Honoring the Voice Senior Film Critic’s New Book, An Army of Phantoms, at BAM


A new book by an obscure film writer with the suspicious handle “J. Hoberman”—a blacklist pseudonym?—occasions this 14-title salute at BAM, curated by the author himself. Moving from the immediate post–World War II period to Eisenhower’s re-election in 1956, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War collates action in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and around the 38th parallel, defining the era as one in which collective drama was “elevated to a cosmic struggle against National Insecurity for possession of the Great Whatzit” by the movies.

That “Whatzit” refers to the doomsday device Ralph Meeker’s swinging detective seeks in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), one of several classic zeitgeist-condensations in the series, along with Johnny Guitar (1954), starring HUAC-friendly witness Sterling Hayden in the title role, with Ben Cooper tortured into naming names.

On other fronts, Gregory Peck leads a detail of misfit soldiers attempting to hold a mountain pass against hordes of Apaches in Gordon Douglas’s wasteland cavalry Western Only the Valiant (1951), which can be taken as a Battle of Thermopylae replay or a containment-policy primer. The latter reading is encouraged by a double-feature pairing with Rear Admiral John Ford’s grudging, trudging frontline doc This is Korea! (1951), in which artillery and napalm pour endlessly onto an invisible enemy that is always, maybe, over the next frozen hill.

Introducing one of pop culture’s most enduring flexible metaphors, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) leads the sci-fi contingent, in which screen space invaders are suggested as stand-ins for Commies. Nothing, however, seems so much set on another planet as Storm Warning (1951), in which Ginger Rogers hooks up with D.A. Ronald Reagan to break the code of silence around the “Ku Klux Klan” in a small California town. Part of the film’s premise is that the KKK isn’t explicitly involved in racial terror; other than a violent prejudice against “out-of-town” folks, they might pass for a hooded Kiwanis Club.

As we breathlessly anticipate One Tree Hill star Paul Johansson’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, King Vidor’s one-of-a-kind, Rand-y melodrama The Fountainhead (1949) will have to tide us over. Uncompromised individualist architect Gary Cooper rails against classicist porticoes and, by sheer willpower, fills the Manhattan skyline with International-style matte paintings. Monumental camp right up to the climactic elevator-ride into Cooper’s crotch, The Fountainhead endures as hardline anti-collectivist Russian émigré Rand’s gift to her adopted country: a blueprint for a popular art as irony-dumb and straitjacketed as the Socialist Realism Stalin was pushing back home.