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American Literary History (2007) - Microfilm, Containment, and the Cold War




Microfilm, Containment, and the Cold War

"I see you've got the pumpkin," Cary Grant says to Eva Marie Saint in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), just before they scramble over the brows and necklines of Mt. Rushmore, made out of concrete and stagecraft on the MGM back lot. But Saint's character is carrying an antique figurine, not a squash. Hitchcock is alluding to the so-called Pumpkin Papers, microfilmed state secrets that Whittaker Chambers hid inside a pumpkin and then produced as evidence in making his charges against Alger Hiss a decade or so before the filming of this sequence. Hitchcock's antique figurine is stuffed with microfilm, tiny pictures of national importance, now handed and dragged across those giant faces of national heroes.

The chase over Mt. Rushmore offers a neat conflation of what Siegried Kracauer identified as two particularly "cinematic" subjects (41): "the small and the big" (46), which "seem to exert a peculiar attraction on the medium" (41): the camera loves them. As Kracauer explains, "the small is conveyed in the form of close-ups" (46), whereas the big includes "vast plains or panoramas of any kind" (50). Hitchcock puts these two together. His conflation of cinematic subjects depends upon as well as corrupts the spectator's intuitive sense of scale. There is a vertiginous effect, as the spectator must experience the intuitive small and intuitive big as counterintuitive filmic effects in the very same sequence that reveals (in a true close-up) the tiny rolls of microfilm (now huge up on the screen) inside the broken figurine. With the rolls exposed (the case cracked, literally), the movie draws to a close in a manner typical of Hitchcock Cold War productions: the hero rescues and marries/domesticates the girl (herself a spy), and simultaneously saves the nation by ensuring its secrets are kept safely at home.

Aligning its romance plot with the interests of state security, North by Northwest concludes with a self-conscious display of consolidation and normalization following the exposure of the microfilm. In this regard, the movie vividly illustrates what Alan Nadel has called a "containment narrative," which he and other scholars have posited as a paradigmatic feature of American culture during the Cold War.1 According to this model, Nadel explains, "containment equated containment of communism with containment of atomic secrets, of sexual license, of gender roles, of nuclear energy, and of artistic expression" (5). Such a comprehensive framework relies on a particular rationale of equivalence, as Nadel makes clear when he reads the initial argument for "containment" of the Soviet Union, George Keenan's famous 1947 Foreign Affairs article, as "implicitly equating the body politic with the human body" (15). This notion of equivalence in turn depends on the spatial metaphor of containment itself, with the US conceived as a kind of bounded vessel or container at once holding the Soviets at bay while policing potential subversion and contradiction within. Yet, as the dizzying effects of Hitchcock's Mt. Rushmore scene suggest, space is not a static given, but a dynamic process of contraction and expansion, framing and reframing, a constant series of negotiations (rather than automatic equivalences) between local or personal concerns and global or national ones. However powerful, studies of "containment culture" risk duplicating the fundamental cultural assumptions that they set out to analyze if they do not sufficiently attend to how space is actively construed.

To extend or amend such concepts of containment, we therefore propose to explore the role of microfilm in the cultural imaginary of Cold War America. Microfilm seems an especially significant medium to examine because, as our opening anecdote shows, it so graphically dramatizes questions of scale. Cultural geographers have recently emphasized how scale is crucial for understanding the social production of space. Drawing primarily on Henri Lefebvre's influential The Production of Space (1991), these scholars have argued for "the politics of scale," understood not as a fixed hierarchy for ordering the world (as prior physical geographers have tended to take for granted), but rather as "a contingent outcome of the tensions that exist between structural forces and the practices of human agents" (Marston 220).2 Focusing on microfilm's proximity to the body, in the first half of this essay we discuss a variety of peacetime and wartime practices that culminated in the famous spy cases of the 1950s; in the second half, we offer an extended analysis of Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953) — an underappreciated containment narrative whose regulatory mechanisms are less conventional than Hitchcock's, a film also foregrounding microfilm in the process of construing Cold War spaces in relation to gender, sexuality, and politics.

As Hitchcock's ending hints, microfilm and movies are in fact closely linked as a practical allegory of apparatus theory. Classic apparatus theory posits a subject produced and "fantasmatized" ...

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  1. In addition to Nadel, see also Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1988). For extended treatments of Hitchcock emphasizing containment, see Robert Corber, In the Name of National Security (1993); Steven Cohan, Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties (1997), 1-33.
  2. On the "politics of scale," see Neil Smith, "Geography, Difference, and the Politics of Scale," in Postmodernism and the Social Sciences (1992), ed. Joe Doherty, et al.; Neil Brenner, "Global, Fragmented, Hierarchical: Henri Lefebvre's Geographies of Globalization," Public Culture 10.1 (1997), 137-169; and Peter Taylor, "Places, Spaces and Macy's: Place-space Tensions in the Political Geography of Modernities," Progress in Human Geography 23.1 (1999): 7-26. For an interesting reading of space in North by Northwest that alludes to the microfilm only briefly, see Fredric Jameson, "Spatial Systems in North by Northwest," in Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock) (1992), ed. Slavoj Zizek, 47-72.
  3. For a classic statement of apparatus theory, see Jean-Louis Baudry on "fantasmatization" in "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus," trans. Alan Williams, Film Quarterly 28.2 (1974-75): 46. Until the late 1930s, there was not a clear distinction between cinematic and microfilm apparatus, since Kodak and others did not yet make emulsions specifically for microfilm; see "The Present Status of Equipment and Supplies," Journal of Documentary Reproduction 2.3 (1938): 21-22.
  4. On bomb tests we have been inspired by Thomas Doherty, Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture (2003), as well as forthcoming work by Mark J. Williams specifically on the televised bomb tests. On satellite images in relation to "the televisual," see Lisa Parks, Cultures in Orbit: Satellites and the Televisual (2005).
  5. See also Susan A. Cady, "Machine Tool of Management: A History of Microfilm Technology," (dissertation, Lehigh University, 1994).
  6. Stewart's insights about scale carry special significance for a postwar, post-Hiroshima period preoccupied with matters of size. For a decade supposedly dedicated to normalcy, for example, consider all those 1950s science fiction movies centering on mutants and monsters, creatures transformed (usually by atomic radiation) into gigantic ants or 50-foot women or colossal beasts (both human and nonhuman) or shrinking men. In his highly influential 1950 book, analyzing various modes of conformity, social scientist David Riesman dubbed similar kinds of popular folk fables "tales of 'abnorm'" (87).
  7. Bush's article "As We May Think" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in July 1945. It was covered by S. J. Woolf for the New York Times. The image of an encyclopedia the size of a matchbox (above) is from this last (Woolf 46).
  8. Peter Galison, "Removing Knowledge," Critical Inquiry 31 (2004): 232; on thinking the unthinkable, see also Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi, The Worlds of Herman Kahn: The Intuitive Science of Thermonuclear War (2005).
  9. A subject-heading search for the word "microfilm" in the American Film Institute database turns up 15 plot synopses from films made between 1943 and 1959. This search misses at least four other movies made during this period that feature microfilm, including Ministry of Fear (1944), Five Fingers (1952), The Thief (1952), and North by Northwest (1959).
  10. See Spy Hunt (1950).
  11. See Sallie Marston, "The Social Construction of Scale," Progress in Human Geography 24.2 (2000): 232.
  12. Implicitly drawing on Walter Benjamin's famous discussion of aura in "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Stewart in examining concepts of the miniature emphasizes small books that require immense human craft and care, as opposed to photographic media such as microfilm (S. Stewart 8, 11, 37-44).
  13. For the suggestive concept of "nuclear noir," see Mark Osteen, "The Big Secret: Film Noir and Nuclear Fear," Journal of Popular Film and Television 22 (1994): 80.
  14. See Joseph K. Heumann and Robin L. Murray, "Cape Town Affair: Right-Wing Noir, South African Style," Jump Cut 47 (2005) for information about "Blaze of Glory"; they rely on a brief unsubstantiated speculation from Edward Gallafent, "Kiss Me, Deadly," in The Movie Book of Film Noir (1992), ed. Ian Cameron, 245. In his autobiography Fuller acknowledges the Dwight Taylor story as the source of his script but does not mention that it was about drugs, suggesting that he changed the script simply because he found courtroom dramas boring. By 1952, the Production Code was losing force and therefore it is unclear whether Taylor's story would have run into censorship problems. Three years earlier (1949), for example, the same studio (Twentieth Century-Fox) was able to produce and release a film that featured drug dealers, Slattery's Hurricane, also starring Widmark, after making some script changes demanded by PCA head Joseph Breen. For details, see AFI Catalog: Feature Films, 1941-50 (1971), 2213.
  15. Fuller 293. Even though Fuller himself in recounting his own "yarn" seemed a bit fuzzy about the presumed contents of that microfilm, falling back on the false explanation ("a new patent for a chemical formula") that Candy is at first given by her ex-boyfriend communist agent Joey, it is clear that this is no case of industrial espionage. Fuller's retrospective confusion between trade secrets and nuclear secrets is itself revealing in relation to the interesting fact that after World War II complex criteria for legitimizing the classification of burgeoning documents as national security secrets came to be based on corporate patents and formulas, whose protected status had a longer history of legal precedent. See Galison 238-239.
  16. Enamored of Fuller's fluid camerawork, critics have been rather condescending toward his writing, often falling back on tired clichés about the director as an American primitive with brilliant visual instincts and little else. Manny Farber, for example, curtly dismissed his scripts as "grotesque jobs" (129). But there is nothing grotesque about Pickup's resonant dialogue. To cite another instance of Fuller's craft in plotting, we note how the scene of Joey hiding in a descending apartment dumbwaiter near the end exquisitely parallels Skip's dredging up the hidden microfilm by rope and pulley near the beginning of the movie.
  17. Fuller was a notorious embellisher. At one point in his autobiography A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking (2002), Fuller says the film was screened in Washington, D.C., for Hoover, who telephoned Zanuck to complain (304), but a few pages later (307-308) Fuller asserts that an actual lunch with three of them took place at Romanoff's restaurant in Hollywood, a claim Fuller repeated elsewhere (Server 34). The detail about removing "damn" (after the film's initial release?) is from yet another interview (with Richard Schickel) reproduced on the 2004 Criterion Collection DVD edition of Pickup. We have not been able to corroborate this remarkable encounter, which is not mentioned in any Zanuck biography we have consulted. As Steven J. Ross has noted, Hoover from the early 1920s routinely had his field agents file reports on specific movies (9, 144). But even though Hoover was known to frequent Romanoff's when in Los Angeles, it is uncertain whether he would arrange a meeting to personally confront a director about making some changes to a script. In fact, a memo from an FBI field agent to Hoover dated 19 May 1952 indicates that during the making of Pickup it was Fuller who initially contacted the Bureau, and not vice versa. After describing Fuller's desire to verify his depiction of FBI procedures (a request that underscores Fuller's serious investment in the Cold War plot), the memo goes on to quote a friend of Fuller's that the director "was not on the left side at all, that he is an extreme individualist who is not afraid to take a stand, even though it might be very controversial." Hoover replied, "if Fuller contacts you concerning his proposed screen story advise him Bureau unable to be of assistance." Thanks to Marsha Gordon Orgeron for sharing this information, which was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
  18. An 1982 French documentary on Fuller (included on the Criterion Collection DVD) opens by showing the director clutching the first reel of Pickup housed inside a canister similar to the one Skip uses to hide the microfilm. Recording Fuller's comments as he reviews the reel, scene by scene, the documentary helps us see how the exterior shot of a racing subway train that begins Pickup, with its window frames set off in a blur of black and white, closely resembles the rushing strip of film frames that winds through the viewing apparatus operated by Fuller.
  19. Dimendberg 21-22. For an interesting discussion of Fuller's violent close-ups in relation to his depiction of women, see Marsha Gordon, "'What Makes a Girl Who Looks Like that Get Mixed up in Science?'; Gender in Sam Fuller's Films of the 1950s," Quarterly Review of Film and Video 17.1 (2000): 1-17.
  20. In recounting the genesis of Pickup, Fuller recalled that "all the newspapers at that time in the United States were talking about Klaus Fuchs, the spy who operated from England, selling secrets on microfilm to the Soviet Union." In the same paragraph he also mentions Richard's Nixon's "phony expose" of Alger Hiss as a contemporaneous case to which his film deliberately referred (Fuller 295).
  21. See Michael Rogin, Ronald Reagan, the Movie and Other Episodes in Political Demonology (1987), 268; Frank D. McConnell, The Spoken Seen: Film and the Romantic Imagination (1975), 131-33.
  22. In response to Tiger's prediction that Skip will soon be back in jail, Candy's breezy, departing "you wanna bet?" (the very last line in the movie) is ambiguous and could be read, perhaps, as simply a sign of her confidence in his criminal expertise, but more likely their coupling suggests his reformation.