Power and Paranoia
40s Hollywood

by Tony Williams

from Jump Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 73-77
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1990, 2006

Dana Polan, Power and Paranoia: History, Narrative and The American Cinema 1940-1950. New York: Columbia University Press 1986. Hardcover $27.50.

"Every narrative has its other side, its other scene" (308).

Dana Polan attempts to bridge the problematic gap between film as social history and film as textual form. He does this by examining the richness and denseness of forties U.S. cinema. His work stresses the conflicts and contradictions within a particular historical period and the films be longing to that key period of the "classical Hollywood narrative."[1][open notes in new window]

To do the book, Polan viewed approximately 700 feature films released between 1940 and 1950. His study is stimulating and well-researched. It demands and deserves re-reading in view of the theoretical, social and historical concepts he refers to. It is definitely a significant academic study, and therein lies its strengths and weaknesses.

Polan's book is one of scholastic merit written in the European-influenced, self-reflexive, tortuous style which many academics use. He acknowledges in the preface "that specific community of scholars producing major work on American [U.S.] cinema in the forties," and thus places his writing within the constraints of academia, notably removed from active political struggle.[2] The prose style reduces the book's potential circulation to a much wider audience.

The book's style of engagement is also predominantly theoretical and makes little reference to popular struggles in the forties and also now against academic authoritarianism. Although Polan cites the complexities of historical interpretation, he shows an Althusserian influence of placing a prime emphasis on theory. The primacy he places on the text over social history and struggle remains a stumbling block in his work.[3] There is much of value in this book and also equally much to dispute.

Polan's comprehensive survey of both "respectable" and "unrespectable" films is laudable, particularly in terms of JUMP CUT's call for a wider qualitative study of film and television not limited to the accepted classics.[4] The number of the films screened and cited shows Polan has done essential excavation, particularly in view of the restriction of U.S. cinema appearing now on public and cable stations.[5] I would have welcomed an appendix listing the films viewed and selected.

Polan's opening chapter contrasts WWII and postwar cinematic discourses. Polan had presented this idea in an earlier Velvet Light Trap article discussing the difference between PRIDE OF THE MARINES (1944) and DARK PASSAGE (1947). But such distinctions are often not clear-cut. STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) exhibits many of those qualities of postwar alienation and existentialism that Polan finds in later films. That is why a list of the films viewed by Polan would let us check whatever important "missing spaces" exist in his selection.

Polan contrasts WWII sacrificial rhetoric and postwar consumer discourse by looking at the juxtaposition of two narratives contained in Life Magazine, August 13th 1945 (34-35). Hem he uses Michel Foucault's notion of the spiral or grid to explain how social discourse adapts to new conditions.

"The grid of war and peace, of a successful war, a successful peace, and a successful transition from one to the other, is a grid that exists immediately as a historically specific arrangement of discourse, one version of social practices among others. Even within the space of this discourse, tensions exist…Any particular grid is only one possible system of representations among others; no grid necessarily covers all aspects of any social moment nor does it cover all the modes that it does cover with the same intensity and comprehensiveness" (9-10).

Polan does qualify his use of Foucault particularly in noting (309) that Discipline and Punish suggests "a certain refusal by subjects of their prescription within dominant discourses." But Polan does not come to terms with Foucault's anti-Marxist tendencies which are noted by other commentators.[6]

Nor does Polan accept Marx's placing primacy on the economic over the ideological. Polan stands opposed to this latter concept, since his study elevates the supposed "specificity of cultural practice" over the political and economic. True, Polan does criticize certain simplistic tendencies in historical interpretation, but his work then dismisses the concepts of historical materialism and class conflict from the central position they should occupy.

Polan says that the pressures of the forties tear "narrative art between opposed goals and that this tearing leads to particularly intense contradictions." He understands cultural texts, "then, as neither inevitable apologies for a central power nor as a concerted subversion of that power; an emphasis on contradiction allows an open and variable approach to the processes of social production" (43). However, what Polan gains in demonstrating social tensions often linking such stylistically different films such as MESHES IN THE AFTERNOON (1943) and GUEST IN THE HOUSE (1944), he does on the level of textual interpretation alone. He does not deal with such crucial factors which could also explain the reasons for such narrative tensions, such as audience reception or documented evidence of oppositional movements in U.S. society, especially in Hollywood at the time.

For example, although Polan mentions films such as ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC (1943), SAHARA (1943), and PRIDE OF THE MARINES (1948), he says nothing about how those films involved later-blacklisted talents. I do not wish to introduce again the antique issue of authorship into the critical debate but to argue for the presence of a particular absence, which may be just as crucial as those theoretical ones Polan argues for.

Also, although he deals with the changes in film narrative in post-War Hollywood, he says virtually nothing about Hollywood's mobilizing its right-wing, which may have as much responsibility for fissured narratives as any other factor.

Although I don't expect any of the above films to exhibit Marxist tendencies, I also don't think that any discourse from a dominant power narrative recuperates them entirely. Despite their Hollywood form, we have to see in certain films the work of talented people such as John Howard Lawson, who inserted pictures of social community triumphing over individualism as well as giving a progressive picture of a black American such as Rex Ingram in SAHARA. Such elements often transcended the dominant ideological framework within which they were conceived.

Despite these problems, Polan has major insights, relevant not only to interpreting forties cinema but also contributing to debates within film theory. In contrast to GUEST IN THE HOUSE, which affirms "happy heterosexual relationships in the service of the American way of life," Polan sees that Maya Deren's MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON presents the home as "a nightmarish place where women can only destroy or be destroyed and where men only come for short visits as virtual strangers." (11) These diverse narratives, Polan says, represent a

"conflict of spaces; that different representations are set up for forties women suggests that the forties exist as a potentially conflicting set of grids…I find such juxtapositions emblematic, then, both of a drive towards what we might call dominant narrative ideology and of the possible fate (s) of such a drive in its interaction with the everyday life of a culture — fate(s) that can include perhaps the very impossibility of a complete or pure dominance" (11-12).

The book's title Power and Paranoia indicates the ways "that a dominant power and a disturbing paranoia interweave and find each other to be a parodic mirror image of the other" (12). The first is "the power that narrative structure specifically possesses to write an image of life as coherent, ideological, univocal." The second is "the fear of narrative, and the particular social representations it works to uphold, against all that threatens the unity of its logical framework" (12). Paranoia is not "an eternally abstract condition but a specifically social way of responding to new permutations in everyday perception and possibility" (15).

Polan finds the war period "potentially a quite contradictory moment," offering

"new possibilities for narrativity while encouraging conditions which show up those possibilities as manifestly fictional. With the war, narrative finds a solution to the problems of representing history in a coherent framework while discovering that it can do so only at the cost of repression and distortions that come bursting out under moments of narrative stress" (18).

The first chapter, "Writing the Space of the Forties," examines a little-known William Bendix comedy, DON JUAN QUILLIGAN (1945) to demonstrate the validity of the above statement. Here Polan takes issue with monolithic formulations about film narrative, associated with scholars such as Raymond Bellour, Janet Staiger, David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson. In discussing QULLIGAN's comic form, Polan questions "the comprehensiveness of the very construction of form and ideology that Bellour and others, claim to find not only in the Western but in the American [U.S.] cinema as a whole" (26). In particular, in its humorous treatment of accidental bigamy, the film does not follow Bellour's monolithic Oedipal trajectory (27-28), which Bellour said structured Hollywood narratives as a whole. Thus, although there may have been a stylistic discourse operative within Hollywood at the time, Polan points out that

"we also need to theorize the possibility of a slippage between the discourse and its actualization in specific historical moments in particular…[T]he psycho-social situation of the forties poses problems to narrative that narrative can't always fully contend with" (311).

This is a particularly astute recognition. It stands in contrast to recent formalist tendencies within film scholarship. It parallels V.N. Volosinov's (Mikhail Bakhtin's) recognition of the concrete importance of parole as opposed to langue in his critique of Ferdinand de Saussure's linguistics.[7] Polan, inspired by Jean Baudrillard's critique of Foucault, states, "Too much of the work on American cinema shows that there is the temptation in analyzing classicism to find classicism everywhere and to thereby potentially further its dominance" (35).

However, even if "narrative in every moment is a potentially fragile construct, held in place only by the social and aesthetic conditions of that moment," (34) it still is effective as a social model. Polan here takes issue with the ahistorical practices of deconstructive criticism:

"Deconstruction performs an initially necessary analysis. It implies how every act is readable as split between teleology and a disturbing difference. But disavowing a reference to the historical field which it views as only one more form of teleology, deconstruction can only insist endlessly on the dual nature of practices without showing how, why, when, and where one side of the duality can triumph. As a consequence, deconstruction ends up minimizing the pressures of history — the ways that history works to constrain meaning within prescribed ways of seeing."

Polan finds value in Pierre Machery's suggestion that "each literary text be read as historically specific answers to the ideological questions of its historically specific moment" (38). As he criticizes the notion of the war years having an overwhelmingly "affirmative" ideology, Polan outlines his thesis: "the pressures of the forties specifically tear narrative art between opposed goals and this tearing leads to particularly intense contradictions" (43).

Examining images of Wartime Unity in his second chapter, Polan argues that "the war-supporting discourse is avowedly discursive, announcing and enouncing itself as a message from somewhere (for example, a government agency, a star or starlet making a war bond plea) to someone…in a particular context of space and time…" (53). Within war narratives, he pays special notice to authoritative roles played by the image of Pearl Harbor (AIR FORCE, GUNG HO, 1943), questions of religious atheism (DESTINATION TOKYO, 1943), Roosevelt as a symbol, and male voice-over narration.

But enunciation, for Polan, is not Bellour's general figure establishing how classic film narrative inscribes and mediates the desire of the spectator. It here takes a different form, in which "it is possible, I think, to historicize the use of enunciation and understand the ways that it can become a particularly attractive technique for the mobilization of identification toward the goal of commitment" (65). He analyzes narratives as THE PIED PIPER (1942), ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (1942), AIR FORCE (1943), SERGEANT YORK (1941), FLYING TIGERS (1942), CASABLANCA (1942) and MR. LUCKY (1943) as well as the feminine war-effort discourses of MRS. MINIVER (1942) and SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944). Yet, despite the affirmative stance of war-narratives such as PRIDE OF THE MARINES and DESTINATION TOKYO, Polan notes the limitations on totally positive meanings.

"More generally…narrative itself…is inherently open to contradiction: the sense of an ending implies that order is inevitable, but the very need to institute that order through force…implies that endings are not inevitable but need to be constructed" (99).

These limits upon narrative closure form the basis of his next chapter. He continues his critique of Raymond Bellour's narrative theory as he discusses the structure of a 1944 Errol Flynn movie, UNCERTAIN GLORY. This film counters the thesis that classic cinema is structured around a united couple and also counters the idea that the war narrative successfully unites war and desire. Several films such as A YANK IN THE R.A.F. (1941), ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC and the Blondie films also work to separate the couple from the war in diverse ways.

THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK questions both the basis of marriage as well as that of wartime unity (116). Issues of race, sexuality, patriarchy, and authority are all called into question within many films in this historical period and are "resolved" in specific ways which lay bare tensions and contradictions. DESPERATE JOURNEY (1942), often viewed as a Boy's Own fantasy, suggests a "certain disparity between the concept of heroism and the concept of an obedience to authority, although both are values promoted in the war moment" (137). Polan also describes private "conversion" narrative, portraying U.S. citizens with no military connections, emphasizing his central thesis about the ideological fragility of 40s cinema.

In chapter five, "Blind Insights and Dark Passages," Polan contrasts the stylistically and thematically opposing worlds of DARK PASSAGE and the war-affirming PRIDE OF THE MARINES, seeing in the former "the possibility of a mutation in the practice of "classical narrative" (194). This is one of Polan's richest and debatable chapters. Vincent Parry's discovery of George's body shot in an unrepeatable, ambiguous manner demonstrates DARK PASSAGE's whole narrative complication. "In DARK PASSAGE, the narrative and the image come apart, refusing to provide any but the most meager of certainties and centerings" (195).

"If PRIDE OF THE MARINES gives us the positive existentialism of commitment to a being, DARK PASSAGE gives us the negative existentialism of commitment to a nothingness, the instabilities of life and narrative falling prey to the inescapabilities of a historical absurd" (200).

Polan defines as central historical conditions Roosevelt's death and the lack of a strong central subject for the U.S. imaginary. Surely other more complicated factors in U.S. society at the time deserve scrutiny. Earlier, Polan had criticized historical work on the forties as lacking "any complex sense of the specificity of cultural practice." He said that work tends "to extend its specific areas of analysis and claim the primacy of the political or the economic over the cultural. It tends to understand culture as a noncomplex, ultimately political or economic force" (42).

While criticisms against a vulgar Marxist reading are correct, particularly in recognizing superstructural concepts, the political and economic are determinant in the last resort. This whole issue needs more detailed, historical research rather than merely stating that the condition of representation in the 40s is one in which "desire refuses a place within narrative, [and] splits off and becomes an independent force" (203). Similarly, Polan is too simplistic in describing Roosevelt's benign oedipalism or the early Truman's confused non-leadership (204).

Polan says that he intends to analyze a "tendency within the textual space of the typical studio product."[8] Other more complicated historical and economic factors deserve citation.

It would be interesting to learn why he did not discuss A GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (1947), CROSSFIRE (1947) and TILL THE END OF TIME (1946), all of which deal with internal problems within U.S. society (anti-Semitism, the problems of the returning veteran, sexual relations) and all made by people who would fall under HUAC's scrutiny. There may be other more historical reasons for the changes in themes and narratives which Polan notices other than his Foucault-influenced, narrative theories. These reasons may also lie outside the theoretical parameters of the shadows of Althusser and Lacan which clearly influence Polan.

The final chapter, "Beyond Narrative: The Space and Spectacle of the Forties," continues Polan's demonstration of how forties narratives are unstable. He gives a comprehensive survey of fictional and filmic representations of the home as alien space, the anti-epic Western, the technological triumph over nature in the musical, the insecurity of escapist idyllic space, the failure of the pastoral ideal, and the problems of female desire in the modern gothic romance.

I find other qualifications necessary. The thirties also had anti-epic westerns as well as the forties. STAGECOACH as well as THE VIRGINIAN (1929) also parallel Polan's examples of the forties' DUEL IN THE SUN which he sees as marking the end of rugged individualism.

In terms of the wealth of material examined, engagement with critical concepts in film study, and stimulating arguments, Polan's work is worth close study. However, in view of the complexity of the forties period, the diversity of cultural products, and the actual engagement of filmmakers in struggle, much more work is needed in examining this area. The academic examination of discourse is of value, but we need to move beyond it to discover historical complexities. We must go beyond the confines of the "specific community of scholars producing major work on the American [U.S.] cinema" to restore the past in its full dimensions and recognize the crucial role of those engaged in cultural struggles. The mere examination of narrative structure cannot do the forties full justice.


1. See David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

2. For a critique of this tendency see Andrew Britton, "In Defense of Criticism," CineAction!, No. 3/4 (January, 1986), pp. 3-5.

3. For references to Althusserian and Lacanian influence, see Polan (40 and 306). For a critique of the Althusserian mystique, see Simon Clarke, et al, One Dimensional Marxism: Althusser and the Politics of Culture (London and New York: Allison and Busby, 1980).

4. See Chuck Kleinhans, "Introduction: Hollywood Reconsidered," Jump Cut, No. 32 (1987), p. 15.

5. As a British citizen, I was astonished to see so few films from various stages of Hollywood cinema screened on non-cable U.S. television. The four British television stations once provided a virtual film theatre for those interested enough to watch, but that situation is now changing under Thatcherite attacks on the media and the current tendency to buy cheap U.S. made-for-TV movies and soap operas.

6. See Britton's "Had not Foucault asserted that marxism led to the Gulag archipelago?" (p. 3).

7. V. N. Volosinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (New York: Seminar Press, 1973).

8. Barry King, "The Classical Hollywood Cinema," Screen, 27:6 (November-December, 1986), p. 42. One must applaud Polan's questioning many tenets of the neo-Formalist school, particularly Bordwell's definition of film noir conventions (Polan, pp. 323-25).