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Title: Falling out with history : Hollywood and the Central Intelligence Agency, 1945 - 1975
Author: Willmets, Simon
Awarding Body: University of Warwick
Current Institution: University of Warwick
Date of Award: 2011
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This thesis examines the representation of the Central Intelligence Agency and its predecessor the Office of Strategic Services in Hollywood cinema from 1945-1975. It argues that the development of these cinematic representations over time has articulated a growing scepticism towards "official" narratives of the past that regard the state as the arbiter of historical authenticity. This scepticism towards state-sourced history is a consequence of increasing US government secrecy. In other words, secrecy fundamentally problematizes state-sourced approaches to historical representation, which rely on the state as an authoritative, trustworthy and relatively transparent producer of the documentary record. The epistemological problem of representing secret institutions is referred to here as the "paradox of secrecy" for historical representation. It is argued that Hollywood’s shift away from state-sourced representations of the CIA is a consequence of this paradox. This thesis is influenced by Hayden White's notion that a given form of historical representation is inherently ideological and even specifically political in its ramifications. In this sense, it is argued that the political content of the films examined here are very much a product of their approach to historical representation itself. This thesis identifies four dominant forms of the American spy film during this period. The first, which was dominant from roughly 1945 up until 1959, was the "semi-documentary". This form of spy thriller celebrated the centrality of the state as the arbiter of historical authenticity and relied upon extensive liaison between filmmakers and government. In chapter 1-3, this thesis traces the rise and fall of the semi-documentary and its ultimately frustrated attempts to represent the CIA. Chapter 4 examines the second dominant form of the spy thriller: the romantic fable. This form, epitomized by James Bond, represents an ironic "camp" reaction to state-sourced approaches to historical representation. Chapter 5 provides a detailed analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s trilogy of Cold War spy films. It argues that Hitchcock moved away from the camp fable towards the third dominant form: realism. This form, epitomized by the novels of John Le Carré, began a move away from the playful irony of the camp spy fables and offered a far more skeptical and politicized critique of the state and Cold War espionage as Machiavellian in nature. This scepticism towards the state paved the way for the fourth dominant form of the spy film: the conspiracy thriller, which is examined in chapter 6. The 1970s conspiracy thriller represents the precise opposite of the semi-documentary in that it regards the state and state secrecy as the primary obstacle to historical veracity and authenticity. By asserting the possibility of recovering "historical truth" from the miasma of state secrecy, however, the conspiracy narrative moves away from the irony of 1960s spy cinema and articulates the possibility of the redemption of the past. This diachronic transformation of the American spy thriller from the semi-documentary to the conspiracy thriller traces the broader cultural process of growing distrust in government narratives.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Arts & Humanities Research Council (Great Britain) (AHRC)
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare ; PN1993 Motion Pictures