Scratch the surface of 1950s American postwar prosperity and you’ll find an era rife with paranoia and anxiety, where rampant conformity bred fears of mass hysteria and the Red Menace lurked behind every doorstep. In Hollywood, the decade saw the rise of both the notorious blacklist and the vivid, individualistic visions of Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk. This two-month series of over 40 films showcases more than a dozen directors who labored in the twilight of the studio system (and a few who worked outside it), producing ambivalent images of the culture’s darkest obsessions.
Classics such as Orson Welles’s sleazefest Touch of Evil, John Ford’s somber epic The Searchers, and Sirk’s operatic Texas oil saga Written on the Wind are essential big-screen experiences. Harder to find are films like Ray’s Bigger Than Life, about suburban schoolteacher James Mason’s addiction to cortisone, or Leo McCarey’s My Son John, which pits a patriotic father against a son accused of spying for the Communist cause. Sometimes the enemy was a homegrown phenomenon. Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd explores the demon lurking within the new mass medium of television: Andy Griffith’s metamorphosis from hillbilly entertainer to TV celebrity and right-wing demagogue is a fascinating study in megalomania and manipulation. From the other side of Hollywood comes Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth. The director, producer, writer, and a lead actor were already blacklisted when they made this independently produced social-realist drama about a Mexican American miners’ strike in New Mexico. Told from the point of view of a miner’s wife, its politics, even today, seem radical.
But the same hardscrabble New Mexican desert that fed Esperanza Quintero and her three children also gave rise to Them!, a brood of giant, radioactive ants hatched near the first atomic testing ground. Cold War manias and existential fears of mankind’s imminent demise mingle in this hilarious thriller about Méliès-like creatures who must be hunted down to the last nest. They are chronic aggressors, a scientist explains, with a talent for “industry, social organization, and savagery”—is he speaking of “them” or of us?