© 2019, by M. Keith Booker
In many noir films, social and political commentary seems to be the principal goal of the film—which might explain why so many principals in film noir ran afoul of the witch-hunting Congressional investigations into communist activity in Hollywood. Some of these films, such as the boxing noir Body and Soul, still fit comfortably within other noir categories, though some of them are so focused on socio-political commentary that they are virtually one-of-a-kind films. Such films, of course, can address a variety of issues, though perhaps the central thread that connects most of them is a suspicion toward the promises of the American dream and the capitalist system for which that dream is cynically seen in the films as a mere ideological prop.
Anatole Litvak’s Out of the Fog (1941), read literally, is a relatively uninteresting crime drama in which a gangster type extorts protection money from two poor immigrants on the Brooklyn waterfront. From a noir standpoint, it is made more interesting by the presence of John Garfield as the ruthless gangster and Ida Lupino as the innocent daughter of one of the immigrants—both actors thus playing roles that were somewhat different from the ones for which they would ultimately be better known in film noir. From a political standpoint, meanwhile, it is made more interesting if read allegorically, making the story one of the exploitation often experienced by immigrants at the hands of the American capitalist system, which, after all, imported large numbers of immigrant workers in the early twentieth century specifically for the purpose of exploiting them.
In Ruthless (1948), low-budget master Edgar Ulmer tells the tale of the ruse and fall of a Wall Street tycoon, mostly in flashback, in a film that is more than a little reminiscent of Citizen Kane. Here, Zachary Scott plays Horace Vendig, a poor boy who gets a break when he saves a relatively affluent girl from drowning. Vendig is subsequently taken in by the girl’s family. He and the girl, Martha Burnside (Diana Lynn), grow up together and ultimately become engaged to be married. Martha’s father agrees to fund Vendig’s studies at Harvard in order to increase his future son-in-law’s prospects, but this sets Vendig onto a series of opportunistic moves, as he uses, then discards everyone who has ever been important to him (beginning with Martha), working his way up the Wall Street ladder until he is finally killed in the film’s final scene. Ruthless, partly written by soon-to-be-blacklisted screenwriter Alvah Bessie,is a surprisingly scathing criticism of capitalism and the kind of selfish behavior that is required for ultimate success in that system. It was made shortly before Congressional investigation of communist activity in Hollywood created an environment in which such a critique would become unthinkable.
The same timing applies to John Farrow’s The Big Clock (1948), basedon Kenneth Fearing’s 1946 novel of the same title, is one of the classic examples of the political film noir thriller. Fearing’s novel (together with this first film adaptation) also provided the inspiration for the 1987 Kevin Costner vehicle, No Way Out. The Farrow film maintains much of the political commentary of the Fearing book and even supplements it in significant ways. The film thus represents an important extension of the work of Fearing, who was one of the leading American leftist poets of the 1930s. Beginning in the 1940s, he wrote a series of detective novels that continued many of the themes of his earlier poetry. The most successful of these was The Big Clock, which effectively combines a compelling detective-story plot with a number of important satirical observations about modern American society. It thus serves as one of the better examples in American culture of the use of popular fiction to convey leftist ideas.
As in the original book, the central character of the film version of The Big Clock is George Stroud (Ray Milland), who works as the editor of Crimeways magazine, which covers notorious crimes, often leading to the capture of the perpetrators. Stroud is so devoted to his job that his wife, Georgette (Maureen O’Sullivan), complains that he is married more to the magazine than to her. The magazine is part of the publishing empire of Janoth Enterprises, headed by Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton). The egomaniacal and dictatorial Janoth is obsessed with time, parceling out all his activities to the nearest minute. He is thus a slave to time, despite his extensive power as a wealthy publisher, and he illustrates (better in the film than in the book) the regimentation of behavior under capitalism. Janoth is involved in an affair with beautiful Pauline York (Rita Johnson), who also becomes briefly involved with Stroud, though Stroud is unaware that York is Janoth’s mistress. The detective-story plot of the film is initiated when Janoth arrives at Pauline’s apartment building just as Stroud, whom Janoth sees in the distance but does not recognize, is leaving. The jealous Janoth follows Pauline up to her apartment and questions her about the departing man, whom she identifies as “Jefferson Randolph” to avoid revealing her involvement with Stroud. The two argue, and Janoth flies into a rage and strikes Pauline with a sundial, killing her. He then goes to the apartment of his friend and chief lieutenant, Steve Hagen (George Macready) and confesses the crime, planning to go from there to the police. Hagen coolly convinces him to keep quiet and promises to help cover up Janoth’s involvement in the murder. The key problem, however, is the departing man, who can place Janoth at the scene of the crime. Hagen enlists Stroud, the company’s expert on detective work, to find “Randolph,” claiming that the man committed the murder. Stroud immediately realizes that he is seeking himself, but the net nevertheless begins to close about him. Surviving a couple of close calls, Stroud is able to avoid detection long enough to put together a series of clues that seems to point to Hagen as the killer. In response, Hagen identifies Janoth as the killer. Already crumbling beneath the stress of the entire experience, Janoth becomes unhinged and shoots Hagen, then attempts to run away, but falls down an elevator shaft and is killed.
Aside from its obvious suggestion (supplemented by the atmosphere created by the film’s classic noir look) of unscrupulous, even criminal, activity at the highest levels of corporate America, The Big Clock makes a number of important satirical comments about modern American society. In the book, the title metaphor refers to Stroud’s personal belief that every aspect of life is ordered as if run by a big clock “to which one automatically adjusts his entire life.” But the film, in keeping with its more literal use of the metaphor, features an actual big clock inside the Janoth building. Described as the “most accurate and most unique privately owned clock in the world,” the big clock features a futuristic digital display and is connected to all of the other clocks in the building so that they can be precisely synchronized. Such images actually make the film more effective than the book in its treatment of the motif of regimentation by time. However, the book is more effective in its satire of the commodification of modern American culture, a phenomenon Fearing had observed firsthand in his own earlier work as a publicity and editorial writer, including work for such publications as The New York Times and Newsweek.
Max Ophüls’ Caught (1949) is a seemingly low-key domestic noir about an innocent young woman who marries a pathologically controlling man who treats her like a piece of property. And it is that, but it is also a film that contains a great deal of social critique within its seemingly simple narrative. It begins by introducing young Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), an aspiring model who has bovarystically bought into the American dream hook, line, and sinker. Raised in poverty, she hopes to parlay her charm and good looks into a life of wealth and leisure, taking charm courses to prepare her for her refined life to come. She gets a chance at that life when she marries magnate Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), but Ohlrig’s domineering ways and pathological personality ultimately drive her to leave him and to seek to make her own way in life apart from him and his money. She gets a modest job as a receptionist in the office of two medical doctors, ultimately falling in love with pediatrician Larry Quinada (James Mason). Unfortunately, Leonora learns that she has become pregnant during a brief attempt at reconciliation with Ohlrig, complicating her plans to leave her husband to be with Quinada, especially after Ohlrig insists that he will only grant her a divorce if she gives him the child, which she cannot bring herself to do. Then, in one of the most discordant endings in all of film noir, an altercation with Ohlrig causes Leonora to go into premature labor, and the baby dies. Quinada declares the child’s death a sad thing, but seems quite happy about it, since it clears the way for him to be with Leonora, who seems quite pleased as well.
The negative depiction of the ruthless and megalomaniacal Ohlrig in this film can certainly be taken as an indictment of capitalism, as he devotes his life to making money purely for the purpose of making money, no matter who it hurts. In one scene he tells us that he inherited $4 million from his father and has now parlayed that into $88 million. He plans for it to be $200 million by the time he dies, though he seems to have no other goal than getting that number as high as possible. But the depiction of Leonora is even more telling. Growing up poor in a society that relentlessly bombards her with messages concerning the desirability of wealth, she develops an irresistible urge to be rich that cripples her entire life. Indeed, a suggestion at the end of the film that she has now learned her lesson and will be happy with the non-materialistic Quinada, even without wealth, is rather unconvincing. Meanwhile, Quinada’s reaction to the death of Leonora’s baby casts a shadow over his depiction throughout the film as a thoroughly honorable man, devoted to providing his patients with the best care he can, with little regard for financial gain. Yet he, a man supposedly devoted to saving the lives of children, can be relieved at the death of a child if it helps him to gain the prize he seeks. Indeed, one gets the sense in the film’s final moments that he might regard Leonora as a possession as much as does Ohlrig. Read carefully, this film suggests that the corrupting influence of the American dream runs so deep that no one is immune. The truly rich might be almost inevitably psychopathic, but everyone seems to be willing to do anything to pursue their goals, even if these goals themselves seem artificial and superficial, sure to bring no true happiness even if achieved.
Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) is a powerful early critique of media culture, presented with a noir sensibility. Kirk Douglas stars as down-on-his-luck newspaperman Charles “Chuck” Tatum, who is driving through New Mexico after being fired from a series of big-city newspaper jobs, mostly for his own misconduct. When his car breaks down outside of Albuquerque, he manages to hire on with a local newspaper, all the while railing against the backwardness of the environment within which he finds himself. A year later he is sent to a remote locale to cover a rattlesnake hunt but takes a detour to rural Escudero, he finds that a local man, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict) has been trapped in a cave-in while digging in the ruins of a Native American cliff dwelling. Remembering the story of Floyd Collins, a Kentucky miner trapped in a cave-in who became the subject of a media frenzy (winning a Pulitzer for one reporter), Tatum sees Minosa’s plight as an opportunity to resurrect his own flagging newspaper career. He subsequently orchestrates a media circus (a literal carnival even sets up near the cliff dwelling) around the rescue attempt, even going so far as to force (with the help of the local sheriff, whom he enlists in his cause by promising to give him positive press coverage that will help him get re-elected) the rescuers to take a circuitous route that will delay the rescue by a week or so, giving Tatum more time to capitalize on and sensationalize the event, as when he manufactures rumors that the cave-in may have been the result of an ancient Indian curse. Unfortunately, this delay ultimately leads to Minosa’s death, causing even the ruthless Tatum to feel momentary remorse. The quick dispersal of the carnival after Minosa’s death provides a chilling reminder of the way in which the numerous gathered onlookers were only interested in the spectacle and not in Minosa’s welfare. Meanwhile, growing tensions between Tatum and Minosa’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling), eventually lead to violence. Lorraine, disappointed by the false promises Minosa made to her before marriage, sees her husband’s entrapment in the mountain as an opportunity to escape, but Tatum convinces her to stay through the entire event, providing him with an additional human interest angle for his reporting. When Tatum eventually starts to strangle her, Lorraine stabs him, giving him a wound that will prove fatal, but only after he has returned to Albuquerque, where he collapses and dies in the newspaper office.
The Phenix City Story (1955) includes a number of fictionalized details, but its fundamental scenario is based on real events that occurred in Phenix City, Alabama, in the 1950s. This small town was dominated by a vice racket that operated in the town, while the local authorities looked the other way. When Albert Patterson ran for state attorney general on a platform of cleaning up Phenix City, he was assassinated, causing the state government to declare martial law and send the state militia to clean up the town. Patterson’s son John replaced him as the Democratic nominee for attorney general and won the subsequent popular election. The film itself is rather crudely made, but nevertheless dramatizes these events effectively—and in a noir mode that demonstrates the flexibility of noir, not normally associated with events in small Alabama towns, a setting that also provides the film with the opportunity to feature a critique of blatant racism without seeming to criticize America as a whole.
Released just before Gentleman’s Agreement, another noir film that deals with a similar theme, Crossfire was the first postwar film to treat the theme of American antisemitism. It was thus a marker of Hollywood’s new willingness to tackle difficult social issues in the postwar years. On the other hand, the film is actually based on a 1945 novel by Richard Brooks that explores the issue of homophobia, telling the story of a homosexual who is beaten to death by his fellow Marines because of his sexual orientation. Due to Code strictures against the representation of homosexuality, RKO found that issue too hot to handle and so converted the homosexual of the novel into a Jew.
The film, shot entirely in a dark, brooding, film noir style, begins with the murder, though we see only shadows and therefore cannot identify the killer. The film then proceeds as police detective Captain Finlay (Robert Young) attempts to unravel the mystery of the murder, which seems particularly perplexing because none of the major suspects appeared to know the victim, Joseph Samuels (Sam Levene), whom they all had apparently just met on the night of the killing. These suspects are a group of army war veterans who are in the process of being mustered out into civilian society after the war. They include Montgomery (Robert Ryan), Bowers (Steve Brodie), and Mitchell (George Cooper), with suspicion initially focusing on the latter. Army sergeant Peter Keeley (Robert Mitchum) soon becomes involved as well, helping Finlay to solve the mystery, which deepens when Bowers is also found murdered, apparently to keep him quiet.
Eventually, it becomes clear that Montgomery, figured not only as a particularly hateful anti-Semite, but as a sort of protofascist, is the killer and that he brutally murdered the congenial Samuels purely out of his hatred of Jews. He then murdered Bowers, his best friend, to prevent him from revealing Montgomery’s role in the earlier crime. Keeley and another soldier help Finlay concoct a plan to entrap Montgomery and establish his guilt. The plan works, but Montgomery escapes and runs away into the darkened street, where he is shot down by Finlay. Crossfire is a reasonably effective detective thriller that nevertheless makes clear the message that the defeat of Nazi Germany has eradicated neither antisemitism nor fascism and that right-thinking Americans need to remain vigilant against these tendencies in our own society. The picture was a commercial and critical success—which did not stop government anticommunist witch hunters from moving in on director Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott soon after it was released. Both became members of the Hollywood Ten and served jail terms, though Dmytryk later recanted and thus was able to resume his career relatively soon.
Elia Kazan’s Gentleman’s Agreement, also released in 1947, also deals with antisemitism in America. It was a major commercial and critical success, winning three Academy Awards (and a total of eight nominations), including the prestigious ones for best picture and best director. In the film, Gregory Peck plays Phil Green, a successful magazine writer who has just moved to New York with his mother (Anne Revere) and his son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell), to take a position writing for Smith’s Weekly, a liberal magazine. His first assignment is to do a series of articles on antisemitism in America, an assignment of which he is at first highly skeptical, especially as his new editor, John Minify (Albert Dekker), insists that he find a new and compelling angle on the story. At last, however, Green discovers the angle: he pretends to be Jewish and then observes the treatment he receives as a result.
In the course of the film, Green receives a number of slights because of his Jewishness, some subtle and some not so subtle. He discovers that antisemitism is far more prevalent than he had ever realized, especially in veiled forms. He also discovers some of the genuine pain that is caused by this antisemitism, as when Tommy is insulted by other boys, who refuse to play with him because they think he is Jewish. Green even discovers that his new (blonde) secretary at Smith’s, herself a Jew, has changed her name to hide the fact and is prejudiced against “kikey” Jews that she is afraid will give highly assimilated Jews like herself a bad name. In the meantime, the entire experiment is complicated when Green meets and falls in love with Kathy Lacy (Dorothy McGuire), Minify’s niece. Kathy, who quickly agrees to marry Green, is aware that he is not really Jewish, though she seems troubled by the fact that everyone else will think he is. Her discomfort causes serious problems in the relationship and eventually leads to a breakup when he concludes that she is antisemitic.
In the meantime, Green’s old friend, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), comes to town and adds his special insights, as a real Jew, to Green’s research. More experienced with various forms of antisemitism than Green, Goldman realizes that Kathy is not really antisemitic, but has simply not had the courage to stand up to those who are. He points out to her that it is not enough to be against antisemitism, but that one must fight against it in practice. She sees the error of her ways and agrees to rent a cottage she owns to Goldman and his family, though she knows it is in a neighborhood where there is a “gentleman’s agreement” to keep out Jews. Further, she assures Goldman she will stand by him and actively oppose any in the neighborhood who object to his moving in. In the end, Green’s series is published to much acclaim, while he and Kathy are reunited.
For its time, Gentleman’s Agreement was a particularly hard-hitting attack on antisemitism in America. However, the film continues to adhere to a number of romantic conventions, sometimes in a rather artificial manner, as in the sudden dismissal of the evidence that Kathy is antisemitic and in the final reunion of the lovers. Moreover, the ease with which the trouble between Green and Kathy is resolved tends to suggest that antisemitism and other forms of bigotry are easier to overcome than they really are; the film also tends to suggest that the solution to bigotry is to eliminate difference altogether and make all Americans the same. Nevertheless, the film at least makes clear not only that antisemitism is evil, but that it is widely practiced at all levels and in every aspect of American society, at great cost not only to Jews, but to the stated principles of American democracy. The fact that the film was accused by some of being communist propaganda indicates not only the extremism and paranoia of many on the Right, but the extent to which the American Left had identified itself by World War II with opposition to racism and bigotry.
Fielder Cook’s Patterns (1956), written by Rod Serling based on his own virtually legendary teleplay, is not really a noir film. For example, it lacks true noir visuals and contains no literal crimes. But it delivers a very noir-like critique of the ruthlessness that sometimes drives capitalist enterprise, suggesting that the messages so often found in film noir could be found elsewhere in the culture as well. Here, Everett Sloane plays Walter Ramsey, a corporate tycoon who ruthlessly drives his employees in the pursuit of bigger profits for the company. When his aging vice-president, Bill Briggs (Ed Begley), can no longer keep up with Ramsey’s corporate agenda, Ramsey decides to try to drive him into retirement by humiliating and abusing him at every opportunity, meanwhile grooming young Fred Staples (Van Heflin) to be Briggs’ replacement. Eventually, Ramsey drives Briggs to his death, causing an outraged Staples to declare his resignation. Then, in a chilling ending, Ramsey talks Staples into staying on as the new vice-president, with a doubled salary. Staples clearly believes that he will be able to counter Ramsey and bring some humanity into the company’s operations: the unstated implication, though, is that Staples, having started down the road to selling out, will probably soon be sucked into Ramsey’s orbit.
Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957) is somewhat reminiscent of Patterns, though it resides more comfortably in noir territory. It is also an almost Balzacian examination of the price of fame and success that conducts (like the fiction of Balzac) a searing critique of capitalism and the greed that drives it. Here, the ruthless J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is New York’s most powerful gossip columnist. Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a struggling press agent, willing to do anything to get publicity for his clients. Hunsecker takes advantage of this situation to get Falco go various dirty tasks for him in return for the chance to get a positive mention for his clients in Hunsecker’s influential column. Mary, Hunsecker’s secretary, rather likes the handsome Falco, but tells him, “You haven’t got a drop of respect in you for anything alive. You’re so immersed in a theology of making a fast buck.”
Most of the plot revolves around the attempts of Hunsecker to “protect” his much younger sister, Susie (Susan Harrison), from a romantic entanglement with jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), even though Dallas is not only extremely talented, but the most virtuous figure in the entire film. Asked by Hunsecker what Susie sees in Steve, Falco replies, “Integrity—acute, like indigestion.” He assigns Falco the task of breaking up the relationship, and Falco begins a smear campaign that includes planting a report in the column of another columnist, Otis Elwell, that Dallas is a marijuana-smoking communist.
Dallas, suspecting Hunsecker is behind the smear, confronts the columnist and calls him a national disgrace. Not accustomed to having anyone stand up to him, Hunsecker furiously resolves to destroy the guitarist. At first, Falco refuses to go along with the plan, but he agrees after Hunsecker offers to go away on vacation with Susie, leaving Falco in complete charge of his column for three months. Falco then plants drugs in Dallas’s coat and tips off Harry Kello (Emile Meyer), a corrupt cop long in league with Hunsecker. Kello and his partner confront and arrest Dallas, beating him so badly he has to be hospitalized. In response, Susie contemplates suicide. Falco stops her, but Hunsecker then comes in and mistakenly concludes that Falco is in the midst of making a pass at his sister. He slaps Falco around, then sends him on his way. Then he calls Kello, clears Dallas, and sets Kello on Falco instead. As the film ends, Susie packs her things and leaves Hunsecker’s apartment, turning her back on her brother and going forth to begin a new life with Dallas.
Finally, amid all of these anti-capitalist noir films, there were also films that were explicitly designed to deliver an anti-communist message—partly, no doubt, in an attempt to win favor with Congressional investigators who were conducted witchhunts in Hollywood at the time. Indeed, there was a whole string of anti-communist films produced in Hollywood after 1948, when HUAC began targeting Hollywood as a supposed hotbed of communist activity. These films, by definition, have a strongly paranoid flavor, which already puts them into noir territory. Meanwhile, their tendency to portray communists essentially as gangsters generates even more overlap with film noir, while the propagandistic tone of the films draws heavily upon the anti-Nazi noir films of the war years and just after.
One of the first (and one of the most representative) of Hollywood’s overtly anticommunist films was R. G. Springsteen’s The Red Menace (1949), from Republic Pictures. Mostly this one is just one long diatribe against communism as both unChristian and unAmerican (a voiceover narrator is even added to supplement the speechifying of the characters), but it actually has a plot of sorts, vaguely borrowed from film noir, as is its visual style. It begins very much like a classic noir film, as a young couple drive melodramatically through the night, obviously terrified. We soon learn that the couple, Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell) and Nina Petrovka (Hannelore Axman), is being pursued by a mysterious and terrifying “them.” The rest of the film then flashes back, again in classic noir fashion, to the events that led to this terrible predicament, revealing that (of course) the couple’s pursuers are none other than the Communist Party, which turns out to have a terrible presence all over America. Petrovka, meanwhile, is revealed to be a longtime party operative, while Jones is an ex-GI who was lured into the party out of frustration with the American system after he was fleeced of his last $2500 by an unscrupulous real estate firm.
In the flashback story, Jones is duped into association with communists and into attending one of the schools in which they indoctrinate their recruits, thus suggesting that education is the key to polluting minds and making them susceptible to communism. In fact, even before he enters the class, Bill visits a communist moll (played by Barbra Fuller) and is surprised to find that such a cute little thing (whose job it is to entice unwitting males into the maw of the Party) would have such big, heavy books on her shelves, again associated communism with reading books.
When Bill does begin is instruction in Party dogma, one of the instructors is beautiful Petrovka, with whom Bill (of course) falls in love. Then Nina witnesses a Party goon squad murdering a dissident Party member (among other atrocities committed by her vile fellow Party members), which eventually leads her to flee for her own life, accompanied by Bill and surrounded by danger no matter where they go, because, really, communists were everywhere back then, at least according to this film. Even the attendant at a remote rural gas station in Arizona where they stop for gas is a Party stooge who informs on them. We eventually learn that one reason there are so many communists everywhere is because the Party has been systematically murdering real Americans and replacing them with communist impostors, somewhat in the mode of the later Invasion of the Body Snatchers(1956).The only actual impostor who is identified, incidentally, is from Germany, oddly enough, possible because the filmmakers reckoned that, in 1949, Americans still vaguely expected sinister foreigners to be Germans and hadn’t yet switched over to Russians.
Meanwhile, on the evidence of this film, the Party had virtually unlimited resources for undermining the American Way. Fortunately, Bill and Nina are finally able to take refuge with a kindly cowboy sheriff in Talbot, Texas, leading to a riciculously contrived resolution in which the sheriff assures them that it will all be okay, because they are good folks, and good folks are always okay in the good ole U.S.A., basically negating the entire preceding narrative. Nina, the sheriff is sure, will be welcome to stay, even though she’s an illegal immigrant. “What you two wanna do” he concludes, “is get yourselves hitched, raise a couple of American kids.” They kiss as the film fades to a final shot of the Statue of Liberty, that timeless symbol of the way the U.S. always welcomes needy immigrants and refugees to its shores.
Among other things, The Red Menace provides a good example of the Cold War strategy of dismissing communism as bad thing because it is atheism, spiced with intellectualism. Thus, at one point the voice-over narrator announces that communism is “actually … the old doctrine of atheism, sugar-coated with high-brow terms.” Then, in the same speech, the narrator goes on to denigrate communism as a religion (which is presumably a bad thing), while somehow at the same time holding religion up as a good thing. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin—the apostles of the communist gospel.” The film’s support for religion inheres primarily in the introduction of a kindly but wise Catholic priest (named Father O’Leary, no less, played by Leo Cleary) who is inserted for no real reason except to deliver a weird lecture implying that American democracy works just fine for those who trust in God. (Apparently, those who don’t are out of luck and not covered by the umbrella of American democracy, and Father O’Leary’s speech includes a veiled but clear threat that nonbelievers not only shouldn’t expect, but don’t deserve justice or liberty.) “The best way for us to defeat communism,” O’Leary proclaims in a later speech in which he attempts to console a woman on the death of her Jewish boyfriend, “is for us to live Christianity and American democracy every day of our lives.” The equation of Christianity with democracy would be laughable, coming as it does from a minion of one of the most undemocratic institutions on the planet, except that the particular equation of Christianity with American democracy is pretty chilling, especially as the idea seems to be gaining more and more currency in our own time.
Catholic priests, incidentally, show up surprisingly often in the cycle of ani-communist films that appeared between the end of the 1940s and the middle of the 1950s. After all, among “respectable” organizations, the Catholic Church was probably the one that most stridently and hysterically campaigned against communism, the Church being far more devoted to political proselytizing than were most Protestant churches of the time. Thus, by aligning themselves with the church (and by presenting priests in a positive, though highly unintellectual light), the films strongly reinforced their own denunciations of communism.
The Red Menace (as such films often did) also attempts to counteract the positive record of the Communist Party on race issues by introducing a kindly old black man who warns his communist son that communism is really nothing more than an attempt to reinstitute slavery (even though the Communist Party had fought so long and hard for the rights of African Americans in the previous years). Like God’s Not Dead, The Red Menace is far too heavy-handed to win over anyone who isn’t already convinced of its message, but of course the wave of anticommunist films of which it was at the forefront was not really meant to protect us from communism. These films were meant to protect Hollywood from HUAC, and hopefully to get the film industry out of the crosshairs of the growing wave of anticommunism that was sweeping America
From the point of view of film noir, one of the most interesting films of the anti-communist cycle is Robert Stevenson’s The Woman on Pier 13 (1949). Originally entitled I Married a Communist, this RKO film was shot by noir virtuoso Nicholas Musuraca and features noir stalwarts Robert Ryan and Thomas Gomez in key roles, with William Talman as a psycho killer, anticipating his role in The Hitch-Hiker. Except here, of course, he’s a psycho killer because he’s a communist, while Gomez plays the gangster-like head of a Party cell that coerces Ryan’s Brad Collins (aka Frank Johnson) into helping the commies try to disrupt shipping in San Francisco—for no apparent reason other than the fact that they’re evil. Collins, now a shipping executive, was once a communist while a naive young dockworker back in the 1930s. As often occurs in film noir, however, his past comes back to haunt him as the commies show up threatening to reveal his past (and, for good measure, to frame him for murder) if he doesn’t cooperate. He eventually rebels and thwarts the commie plot, though at the expense of his life, though he had least saves his pure-of-heart new bride from the evil lefties. This film was so lame that thirteen directors (including the illustrious Joseph Losey, who would soon be blacklisted) turned it down when it was offered to them by anti-communist nutcase Howard Hughes, before the British Stevenson finally accepted the assignment. The Woman on Pier 13 is probably most interesting as a sort of forerunner to Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), which tells a similar story but drops the gangsterish commies in favor of actual gangsters (and is actually good, despite some anti-union sentiment, largely thanks to the performance of Marlon Brando).
I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), from Warner Brothers, was one of the highest profile anticommunist films produced in Hollywood during the peak period of Cold War anticommunist hysteria. Based on the story of real-life informer Matt Cvetic (played here by the key noir actor Frank Lovejoy), who infiltrated the Communist Party for the FBI, it tells the tale of a courageous and virtuous Cvetic fighting back his distaste as he discovers one after another dirty deed being perpetrated by the scumbags and thugs who ran the Party. Problem was, the real-life Cvetic was himself something of a thug (as well as a drunkard and womanizer), and most of his stories about the Party were apparently fabricated to begin with, then even further fictionalized in this film.[i] Nevertheless, the film does convey several key messages. First, though this one is not overtly anti-intellectual, it does suggest that the Party concentrated on winning over schoolteachers, who then constituted a valuable resource for winning over the minds of impressionable children. Education is a dangerous thing. One of these teachers (played by Dorothy Hart, who the next year would become Tarzan’s new Jane in Tarzan’s Savage Fury) becomes Cvetic’s beautiful communist girlfriend, just to add a little Hollywood flair. Meanwhile, she’s way too pretty to be a real communist, so here she becomes disillusioned and leaves the Party, leading to a ridiculous chase and gun-battle sequence in which the heroic Cvetic saves her from murderous communist gangster-types as she tries to escape their grasp. The film’s second key message involves an attempt to suggest that most labor actions (especially strikes) are secretly orchestrated by the Party just to cause trouble. And, finally, it also joins the fray with regard to the Communist Party’s record on race by claiming (incredibly) that all of America’s race problems were ginned up by communists in an effort to foment discontent and destabilize America. The film even completely fabricates a story to suggest that the Party’s support for the Scottsboro Boys (in reality one its few shining moments) turns out to have been a cynical ploy, while the Party secretly worked to make sure they were convicted, just to make the U.S. look bad. These anticommunist films can often be quite humorous, but this one can be particularly vile in such moments.
I Was a Communist for the FBI also contains one scene that extols the heroic work of HUAC and essentially suggests that anyone who criticizes HUAC is likely to be a secret communist. Still, the most overt case of Hollywood attempting to kiss up to HUAC occurred in Big Jim McLain (1952), featuring none other than John Wayne (in what might well be his worst all-time performance) as the hard-hitting (and hard-loving) investigator of the title. McLean just happens actually to work for HUAC rooting out various murderous communist conspiracies to sabotage various transportation and communication systems and thus bring down the American system and institute a new era of communist tyranny. No matter that, in the real world, HUAC was never able to find any such conspiracies; in this one McLain is able to find communist conspirators under every rock, but can’t ever secure a conviction because the Constitution requires that they be convicted via due process and he doesn’t have any real evidence that would stand up in court. This minor detail then leaves McLain fuming that the Constitution was meant to protect good, decent Americans, not communist scumbags, who, presumably, should just be locked up without a fair trial in order to preserve democracy. Luckily, he still gets the girl, though, so it’s all good. Because movie.
And, yes, the thinking in this one really is that muddled, almost making one wonder if someone involved was actually trying to make HUAC look bad. Meanwhile, the film actually begins with an almost obligatory swipe at intellectuals. In the scene, McLain is attending still another HUAC hearing at which an evil communist gets off scot free because he takes the Fifth Amendment and refuses to testify against himself. Of course, this event implies that the government had no legitimate evidence against the accused man (and thus were hoping he would simply confess), a fact that the film blithely ignores. Meanwhile, the right to avoid self-incrimination is, of course, one of the key democratic principles that McLean is supposedly working to protect, but he doesn’t seem to realize this, especially as the communist low-life in question happens to be an evil professor, who surely deserves no Constitutional protections. “The good Dr. Carter,” McLean grouses in a voice-over, “would go back to his well-paid chair as a full professor of economics at the university to contaminate more kids.”
Leo McCarey’s My Son John (1952) is one of the most insidious (because it actually makes an effort to disguise itself as a “real” movie and not just pure propaganda) of the cycle of anti-communist movies from Hollywood during the HUAC scare. It’s also one of the most openly anti-intellectual and least noir films of the anti-communist film cycle. The “John” of the title is one John Jefferson (Robert Walker), who comes from a seemingly normal American family—if by normal you mean his mother is a rosary-toting Catholic who clearly teeters on the verge of complete insanity and his father is a drunken lout who spends his nights out drinking at the American Legion lodge with his buddies so he can avoid the crazy mother. Oh, and John also has two younger blonde brothers who look like twins freshly graduated from the Nazi Youth and are headed off to kill commies in Korea. John, though, is supposedly the weird one, because he’s the intellectual one. As his mother (played by Helen Hayes) says: “He’s the bright one in the family. He has more degrees than a thermometer.” But all this education, of course, has made him suspect. After all, there’s clearly something a little funny about John. For one thing, when he returns home for a visit, he seems more eager to reconnect with his old college professor than with his parents. (Probably because his parents are a fright show and the professor was actually probably someone with whom he could have a rational conversation.) For another thing, he doesn’t seem to be properly awed by the local Catholic priest, Father O’Dowd (Frank McHugh, who had also played a Father O’Dowd in the 1944 Bing Crosby atrocity Going My Way), a busybody who immediately warns Mrs. Jefferson that John seems suspect. To top things off, John isn’t married and doesn’t even have a girlfriend. When his mother asks him about this, he awkwardly responds that “Sentimentalizing over the biological urge isn’t really a guarantee of human happiness.” So, he’s intellectual, he’s disrespectful of religion, and he’s definitely gay. So, he’s obviously a communist, as quickly becomes clear when we learn that the FBI, led by an Agent Stedman (Van Heflin), is following him everywhere, including sneaking into the parents’ home under false pretenses. But this is okay, because they are protecting our freedom. Luckily, John sees the error of his ways and decides to recant, using an upcoming commencement address that he is to deliver at his alma mater. So of course he is gunned down by other communist agents in a drive-by machine-gun shooting as he heads off to turn himself in to the FBI. Because machine-gun-toting communists were everywhere back in those days. Never fear, though, John recorded his anticommunist commencement address before he left, so Stedman recovers it and plays it at the ceremony, where it warns the graduates not to be seduced by the intellectual appeal of communism, which acts as a stimulant to the brain. “But stimulants,” says John from the grace, “lead to narcotics. As the seller of habit-forming dope gives the innocent their first inoculations with a cunning worthy of a serpent, there are other snakes lying in wait to satisfy the desire of the young to dedicate themselves to something positive, to give their existence purpose.” Later, he warns them that communist intellectualism will ultimately numb their brains, because it will have caused them to have “substituted faith in man for faith in God.” Accompanied by really hokey lighting and music, this last scene ends the film with sentimental flourish, meanwhile adding drug dealers to ungrateful sons, homosexuals, atheists, and (most importantly) intellectuals to the list of evil Others who are aligned, either symbolically or directly, with communists.
Of the anticommunist films produced at the beginning of the 1950s, Gordon Douglas’s I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) is probably the best and most entertaining, even though it is based on the same stereotypes about communists as the other films in this group. In particular, this film comes closest to realizing the dramatic potential of communists as film villains—at least for a certain kind of over-the-top melodramatic film. Here, protagonist Matt Cvetic (Frank Lovejoy) is a stalwart and heroic real American who has been forced to suffer years of abuse on all sides and rejection even by his own family because of his public persona as a member of the Communist Party in Pittsburgh. For their own part, the commies are vile and despicable in the mode of comic-book villains, willing to do virtually anything to destroy the American way of life and to deliver the United States into the hands of the Soviet Union as a “slave colony.” Dramatic interest is added in the person of young, beautiful Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart), a teacher at the high school where Cvetic’s son is a student. The idealistic Merrick is one of many communist teachers who have infiltrated the Pittsburgh schools, but she soon disillusioned by the party’s coldblooded quest for power. When she thus resigns from the party and threatens to reveal their schemes to the Pittsburgh school board, Merrick is ordered killed by a communist hit squad—but saved (in some fairly effective action scenes) by the heroic intervention of Cvetic. In the end, Cvetic himself testifies before HUAC and tells them all he knows from his nine years working underground in the party. He is thus publicly redeemed and restored to his family, who are brought to tears of joy. The film then ends with a shot of a bust of Lincoln, with the patriotic strains of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” sounding in the background.
All of this might be fine were it not for the fact that the film purports to be an accurate portrayal of the operations of the Communist Party, even though many of the stated “facts” (as when it is stipulated that the communists have murdered hundreds of their own members in the U.S. who have strayed from the party line) are entirely manufactured and have no basis in reality. Indeed, the film precisely reverses reality on many accounts, as when the Communist Party’s admirable (if largely ineffective) contribution to the struggle for racial justice in America is presented as a fraudulent maneuver designed to foment discord in American society. On the other side, the film’s presentation of the persecution suffered by Cvetic because he is a known communist inadvertently suggests an intolerance of dissent in American society. More importantly, Cvetic’s heroism is largely a Hollywood fantasy. The real Matt Cvetic, who indeed worked undercover within the Communist Party for seven years, was fired by the FBI in 1950 because he was judged to be unreliable due to his heavy drinking, then later sold his story to the Saturday Evening Post in an attempt to cash in. Indeed, it is now widely acknowledged—and documented in Daniel Leab’s book I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.: The Life and Times of Matt Cvetic (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000)—that Cvetic was an unscrupulous and self-serving opportunist who, unable to dig up any real dirt on the Communist Party despite his years undercover, presented almost entirely falsified testimony—a fact of which the FBI was apparently aware but chose to ignore because his stories of communist perfidy helped their cause.
In retrospect, I Was a Communist for the FBI serves not as an exposé of the Communist Party but as a revelation of the extent to which the FBI and its network of paid informants were willing to go to promote the notion of a communist threat, real or imagined. To an extent, of course, the same can be said for all of the overtly anticommunist films of the period, which collectively now seem informed by a misplaced paranoia and a lack of concern with the facts that make them seem more demonstrations of the dangers of arrant anticommunism than dramatizations of the evils of communism. Meanwhile, that such films seem to many perfectly believable at the time documents the level of anticommunist hysteria that reigned in American society at the time.
Among other things, I Was a Communist for the FBI nicely illustrates the way in which anticommunist films of the early 1950s, with no basis on reality upon which to construct their narratives, instead based their portrayal of communists on the portrayals of fascists in the antifascist thrillers of the 1940s. Perhaps the best example of this transfer in the role of symbolic villains directly from fascists to communists occurs in Samuel Fuller’s noir thriller Pickup on South Street (1953), which follows directly in the footsteps of antifascist thrillers such as Edward Dmytryk’s Cornered (1945), Henry Hathaway’s The House on 92nd Street (1945), or Orson Welles’s The Stranger (1946).
Actually, Pickup on South Street seems a rather lackluster effort in comparison with Fuller’s reputation for producing wacked-out offbeat cult noir classics such as Shock Corridor (1963)and The Naked Kiss (1964). Yet even this film is interesting in the way it combines the noir crime drama with the Cold War spy thriller. In the film, pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark), deftly lifts the wallet of Candy (Jean Peters), a woman on the subway, only later to discover that the wallet holds a microfilm containing U. S. government secrets that Candy was unknowingly delivering to a gang of Soviet spies for her ne’er-do-well boyfriend, Joey (Richard Kiley). The plot of the film is uninteresting and highly predictable: McCoy outwits (and outfights) Joey and the evil commies, winning the heart of Candy, which is, of course, a heart of gold, despite her checkered past. McCoy wins a clean slate with the cops, as well, finally getting them off his back. In the end, Candy and McCoy leave the police station with his record wiped clean, presumably headed for a new life together.
In short, the plot, at least in its outline, is pure cliché. The commie spies are clichés as well, seemingly driven not by ideology, but by pure evil, thus providing an apparent example of the virulent anticommunism that informed so many films of the period. However, the anticommunism of Pickup on South Street may be more complex than it first appears. The film’s most rabid anticommunist, for example, is a police informer by the name of Moe (Thelma Ritter). Despite her seeming willingness to do anything for a buck, Moe does have certain values that she refuses to compromise. In particular, she refuses to do business with commies, preferring death at the hands of Joey to helping them locate McCoy. Yet Moe’s anticommunism is incoherent and confused. When Joey asks her why she hates commies so much, she replies, “What do I know about commies? Nothing. I know one thing: I just don’t like them.” Joey then shoots and kills her, apparently verifying her antipathy toward communists. However, Joey is not really a communist, but merely a ruthless opportunist trying to make a buck any way he can. He is, in short, a capitalist. Meanwhile, the virulence with which Moe detests communists, despite knowing absolutely nothing about them, tends to cast American anticommunism as little more than mindless bigotry and fanaticism.
If this scene makes the casting of communists as villains less simplistic than it might first appear, the casting of Skip McCoy as the film’s hero is problematic as well. In some ways, McCoy is the typical film noir flawed hero. For example, he has a great deal in common with Harry Fabian, the protagonist of Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950), a role that had also been played by Widmark. But McCoy lacks the basic rectitude that tends to inform the typical film-noir flawed hero. He, for one, is perfectly willing to deal with the commies until he develops a personal grudge, and his manhandling of the beautiful-but-dumb Candy, which tends to alternate between punching and kissing so brutal that it is not much different from the punching, goes well beyond the norm, even for a genre in which women often receive rough treatment. And, of course, McCoy’s characterization as hero is further destabilized by the casting of Widmark, who, his roles in Night and the City and Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950) notwithstanding, was best known to film noir audiences as the crazed psycho-killer of such films as Kiss of Death (1947) and Road House (1948), not to mention his role as a loathsome bigot in No Way Out (1950). In Pickup on South Street, McCoy seems to teeter on the brink of insanity for virtually the entire film, leaving very much open the question of whether he has really become stable and respectable at the film’s end.
Such complexities clearly separate Pickup on South Street from simplistic anticommunist films such as I Was a Communist for the FBI or Big Jim McLain.Fuller’s reasonably successful incorporation of anticommunist themes into the format of the noir thriller illustrates the extent to which such themes were perhaps more effective in films in which they were secondary to other themes. It also illustrates the use of anticommunist material in genre films in the 1950s. This is especially true of the science fiction films of the period, which often employ overtly anticommunist themes. One might consider here a film such as Lee Sholem’s Tobor the Great (1954), which featured evil communist agents trying to steal American technology for their own nefarious purposes. Other films, including Invasion U.S.A. (1952), Red Planet Mars (1952), and The 27th Day (1957) overtly thematized the 1950s paranoid fear (and hatred) of communism.
[i] In addition to the film, Cvetic’s account of his experiences was published in serial form in the Saturday Evening Post in 1950 and became the basis of a radio serial in 1952. For a more objective account of Cvetic’s experiences that challenges the veracity of Cvetic’s stories, see Leab.