?Much that characterised Hollywood in the 1950s can be described as paradoxical and ambiguous due to anti-communist hysteria and the blacklist.? How accurate is this statement in relation to two films of the 1950s?
A lot has been made of the suggested subtexts present in High Noon and On the Waterfront, that they reflect the experiences of Carl Foreman (the writer of High Noon) and Elia Kazan with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Foreman has openly assented to this, and Kazan has admitted that there are parallels. However, while this can give us insight of the personal opinions of these men, I do not think that the significance of these subtexts can be played down enough. My reasons are that they are in no way ?attached? to the films-that is, not evident without knowledge other than that of the films themselves; that they add nothing to the films, as a work of art; and that the assumption of the subtexts is very ambiguous. By this last point, I mean that we cannot give authorial intention any more power over our understanding of the film than that of any other interpretation. We would be just as well to say that High Noon is really about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, or even about the Allied attack on the Nazis, because, as I have said, this kind of meaning is not produced by the film but is superimposed over it. The films are interchangeable in this aspect, because they are both about people doing what they believe is right-it just happens that the idea of what is right differed between Foreman and Kazan. A better way of commenting on the socio-political climate of the fifties in Hollywood, as reflected in these films, is to take meaning from the films, rather than receive a meaning from someone who claims authority over them and depreciates the role of the viewer. We must look at what the films really say about America rather than what someone tells us they are meant to say, because these can be quite different things.
The communist scare was at fever pitch in the early 1950s, when HUAC reopened investigations. Opinion was divided in Hollywood. There were those, like Kazan and the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, who believed that the communist threat was real, and that, in Kazan?s words, ?communists were in a lot of organizations-unseen, unrecognised, unbeknownst to anybody.? While Kazan has made it clear that he was not happy about testifying at HUAC, he seems firm in his belief that there was a lot of communist indoctrination and brainwashing going on that posed a danger to American society. Opinion amongst others was that HUAC was an angry god who must be sated, and that those who testified were forced into playing up the threat of communism, just to satisfy (and justify) the committee and keep working. Brian Neve has made the point that no matter what Kazan?s feelings were about communism, he might have exposed the threat in ways other than testifying to an organisation that ruined many careers and lives. Arthur Miller said of it that Kazan ?in his human weakness had been forced to humiliate himself.?
The consequence of blacklisting and the fear generated by HUAC was that there was a shift in Hollywood from the social conscience films of the post-war period, as any criticism of American society was suspected as un-American. I suggest that there is a significant distinction between previous films (like those of the ?race cycle?) and those of the early fifties. Where the earlier films were critical of American society, its prejudices, and aimed to teach liberal ideas of equality, in some later films the emphasis is shifted from society in general to oppressive (and un-American) organisations-be it an unfair medical committee in People Will Talk, the Ku Klux Klan in Storm Warning, or a corrupt union in On the Waterfront. The distinction is significant because (although, in the last two films, people share the responsibility for allowing wrong to happen) the problem is not America-it is un-American individuals, who must be rooted out of society. As said of the Hoboken docks, in On the Waterfront, it?s ?like it ain?t even part of America.? This considered, High Noon could be regarded as a continuation of the concern in On the Waterfront. Hadleyville has been cleaned of the un-American oppressors: Will Kane and the townspeople fought against Frank Miller and the corrupt villains who controlled the town, turning it into a place where it is ?safe for a decent woman to walk the streets?. But the film is hardly an affirmation of people-power: when justice fails, Miller returns to kill Kane and the people desert him, as it no longer seems their problem. The film concludes, as does On the Waterfront, with a lack of faith in humanity, showing that the will to self-preservation dominates over the other drives. They suggest that humans are like electricity, in that they follow the path of least resistance. Though done in slightly different ways, they both lament the sheer lack of solidarity in communities against those who exploit or tyrannize over them. Opposition is hard to organise, and people know from experience that ?if you stick out your neck, they?ll cut it off.? The consequence of this in the films can be seen in two ways: either that in life there are great men and lesser men (slightly fascist view), or that it is every individual?s duty to liberate themselves from mind forg?d manacles. I think that, perhaps simply because Gary Cooper looks so much better than the rest of the snivelling, cowardly townsfolk, High Noon is more in line with the first view. (Perhaps surprisingly, given Foreman?s supposed communism.) The film is played out in such a way that we are disgusted by the actions of the people, and feel very little sympathy for their awkward positions. On the Waterfront is more in line with the later view, because Kazan shows the potential for power in the workers (although unexercised). They are all physically strong, unlike the people of Hadleyville, but have been beaten into submission. We do not get the overwhelming impression that Terry Malloy is a better man than anyone else, but only that he frees himself. However, before any harsh judgment of High Noon is made, it could be said that the elements of the film may direct us towards a more allegorical interpretation, being that Kane is the only True Man in the film and the crowds merely serve as a necessary resistance to Kane?s moral rightness, a didactic tool to assure us of Kane?s moral rightness.
By this last point, I mean High Noon, its mise-en-sc?ne, narrative, dialogue, and characterisation (its lack of realism) can direct us away from a literal interpretation of the events in the film. We are presented with a simplistic, black and white tale of good versus bad. Which is which is implicit throughout, and never called into question. It is a very unambiguous situation that Kane is in: a villain is coming to kill him, who will not give up until one of them is dead. Because the situation is forced upon Kane, meaning is also forced upon the viewer. The film is almost propaganda, since we are given no reasonable option but to sympathise with Kane throughout. Perhaps, also, the film deliberately panders to the idyllic American rural myth in its celebration of guns, honesty, loyalty, pride, temperance, and abstinence from vice-the usual sentiments. We see that his marriage is conducted in a secular ceremony, performed by a judge in front of the flag, because (although the reason given is that his bride is a Quaker) this shows the innate virtue and natural religion of Kane, and that he has no need for institutionalised religion for moral guidance. Importance is placed only in the lawfulness and safety of Hadleyville. Institutions of authority are dismissed: the church, politics, the judiciary, even Kane?s ?tin star? of the law, and true good is shown instead to be in the in the individual character and his actions. Society is clear-cut, black and white, good and bad. It is a deliberately anti-intellectual film, emphasised by the constant repetition of how ?smart? it is to give in and run. The gratification of traditional ideals is complete when the ?obvious? rightness of siding with Kane is supplanted by the desire to bring big business to town. It just seems so narrow minded and egotistic that not one person actually believes Kane is wrong-they all admit he is right, but, for whatever reason, do not help. We get, in High Noon, none of the complexity and ambiguity of human nature that we get in On the Waterfront. There is no time given at all to Kazan?s dilemma-that sometimes there is no obvious ?right?, and doing what you think is right may not always feel good. In this way, the distinctions between the two are distinct. High Noon displays a na?ve childishness, and, if looked at in the context of HUAC, seems guilty of trying to rewrite history (or boil it down to good and bad). Whatever the final analysis on Kazan?s dealings with HUAC, he displays a greater sense of awareness of the complexities in life and reflects them in his film. However, in spite of this, the politics of On the Waterfront are quite suspect and questionable.
Ideologically, On the Waterfront is a contradictory, hypocritical, and conservative film. It becomes startlingly clear throughout the film that, although the attack is upon a corrupt union run by mobsters, we are witnessing the workings of three individual rackets: the criminal, the state, and the church. Kazan?s duplicity is in his siding with the church and state over the criminal, when all three are shown to be of questionable virtue. The union uses the power of the workers to blackmail the merchant companies who use the harbour (for example, by threatening strikes when the goods are perishable, like the bananas). We see Johnny Friendly?s ?banker?, Morgan, who forces the men into loaning money at extortionate rates of interest. It seems that this behaviour is in no way in opposition to the practises of legitimate business and banking. The problem is that this particular racket is not state controlled, and that American government does not profit from it. ?It?s like it ain?t even America,? like the criminals have their own separate state within America. Johnny?s sob story is reminiscent of countless others, where businessmen have worked themselves out of poverty to the top of the ladder. This potential for financial success is the quality of America, ?land of opportunity?. Criminal rackets are the same as business, they are just more physically brutal because they do not have state legislation to protect their interests, and so appear worse. Terry?s brother, Charlie, says ?this girl and the Father, they?ve got their hooks in the kid so deep he doesn?t know which end is up anymore,? but it is everyone, state, church, and mob, who try to get their hooks in to Terry and the rest of the workers.
However, Father Barry?s rightness is highly dubious. Terry Malloy?s character could be described as being without a superego. The outward appearance of this is that he appears to be lacking in gratitude. If he is working in the hole he gets on with it, if he is working the easy job in the loft he gets on with it. He does not lapse into sycophantism, because of his total ambivalence, and he cannot be bought. He does the jobs that are expected of him, but he does not behave as he is expected. In this way, he is a little like the protagonist of Camus? The Outsider, in that his lack of regard for the conventions of human behaviour makes him suspect by his fellows. Father Barry, in particular, tries to instil Terry with a superego, which is further complemented by his patriarchal stance against Terry. Terry tells him, ?if I spill, my life ain?t worth a nickel,? and Father Barry replies, ?and how much is your soul worth if you don?t?? He follows this up with, ?I?m not asking you to do anything. It?s your own conscience that?s got to do the asking.? Edie, who has been indoctrinated by the nuns, repeats this: ?you let your conscience tell you what to do!? Perhaps I am biased, but does this not seem like such a cruel trick to play on a na?ve, but good man? While he may be sexually aggressive, intellectually Terry is a child. I think that the priest plays a rotten trick in trying to encourage guilt, and preaching self-abasement, and passive humility. The Waterfront Crime Commission investigators are the state versions of priests. To get Terry on-side, they employ similar tactics to Father Barry, in that they feed him a little ?birdseed? and then make him do the running (literally, in Father Barry?s case). The difference between the two is that the priest believes in what he says, while the investigators merely say whatever is necessary to coax information out of a witness.
What I find so interesting in this is that while Kazan certainly would not agree with what I have said, there seem to be so many startling comparisons and links to be made between the organisations in the film. When we see Father Barry at the docks sniffing around, right after seeing the mobsters, we immediately see the investigators. We see from the picture in Johnny Friendly?s bar that there is some link between the criminals and politicians (and, therefore, the state); the police, enforcers of state legislation, are also linked to crime, as they accept the moral code of the mob: that you don?t rat. And the courtroom scene is a union of the state and church (the legitimate rackets) against the criminal.
I think that the overall picture here is that there are elements of truth in the statement in question. The politics of On the Waterfront seem very confused, because while we have the positive character of Terry Malloy, and the other forces that influence him do not seem to be acting in his benefit, only the corrupt union boss is called to question. This would be more acceptable if Kazan portrayed Father Barry and the investigators in a more romantic way, but his realism is stunning. The two were shown as they are, human, self interested, and ruthless. Yet they are still sided with. It is a very good film, but this just confuses me and seems out of joint with other elements of the film. High Noon is a two-dimensional film, creating an entirely fictional universe in which the hero is always unquestionably right. These two films are far from ambiguous, instead seeming to be a clear statement of an unflinching belief in doing the ?right? thing. There is discrepancy between the two views on what right is, and in what should one place faith, but there is little internal conflict in the films.
On the Waterfront, dir. Elia Kazan (Columbia, 1954).
BibliographyHey, Kenneth R., ?Ambivalence as a Theme in On the Waterfront (1954): An Interdisciplinary Approach to Film Study?; Peter C. Rollins (ed.), Hollywood as Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983), pp. 159-189.
Prince, Stephen, ?Historical Perspective and the Realist Ethic in High Noon (1952)?; Arthur Nolletti Jr. (ed.), The Films of Fred Zinnemann (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999), pp. 79-92.
Young, Jeff, ?On The Waterfront?, Kazan: The Master Director Discusses his Films (New York: Newmarket Press, 1999), pp. 115-194.