CineFile: Mothers, Sons, & Political Paranoia

by A. Jay Adler on February 13, 2011
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In the 1950s there really was a communist threat. It just wasn’t in the United States, even though there were surely many more American communist supporters and sympathizers then than there are Americans today who are supporters of any form of Islamism. Even then Joe McCarthy claimed that there were communists in the Pentagon, and Robert Welch, founder of The John Birch Society claimed that President Eisenhower – a Republican – was secretly a communist. With, today, a Democratic president asserted by a broad fringe to be a clandestine Muslim and literally un-American (that is, not really born in the U.S.), we see that Richard Hofstadter‘s 1964 The Paranoid Style in American Politics extends both backward and forward in time.

In film, in the 50s, the paranoia was a major B movie mood, in substitute narratives of dormant, monstrous creatures awakened – The Thing, Them - and invasions from outer space of conquering aliens, some who even took our form. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, remade multiple times, is the greatest metaphor of this alien assumption and theft of our identity.

Sometimes, though, the films directly addressed the sinister, internal communist threat. Among the great embarrassments of those film productions was Leo McCarey‘s 1952 My Son John, starring Robert Walker. Note in the scene below, how Walker plays John with a bland, even-keeled normality, much like a body snatcher pod become a substitute person, and the insinuations of Helen Hayes, as the mother – because mother knows – that he has changed. There is something not quite right about him.

Call me a commie pod, but if she had bounced him on her knee one more time, my fingers would have been irretrievably down my throat.

Paranoia of a far higher aesthetic quality is a much more histrionic, Beckian feature in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 The Manchurian Candidate. Here Mom is paranoid in a much bolder manner.

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