THE 1950s WERE A TIME of codes -- dress codes, behavior codes, moral codes, esthetic codes, codes for individuals and codes for groups -- every is turned into an ought by elected, appointed, or self-appointed arbiters fearful of any deviation from the pure norms of cold war America. The political consensus of the war had broken apart with victory and the death of Roosevelt. It was a time of fear when self-seeking could easily assume the guise of national interests and put up for grabs the definition of what was truly "American."

In this contest over what it meant to be an American, the most emblematic battle was fought between right-wing Washington (in the shape of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee) and the left-wing Hollywood. The story of the Hollywood Ten, who went to jail rather than answer questions about their beliefs and associates, has been told before. But many of the earlier accounts were either special pleading for the victims of the blacklist or what Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund characterize as anti-communist liberals intent on disparaging the talent of the blacklisted even while they attack the right-wing publicists and politicians who aimed to destroy them. It is the achievement of The Inquisition in Hollywood that it is the first book on the period to take a historical view of the campaign against the Hollywood Left, treating it not only in terms of postwar politics (the usual approach) but also in relation to the history of political activity in the movie industry. This activity began in the early 1930s, gathered strength with the founding of the Screen Writers Guild in 1933, and flowered during the late 1930s with such Popular Front organizations as the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.

The Screen Writers Guild (SWG) and the growth of Hollywood unionism are at the center of the story Ceplair and Englund have to tell. Screenwriters, they point out, were more than half of those blacklisted (and more than half of those who informed). Seven of the Hollywood Ten were screenwriters (plus two directors and one producer), six of the seven had been officers of the SWG, and two (John Howard Lawson and Lester Cole) had been president.

If one issue could be said to have forced the SWG into existence, it was credit -- credit for what was written, credit for what was filmed. The contemporary celebration of the director as the most important creator in a film was far in the future, and the writer had even lower status. Both were employees, and the writers especially were entirely at the mercy of producers and studios who might hire them to do original work or rewrites, then fire them and leave their names off the finished film.

The Screen Writers Guild was therefore that strange phenomenon in unionism -- a group of individualist creators banded together for collective support in making their personal work known to an audience. From the first, then, the problem of integrating artistic individuality (and the competition for freelance jobs) with political philosophy (and the belief in collective goals) intensified the general problem of Hollywood: where does art leave off and industry begin?

Ceplair and Englund have no answer to this perennial American problem. But through their command of statistics, their pioneering use of sources often ignored by more impressionistic accounts, and their large number of interviews with participants from all political perspectives, they maintain a balance between the changing shapes of political action, the more rigid forms of theory, and the individual careers that crystallize what would otherwise be contradictions. Most strikingly, Ceplair and Englund approach the actual ilssue of communist involvement with firm evenhandedness, emphasizing especially the breakdown of the New Deal coalition and tracing with some delicacy the confusion of Holywood leftists attacked by HUAC for subverting the movie industry when they thought they had accomplished little or nothing at all.

Unfortunately, the sophisticated political and historical account of The Inquisition in Hollywood is not matched by any clear sense of what films can or have actually accomplished. Ceplair and Englund accurately point out that the ultimate test of a film's politics is its impact on an audience, and they condemn the rigidity of the Communist Party's view of the relation of art and politics. But their own comments on specific films are often rudimentary and simplistic, and they fail to see the genuinely subversive nature of many films of the 1950s, more intricate (and interesting) because they were unable to speak directly. Like many of those they write about on both left and right, Ceplair and Englund often seem to think that only specific content is truly political, and they condemn the ways even liberal producers would often remove a film's direct references and substitute vague generalizations.

But one person's smudged glass might be another's new window on reality, and, as Abraham Polonsky, another formerly blacklisted writer and director has pointed out, form -- a new perspective on the world -- is often more politically influential than any specific content. The lines between causes in art and effects in an audience are very hard to draw, let alone predict. Traditional left-wing critics have often attacked, Viva Zapata (1952) for its jaundiced view of the uses of power, even in a good cause (as well as for the fact that its director Elia Kazan became a HUAC "friendly" witness). Yet in a different political atmosphere the film became an inspiration to the early leaders of the New Left.

The great paradox of the blacklist was that after being in the forefront of efforts to achieve credit for the work, the blacklisted writers thereupon lost it and had to masquerade under the names of others. As the years go on, it turns out that more and more of the most striking films of those times were credited to "fronts." The late Michael Wilson, for example, who with Carl Foreman had coauthored The Bridge over the River Kwai (1957) once remarked that Pierre Boulle, the author of the novel who had received the actual script credit (and the Academy Award) began to give interviews about how he had managed the adaptation. When Wilson was finally nominated in his own name for Planet of the Apes (1968), also coincidently adapted from a Boulle novel, he could hardly resist writing Boulle "You've done it again." For Friendly Persuasion (1957) Wilson also received no credit, but neither did anyone else -- the only Hollywood film whose story and dialogue, at least according to the credits, emanates from the characters themselves. To compound the insanity, Richard Nixon, a distant cousin of Jessamyn West, the author of the original novel, frequently showed the film at the White House during his administration, no doubt to show what true Americans were like.

Such ironies are available everywhere in the accounts of the blacklist and underline the way the conditions of creative work in Hollywood make even the barest personal expression difficult, let alone the expression of one's politics. In the more open atmosphere of the present, it might seem to be easier. But in Creative Differences, David Talbot and Barbara Zheutlin merge career sketches and interviews to depict the continuing struggle of some 16 Hollywood workers -- from the visible and highly paid (like Jane Fonda and Haskell Wexler) to less prominent executives, directors, technicians, and secretaries -- to mediate the peculiarly intense Hollywod tug-of-war between the individual and the system. It's a valuable book, especially for the way it reveals a Hollywood behind the famous faces and the often minute and personal ways the struggle for social justice is carried on in an industry more often noted for its surfaces than its depths.

Dore Schary, in Heyday, promises to be an equally intriguing witness. Schary -- who began as a screenwriter in 1933, became a producer in 1941, and headed production at several studios until being fired and leaving Hollywood in 1956 -- was one of the first writers to try to get leverage for his work by becoming a producer. A strong liberal, Schary details the fights he (along with Walter Wanger and Sam Goldwyn) had with other studio heads about knuckling under to HUAC. He claims credit for suggesting the First Amendment defense to the Hollywood Ten, generally agrees with Ceplair and Englund that the Ten's hostile attitude toward the Committee (a strategy suggested by their lawyer) was responsbile for a massive loss of support, although he personally refused to fire Adrian Scott and Edward Dmytryk (strangely referred to as "Dymytryk" throughtout Heyday ).

Schary generally characterizes himself as a humane person trying to realize his ideals and aspirations in the midst of a rapacious and corrupt Hollywood. In fact, some of the best parts of Heyday deal with the fitful ups and downs of a project before it becomes a finished film, and Schary is frequently found bucking front office resistance to such films as Crossfire, Bad Day at Black Rock (the great liberal mea culpa), Blackboard Jungle, and Red Badge of Courage. For Schary, talent is unrelated to moral and political character, and unions can be militant without being political -- attitudes that are easy enough to argue with but were rare for an executive to hold at a time of witchhunting and guilt by association.

But, despite its interesting angle on the same period covered more historically by Ceplair and Englund, Heyday is finally unsatisfying because it is primarily a scrapbook. Held together by the invincible cheerfulness of Schary, who acts according to principles, gets fired, and yet always seems to wind up on his feet, it moves easily from talk to the blacklist to family jokes about his son-in-law's name. So intent is Schary on demonstrating that he was unscathed by Hollywood that he includes a good deal of trivial detail about his children, as if to prove that here are some Hollywood kids who grew up all right.

Even in 1980 the fog has hardly lifted. Budd Schulberg, in a recent article on the making of On the Waterfront (1954) talks about everything but the political context of the film's central theme of informing. So too Schary, for all his frankness in some areas, often sounds like a survivor glossing over the difficult times he lived through except to celebrate his own escape. Like all autobiographies, Heyday is as remarkable for what it leaves out as for what it includes. Schary is at pains to distinguish himself from the old buccaneering studio executives and the new cost accounts, modeling his own liberal paternalism on that of his hero FDR. But for all its emphasis on his liberalism and his Zionsim, Heyday sheds little light on a crucial but hardly discussed thread in the cold war fabric: the extent to which many Jewish studio chiefs, who had strongly supported liberal and leftist anti-Nazi groups before the war, feared that opposing HUAC's demands would only feed the anti-Semitic identification of Jews with Communists.

Yet, whatever, their partialities all three books are essential to the continuing dialogue about the place of Hollywood in American life, and its often confusing role in shaping and being shaped by American values. The secret codes of the cold war period have hardly been completely cracked. But Ceplair and Englund have made a giant step forward in our understanding of the place of politics in the history of Hollywood, Schary furnishes the brief of an actively involved witness to the past, and Talbot and Zheutlin survey the attitudes of the present and the possibilities for the future.