October 14, 2007
The Buried Legacy of Hollywood Anti-CommunismBy J.R. Dunn
A number of anti-communist films were made in Hollywood during the late 40s through the 50s, many of them featuring well-known names and of high quality. Almost none are available today. This is no accident, comrades.
We owe a nod of thanks to Thomas Lifson for alerting us to yesterday's rare showing of the anti-communist thriller, The Woman on Pier 13 (AKA, I Married A Communist).
Pier 13 is far from unique.
It's easy to understand why Man on a Tightrope (1953) went down the memory hole, directed as it was by the Joe McCarthy of the film world, that demon in human form, Elia Kazan. Tightrope, along with On the Waterfront, was part of Kazan's campaign against the dogma he'd once espoused. The film, dealing with a Czechoslovakian circus troupe plotting to escape the miseries of Soviet occupation, is a rarity in its portrayal of life behind the iron curtain. A point of interest lies in the fact that the screenplay was written by Robert Sherwood, a former FDR speechwriter and possibly the sole member of Roosevelt's retinue with a clear understanding of communism.
Night People (1954) deals with Soviet espionage in Berlin. An Army intelligence officer must handle a crisis involving the kidnapping of a GI amid ever-multiplying complications. The real pleasure of this one is that the officer is played (with considerable conviction, too) by liberal icon Gregory Peck. At one point, Peck cusses out the New York Times for misreporting an incident. Not something you see every day in film.
Nobody hated the commies more than Sam Fuller, and nobody made more compelling anticommunist flicks. Pickup on South Street is the best example. Richard Widmark plays a pickpocket who accidently bags a cache of microfilm headed for Moscow. Widmark's hood is a pure cynic ("Don't you wave the flag at me!"), and the film nicely charts the emergence of not so much love of country as loathing for those who would do her harm. Able support is provided by Thelma Ritter as a professional snitch, who gives what might be called the street take on communism: "I don't know anything about communism. All I know is I don't like it." (Ritter was nominated for an Oscar for this role - certainly a unique honor for a Fuller film.)
Hell and High Water is a 1954 Fuller offering in a more wild-eyed vein. I last saw this when I was very young, and memory fades, but... As I recall, it concerns a submarine for hire (yeah, I know, but just roll with it) skippered by Widmark, which is hired to check out reports that the Chinese are preparing a shifty little trick with a captured B-29 - namely, carrying out a nuclear attack on themselves in order to trigger WW III. The climax - submarine vs. nuclear-armed bomber - is one of the damndest things ever put on film. When they finished with Fuller, they broke the mold for good.
Man on a String is one of the final examples of the "pseudo-documentary" thriller popular during the postwar period. Ernest Borgnine plays a Russian expatriate who is cooperating with the Soviets in a bid to have his relatives released to the West. He comes to the attention of Western intelligence services, who persuade him to act as an agent. From there on, things get complicated. What's interesting about this picture (which is based on a true story), is the footage filmed in Berlin itself, still a mess fourteen years after the war ended. The climactic chase through endless blocks of bombed-out rubble comes across as if occurring in the backwash of the Apocalypse. (Note that there are a good half-dozen films and series with this title. This one is from 1960, directed by Andre de Toth.)
A lot of these films were "B's" (that is, made for the lower half of a double bill -- many film critics confuse Bs with the "exploitation" class, another story altogether), but gradations exist even within the B spectrum. Shack Out on 101 is definitely lower grade, but it's so entertaining it's difficult to ignore. For some obscure reason, the KGB has placed a west coast espionage cell in a rundown highway diner run by Lee Marvin. But stolid FBI agent Frank Lovejoy (if Lovejoy ever played anything but stolid, I am not aware of it) is hot on the trail. This is a strange little flick -- at one point the narrative comes to a screeching halt for ten minutes while Marvin and Keenan Wynn lift weights and compare builds - but it's worth watching on a slow evening.
But the least known of the anticommunist cycle is possibly the best - Mark Robson's Trial. Loosely based on the Scottsboro Boys case, Trial involves a Mexican boy accused of raping and murdering the daughter of a well-to-do family. A lynch mob forms, only to be seen off by the sneering sheriff. ("I never heard of a lynch town ever amounted to nothin'.") Sniffing potential publicity, the Communist Party steps in, creating a national defense campaign that continues right up to the point where it's convenient to cut the poor kid loose.
Glenn Ford plays a liberal lawyer of the "communists can be decent people too" school who gets put through the wringer. Dorothy McGuire is present to inspire bad thoughts in the minds of the male audience. But if you can wrench your attention from Dorothy (not an easy trick, granted) the revelation here is Arthur Kennedy, one of the film world's truly great supporting actors. Here he plays a manipulative Party lawyer with exactly the right mix of superficial charm, coldness, and sheer malice.
No other film deals more effectively with Party techniques -- somebody, Robson, the producer, or the screenwriter, must have once held a Party card. But what makes this film stand out is the way it depicts the human cost of the communist impulse. In reading memoirs of former communists, what comes across most clearly is the destruction it wrought on the human level -- the wrecked marriages and friendships, the victims left to face suspicious authorities with no aid from their erstwhile "comrades", the true believers who found themselves on the wrong side of some Party "line" and subject to absolute personal destruction. Trial reveals this aspect of communism more clearly than any film I know of. The scene where Ford discovers that McGuire has betrayed him on behalf of the Party she no longer particularly believes in has an impact hard to match.
Robson went on to make bigger films (the 70s disaster extravaganza Earthquake was one of his), but nothing to match Trial. And along with most of the films mentioned, it's impossible to get hold of. While Fuller's films are available on DVD (his anticommunism is today viewed as simply one of many endearing eccentricities), and Shack can be found on VHS, the others are simply not to be had. In the case of Man on a Tightrope, Night People, and Trial, there is no sign that they have ever been available in any format.
In this day and age, with the dumbest music video recorded by the most ephemeral emo band available to the whole wide world and down unto eternity, such a state of affairs is inexcusable. Someone, whether one of our conservative foundations or an entrepreneur with an eye for neglected market, niches should make an effort get these films back into circulation. A few years ago, Turner released a series of some of the quirkier films of the same era (Crossfire, Johnny Guitar), with commentary by Martin Scorsese.
How about a series of nicely-packaged DVDs with commentary by, say, Michael Medved, and historical background from figures such as Arthur Herman or Harvey Klehr. Or a boxed set suitable for giving to high school and college students or anyone else never exposed to the realities of communism. a Properly handled, such a program might well earn money (the rights to these films are probably going begging). And even if not, it would serve to bring some worthy work back before the public, as well as giving a good sharp jab to the Hollywood left. That's always worth doing.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.