Fighting Words

Two series look at screenwriters and the cinematic legacy of the blacklist
by Imogen Sara Smith  posted August 12, 2014
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This article is presented in conjunction with the film series Red Hollywood and the Blacklist, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, from August 15-21, 2014.

The films of Hollywood¡¯s studio era were shaped by constant struggles between creative freedom and controlling interference, as artists fought, circumvented, or compromised with the commercial imperatives and conventional standards imposed on them. Pandering to government and public opinion, the studios made two concerted efforts to sterilize their output: the Hays Code crackdown of 1934, and the anti-Communist blacklist that began in 1947. The first censored the content of the movies, the second purged left-wing artists. The blacklist disrupted and destroyed lives but, like the Code, failed entirely to rid the movies of dangerous ideas.

The blacklist remains fresh and unhealed in America¡¯s cultural memory. There are still sparks of anger and controversy when people talk about those who named names, about fronts and friendly witnesses, about the extinguished careers, the exiles, the deaths. Far less attention has been paid to the movies that were made by blacklistees¡ªbefore, during, and after the period¡ªeven though the Congressional investigation that started it all was ostensibly motivated by fear that Communists infiltrating Hollywood could use the power of movies to spread propaganda. This neglect inspired the argument of Red Hollywood, a documentary by Thom Andersen and Noel Burch which makes the astute point that it was in the interest of both sides to play down the influence of left-wing writers and filmmakers.

The notion of Communist propaganda being sneakily inserted into scripts was McCarthyite fantasy, but many films did get away with scathing critiques of capitalism, class divisions, racism, sexual inequality, and other social problems. Red Hollywood surveys films addressing all these topics, as well as responding to current events such as the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact. While a few are well-known classics (Body and Soul, Marked Woman), most of the excerpts are from obscure and little-seen titles, so the work also functions as a core sample of what lies outside the film history canon. Some of the movies are interesting only as historical documents, but there are strong scenes from Success at Any Price (1934), Not Wanted (1949), I Can Get it For You Wholesale (1951), Salt of the Earth (1954), and The Boy with Green Hair (1948) that will entice viewers to seek out the complete films.  

Originally released in 1996, Red Hollywood will screen for one week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in a newly re-mastered and re-edited version, accompanied by nine films chosen by Andersen. With one exception, the films are not excerpted or discussed in Red Hollywood, but form an intriguingly diverse and off-beat complement. They range from the punch-drunk indignation of the 1930s through the anti-authority defiance of the 1960s, with a heavy dose of acid 1950s noir in between.

The Red and the Black: From the Depression to Film Noir

I Stole a Million (1939) is both a quintessential Depression-era movie that is brazenly cynical about the prevalence of corruption, and a proto-noir about a man whose first slip leads to an unstoppable downward spiral. The script by Nathanael West (who died in a car crash in 1940, but would likely have been targeted for his Communist sympathies had he lived) breezily portrays a world where almost no one can be trusted, at least where money is involved. Joe Laurik (George Raft) is a cab driver, a go-getter determined to be his own boss. Hustling to make the payments on a hack, he steals fares from other drivers: their nasty revenge is just the first in a long series of hard knocks. He is cheated, robbed, or bullied by almost everyone he meets, from cops to crooks, from businessmen to gas jockeys. Though he tries to settle down in hard-working domesticity with a nice woman (Claire Trevor), he¡¯s still branded as a fugitive and forced outside the law. Broke and desperate to provide for his wife and new baby, he turns to crime, so successfully that he becomes known as the ¡°million dollar bandit.¡± But his virtuous wife won¡¯t touch the money, and insists he turn himself in.

All this is not as depressing as it sounds. The movie zips along in typical 1930s fashion, never pausing to brood over the hero¡¯s misfortunes. Even George Raft¡¯s inexpressive performance suits the mood: the tortured psychology of film noir is a luxury of more prosperous times; in the thirties, you couldn¡¯t stop to feel sorry for yourself if you wanted to eat. Life is a continuous duel between chiselers and suckers; what¡¯s needed to get ahead is not hard work but quick wits, lack of scruples, and the sense to cheat the other guy before he cheats you.

Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence (1939), based on a story by Dalton Trumbo, has a more upbeat tone, but is similarly steeped in the iconography and attitudes of the Depression. Just like Joe Laurik, Joe Reilly (Glenn Ford, in his film debut) has been scraping and saving to achieve his dream, a ranch in Arizona¡ªthe heaven of the title¡ªthat he buys sight unseen. The first names of these two archetypal Average Joes are surely no coincidence. Joe Reilly announces in the first scene, ¡°I¡¯m ambitious, I¡¯m going places,¡± but his fixation on making good is matched by his na?ve incompetence. (Though planning to run a ranch, he doesn¡¯t know oats from soybeans.) It says much about Hollywood conventions that this callow and churlish young man, who obsesses over money and has a misogynistic aversion to ¡°dames,¡± is the film¡¯s hero. He¡¯s contrasted with Tony Casselli, a charming hobo with no aim in life except to satisfy his itching feet. (Richard Conte¡ªalso in his film debut and still billed under his real name, Nicholas Conte¡ªlater joined the famous delegation of stars who flew to Washington in support of the Hollywood Ten.) The two men meet in a roadside diner, where Tony elaborately prepares a free repast of ketchup, soup crackers, and assorted condiments under the appalled eye of the owner, and then proceeds to lecture the greenhorn Joe on the advantages of riding freight cars.

They meet up with Anita (Jean Rogers), an undocumented immigrant and refugee from the Spanish Civil War, and help to protect her from the police, who are seeking ¡°enemies of the country.¡± All three are taken under the wing of an older, flowery-tongued gentleman tramp called the Professor (Raymond Walburn). But the footloose, communal life on the road¡ªbathing in streams, wandering into odd westerns towns where everyone is Russian¡ªgives way in the end to a conventional vision of domesticity and landowning success.

Dalton Trumbo has become one of the chief names that conjure the blacklist. He was the most successful and well-known of the Hollywood Ten, the initial group of ¡°unfriendly witnesses¡± called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities; all ten refused to answer the question of whether they were Communist Party members, and were given jail terms for contempt of Congress. During his banishment Trumbo was one of the most prolific writers on the black market, and he was also the first to break the blacklist, when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger separately decided to give him screen credit (for Spartacus and Exodus, both in 1960). Trumbo was an outspoken, combative, influential member of Hollywood¡¯s radical left, and at the same time a highly-paid screenwriter of mainstream entertainment. Like many others, he saw writing for the movies as a way to support his serious work (his best-known novel was the anti-war Johnny Got his Gun), and some of his screenplays and stories are glib and formulaic, though he was a reliable craftsman, often brought in to doctor scripts.

The fact that so many of his credits are shared makes it hard to judge his work fairly¡ªan issue that complicates all considerations of Hollywood screenwriting¡ªbut a strong polemical streak runs through his films, emerging in heavy-handed symbolism, irony, and blunt speechifying. In his first screenplay, for Road Gang (1936), these tendencies are not yet tempered by the skill and polish he would later develop. The film takes a paint-by-numbers approach to the chain-gang genre, which exposed the savagery of an exploitative penal system that turned convicts into slaves. Road Gang ratchets up the injustice by making its protagonist (Donald Woods) not a criminal but a crusading journalist who is framed by a corrupt political boss; the dialogue runs to declarations like, ¡°I¡¯m going to write a story and expose this rotten camp if it¡¯s the last thing I do!¡± The requisite depictions of torture and cruelty are weakened by an unseen choir¡¯s syrupy renditions of ¡°Old Folks at Home¡± and ¡°Swing Low, Sweet Chariot¡± (¡°Darkies can always find something to sing about,¡± a white prisoner remarks.)

Trumbo did not write the original story for the film, which was assigned to him by Brian Foy¡¯s B-picture unit at Warner Bros.. The studio was strongly associated with such raw, socially relevant material, yet was notorious for clashing with rebellious employees. Trumbo was fired one year into his contract at Warners because he refused their order to quit the Communist-linked Screen Writers¡¯ Guild for the new, right-wing Screen Playwrights union. He easily found work at other studios, climbing from B to A pictures by the end of the decade. During the War he wrote patriotic, sentimental films: A Guy Named Joe, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Tender Comrade¡ªthis last was ludicrously attacked by star Ginger Rogers¡¯s mother, who complained that her daughter had been forced to deliver Communist propaganda, citing a line about ¡°share and share alike.¡±

The lingering bitterness and trauma of the Hollywood witch hunt came not just from the un-American violation of political freedom, but from the deliberate divisiveness and personal betrayals coerced by HUAC. Because the only way that people under suspicion could clear themselves was to name others, agonizing pressure was created to choose between saving one¡¯s own career and saving one¡¯s honor. The distrust, alienation, and paranoia spawned by the red scare would boil up in film noir, the most robustly subversive genre in Hollywood history. Soon after he was blacklisted, Trumbo worked on some of the blackest noirs: Gun Crazy, The Prowler, and He Ran All the Way.

Noir was in part an expression of disillusionment on the left, as the populist anger and idealism of the Depression years gave way to the Cold War demonization of communism. Many noir films tie capitalism to crime and indict a society in thrall to materialism, but they offer no glimmer of hope for change, and portray a socially atomized country where communal values are non-existent. The most subversive aspect of noir is its profound distrust of ambition. Whenever someone in a noir film dreams of a better life, or says, ¡°I just want to be somebody,¡± you can write his or her epitaph right then and there. It is ingrained in Americans that it¡¯s good to strive and work to better yourself, but in noir these things lead to disaster, because there is no clean way to get ahead, only crooked ways; as Raymond Chandler wrote, ¡°Success is always and everywhere a racket.¡± But if noir in this sense might be called ¡°un-American,¡± it is at the same time essentially American. A society that worships success and autonomy, that instills confidence that everyone can get ahead but offers no sympathy to those who fall short, will inevitably spawn terrible anxieties about failure and isolation. Film noir is about people who break the rules, pursuing their own interests outside the boundaries of society¡ªand about how society destroys them.

The Cost of Living: Joseph Losey

The Prowler (1951) was one of the last screenplays that Dalton Trumbo worked on before going to jail. It was credited to Hugo Butler¡ªhimself soon to be blacklisted¡ªwho also contributed to the script. Director Joseph Losey worked a clever joke into the film by having Trumbo provide the voice of all-night disc jockey John Gilvray, the unseen husband of the main female character. The joke is not only that Trumbo¡¯s forbidden voice was heard in movie theaters while he was serving time in a federal penitentiary, but that Gilvray is the epitome of vapid, consumerist bourgeois culture. He has a corny shtick of describing the meals his wife cooks, painting a portrait of cozy domesticity that is never matched by what we see of their lives. He ends every program by triumphantly announcing, ¡°the cost of living is going down!¡± His disembodied voice echoes through the empty house where his unfulfilled wife spends her lonely nights. An important plot point rests on Gilvray¡¯s infertility, an obvious symbol of the barrenness of the affluent security he offers his wife.

In Losey¡¯s films, places always express the personalities and conflicts of their inhabitants. The keynote of the settings in The Prowler is vacancy: the word flashes in neon outside a motel where the film¡¯s adulterous lovers spend their wedding night, lying in twin beds listening to the rumble of traffic on the highway. The story opens with Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes) reporting a prowler in the vacant lot beside her house, and it ends in a desert ghost town¡ªthe ruins of a community built on unsustainable dreams of easy money. Few films more thoroughly strip the American dream to reveal a sleazy illusion fueled by envy and selfishness.

These qualities are personified by Webb Garwood (Van Heflin), an opportunistic cop who responds to Susan¡¯s call but immediately reveals himself to be the real prowler, as he lustfully eyes both the helpless blonde and her upscale home. Brash and disgruntled, Webb is a former college football star who constantly complains about the bad breaks that deprived him of wealth and success. His dream is to own a motel, because it would make money for him even while he sleeps. He seduces the fragile, insecure Susan and then kills her husband, setting it up to look like an accident. When Susan finally realizes his true nature, he defends himself by arguing that everyone cheats: lawyers take bribes, clerks pilfer the cash register, businessmen fudge their taxes: ¡°I was a cop, I used a gun.¡±

Though unambiguous in its point of view¡ªsubtlety was never Trumbo¡¯s strong suit¡ªThe Prowler gains power through the richness of detail, incisive performances, and comprehensive pessimism. There is none of the lyrical fatalism of noirs like Out of the Past. Webb and Susan have no glamour or outlaw style; they are shallow, banal, rather dim people who never see past the cheap dreams they¡¯ve been sold. If the cost of living is going down, so is its value.

Losey¡¯s last American  film, Big Night (1951), is a rare noir that focuses on a teenager. It has all the adolescent confusion and anguish, the bitter indictment of a corrupt and disappointing adult world, with none of the romanticism of Rebel Without a Cause. Georgie La Main (John Barrymore, Jr.) has a cause, but is too easily pushed around to qualify as a rebel. In the opening scene, he¡¯s being teased and pummeled by classmates. He wears glasses, has acne, still drinks milk. Barrymore, who was around 18 at the time, might be the most believable teenager in any classic-era Hollywood movie.  His performance is almost painfully naked and unpoised, a mix of childlike vulnerability, inchoate rage, and a sense of wildly diverse possibilities. He is sensitive and clumsy; perceptive and deluded; weak and violent; homely and almost-handsome (he did have the Barrymore profile). That the actor was cursed with a legendary, self-destructive father¡ªwhose self-destructiveness he would exceed¡ªadds another layer to the movie¡¯s tortured obsession with fathers, sons, and ideals of manliness.

Georgie¡¯s meek submission to other kids¡¯ bullying is horrifically magnified when his father passively submits to being beaten in front of his son and the patrons of his bar. Al Judge (Howard St. John), a powerful sports columnist, appears in the bar and, without explanation, orders Andy La Main (Preston Foster) to strip to the waist and get down on all fours, then viciously beats him with a cane. Georgie¡¯s reaction is not sympathy or concern for his father¡ªhis back a mass of oozing welts¡ªbut anger, humiliation, and a desperate need for revenge. He takes a gun from the cash register and sets out to find Al Judge. Wearing a fedora and a too-large sport coat, he pulls the gun in front of a mirror and rehearses the imagined confrontation¡ªthen backs up and bumps into a crib, picks up the baby and tries to quiet it while still holding the gun. The image is at once comic, nerve-wracking, and resonant¡ªshowing Georgie¡¯s almost schizophrenic blend of gentleness, emasculation, and unhinged violence.

The world of Big Night is split between passive victims and aggressive bullies. The grown men Georgie encounters¡ªwhether cops, thugs, or neighbors¡ªtaunt or threaten or rob him. At the fights, he meets a seemingly affable professor who takes the kid under his wing. The avuncular Dr. Cooper proceeds to get him passing-out drunk, and turns out to be a selfish heel who is cheating on his wife. Cooper¡¯s unhappy, long-suffering mistress Julie is played by Dorothy Comingmore, in her last film role before she was blacklisted. Julie¡¯s pretty sister Marion (Joan Lorring) is one of the few soft spots in the script¡ªan undeveloped character who is there solely to give Georgie a sympathetic ear and a first kiss. Nonetheless, their scenes together have affecting moments, especially in his long, agonized speech about being unable to tell his father he loves him.

Revelations about the father¡¯s secrets, his romantic failures, and the reason for the beating bring the film to a satisfying if somewhat contrived conclusion. But many scenes linger like infected wounds, none more so than an incident with no connection at all to the plot. In a nightclub where Cooper has taken him, Georgie gazes infatuatedly at a gorgeous black singer (Mauri Lynn) performing a romantic song. This alone¡ªa white man expressing admiration and desire for a black woman¡ªwas taboo in films of the time. But what follows is even more stunning: outside the club, he tipsily approaches his idol and gushes about how wonderful her singing was. ¡°But it¡¯s more than that,¡± he blunders on, ¡°You¡¯re so beautiful. Even if you are a¡ª¡± He breaks off in horrified shame, hysterically repeating, ¡°I didn¡¯t mean to say it!¡± as he is hauled away in cab. But the way Lynn stiffens at the thoughtless blow, and the weary, sad, defended expression on her face afterward, make this small moment more powerful than many of the message movies about racism made later in the decade.

Big Night had the advantage of being independent of major studios, produced by Philip A. Waxman and distributed by United Artists. The film was poorly received; if HUAC had been savvier, they could have taken comfort in the fact that such grim, pessimistic attacks on American society would never draw large audiences. Joseph Losey fled the country in 1951 to escape a subpoena, and later declared that his blacklisting had been a blessing in disguise, since it led to his successful career in England, where he eventually abandoned crime movies and overt social commentary for what he called ¡°pictures of provocation.¡± Though his transition to exile was initially rocky, he noted that ¡°a good shaking up never hurt anyone.¡± This, of course, is exactly what he could have told the House Committee on Un-American Activities in defense of his movies.

Working Class Heroes: Cy Endfield and Stanley Baker

England offered an obvious haven for victims of the blacklist: there was no language barrier, and Hollywood refugees were welcome in the beleaguered British film industry, even if they still had to work under pseudonyms. Jules Dassin and Edward Dmytryk both made superb films in England (Night and the City and Obsession, respectively) before moving on, but Losey stayed for good, and so did Cy Endfield.

After cutting his teeth in East Coast progressive theater, Endfield famously got his entr¨¦e to Hollywood when his prowess at card tricks caught the eye of fellow magician Orson Welles, who brought him into the Mercury Theater as an apprentice. The lightweight shorts and B movies he directed in the 1940s gave little hint of the one-two punch he would land in 1950 with a pair of caustic, brilliant noir films, The Underworld Story and Try and Get Me! Both attack opportunism and dishonesty in the media and expose hypocrisy, materialism, class snobbery, racism, and mob violence in American society. These films seem like red flags waved at HUAC, though the Committee¡¯s interest in Endfield no doubt owed more to his activism with the Communist Youth League at Yale (he was never a Party member). Endfield fled to England in 1953, where he directed films under pseudonyms or with fronts, finally reclaiming his own name with Hell Drivers (1957).

This was his second of six films with Stanley Baker, whom he first directed in the thoughtful melodrama A Child in the House (1956). The soft-voiced, granite-jawed son of a Welsh coal miner, Baker brought an unprecedented working-class toughness and brute masculinity to British cinema. With his rough-hewn features and air of menace, Baker was at first type-cast as a heavy in action movies, and his rise to stardom owed much to Endfield and Joseph Losey (with whom he made four films). Endfield accentuated Baker¡¯s bruised, wary reserve, the quiet stoicism of a man who has come up against nothing but hard places.

Few places are harder or rockier than the world of Hell Drivers. The script, which Endfield co-wrote, trenchantly reveals the exploitation of labor without ever ascending a soapbox. Instead the film is a visceral thrill ride, fully of pungently authentic characters. At heart, though, it¡¯s about men who do repetitive, seemingly pointless work¡ªdriving loads of gravel back and forth from one muddy pit to another¡ªand who are too blinded by macho competitiveness and proletarian loyalty to realize they¡¯re being cheated¡ªnot just by the management but by one of their own.

Stanley Baker plays Tom Yately, who is fresh out of prison when he takes a job with a trucking outfit in some mercilessly bleak corner of England. All he wants is to stay out of trouble and make some honest money, but his reserve makes him unpopular with the other drivers, who ostracize him after he ducks out of a brawl with local townsfolk. The drivers all live together in a cramped, dingy rooming house and eat together at a cheap diner across the road, where they carry on like a gang of delinquents: hazing newcomers, joking, jockeying, showing off, and toadying to their leader, Red (Patrick McGoohan).  It is Red, the road foreman and self-described ¡°pace-setter,¡± who keeps all the drivers working as fast as they can, promising a gold cigarette case to the man who drives the most loads in a day¡ªa contest Red always wins. The men¡¯s lumbering trucks are vehicles for their egos; all the frantic horn honking and gear-grinding and side-swiping are a cave-man battle for dominance among men who have no importance in the larger society. The drivers are Cockneys, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, their thick accents branding them with lower-class provincial identities. Only Gino (Herbert Lom), a kind and philosophical Italian who befriends Tom, is immune to the childish competitiveness of the other guys. He tells Tom that he should forget about the gold cigarette case; it¡¯s ¡°just a carrot for us donkeys.¡±

"And I'm a donkey," Tom admits. He buys into the race, believing he needs to "make the grade" for once, to make up for his past misakes. But the world of honest labor turns out to be as crooked as the winding road he drives. It is Lucy (Peggy Cummins), the company's sexy blonde secretary, who finally reveals the truth: the men are being forced to drive at unsafe sppeds to make up the workload of five phantom employees, whose wages the manager splits with Red. But nothing in this masculine world of violence and cut-throat greed is as hard as Tom's mother, who greets his visit with ice-cold rejection: "Nothing you ever touched was clean. I wish you were still inside."

Hell Drivers is the best of Endfield¡¯s films with Baker, but by far the most successful was Zulu (1964). The film is always described as an epic, and it feels like one with the 70mm format, sweeping landscapes and stately style, full of slow tracking shots and panoramas. But it has a narrow focus, depicting a single battle and eschewing context, back stories, or other distractions from the central theme, how a group of men deal with a desperate crisis. Endfield was inspired to make the movie after reading an article by John Prebble about the Battle of Rorke¡¯s Drift, a legendary 1879 victory in which 150 British soldiers, including a significant number of sick or wounded, fought off 4,000 attacking Zulus at a small missionary station in Natal, a British colony in South Africa. Endfield co-wrote the script with Prebble, and went on to become an expert in the Anglo-Zulu wars. His fascination with the subject is evident in the attention he lavishes on the setting (though the film takes many historical liberties), but his attitude toward this victory for the British Empire is somewhat harder to fathom.

Zulu is essentially a western, as Endfield and Baker (who produced the film) both acknowledged. The vast, dry plains and mesa-like mountains resemble the American west, and the Zulus are treated very much the way American Indians usually were in movies¡ªas picturesque noble savages who are never individualized, and whose motives are never explored. They are often seen lined up against the sky on the ridges of hills, resplendent in feathers and animal skins; they sing and chant, make dance-like gestures with their spears, and beat those spears against their shields as they approach, making an ominous rattle like thunder.

Before the battle starts, there are scenes laying out the class-tinged personality clashes among the British. (The regiment is in fact largely Welsh, a detail that no doubt appealed to Stanley Baker.) Baker plays Lt. Chard, a competent and level-headed engineer who takes command due to his slight seniority over the vain and foppish Lt. Bromhead (Michael Caine, in his first major role). Tensions are heightened by Witt (a scenery-chewing Jack Hawkins), a missionary who rants at the men about the evil of killing and warns that they are all going to die. All he wants is to prevent slaughter and save the wounded men in the field hospital, yet he¡¯s portrayed as such a hysterical mess that it¡¯s impossible to side with him. Zulu does not glorify war¡ªthere is a scene where a stricken Chard visits the makeshift hospital in the midst of the battle, where the blood-spattered surgeon damns him as a butcher, and a dying boy asks ¡°Why?¡± In the aftermath of their almost inconceivable triumph, Chard and Bromhead¡ªboth of whom turn out never to have seen combat before¡ªtalk about feeling sick and ashamed. The script is admirably clear about why the British win: they have guns, and they know how to use them. Making their last stand, they form ranks and, with chilling orderliness, fire a revolving barrage that reduces their attackers to a heap of writhing black bodies.

But the film does glorify soldiers¡ªhate the war, love the warrior is the most common attitude of war movies¡ªand in particular glorifies the British stiff upper lip and sense of duty, while maintaining a strict reticence about the cause for which the men display such bravery and heroism. A film that honors obedience and group loyalty rather than rebellion seems surprising coming from a blacklist exile, and proves perhaps how thoroughly he had left that identity behind.

Money and Moral Opinions: Abraham Polonsky

¡°Take the money,¡± a corrupt boxer urges an honest one: ¡°It¡¯s not like people. It¡¯s got no memories. It don¡¯t think.¡± These lines from Abraham Polonsky¡¯s first screenplay, for Body and Soul (1947), introduce a refrain that runs through his work. In Force of Evil (1948), a corrupt lawyer tells his less corrupt brother, ¡°Money has no moral opinions.¡± This razor-sharp masterpiece shows how people who sell themselves for money become like money: they have no moral opinions, no memories, they don¡¯t think. (Force of Evil will be shown at Anthology Film Archives in the first part of their extensive series Screenwriters and the Blacklist.)

The refrain of money vs. people returns in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), which Polonsky, blacklisted in 1951, wrote with African-American author John O. Killens as a front. When Johnny Ingram (Harry Belafonte) first hears the proposition for a bank heist, he wants no part of it: ¡°Man, you¡¯re drifting. That¡¯s for junkies and joy-boys. We¡¯re people.¡± When it was released, some critics faulted the film for blending the crime thriller formula with a treatment of racial hatred, combining ¡°the appeal to vicarious sadism and the call to social decency,¡± as a reviewer in The Nation put it. But what makes the film so much more effective than other parables of race relations is precisely the way it embeds its flawed, self-deluding characters in a world of degrading poverty and failure from which they all look to money for liberation.

As Earl Slater, Robert Ryan used his own frustration and growing bitterness at being typecast as a violent bigot to create the most richly developed and poignantly human of all his violent bigots. He wrings out every last drop of bile and pathos in this aging Southerner, a two-time loser whose insecurity and feeling of lifelong exile feeds his need to look down on black people; to insult his faithful, frumpy girlfriend (Shelley Winters), who pays the bills; to beat up young men in bars; and to finally make the big score that will erase his sense of worthlessness. He lets us feel how threatened and humiliated Earl is by Ingram, a smoothly handsome, elegant, proud young black man. But Johnny Ingram, for all his effortless cool and hipster lingo (¡°I¡¯m just a bone-picker in a four-man graveyard,¡± he says of his gig with a jazz combo), is also a compulsive gambler whose debts are so large that thugs are threatening his daughter. Earl and Johnny are both recruited for a bank heist by Burke (Ed Begley), a lonely and resentful ex-cop who was thrown off the force¡ªfor refusing to cooperate with an investigation, an obvious reference to HUAC that seems to have escaped notice at the time.

Odds Against Tomorrow originated with Harry Belafonte, who put up some of the money and recruited Polonsky to write the screenplay from a novel by William F. McGivern. The production was a kind of left-wing old home week: not only Polonsky and Belafonte but Ryan, Begley, and director Robert Wise were all strongly associated with progressive causes. Ironically, it was the more politically cautious Wise (who had escaped prosecution by HUAC) who wanted the heavy-handed ending, which flogs the destructiveness of racial hatred with fiery symbolism, while Polonsky preferred the more low-key ending he had originally written, which would have been far more in keeping with the bleak, melancholy tone of the film.

This tone owes much to the musical score by John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Qaurtet, which blows through the film like the chill wind gusting down the wide, empty Upper Manhattan streets in the opening scene. Equally crucial is the cinematography by Joseph Brun, who gives the whole film a bleached, wintry look. Near the end, the three men drive up to the river town where they plan to rob a bank (filmed on location in Hudson, New York), stash their car behind a muddy, abandoned factory, and separate to while away the afternoon. Early winter dusk creeps in, recalling Belafonte¡¯s icily angry nightclub performance of a blues about the lonely night, ¡°when that cold, cold sun goes down.¡± Johnny sits beside a ruined pier, and sees a baby doll floating in the trash-strewn water by the river bank. Burke sits under a crumbling religious monument and throws pebbles at a can. Earl finds that for some reason he can¡¯t shoot a rabbit. These desolate, wordless scenes of the three men, alone and far from home in the last hours of their lives, convey the pain of their self-inflicted alienation far more powerfully than the explosive climax.

In contrast to the prolific Daltron Trumbo, Abraham Polonsky gained a cult reputation in part because his output was so small, his career aborted almost as soon as it began. In a New York Times review of Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969), the second film he directed¡ªtwenty years after the first, Force of Evil¡ªRoger Greenspun called Polonsky¡¯s absence from the screen ¡°perhaps the most wasteful injustice of the late 1940s Hollywood blacklisting.¡± The intense controversy aroused by Willie Boy, which was panned and praised with equal fervor, proved that Polonsky had in no way mellowed with age or lost his ability to provoke. While nearly all his earlier films were rooted in his own New York Jewish world, here he turned to the western to make his most sweeping condemnation of American civilization as ¡°the process of despoiling, of spoliation of people.¡± He drew on a historical incident, the man-hunt for a Paiute Indian killer (played by Robert Blake), with the deliberate aim of speaking to 1960s youth. The result is somewhat anomalous, never naturally inhabiting either the western setting or the turn-of-the-century period. Both message and style feel too deliberate and calculated, the cerebral dressed up in high-pitched emotion and physicality. Nonetheless, the film is fascinating as a personal statement, deeply felt even if overwrought, and deserves reconsideration after largely disappearing from screens and memory.

In between the milestones of Force of Evil and Willie Boy, Polonsky wrote for television (penning episodes of Walter Cronkite¡¯s historical docudrama series You Are There, seen by countless midcentury schoolchildren), produced novels and essays, and taught college classes. At the end of the twentieth century he remained a scathingly articulate critic of the blacklist; he is the most engaging of the interviewees in Red Hollywood, with a sharp wit and resilient twinkle in his eye. But the career he might have had as a filmmaker can only be a matter of speculation¡ªespecially given the strong reservations he retained towards the film industry. Polonsky worked on an unknown number of screenplays using fronts, but later refused to reveal what they were, leaving his credits largely a blank. ¡°Let us [blacklisted] writers make our usual claims that we wrote all the good pictures and everyone else wrote all the bad ones,¡± he quipped. ¡°In that way the guerrilla warfare continues.¡±

This is the first part of a two-part article. Part two will be published in conjunction with the series Cineaste Magazine Presents: Screenwriters and the Blacklist: Before, During, and After, which runs from August 22 through September 2 at Anthology Film Archives. 

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THE AUTHOR

Imogen Sara Smith is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is the author of two books, In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: the Persistence of Comedy

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