Hollywood And The Nuclear Age

The political tension and social uneasiness of the Cold War, and the eminent threat of nuclear warfare shaped the landscape of mainstream culture in the decades that followed the 2nd World War…

In the United States the looming reach of the red arm of the Communist bloc appeared ever-prevalent… well, according to the Nixon and Reagan administrations at the time. And within the paranoid periphery of Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy, not even the arts industry was safe from the accusations of Communist subversion.

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Precisely that climate of maladjustment from neurotic world leaders, and the resulting arms race that ensued has formed the framework behind several notable filmmakers over the decades, who have cleverly parodied that volatile period.

Repo Man (1984)

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Emilio Estevez in Repo Man (1984)

‘The life of a repo man is always intense…’

Amalgamating science fiction, comedy, conspiracy, capitalism and satire in a way that only the 80’s can, comes this anarchic punk classic from director Alex Cox and producer Michael Nesmith.

Loosely based upon the director’s own experiences in Los Angeles and the outlandish stories told by his car repossessor neighbour, Repo Man is equally satirical in it’s depiction of American consumerism and nuclear armament.

Perennial drifter and punk rocker Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) is getting nowhere fast. After he is fired from his dead-end grocery packing job he finds out his girlfriend is sleeping with his best friend. To top it all off, his pot-smoking hippie parents have squandered the money promised to him on graduation to a crooked televangelist.

He soon finds himself neck-deep in the bizarre world of the repo man and under the wing of the jaded and at times philosophical Bud (Harry Dean Stanton). So begins the mad quest that Maddox finds himself embroiled in amongst government agents, UFO enthusiasts and repo-rivals the Rodriguez brothers.

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In order to make the pitch more attractive to investors, Cox initially sketched a 4-page comic book based on the script and included it with the screenplay. The film’s soundtrack is praised today for it’s original punk scores by the likes of Black Flag, The Plugz, Circle Jerks, Suicidal Tendencies and it’s opening credits music by punk godfather Iggy Pop.

When asked what words would best describe the film Cox said:

‘Nuclear war of course… what else could it be about? And the demented society that contemplated the possibility thereof…’

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

 

Also known as How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, Dr. Strangelove is master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s satirical glimpse at the Cold War, and the political paranoia and melodramatic hostility between the USA and USSR during that period.

A clever black comedy, the film is actually loosely based on Peter George’s thriller novel Red Alert

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After a paranoid United States general orders the command for a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, the US President and his advisors summon a crisis meeting in an effort to avert an inevitable nuclear apocalypse.

Shot in bold black and white by cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, the film’s fantastically colourful cast includes George C Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens and an unforgettable Peter Sellers.

Remarkably so, it was Columbia Pictures who agreed to finance the film under the condition that Sellers play at least four roles- an arrangement that Kubrick was primarily apprehensive about. This idea stemmed from the prior success of Kubrick’s adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita, in which Sellers also played multiple roles. With much of his dialogue improvised, Kubrick would later include Sellers’ ad-libs into the screenplay, a practice known as retro scripting.

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Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Shot at the Shepperton Studios just outside of London, the three main sets resembling the Pentagon war room, the inside of the B-52 bomber and General Jack D. Ripper’s office were designed by Ken Adam, who worked on several James Bond films.

Nominated for 4 Academy Awards, the film was a commercial success upon release and has since received well-deserved cult status.

Film critic Roger Ebert has described it as:

‘arguably the best political satire of the century…’

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Robert Aldrich’s atomically explosive Film Noir and melodramatic 50’s gem leaves all other film adaptations of pulp novelist Mickey Spillane’s work in the apocalyptic dust of it’s mushroom cloud.

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Released amidst the unstable political climate of the Cold War and at the end of the classic noir era, Kiss Me Deadly rockets the noir genre to an apocalyptic, and ultimately nihilistic end.

Despite the scrutiny and criticism from various censorship commission bodies at the time; denoting the film as ‘designed to ruin young viewers’, the film has garnered a healthy cult following that has managed to grow over recent decades.

According to street smart and tough-as-nails private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), trouble always manages to fall in his lap. Along a lonely stretch of asphalt in the dead of night, that trouble comes in the form of an attractive and desperate hitchhiker wearing nothing but a trench coat (Cloris Leachman). What follows is a barrage of hired goons, kidnap, torture, espionage and one glowing radioactive box.

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What’s in the box? Ralph Meeker and Maxine Cooper in Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Shot on location in and around the distinguished boulevards of Beverly Hills and California, cinematographer Ernest Laszlo’s breathtaking framework is testament to his transition of capturing images from Westerns to Film Noir. Here Aldrich and Laszlo are at their best, framing low shots and cutaways to increase suspense and heighten the sometimes horrific violence and terror in the plot.

Ralph Meeker’s ice-cold portrayal of private dick Mike Hammer is unparalleled in the genre. So too are the efforts of a wonderful support cast including Maxine Cooper, Gaby Rodgers and Albert Dekker– who plays the wickedly villainous Dr Soberin.

Warning: Video footage spoiler alert!

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