective in the way medieval England is depicted. Michael Freedland, for example, notes "Robin Hood stands out today as the finest hour of the 'Fronts.' It was perhaps the most popular black-and-white series of the 1950s in Britain and did well in America, too. What few Americans realised was that the fictional stories had as many left-wing sentiments in them as the statements the Hollywood Ten were unable to deliver when called to HUAC hearings." James Chapman adds, "As well as responding to British society in the 1950s, The Adventures of Robin Hood can also be read in relation to Cold War America. The influence of the blacklisted writers is very apparent in the prominence of the recurring motifs of tribunals, inquisitions, witch hunts and informers that seem nothing if not an explicit commentary on HUAC and McCarthyism."
As we will see, film critics performed a very similar operation in readings of dozens of films as blacklist or Cold War allegories. These films cut across a wide range of genres and cover the entire gamut of the political spectrum. Yet they all share at least one thing. They rely on a similar set of events to heighten and strengthen the analogies drawn between the film's dramatis personae and the totems of Cold War political culture.
A Cognitive Approach to Allegorical Reading: The Role of Neuropsychological Biases
In On the Origin of Stories Brian Boyd notes that several academic critics have read Dr. Seuss's famous children's book Horton Hears a Who (1954) as a political allegory. The justification for this approach comes partly from Theodor Geisel himself, who acknowledged that the inspiration for the story came from his travels to Japan in 1953, just after the end of the Allied occupation. The story's theme ("A person's a person, no matter how small") reflected Geisel's perspective on the importance of voting in a new democracy, particularly among young people who had been indoctrinated by Japan's imperialist ideology during the war. Drawing out the implications of Geisel's comments, some critics have read Horton Hears a Who as an allegory about U.S.-Japan relations, with the elephant standing in for the United States and the tiny dust speck containing Whoville as a stand-in for Japan.
Boyd is fairly critical of this interpretation of Horton Hears a Who, perhaps with good reason. He argues that this glib analogy fails to consider the allegorical significance of several of the story's other characters, such as the monkey family, the Wickershams, and a mother-child pair of kangaroos. It also elevates the causative dimension of local cultural influence at the expense of other levels of explanation. These include universals, such as Dr. Seuss's engagement of cognitive play and the interest in opposites and contrast frequently exhibited during early childhood development. These also include individual factors, such as Dr. Seuss's penchant for end rhyme and anapestic rhythm in his verse. For Boyd the reading of Horton Hears a Who as allegory is ultimately reductive in that it ignores these other levels of explanation.
In contrast to reflectionist approaches, Boyd argues that we should see aesthetic choices operating within the framework of a problem-solution model. Such an approach is consistent with Boyd's evolutionary account of literature in that all biological organisms are problem-solvers and evolution itself actually generates both problems and solutions in the very process of generating life. The theory also explains very specific choices that writers make as they seek to gain the reader's attention, establish particular expectations, and decide whether to work within the constraints provided both by institutions and aesthetic traditions. As Boyd demonstrates, the analysis of such choices proves very illuminating in the case of Dr. Seuss, who by 1954 had not only developed a distinctive style but was reviving a character featured in his breakthrough success, Horton Hatches the Egg (1940). Thus, at least one of the challenges faced by Geisel involved the problem of returning to a familiar character without simply recycling the situation depicted in the earlier story.
As David Bordwell has argued, though, this problem-solution framework is equally applicable to the practice of film criticism. The critics identified by Boyd analyzed Horton Hears a Who as political allegory because they faced the same four problems that all critics face:
1. The problem of appropriateness (i.e., how to construct arguments for the significance of the text chosen for critical interpretation)
2. The problem of recalcitrant data (i.e., how to adjust one's critical concepts and methods to the specific features of the text)
3. The problem of novelty (i.e., how to avoid the replication of existing interpretations of the text under consideration or others like it)
4. The problem of plausibility (i.e., how to make the critical interpretation sufficiently persuasive)
Although these goals are specific to the practices of critical interpretation, they fit quite easily into the multileveled biocultural approach outlined by Boyd. Critics, like fiction writers, must gain the reader's attention. Critics seek status and recognition within their respective communities. Critics must deal with the weight of tradition, particularly the norms and conventions established within particular critical institutions. Critics also must understand what counts as a "good" interpretation-that is, novel, persuasive, and well supported by evidence drawn from the text. As Bordwell puts it, "The critical institution-journalistic reviewing, essayistic writing, or academic criticism-defines the grounds and bounds of interpretive activity, the direction of analogical thinking, the proper goals, the permissible solutions, and the authority that can validate the interpretations produced by ordinary criticism."
In addition to these general problems, critics performing allegorical interpretations face two more challenges. The first is the problem of differential levels of meaning (i.e., how to connect the latent, implicit meanings of the allegory to the manifest, referential meanings of the text). The second is the problem of framing (i.e., how to establish the appropriate critical frame for the narrative's allegorical pretext). Unlike medieval or Renaissance allegories that rely on Christianity as a common, widely understood pretext, contemporary political allegories rely on topical references that are part of the text's historical and cultural background. In blacklist and Cold War allegories the pretext is provided by HUAC's investigation of Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s and by McCarthy's Senate investigation of alleged Communists working within American government.
Critics performing allegorical interpretations relied on a repertoire of particular textual components that could connect the latent and manifest meanings of Cold War-era films. This repertoire of elements aids the critic in solving two particular problems: the problem of plausibility and the problem of differential levels of meaning. These textual components include such elements as authorial intent, the political activities of personnel involved in the film's production, and specific genre conventions that lend themselves to the activation of the allegory's latent significance.
Not surprisingly, one of the easiest ways to support an allegorical interpretation is to assert that it was the author's intent to use the work as a comment on current political events. This way of motivating an allegorical interpretation proved to be important for certain canonical blacklist-era texts. In interviews conducted in the early 1970s, screenwriter Carl Foreman repeatedly asserted that he intended High Noon as a critique of HUAC's incursion into Hollywood. Similarly, although the politics are a good deal more complex, many critics argue that Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront is the director's cinematic defense of his testimony as a cooperative witness.
At first blush the documentation of a filmmaker's intentions seems to provide a straightforward warrant for a critic's allegorical interpretation of a work. Yet in practice the issue becomes far more complicated. For one thing, the number of examples where a filmmaker's intentions are known or documented proves to be rather small in comparison to the overall corpus of blacklist allegories. For another, even when a filmmaker aims to use allegory to offer political commentary, such intentions cannot cover every aspect of a film text, and those elements motivated by another rationale may confound or muddle its allegorical implications. This was the case with Brian Boyd's analysis of Horton Hears a Who, where it was difficult to explain the function of other characters in allegorical terms.
Because appeals to authorship often prove to have quite limited explanatory power, other critics cite the political commitments of a film's cast members or creative personnel as evidence for a text's manifest and latent meanings. These political actors essentially fall into three groups:
1. HUAC witnesses, both "friendly" and "unfriendly." Many blacklist allegories feature the work of individuals subpoenaed to testify before HUAC. Some of these individuals were blacklisted writers who wrote new screenplays using fronts or pseudonyms to hide their participation. Others were cooperative witnesses, whose testimony is used to support allegorical readings of films about informers. In the case of On the Waterfront, for example, the warrant for allegorical interpretation depends not only on Elia Kazan's participation in the production but also on the contributions made by Budd Schulberg and Lee J. Cobb, who also testified as "friendly" witnesses before HUAC.
2. Conservative members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPAI). During the first round of HUAC hearings in 1947, many of the "friendly" witnesses were culled from the membership of the MPAPAI, which formed in 1944 to counter the left-wing influence of Communist Party members and Popular Front groups. The allegorical implications of several blacklist-era films devolve on the participation of MPAPAI members. Stuart Heisler's Storm Warning, for example, features two prominent MPAPAI stalwarts: Ronald Reagan and Ginger Rogers. Cecil B. DeMille's participation in the organization is widely seen as a warrant for the interpretation of The Ten Commandments (1956) as an anti-Communist allegory. Johnny Guitar, however, is read as an anti-HUAC tract, partly owing to the casting of MPAPAI member Ward Bond as one of the film's main villains.
3. Liberal opponents of HUAC, like those who made up the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA). Like the MPAPAI, the CFA formed largely as a response to contemporary political events. Unlike the MPAPAI, though, the CFA was created to challenge the authority of HUAC as an investigative body and to provide public support for the Hollywood Nineteen. Humphrey Bogart's participation in the CFA-and, later, his status as a suspected Communist-is key to the articulation of blacklist subtexts in Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950). More generally, though, any form of public opposition to HUAC or McCarthyism has provided the basis for allegorical interpretations of the blacklist. John Ford, for example, famously challenged the institution of loyalty oaths in the Screen Directors Guild. Ford's public stance in opposition to MPAPAI loyalists, like De Mille, encouraged his biographer, Joseph McBride, to see several Ford films in the 1950s as disguised commentary on the blacklist. These include Wagonmaster (1950), which uses Mormons as allegorical stand-ins for suspected Communists, run out of town by a bigoted sheriff who is himself a surrogate for HUAC chair, J. Parnell Thomas (R, NJ). It also includes Ford's 1955 half-hour television program The Bamboo Cross, in which local Communist leader King Fat pressures a missionary, Sister Regina, to give false testimony against one of her fellow clergy. Although the politics are reversed, for McBride this scenario begs comparison to the plight of HUAC witnesses.
Besides the critic's appeal to a film's personnel or to the authorial intention expressed through the text, a film's genre conventions also supply a set of "ready-made" tropes that can be used to connect the manifest and latent levels of allegorical meaning. Indeed, this means of connecting the manifest and latent levels of allegorical texts is inherent in several examples I have already discussed. It, for example, is implicitly part of the interpretation of The Robe as blacklist allegory. It also informs the aesthetic strategies of allegorists like Arthur Miller and the teleplay writers of You Are There. The use of Roman tribunals or Joan of Arc's martyrdom to comment on the HUAC investigations depends quite particularly on the juxtaposition of past and present events that exists as a potentiality of all historical films.
Frames and Reference Points in the Interpretation of Political Allegories
By using these strategies to connect the manifest and latent meanings of allegory, the critic creates a frame for the interpretation of specific features of a cinematic text. More important, as several experiments conducted by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and others have demonstrated, such framing can have profound effects on judgment and decision making. Several of these experiments examine "risky choice" scenarios, where the frame provides a shift in reference points that affects the way outcomes are perceived as gains or losses. The most famous example of risky-choice framing is the "Asian disease problem," which asked subjects to imagine an outbreak of an unusual Asian disease that is expected to kill six hundred people. In each condition of the experiment, subjects were asked to evaluate two possible protocols for responding to the disease. In one version subjects were asked to consider the following:
If program A is adopted, two hundred people will be saved.
If program B is adopted, there is a one-third probability that no one will die and a two-thirds probability that six hundred people will die.
In this version of the problem, the initial condition established by program A emphasized a positive outcome, namely that a substantial number of lives would be saved. In a second version of the problem, however, the outcomes were framed differently:
If program A′ is adopted, four hundred people will die.
If program B′ is adopted, there is a one-third probability that no one will die and a two-thirds probability that six hundred people will die.
In the first version of the problem 72 percent of subjects chose option A. In the second version 78 percent chose the gamble expressed in option B′, this despite the fact that the consequences established in both scenarios are identical. Kahneman and Tversky hypothesized that the discrepancy in responses can be attributed to prospect theory. Decision makers tend to be "risk averse" when the outcome proposed is good, but they tend to be "risk seeking"-that is, much more willing to accept a gamble-when both outcomes are framed as negative.
The experiment described above shows that judgments can be cognitively biased in situations that involve rational deliberation, but Kahneman and Tversky also showed that such biases exist even when the framing effect is created by an apparently random reference point. In a striking illustration of such influence Kahneman and Tversky rigged a wheel of fortune that was marked from 0 to 100 so that it would stop at either 10 or 65. The experimenters would spin the wheel and then asked subjects to write down the number that the wheel landed on, which, of course, could only be either 10 or 65. The experimenters then asked their subjects to estimate the percentage of African countries in the United Nations. As Kahneman explained, "The spin of a wheel of fortune-even one that is not rigged-cannot possibly yield useful information about anything, and the participants in our experiments should have ignored it. But they did not ignore it. The average estimates of those who saw 10 and 65 were 25% and 45% respectively."
No matter how it is generated, framing effects research has repeatedly shown the importance of reference points in judgment and decision making. As Gideon Keren points out, reference point hypotheses are "based on the assumption that our perceptual and judgmental apparatus is attuned to process changes (rather than absolute terms)-hence any evaluation is relative to a reference point." In fact, the influence on attentional processes may be the most fundamental component of framing effects. As Keren puts it, "Given the capacity limitations of the cognitive system, some selection has to be made and different frames evidently direct attentional resources to different aspects by cueing the system toward one or the other attribute."
What does this research tell us about the way critics interpret texts as political allegories? I argue that critics deploy frames and reference points, like those used in experimental research, as a way of directing attention to specific aspects of cinematic texts. Obviously, critics are different from these experimental subjects in that they are not exploring risky-choice problems or performing tasks specifically assigned to them. Rather, critics create these frames in response to the institutional demands for novel interpretations described earlier. Moreover, critics' interpretations of texts represent a higher-order cognitive activity than the simple selection of option A or B found in many scenarios used in this type of empirical research.
Yet, because interpretation is dependent on underlying perceptual and judgmental processes, we should not discount the effects of framing on film interpretation simply because the critic's activity is self-directed and involves more complex forms of abstract reasoning. Instead, drawing on the insights of social and evolutionary psychology literature, we ought to consider the ways critics deploy frames to construct analogies between narrative elements and contemporary politics. Usually, this involves the selection of topical reference points that function as an allegorical pretext, which then guide the reader's attention to specific textual features while suppressing attention to others. In doing so, the critic provides a link between two types of framing effects: frames of communication, which center on the linguistic aspects of frame construction, and frames of mind, which center more on the mental processing of information. In the case of allegorical interpretation critics communicate both the way they have framed the text and the effects this framing has on their own processing of it as allegory.
Because blacklist allegories depend on specific political events as reference points for the interpretive frame, they are particularly prone to frame switching-that is, the same text can be interpreted in diametrically opposite ways. For example, such frame switching characterized the critical reception of The Crucible. In an editorial published in the New York Post, the newspaper noted that the play seemed to be intended as an indictment of McCarthyism but added that Miller's "loaded allegory" appeared to create more confusion than clarity in its disguised commentary on contemporary politics. Arguing that the international spread of Communism, unlike witches, constitutes a genuine threat to our national security, the Post editorial declared, "It is ironic that Miller's most fiery lines seem designed to caricature America's jitters rather than Prague's terror." The reference to Prague's terror is telling in that it suggests that The Crucible might just as easily be read as a comment on Soviet show trials in Eastern Europe as it was a comment on McCarthyism.
Films like High Noon and Invasion of the Body Snatchers have been read as both anti-Communist and anti-HUAC, depending on the way the critic has assembled the topical reference points that serve as the text's allegorical pretext. This aspect of allegorical interpretation is consistent with a much larger ability to switch frames in the perceptual and cognitive processing of information. Such frame switching is evident in certain perceptual illusions, such as the famous Jastrow "duck-rabbit" picture. It is also evident in the relation between content-locative and container-locative linguistic constructions. As Steven Pinker demonstrates, in such constructions ordinary language serves as a means of framing the meaning of a statement:
Imagine that the meaning of a content-locative construction is "A causes B to go to C," but the meaning of the container-locative is "A causes B to change state (by means of causing B to go to C)." In other words, loading hay onto the wagon is something you do to hay (namely, cause it to go to the wagon), whereas loading the wagon with hay is something you do to the wagon (namely, cause it to become loaded with hay). These are two different construals of the same event, a bit like the gestalt shift in the classic face-vase illusion on which the figure and ground switch places in one's consciousness.
For Pinker, such frame switching is evident across a wide variety of mental activities. Commenting on a lawsuit involving insurance payouts related to the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Pinker writes, "And the ability to frame an event in alternative ways is not just a reason to go to court but also the source of the richness of human intellectual life. As we'll see, it provides the materials for scientific and literary creativity, for humor and wordplay, and for the dramas of social life. And it sets the stage in countless arenas of human disputation." One of those arenas involves dichotomous interpretations of Cold War-era films as allegories.
Although framing effects are evident in individual interpretations of specific films, other cognitive biases and heuristics are evident in the collective work of the critical community. As I noted earlier, the development of particular interpretive strategies in relation to Cold War-era cinema took place over time. Appearing around the same time as a more general rapprochement with the blacklist era, these critical commentaries contributed to the elaboration of a specific reading formation that allied Cold War cinema with allegorical expression. After the establishment of a small group of canonical Cold War allegories, such as The Crucible and High Noon, later critics who engaged in this critical enterprise relied on the availability heuristic to expand the category to include other members.
The availability heuristic describes a tendency in the human mind to react more rapidly and more strongly to information with which we are already familiar. In You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney offers a simple and elegant example of the availability heuristic. Most people, when asked whether there are more words in English that begin with r or have r as their third letter, believe the first of these two premises. But that belief turns out to be wrong. The fact that so many people guess wrong-that is, well beyond the level predicted by chance-reflects the availability bias. It is much easier to recall words that begin with r (rap, return, ring, rope, rude) than it is to remember words that have r as their third letter (hard, term, bird, coronation). Sociologist Barry Glassner offers another example of the availability heuristic that is arguably closer to the kind of interpretive practices engaged by allegorical interpretation. Examining research on school violence, Glassner found that media coverage of school shootings in Kentucky, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oregon, and Colorado conveyed the impression that violence in schools had increased. It hadn't. In fact, as Glassner points out, violence in schools decreased by more than 30 percent throughout the 1990s. Yet the easy recall of these shootings-and the copycat crimes committed almost immediately afterward-intensified the belief that school violence was on the rise.
When applied to the interpretation of blacklist allegories, we might hypothesize that critics are more likely to believe that such allegories were commonplace largely because of the ease with which a few prominent examples can be called to mind. This familiarity then leads them to propose new examples of blacklist allegory, which themselves function as additional prototypes of the phenomenon. The process might easily devolve into a vicious cycle as the gradual enlargement of the category creates an ever larger number of easily recalled examples. But the institutions associated with film criticism eventually provide a check on the infinite expansion of the category. Once the number of blacklist allegories achieves a sort of critical mass, the familiarity of the examples reduces the novelty value of any new cases that are nominated. By that point, however, the sheer number of familiar examples reinforces the impression that such allegories were commonplace, and the belief begins to take on the force of received wisdom.
The power of the availability heuristic is evident in Michael Freedland's brief analysis of screenwriter Carl Foreman's inclusion of "The Colonel Bogey March" in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Knowing Foreman's history with High Noon, Freedland speculates that the music functions as a kind of coded message to Foreman's inquisitors: "The traditional lyrics were obscured in the on-screen singing. But almost everyone seeing the film realised that the number was a verbal two fingers to the tormentors. It wouldn't take too much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that Foreman was directing his digits toward HUAC." Arguably, Freedland came to this judgment based solely on his knowledge of the meaning of "The Colonel Bogey March." Yet the psychological studies demonstrating the availability heuristic suggest that Freedland was already attuned to the music's significance thanks to his preexisting knowledge of Foreman's history with HUAC.
During the period when the canon of blacklist allegories was enlarged, the availability heuristic was buttressed by other cognitive biases that tended to favor the inclusion of additional examples: the representativeness heuristic and confirmation bias. The representativeness heuristic refers to the tendency to perceive a greater probability for a statistically unlikely exemplum based on the fact that the data associated with it matches our preexisting schemas. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have demonstrated the importance of the representativeness heuristic in a series of experiments that asked subjects to predict the likelihood of a person's major on the basis of a personality sketch. For example, they showed that subjects predicted that someone who was intelligent and tidy, but wrote dully and mechanically, displaying a penchant for corny puns and science fiction references, was more likely to be a computer science major. This was despite the fact that the base rate for computer science enrollments was actually lower than several other fields. For most people, the degree to which the person conformed to our already existing prototypes for computer science majors outweighed the fact that it was statistically less probable. More tellingly, Kahneman and Tversky showed that representativeness affected judgment even for individuals who had experience working with statistics. Describing the outcome of this experiment when it was replicated with 114 psychology graduate students, Kahneman writes, "Substitution was perfect in this case: there was no indication that the participants did anything else but judge representativeness. The question about probability (likelihood) was difficult, but the question about similarity was easier, and it was answered instead."
Here again, although allegorical interpretation involves a type of judgment different from that used in these experiments, the representativeness heuristic is suggestive for what it tells us about habits of mind, including those that inform film criticism. Once a film like High Noon is established as a familiar example of blacklist allegory, we are more likely to see other westerns that take up similar themes as representative of the category. Our intuitions about probabilities should tell us that there are far more westerns produced that have nothing to do with the blacklist. Yet when it comes to films that appear to match our schema for blacklist allegory-a schema that is shaped to a considerable degree by common conventions of the genre-we ignore that base-rate scenario and judge instead on the representativeness of the case. As a factor in the development of blacklist allegory as a specific reading formation, the representativeness heuristic favors the inclusion of an ever larger number of members in the corpus.
In a somewhat convoluted way the representative heuristic is an example of one last habit of mind that is important to the development of blacklist allegory as a particular reading formation: confirmation bias. Put simply, confirmation bias refers to a tendency to accept evidence that conforms to what we already believe and to ignore evidence that challenges these preconceived ideas. According to Daniel Gilbert confirmation bias is produced through both the associative operations of memory and by the fact that we can only understand a proposition if we initially attempt to believe it. To understand an idea, we must know what the idea would entail if it were true. Only after this initial belief in the proposition can we decide whether we should disbelieve it. This need for initial belief extends even to propositions that manifestly appear nonsensical. Gilbert's example of this is the statement, "Armadillos relish imported cheeses." According to Gilbert, before we reject this idea as ludicrous, the associational processes of memory search for links between armadillos and imported cheeses in an initial effort to make sense of the senseless premise.
Confirmation bias explains how critics engaged in the interpretation of films as blacklist allegories were predisposed to see specific examples as members of the category. If Gilbert is right, one initially would have to believe the proposition "Warlock is a blacklist allegory" before one could unbelieve it. In that moment when the mind strives to understand the proposition, the associational processes of memory attempt to forge connections between Warlock and the larger category of blacklist allegory. Such associationally linked aspects of the film might include (a) its resemblance to other westerns identified with that category, such as Broken Arrow or Johnny Guitar; (b) the participation of director Edward Dmytryk, one of the original members of the Hollywood Ten, in the film's production; and (c) Dmytryk's autobiographical comments on the film, which he saw as a critique of fascism. Once these associative connections are made in the conscious mind, the critic then can mine the film for evidence that confirms this initial predisposition while ignoring any aspects of the film that appear to challenge it.
The cognitive biases and heuristics that I've described are not only key components of a biocultural approach to allegorical interpretation; they are also entirely compatible with the problem-solution model advocated by Boyd and Bordwell. Political allegories pose a specific problem for critics in that, unlike other allegorical texts, they do not rely on a widely disseminated body of knowledge that can serve as the pretext for the work's allegorical meanings. Instead, critics cite a set of topical reference points, which, in turn, endow specific features of a text with salience and significance. In the case of blacklist or Cold War allegories these reference points include the HUAC investigations of the 1940s and 1950s, the rise of McCarthyism, and the geopolitical tensions that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union. Besides the selection of reference points, critics engaged in allegorical interpretations also seek specific ways to connect the text's manifest and latent levels of meaning. To forge those connections for blacklist allegories, critics frequently appeal to the authorial intention behind a specific film or to the political commitments of those involved in its production. All of these specific challenges for critics would seem to fall on the "cultural" side of the ledger insofar as they are informed by the goals and protocols established within the larger institutions of film criticism.
Yet in seeking to meet those institutional goals, the particular interpretive strategies employed by critics are derived from habits of mind that are rooted in biological processes. These habits of mind are a consequence of the ways different parts of the brain interact with one another, a process that is itself the outcome of thousands of years of human evolution. Perceptual pattern-seeking, cognitive fluency, frame switching, and the associative processes of memory are all hardwired aspects of our brain's functions that will predispose critics to attend to films in a certain way. The development of blacklist allegory as a specific reading formation was itself produced by a unique combination of biological predispositions, cultural influences, institutional protocols, and large-scale historical processes. In laying out the way these elements interact, I argue that the understanding of allegorical interpretation as a critical practice requires a multileveled explanation akin to those proffered by other cognitivist scholars.
The institution of the Hollywood blacklist in 1947 remains one of the most noteworthy cultural events of the postwar era. The blacklist influenced the lives of Hollywood's labor force in myriad ways, nearly all of them bad. Careers were destroyed, friendships ruined, moral codes compromised, and individual directors and screenwriters were forced to work in exile. The divisive atmosphere created by the blacklist shrouded the entire industry with an aura of paranoia, suspicion, and fear.
Given its importance as an aspect of the industry's politics, it is not surprising that so many critics see it as a salient element in the meaning of particular film titles. Indeed, our evolved social intelligence makes it relatively easy to infer the intentions of individuals on both sides of the political divide. For those victimized by the blacklist, particularly those compelled to testify before HUAC, it requires little imagination to assume that "friendly" witnesses will seek to use their film projects as a way of justifying their own actions and that "unfriendly" witnesses will try to dramatize the individual and social costs paid by those who resisted the committee's tactics. Working within the chill created by the blacklist, such sentiments could not be expressed directly, though, and instead took the form of political allegory, a form commonly used by artists as a way to evade the strictures of institutional censorship. Similarly, for the studio heads placed under HUAC's spotlight, one readily surmises that the production of anti-Communist films served both as a response to public pressure and as a means of forestalling further investigations. In Hollywood's effort to demonstrate its political loyalty, the industry made a cycle of overtly didactic anti-Communist films that were widely and easily recognized as propaganda.
Yet while it is easy to understand the larger political motivations, one must also recognize that the expression of political views and attitudes was constrained by larger institutional forces, namely the narrative and stylistic conventions that constitute the classical Hollywood cinema as a particular mode of production. No matter how strongly one felt about the events of the blacklist, even the most blistering critique of "Red Scare" tactics had to be expressed in stories organized around goal-oriented protagonists who were engaged in agonistic conflicts with other characters that were structured in a causally linked series of dramatic events. The insertion of political content into these canonical story schemas was not always smooth, though, as the conventions of Hollywood narratives and genres exerted their own influence on the shape that these political sentiments took. In the next chapter I look at a prime example of the ideological confusion produced in such attempts to graft political views onto existing Hollywood conventions when I examine the function of the femme fatale as a character type in the cycle of anti-Communist films noir produced in the late 1940s.