When I was sixteen and saw my first foreign films, Fellini’s 8 ½ and Bergman’s The Silence, the experience was altogether paradoxical. I felt smart and sophisticated, and part of a special fellowship with other members of the audience. But I also felt naïve, confused, and way out of my depth. Unable to understand their plots, let alone to fathom their deeper significances, these films were foreign in every sense—a completely different kind of movie experience.
Art films and foreign films have had a presence in America for a century, but the two decades after World War II changed the meaning of both “art” and “foreign.” Tino Balio’s book is not particularly interested in explaining Fellini or Bergman or their great contemporaries. But Balio has written a satisfying account and analysis of how the films appeared in our theaters and why they became an important part of our culture.
At the end of World War II, American hegemony extended to motion pictures. In many parts of the world, especially Europe, movie production facilities were devastated. American movies had been unable to reach foreign screens since at least 1942; the United States thus had a huge backlog ready to export, and it faced very little competition. In the first year after the war, over six hundred American films played on European screens. Initially this worked well for American studios and foreign audiences and the income from overseas sales proved significant. But a backlash was inevitable and swift. Italy and France took the lead, demanding that the United States limit the number of films exported to their countries, the number of screens on which they could be played, and the amount of profit that could be extracted from those countries. For reasons of culture and capital, the Italians and the French quickly re-established their own film industries, and then began to penetrate the American market.
D-Day for the European invasion came in 1946, with Roberto Rossellini’s Open City. A powerful drama about the Italian resistance, featuring both gifted professionals such as Anna Magnini and untrained actors, it shattered audiences with its authenticity and its tragic ending. To everyone’s surprise, it played at the World Theatre in New York for twenty-one months, longer than Gone with the Wind played in the city. And it earned over $5 million at the box office, a record for a foreign film. Other Italian neo-realist films would soon follow.
Balio is particulary good at analyzing the perfect storm of developments that allowed this flourishing of foreign film. Many of the soldiers returning home from overseas had a newfound interest in things foreign. Americans in general were worldlier after the war, especially about European ways of life. And film began to be taken more seriously as an artistic and cultural object of study and discussion. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was by far the most influential and important arbiter of judgment. A good review from him often meant a foreign film could play for two months in New York. Mass market magazines, esoteric periodicals, museums, and film festivals all discussed foreign films. By 1956 the Academy was awarding an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and by 1963 there were over 450 art houses in America. Within five years there would be over 4,000 college film societies.
Perhaps more important, Hollywood wanted the importation of foreign films. Certainly the initial group of these films came via new, small, adventurous distribution companies, and Balio’s description of them is one of the most interesting parts of his book; but it was the studios that ultimately shaped most distribution. After the war, the studios initially felt besieged. Television was a serious rival for viewers, as were the other entertainment opportunities that emerged in the mushrooming suburbs. The Supreme Court ordered the studios to divest their ownership of movie theaters, destroying the monopoly of production, distribution, and exhibition that they had enjoyed for decades. And all of this occurred during the post-war recession beginning in 1947. Not surprisingly, the studios chose to economize by producing fewer films and concentrating on bigger budget movies. (Sound familiar?) This led to the decline of “B” films, cartoons, and newsreels. But movie theaters were clamoring for product, and the distribution wings of studios were hungry for movies to release. Foreign films were one ready-made way to satisfy these needs.
Beyond these changes in the sophistication of the audience and the structure of the marketplace, the nature of the movies themselves also played a key role. Two things would drive the foreign film market through the 1950s and into the 1960s: artistic quality and sex. The list of talented directors bringing European films to America is staggering: Italian neo-realists such as Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti; in France, the new wave of Truffaut and Godard among others; Buñuel from Spain, Kurosawa from Japan, the British high art of Lawrence Olivier and David Lean, followed by the bitter, gritty realism of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top and Look Back in Anger. And towering over them all was Ingmar Bergman. More than anyone, the great Swedish director’s films elicited discussions as serious as those about any great novel, painting, or piece of music. A middle-brow culture maven of the 1950s and '60s could easily name more than a dozen European directors. Today I doubt that a comparable person could name even three.
But if these auteur giants gave foreign films their cachet and more than the patina of intellectual substance, they were all trumped by Brigitte Bardot. Balio notes her importance but does not really explore the volcanic effect she had in America. Starting with And God Created Woman, which became the most successful foreign film up to its day, Bardot’s movies created a close (and not incorrect) association of sex with foreign movies. She was the perfect vehicle to bring sex to the American screen. She combined a kind of can-can sexual playfulness with naïveté and a child-like naturalism. There was little artifice or mystery in her, and she fit well with the emerging younger generation’s attitudes about sex and authenticity. A common phrase of the era—“well, it’s a foreign film”—could denote intellectual or sexual sophistication, and in both cases they were profitable. Through the 1950s, foreign films accounted for about 7 percent of total box office—a staggeringly high number that has never been duplicated.
By 1966, however, a convergence of developments would scuttle the armada of foreign films that had arrived continuously for twenty years. In 1952, the Supreme Court applied the First Amendment to film, allowing the sex in European films to escape a good deal of the era’s censorship. Owing to Hollywood’s production codes, no studio would dare put that kind of eroticism in American movies. But the European monopoly on sex ended in 1966, when Hollywood altered the Production Code. Its replacement by a ratings system two years later allowed the packaging of sex in films by giving them an “R” rating. Foreign films were no longer unique in that most profitable of ways. Moreover, the studios began to lose interest in distributing foreign films, and instead made deals to bring talented foreign directors over to direct American productions.
More importantly, the American movie-goer seemed to lose interest in foreign films. For the first time a slew of highly acclaimed films—La Guerre Est Finie, Persona, Fireman’s Ball, Investigation of A Citizen Above Suspicion—could not find an audience. By 1970 the studios had abandoned any interest in foreign films, and many smaller distributors were unable to survive. Coincidentally, as foreign films declined, so did the studios. Bonnie and Clyde would kill Bosley Crowther, who repeatedly trashed it, and by doing so trashed his own long career. And—along with films like Easy Rider—it would herald a revolution in Hollywood as maverick executives and directors took control and created the greatest renaissance in American films since the 1930s. Amid all this ferment, foreign films would become a niche market, with increasingly little cultural significance in America and even less commercial importance.
Balio gives an informed and enjoyable account of this rise and fall. His writing is free of the post-modern jargon that shapes so much academic writing about film: there is not a “sign” or a “signifier” in the book. But missing, too, is interesting analysis of the films and their importance. Individual chapters on the important films from individual countries tend to be summaries of their plots and their reviews. Rarely does Balio quote a critic who reflects on the artistic or cultural meaning of a film. And he never probes the odd fact that just as young, hip, thoughtful baby boomers were coming of age and rejecting the bloated and stodgy fare of the studios, they were also rejecting foreign films. One might expect that the decline of the traditional Hollywood studio and its sensibility would be a godsend for foreign films, but Balio fails to engage why that did not happen.
Balio also explains but never explores the meaning of just how geographically limited was this renaissance. For all of the talk of foreign films in Life magazine and their appearance at assorted film festivals, the movement was overwhelmingly a New York phenomenon. Of those 450 art houses in 1960, a third were in New York, and they accounted for over 60 percent of all ticket sales to foreign movies. Of course the impact of a cultural phenomenon cannot be measured solely in terms of box office and geographic breadth. Still, compared to our world of DVDs and Netflix, it is remarkable how narrow the actual audience for foreign films was.
Interestingly, Balio’s account of the rise and fall of foreign film almost exactly mirrors the history of the rise and fall of independent film over the past two decades. In both cases, a film or two aroused the critics and alerted audiences that something new was afoot: Open City in 1946, Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, and Pulp Fiction in 1994. In each case, new distribution companies creatively promoted the films and helped them to reach their audiences, while the studios were slow to appreciate the significance of what was happening—but in each case Hollywood soon awoke and cannibalized the movement, as studios began to distribute the new fare themselves and to hire the best young talent to work on their own productions. In both cases, the new film movement had a cultural significance that went beyond its actual profitability. And in each case, the renaissance mostly expired in less than twenty years. Still, American film history was obviously enriched by both the arrival of foreign films after World War II and the emergence of a vibrant independent film movement in the 1990s. Balio’s book is a welcome introduction to that magical moment—it feels so distant now—when foreign films genuinely seemed to matter.
Harry Chotiner teaches film at NYU's SCPS and works with the Virginia Film Festival.