OF MOVIES and MEN Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film by Joan Mellen. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977. 365 pp. $12.95.
To the small albeit growing list of basic discussions of motion pictures must now be added Joan Mellen's didactic analyses of Hollywood heroes. The message to be taught is that all along American movies have been teaching us a lesson, immediately enjoyable to be sure but eventually deleterious. For half a century a representation of males as strong-willed and resourceful has been presented on the screen. What the acceptance of this "image of men exercising raw authority" (p. 6) as an ideal self-image may have done to several generations of American men Mellen can only speculate. What it has done to potential richness in characterizations Mellen has detailed through a chronological sequence of plot narrations ever lethally precise and on occasion aphoristically trenchant. By combining revisionist film criticism with radical social criticism Mellen has managed to demolish a whole host of icons from Little Caesar to Dirty Harry. She has brought forward no substitutes, for the (matinee) idols were irreplaceable in our lives and irreconcilable with them.
In using a la Pauline Kael "Clark Gable," "John Wayne," "Humphrey Bogart," "James Dean," and "Clint Eastwood," likenesses of whom appear on the book's cover, to refer both to the actors and their roles Mellen has intimated that the focus of Hollywood movies, as audiences have understood and as auteur critics have yet to, usually has been its leads. Any search for similarities among films, then, also must focus at least in part upon the consequences of typecasting. At the same time Mellen's evaluations of such celebrated directors as Ford ("Stoicism in the face of adversity was taken for granted, and vulnerability before one's opponent was unthinkable" [p. 179] ) and Hawks ("It is clear what it takes to be a man: his deepest feelings must always be directed towards a male comrade" [p. 92] ) may serve to redefine interest from their mastery of material to the material of mastery that was their subject. …