Small-Town Movies: Outsiders as Characters

In the 1950s, the ideological attitude toward small-towns had changed and movies became more critical. In the decade’s most characteristic films, life in small towns was depicted as emotionally stifling, intellectually suffocating, and sexually repressive. The major thematic paradigm in movies of the decade was that of the outsider.

Many classic Westerns have employed this narrative structure, some in a mythical-religious way. In George Stevens’ s Shane (1953), for example, the outsider is a former gunfighter (played by Alan Ladd), defending a family of homesteaders. He rides into town in the film’s beginning and departs at its end, after redeeming the town from evil.

The narrative structure of the outsider typically consists of three phases. The film begins with the arrival of the outsider in town. Prior to his arrival, the town is presumed to be in a state of balance (equilibrium), which the outsider’s arrival disrupts. The second and major phase of the narrative depicts the pervasive effects of the outsider on individual residents and the town as a whole. The relationship between the outsider and the town is neither reciprocal nor symmetric: the outsider influences the town more than it affects him.

The outsider functions as a catalyst, setting events and conflicts in motion. In the third phase, the conclusion, the narrative offers a resolution that usually calls for the outsider’s departure and, in fewer cases, integration into town. But this basic narrative scheme allows for many variations in thematic conventions. These variations may concern the identity of the outsider, the particular role the outsider plays, the extent of the outsider’s influence, and the town’s reaction to the outsider.

In most films, there is one outsider, but sometimes there are more. Furthermore, in the characteristic films of the decade, being an outsider is both literal (arriving from other places) and figurative. In some films, the outsiders reside in town; nominally they are
insiders, but their attitude toward town (its institutions or norms) makes them outsiders.

In 1950s movies, the outsider is almost always a man, young or middle-aged, often attractive.

In Picnic (1952), he is a drifter (William Holden);
In Peyton Place (1957), he is the new school principal (Lee Philips);
In The Long Hot Summer (1958), he is also a drifter (Paul Newman);
In The Rainmaker (1955), he’s a charming con man (Burt Lancaster);
In The Rose Tattoo (1955), he is a simpleton truck driver (also Lancaster).

The outsider’s motives for arriving in (or returning to) town are also varied. In Picnic, The Rainmaker, and The Long Hot Summer, the protagonists are down on their luck, hoping to start a new life. In contrast, in Peyton Place, the outsider also begins a new life but is not running from his past.