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A stimulating look at American films of the 1950s.

In this conversational yet highly lucid collection of essays, Harvey (Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, 1987) discusses the ways movies shaped—and were shaped by—the cultural changes that followed in the wake of WWII. Mercifully, these are not the musings of a social historian but of a movie nut—and the loving detail lavished on each of the films analyzed at length, beginning with Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past and ending with Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, reflects Harvey’s infatuation with the medium. Although he is clearly a sophisticated guide to the decade and its movies, the author has little time for voguish theories borrowed from literary criticism and instead offers refreshing, common-sense insights. Typical of his style is his take on Brando’s portrayal of Stanley Kowalski: he “felt at times like the kind of explosive truth-teller the culture will occasionally produce just when the cant and the banality seem most unchallengeable, someone who cuts through all the bullshit and to hell with it.” Despite his enthusiasm for certain of Brando’s early performances, Harvey recognizes the profound contrast between the emerging “boy” stars of the ’50s—Brando, Dean, Clift—and their predecessors. While male leads had previously embodied the “antinarcissist idea of maleness,” these new stars “instead of inviting us to grow up, were commiserating with us about failing to.” In that respect, Harvey contends that the movies reflected the inward-turning mood of Americans during the Cold War. However, while the collection draws parallels between American society and its films, the primary focus remains on the movies themselves and the people who made them: Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Robert Siodmak, to name a few.

A collection that will have readers scurrying to the video store.

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 2001
ISBN: 0-394-58591-7
Page count: 464pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2001