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The Russians are coming

Cold War cinema at the HFA
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  January 30, 2007

THE THIRD MAN: A popular entertainment and much more.
With one exception, the eight movies in the nifty “Cold War Cinema” series at the Harvard Film Archive are popular entertainments that treat the politics and sociology of the era in a variety of ways. INVASION U.S.A. (1959), RED MENACE (1949), and PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953) are anti-Communist action pictures. The stupefyingly clunky ROCKETSHIP X-M (1950) is a sci-fi cautionary fable for the atomic age: the first rocket crew bound for the moon falls off course and lands on Mars, where a nuclear holocaust has wiped out an advanced civilization and the planet’s only inhabitants are cavemen. The protagonist of CITY OF FEAR (1959) is a thief who steals an atomic capsule and has to be tracked down before he can contaminate LA; the hero of D.O.A. (1950) has swallowed poison that will off him in 48 hours — giving him just long enough to solve his own murder. PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950) has a classic film noir opening: when a Greek immigrant newly arrived in New Orleans walks away from a poker game with his pockets full, the hood whose money he won and two stooges follow him through the shadowy streets, across the tracks, and onto the pier, where they shoot him down. But the coroner who examines the body finds it riddled with pneumonic plague, and the health authorities and the cops have to find his killers before an epidemic erupts.

Neither the low-rent, engaging D.O.A. nor the gripping Panic in the Streets (superbly staged and shot by Elia Kazan, the year before he turned out A Streetcar Named Desire) is tightly focused on Cold War subjects, and neither can be said to offer a metaphor for Communism or nuclear devastation. But both belong to the Cold War era. The toxin ravaging the body of the hero of D.O.A., Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien), is luminous, a bizarre, exotic detail that links it to a movie like City of Fear. Bigelow can’t harm anyone else, so the ticking-clock element of the picture — unlike that of Panic in the Streets — has to do with justice, not danger. And Panic in the Streets conveys the terror of imminent disaster that is one of the distinguishing features of many thrillers of the period (including sci-fi thrillers like Rocketship X-M), though Kazan and the writers, Richard Murphy and Daniel Fuchs, contain that fear within a small band of investigators — mostly the public-health-service doctor (Richard Widmark, successfully cast against type) and the hard-boiled police captain (Paul Douglas) — rather than moving to the phase where the public finds out what’s going on and mass hysteria ensues.

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