Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Films (1956)

Film Review from the July 1956 issue of the Socialist Standard


This film is a timely reminder that the spirit of McCarthyism is not yet dead—only a little less vociferous. In fact, it can fairly confidently be said that this spirit will not die as long as capitalism lives. As long as it serves a political or economic end to have purges, scapegoats or witch-hunts—which means for the duration of capitalism—then these things will continue.

It is welcome, however, to find a film from Hollywood which is openly hostile to "red-baiting," though of course, the makers of the film had difficulty in getting it made at all, and no doubt the next time that the Un-American Activities Committee turn their attention to Hollywood, they will pounce on this film with glee.

The story is simple—An elderly woman librarian in a small American town refuses to remove from the library a book on "Communism" which the City Council find embarrassing. As one might expect in the land of the free, she is branded as a "red," ostracised, and her life made impossible generally. The little boy whom she befriends and encourages in his love of books, becomes disillusioned, and with his father goading him with talk of reds, spies and Communists is eventually driven to the verge of insanity, and expresses his neurotic confusion by burning down the library. However, the film's simplicity carries with it conviction, at least for a substantial part of the plot, but what makes the film so disturbing is its deliberate understatement of its case. One is not presented with the McCarthys, the Cohns or the Schines of the American scene, but with the "nice ordinary people," who, with their bigotry, stupidity, and political infancy, violently rush to defend "democracy" and "the American way of life," and become the oppressors. This provides a striking parallel with the burners-of-books, the Jew-baiters, and the racial persecutors of the maligned "undemocratic" nations, and indeed the film stresses this parallel in the symbolism of the burning of the library.

The characteristics of the film is good, Bette Davis being extremely convincing as the librarian, although somewhat more restrained than in her more youthful days. Kim Hunter and Joe Mantell (who made a good first impression as 'Ange' in "Marty"), also give extremely effective performances, the latter as the boy's All-American father who eventually drives the boy crazy by his talk of subversion, Communists, and "Pinko-talk."

As one would expect, a happy ending is engineered, albeit somewhat unconvincingly. The burning of the library and the tragedy of the boy's mental state brings the City Council to their senses, and all is forgiven. One is left in doubt, however, as to whether the forces that were at work hysterically crying "red" would be appeased by this, and when one considers that many of the persecuted political "suspects" do not have the advantages of influential friends and happy circumstance that this librarian has, one appreciates that the real situation is much worse. In fact, political intolerance in America, with the suicides, imprisonings, exiles, and ruined lives that it leaves in its wake, is little less evil (if at all) than similar products of the Capitalist world in the "iron-curtain" countries or in former Nazi Germany, or even this country for that matter, if the dismissal of Mr. John Lang from I.C.I. is a reliable manifestation.

This film is a clear reflection of American opinion which is openly hostile to McCarthy, political and judicial corruption, and other less pleasant aspects of God's own country. It is at pains to point out that McCarthyism, censorship, and the like, are denials of the very freedoms which Americans claim differentiate them from the "dictatorships." Actually though, it is the unscrupulous up-and-coming politicians in the film who really gives the game away from the Socialist point of view. He states that practically any step is justified in order to save America, and goes on to explain that a country at war, whether hot, cold or lukewarm, must be drastic in its measures, and that if innocent people get crushed in the process, it is just too bad. Of course, whether the Liberals like it or not, that is in fact the position, and that beside the fundamentals of Capitalist cut-throat competition, all talk of freedom and democracy is just so much hot air. In spite of this, and of the artificial ending, the points that the film makes are valid and telling, and apart from the not inconsiderable value of the drama itself, make this a worth-while film.
Albert Ivimey

1 comment:

imposs1904 said...

A couple of spelling mistakes in the original article have been corrected. I kept the original english spelling of 'Centre' from the review, despite the fact that I couldn't find the British version of the film poster .

A quick google search reveals this snippet of information about the 'John Lang' of I.C.I. mentioned in the review:
"John Lang, assistant solicitor of Imperial Chemical Industries who has been dismissed from his post, at the Government's request, because his wife was a member of the Communist Party before her marriage."