Collections > UNC Chapel Hill Undergraduate Honors Theses Collection > The Problem of Choice in Hollywood Cold War Cinema

The three films considered in this essay display a range of aesthetic and philosophical investments that exceed the purview of paranoia and the kinds of analysis to which that concept normally gives rise. Chapter 1 discusses John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a film that places the paranoid mindset front and center and that wears its allusions to topical events on its sleeve. Set against the backdrop of international espionage and McCarthyism, The Manchurian Candidate effectively creates the sensation that external—and perhaps sinister—forces determine the events of the film, including the most intimate choices of the characters. This effect is achieved through the plot’s elliptical structure and Frankenheimer’s tactical manipulation of filmic and literary genres. The collision of normally distinct generic codes within individual scenes and the disorienting elision of time between them forces the audience to speculate about the causal relationships between the key—and not-so-key—events of the plot. Given the subject matter in The Manchurian Candidate, this has the effect that the audience is invited to participate in various degrees and kinds of totalizing analysis. Each loose end is a temptation to join the characters in their paranoid speculations. While Frankenheimer’s film overtly thematizes paranoia, its ultimate interest arguably lies in probing the under-examined choices that are a routine part of film spectatorship. Chapter 2 turns to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), a film that takes aim at the statistically-driven, rational-actor models that govern national decision-making in the nuclear age. By dealing with the inconceivable—or, as the film demonstrates, all-too-conceivable—choice to commence the annihilation of the Earth, Dr. Strangelove mines grim laughter from the tendency of utilitarian thought to exonerate of the ethical consequences of their actions those entrusted with the most impactful decisions. Delusional paranoia enters Dr. Strangelove as the disavowed twin of technocratic rationality, which—with consummate hypocrisy and poise—allows the military commanders to engage in the fantasy that they are not to blame for their disastrous choices. Chapter 3 examines how Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) approaches the problem of choice from what might be called an Aristotelian perspective, focusing on the relationship between quotidian habit and the ethical formation of the individual. In its shift away from overt depictions of Cold War tensions, the film turns to issues related to consumer culture, reproductive rights, and the moral mandates of organized religion. For Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow), the consumer activity of everyday life is the foundation of ethical subjecthood, but one that exists in uneasy relation to the values of her Catholic upbringing. The two competing forces are set on a collision course when Rosemary conceives the progeny of Satan. Satanism and Catholicism work to overcome Rosemary’s freedom-through-consumption; at the same time, their perversely symbiotic theologies present Rosemary with the most significant decision she has ever faced: whether to mother her firstborn.