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A Very Dangerous Citizen

Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left

Paul Buhle (Author), Dave Wagner (Author)

Available worldwide

Paperback, 285 pages
ISBN: 9780520236721
October 2002
$34.95, £24.95
When he was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951, Abraham Lincoln Polonsky (1911-1999) was labeled "a very dangerous citizen" by Harold Velde, a congressman from Illinois. Lawyer, educator, novelist, labor organizer, radio and television scriptwriter, film director and screenwriter, wartime intelligence operative, and full-time radical romantic, Polonsky was blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to be an informer. The New York Times called his blacklisting the single greatest loss to American film during the McCarthy era, and his expressed admirers include Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, Warren Beatty, and Harry Belafonte. In this first critical and cultural biography of Abraham Polonsky, Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner present both an accomplished consideration of a remarkable survivor of America's cultural cold war and a superb study of the Hollywood left.

The Bronx-born son of immigrant parents, Polonsky—in the few years after the end of World War II and just before the blacklist—had one of the most distinguished careers in Hollywood. He wrote two films that established John Garfield's postwar persona, Body and Soul (1947), still the standard for boxing films and the model for such movies as Raging Bull and Pulp Fiction; and Force of Evil (1948), the great noir drama that he also directed. Once blacklisted, Polonsky quit working under his own name, yet he proved to be one of television's most talented writers. Later in life he became the most acerbic critic of the Hollywood blacklist's legacy while writing and directing films such as Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1970).

A Very Dangerous Citizen goes beyond biography to help us understand the relationship between art and politics in American culture and to uncover the effects of U.S. anticommunism and anti-Semitism. Rich in anecdote and in analysis, it provides an informative and entertaining portrait of one of the most intriguing personalities of twentieth-century American culture.
1. Adventures of the Artist as Intellectual
2. The Good War and After
3. The Politics and Mythology of Film Art: Polonsky’s Noir Era
4. Polonsky’s Fifties
5. Triumph and Retrospect
Bibliographical Note
Paul Buhle is Lecturer in the American Civilization Department at Brown University and coauthor of Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (1997). Dave Wagner is the former political editor of the Arizona Republic. He has written on film for Cineaste and Filmhaeftet (Stockholm).
“Buhle and Wagner may sometimes lose readers in their descriptions of sectarianism on the left, but they do an admirable job of drawing attention to an artist whose work is often overlooked today.”—Ron Briley Books For The Western Library
“Buhle and Wagner have succeeded in bringing Polonsky’s history back to life: both he and the book deserve the attention.”—Mike Wayne Labour/Le Travail
"Abe Polonsky was fascinating, brilliant, mercurial, a giant of our time. He held the line against McCarthyism in all its forms and phases all his life. He did it with vigor and the joy of fighting for right. His history is the best of the left. As a man he was charming, amusing, concerned—a great listener and a greater raconteur, and an even better friend. This much needed book is a tribute to him."—Lee Grant, Oscar-winning director/actress

"A long-overdue critical biography of a significant talent and political intellect lost to the cold war waged in and on Hollywood. Buhle and Wagner expertly trace the roots of the Hollywood Red Scare to the streets of New York, the streets that produced the likes of writer-director-activist-teacher Abe Polonsky."—Jon Lewis, author of Hollywood v. Hard Core: How the Struggle Over Censorship Created the Modern Film Industry


  Abraham Lincoln Polonsky is surely one of twentieth-century American culture's most intriguing personalities . The sometime noir master Polonsky was "discovered" by Hollywood, publicly praised yet privately viewed as a troublemaker, suspected of monstrous conspiracies, cast out, and finally "rediscovered" decades later. His life as a modernist fiction writer, realistic novelist, union educator, radio{--}and later, television{--}scriptwriter, wartime intelligence operative, and full-time radical romantic would be revealing even had he never turned to films. A New York Times reviewer noting Polonsky's return from the blacklist hailed him as American film's greatest single loss to McCarthyism.[Note 1] Martin Scorsese echoed this judgment, personally rereleasing Polonsky's Force of Evil in 1996 and introducing it on-screen as the gem of neglected 1940s art cinema and a major influence on his own work.[Note 2] Still spry and exceptionally witty in his late eighties, Polonsky the personality had come back into the picture. A series of appearances on National Public Radio and at screenings of his work at the Lincoln Center and assorted film festivals, then his role as Elia Kazan's bête noire, along with a flock of interviews in newspapers and on CNN and Nightline around the time of the 1999 Academy Awards ceremony, all rendered the ex-blacklistee a remarkable survivor of America's cultural cold war. The wry figure on the losing side of history in the second half of a disappointing century was reaching out to those who would make politics and culture in the new millennium.[Note 3]

Polonsky's mark on American culture is indelible. Those raised on 1950s mass culture almost surely recall Walter Cronkite's memorably spoken catch lines for You Are There (1953{-}55): "What sort of day was it? A day like all days, with the events that alter and illuminate our time{--}AND YOU WERE THERE!" Conducting what he called "guerrilla warfare" against McCarthyism under a pseudonym, Polonsky delivered that series' most challenging scripts. Avid movie-watchers of all ages remember Body and Soul, arguably the greatest boxing film of all time, as well as John Garfield's personal best; Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, widely hailed (and cursed) as the ultimate cinematic critique of American western mythology; or even Romance of a Horsethief, very possibly the spiritually most Yiddish film ever shot in English.

In recent years, once-blacklisted screenwriters have begun to reclaim their "missing" credits, although more often than not posthumously. A growing number of scholars and devotees of all kinds and in all parts of the globe are reassessing the artistic issues of the cold-war era . Rather than sputtering out, the attendant controversies give every indication of burning well beyond the lives of those who were directly affected, and for good reasons. Even though a recent American Film Institute poll was weighted heavily against pre-1950 movies, blacklistees either wrote, directed, or contributed to the scripts of five (arguably, six) of the first thirteen all-time best American movies. (A conspicuous "friendly witness" who learned his political aesthetics on the Left contributed to yet another of those first thirteen.) The blacklistees' credits appeared on eight or nine more of the first thirty-six films in the list.[Note 4] Without the banished Left, Hollywood's canon would be both thinner and poorer by far.

None of Polonsky's features made the AFI list: a fair indication, perhaps, of how films like The Unforgiven, Rocky, American Graffiti, Dances with Wolves, Forrest Gump, and Silence of the Lambs crowded out many an older favorite. But among Hollywoodites themselves, he continued to loom large as the last of the serious 1940s Marxist thinkers and the finest aesthetician among the disappearing circle of Golden Age activists. In October 1997, when the talent guilds hosted a fifty-year remembrance of the blacklist at the Motion Picture Academy on Wilshire Boulevard, Billy Crystal, John Lithgow, and Kevin Spacey rose to dramatize testimony compelled by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Polonsky, the last surviving blacklisted director and the wittiest of the interviewees in the American Movie Channel's award-winning documentary, Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist, shared the stage with actress Marsha Hunt, writer-producer Paul Jarrico, and the current president of the Writers Guild, Daniel Petrie.

The moment was ironic, not only because the then Screen Writers Guild had blacklisted its own members during the McCarthy Era but because many of the cinematic objets d'art now greatly admired in classrooms and film festivals a half-century later had been anything but premier productions. Such key films of the 1940s as Polonsky's Force of Evil, acknowledged precursors of the art cinema in Europe and Japan as well as later dark and moody trends within American film, had been B features in every production sense, generally run at the bottom of any given evening's local double-bill. The aesthetic vein mined by filmmakers and relished by audiences then and now, ostensibly narrow and commonplace, judged by its intended market niche, had somehow proved extraordinarily original and inventive.

Polonsky and the other artists working this vein, which admiring French critics designated film noir, made their names in assorted established and highly defined popular genres, from the action melodrama to the musical comedy. Except for a half-dozen years after the Second World War, they never escaped the rigid political and aesthetic controls of the commercial studios and (at closer range) the producers. Nonetheless, the quality and sheer scale of their work before they found themselves ejected from film paradise, survives among Hollywood's most remarkable achievements.

The left-wingers around Polonsky{--}many of whom admired him as their foremost artistic figure{--}collectively wrote, directed, or provided the original stories for well over a thousand movies. Their credits could easily fill a film encyclopedia. Beginning with the dawn of sound pictures, their accomplishments include the first gangster films of note (The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, Angels with Dirty Faces); some of the outstanding early horror films (Frankenstein, The Devil-Doll, The Raven); most of the interesting Katharine Hepburn films (The Little Minister, Holiday, The Philadelphia Story, Woman of the Year, among others) and many other memorable women's films (Kitty Foyle, The Bishop's Wife, Forever Amber); classic literary adaptations (Becky Sharp, The House of the Seven Gables, A Christmas Carol, A Place in the Sun); many of the award-winning and box office bonanza war films (not only Casablanca but Destination Tokyo, Pride of the Marines, Hitler's Children, and Objective Burma, among others); political shockers like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Watch on the Rhine, Talk of the Town, and All the King's Men; not to mention Abbott and Costello's biggest hits, a large number of the acknowledged children's classics (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Young Tom Edison; National Velvet; Lassie, Come Home; and My Friend Flicka), the first sympathetic lesbian film (These Three, later remade as The Children's Hour), most of the early outstanding films about anti-Semitism (Gentleman's Agreement, Crossfire) and race (Intruder in the Dust, Home of the Brave, Pinky, Cry the Beloved Country, and Broken Arrow, along with the "book" for Stormy Weather) made before the cultural Iron Curtain fell in America.

This short list excludes dozens of lively Left-written or Left-directed musicals starring Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Lucille Ball, among others less famous; more than a hundred westerns, ranging from High Noon to Cisco Kid nonclassics; several slapstick comedies of Laurel and Hardy, not to mention several of Bob Hope's, Olson and Johnson's, or Judy Canova's. Nor does it enumerate the searing treatments of corrupted capital, tortured masculinity, and psychic crisis, filmic moments immortalized by the likes of Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, and Susan Hayward in movies like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, The Champion, and Kiss the Blood off My Hands, and several dozen other highly regarded noirs.

The enduring tragedy of Hollywood is the blacklisting of writers and directors (also some outstanding actors, Oscar-winner Anne Revere, Marsha Hunt, Zero Mostel, Howard Da Silva, Jeff Corey, and J. Edward Bromberg, to name a few of the dozens banned) at their moment of creative maturity; and the near-total absence of their artistic and political influence during the McCarthy era to follow, when only a small handful managed to continue working, mostly under pseudonyms. Their staggered return in relatively small numbers afterward essentially dramatized the large majority's absence.[Note 5]

That a few artists like Carl Foreman, Joseph Losey, and Jules Dassin managed to build impressive careers abroad, that others wrote biblical and slave-theme classics like The Robe, Spartacus, and Cleopatra as well as dozens of nonclassics during the 1950s and 1960s, and that some blacklisted actors managed to continue on Broadway, could never be fair compensation for the loss. Everyone in Hollywood who was well-informed suspected that banned Reds had to have scripted the Oscar-winning race and ethnicity films, The Brave One and The Defiant Ones. Regaining these all-too-obvious credits took decades. Likewise the cinematic symptoms of recovery, which at least demonstrated the silenced generation's denied talent: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia (both written under pseudonyms but awarded big-screen treatment), later Planet of the Apes, The Long Hot Summer, Hud, Exodus, Fail-Safe, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Yanks, M*A*S*H, Phaedra, Never on Sunday, Julia, The Children's Hour, The Molly Maguires, The Front, The Great White Hope, Norma Rae, Cross Creek, Nuts, The Group, Midnight Cowboy, Zulu, The Servant, Coming Home, Serpico, The Accident, and The Romantic Englishwoman.

Among the famed (and banned) writers and directors, Donald Ogden Stewart, Sidney Buchman, Waldo Salt, Martin Ritt, Lillian Hellman, and Dashiell Hammett, along with Foreman, Losey, and Dassin, Abraham Polonsky remained sui generis in a number of interesting ways. Nearly all of this group, unusually educated by the standards of the blacklisted Hollywood writers at large, nevertheless lacked Polonsky's formal intellectual background, which he had acquired as a radical-minded college English instructor. Nor did any of them have anything approaching Polonsky's background in labor as educational director of a district CIO unit, an experience particularly valuable to the self-confidence required for brushing aside logic-chopping Communist Party criticisms.

Polonsky's greatest weakness was also the source of his strengths: because he came to Hollywood late, past the age of thirty-five, he never regarded movies as his calling. When the blacklist struck, he made a living for more than a decade quietly doctoring films pseudonymously while others fled or despaired. He had hardly begun a renewed life in films under his own name when heart problems foreclosed on his opportunities as a director, the real creative role for him as an intellectual. His output, while vastly interesting, is also comparatively slight.

Often described as an existentialist, Polonsky was in his own mind a Marxist, not a socialist or a communist. By his own account, the difference was important, though it may seem curious after a century that saw so many defeats of movements calling themselves socialist or communist. With an intellectual self-assurance that was not arrogant, Polonsky insisted that his blacklistee compeers were essentially craftsmen working within the fixed framework of Hollywood filmmaking, men and women of good will who (with few exceptions) lacked any serious notion of the philosophical underpinnings and possible aesthetic implications of a materialist and dialectical view of history or of psychology. Not that he condemned them for it. As he once recalled observing to Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten, "you don't have to understand religion in order for it to have an effect on you." To believe is enough. Up to a point, that is.

Members of the Hollywood Left unquestionably believed, not excluding quite a number of those who later became friendly witnesses. They believed in unionism for themselves and others in Hollywood. They believed in defeating fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism. They believed in the Soviet Union, even if most believed in Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal almost as strongly and as far more appropriate for America. They believed that global socialism was, barring catastrophe, probably inevitable, including the United States sometime in the future. But for them, as artists, for the most part as Jews in a world of pervasive anti-Semitism, and as successful American professionals, millenarianism mainly offered a necessary, ethical conclusion to history, a redemption of the materialistic wickedness and needless cruelty always evident in class society but especially so in the era of capitalist mass-production.

This subject has long been difficult or perhaps impossible to approach successfully. That Michael Denning's sweeping survey, The Cultural Front, allotted only two precisely chisled chapters to film (one on Orson Welles, the other on Disney animators) testifies to the depth and complexity of the problem confronting scholars of film, the most influential form of popular culture.[Note 6] In a melancholy afterword to their authoritative 1980 study of the Hollywood blacklist's historical context, Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund reflected that the survivors had determinedly and repeatedly refused to discuss their politics.[Note 7] The further passage of time, the disappearance of most of a generation, and the collapse of the Soviet Union prompted a serious rethinking, as Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist, a volume of interviews demonstrated.[Note 8] Within the dwindling survivors' community in and around Los Angeles, the cerebral Polonsky was properly regarded as a key to grasping these politics and political aesthetics.

In any case, nearly everything in which the overwhelming majority, of the blacklistees strongly believed lay outside filmmaking itself, save their understandable concern for their own working conditions and their flagging hopes for better movies. Generalizations are dangerous here, because the same screenwriters and directors were thoughtful and intelligent, as well as talented. In fact, they were among the most thoughtful people in Hollywood or American intellectual life at large. But for the overwhelming majority "film art" remained an oxymoron, at least in Hollywood. The bitter personal experience of seeing their best work ignored or destroyed reinforced the basic insights that serious writing almost never got translated onto the screen and that film's main potential consisted in plot, dialogue, and character development.

Those who analyzed Russian films knew that artistic visual experimentation had lapsed there after the 1920s, despite technological advances. But even without knowing of or agreeing with the dreadful precedent of artistic regression under Stalin, radicals could see that Hollywood offered visual sensation (Busby Berkeley, special effects) mainly as background for drama. Movies were in fact moving pictures of drama, and to a lesser extent vaudeville, transferred from the stage to the screen, with other elements plugged in. Like film music, added during post-production and beyond the director's creative control (or, to say the least, the screenwriter's), visual effect constituted one more element in the assembly-line Hollywood production model, often rendered at the end of the line by the unsung craftsmen of the cutting trade. Not so unlike Stalinist Russia in effect if not cause, little within the profit-making logic of the studio system offered any prospect of change until the system itself could be challenged.

One of the abiding ironies of the McCarthy period in Hollywood is the commonplace assertion that the corporate and collaborative nature of the medium effectively barred threatening material or radical approaches to the film narrative. From the 1940s on, only conservative critics insisted that the blacklisted filmmakers had somehow managed to get a message across to the movie-going public. Answering this charge in an authoritative Fund for the Republic report (1956), liberal but firmly anticommunist supporters of Hollywood criticized the blacklist as unnecessary because an impermeable line of defense already existed in the producers who, along with top studio executives, retained ultimate control of the medium. Even if a rogue director had managed to acquire enough power to push through an unacceptable political message, the study concluded, the protectors of the self-censoring Production Code would catch the corporate error.[Note 9] The blacklist's victims, discouraged by the degree of censorship they had suffered and desperate to continue their careers, readily agreed with this judgment, adamantly refusing to acknowledge any radical aspect in their work.

Investigating committees did find one source of concern: not film plots (with the notable exception of the propagandistic Mission to Moscow, informally ordered by Washington, perhaps even by Roosevelt himself), not even characters, but wartime throwaway lines about then-ally Russia, its smiling faces, its dames, and its steadfastness in the face of Nazism. This later inquisitorial wisdom accurately reflected the fallback position of lesser writers who despaired of real influence on film but occasionally sneaked political angles into the margins, especially during songs and ostensibly pure entertainment.

From the perspective of time, however, a comparative study of the films on which the Hollywood Left worked from the early 1930s to their moment of exile reveals a very different picture. What if "subversion" (or radicalism) had less to do with international policies than the grinding effects on the postwar American character of increasing commercialization and the cash nexus? Or still worse, what if it had more to do with that hard-driving, myth-fed American character itself as seen through the thinking and actions of women who challenged the gender basis of the social pyramid? What if the solutions to modern dilemmas were not as simple as a new New Deal (let alone American soviets) but required a fundamental change of heart? And what if the subversion operated more deeply through the art form itself?

More than any other art, the cinema under the studio system transparently reflected the country's social organization. Vast sums of capital were required for labor, equipment, and distribution, and studio owners and their managers vigilantly prevented anything of real social significance from slipping through. But precisely because of this organizational structure, the industry's "literary" workers were able to apply pressure to get something through, not propaganda but a few shards of life recognizable to themselves and to their popular audiences.

Not only the Hollywood Left but independent-minded directors, producers, and stars all saw a chance in the later 1940s to break away from studio domination. In the most primitive Marxist terms, it could be described as an attempt to seize the means of production, but only the most literal or most visionary would have taken such a term seriously. What the insurgents really wanted was to secede from the existing means of production and set themselves up independently, with distribution by the major studios where necessary or desirable. In 1948, the Supreme Court decision against studio ownership of theater chains greatly reinforced this impulse. The prospective sharp decline of movie-going, however, undercut the small-budget operations' potential and, therefore, the viability of wide-scale independence, especially for the low-budget B film genres, where television had its sharpest effect. The new independent American production companies upon which so many hopes for the future were pinned had hardly begun to have an impact when the blacklist swept away Hollywood's most controversial and interesting filmmakers, Polonsky among them.

More than anyone else in the major studios or the independents during this unique moment of mass-culture creativity, Polonsky managed to develop a style of heightened dialogue, stylized camerawork, and forceful characterization that transcended genre. In these films whose remaining prints might have been lost in some studio vault can be found the kernel of some of the best films ever produced in the United States, right up to the beginning of the new century.

It could be argued that the movies of the 1960s, including Polonsky's own later films, realized at least some of the early promise of 1940s genre films. But, of course, the particular postwar social forces of class, gender, race, and culture that combined to make the earlier films possible could not be replicated.[Note 10] Filmmaking would grow more demographically diverse, but likely never again would writers and directors come from blue-collar Jewish backgrounds where radical ideas were common and where a New Deal had semiofficially validated social art as no future patronage of the avant-garde by the National Endowment of the Arts possibly could. No generation of writers and directors would know anything quite like the further spiritual uplift of a world crusade against fascism (and anti-Semitism) or the colossal disappointment that followed in McCarthyism and its Russian counterpart.

As the credits roll in Guilty by Suspicion, the roughly autobiographical 1991 HBO movie originally scripted by Polonsky, a lean and intense Robert De Niro, returning from France, is picked up at the Los Angeles airport by his determinedly cheerful friend, played by George Wendt. We are in a fictional 1950. That evening, dozens of Hollywood intellectuals, screenwriters, and others gather at a surprise party honoring the returnee, where they reveal their panic and despair. The key scene is a chillingly realistic book-burning incident that is taken from Polonsky's 1956 novel about the blacklist, A Season of Fear. At certain moments De Niro even looks passably like a forty-year-old Polonsky, if never so obviously witty or cerebral in his dialogue.

Guilty By Suspicion as shot, however, deleted a crucial episode from Polonsky's original screenplay. Back in France, the real-life Polonsky had mulled whether to remain in Europe or to return to the United States. Virtually every Hollywood blacklistee who fled to Mexico, London, Paris, or Athens days, weeks, or months ahead of a subpoena, nurtured the idea of an ultimate American vindication. Yet Polonsky alone abandoned a safe haven and probable success to return to the movie-making capital at the height of McCarthyism. Unlike colleagues who soon made Paris a second home, Polonsky already possessed a solid command of French and a world of contacts. Friends he had made during the Resistance and the Liberation were emerging in French politics, and many in the French film industry admired him for Body and Soul and Force of Evil. His family (contrary to the rewritten story line in Guilty by Suspicion, which found De Niro divorced and alone) remained happily by his side. Why in the world would he want to return to a situation that would almost certainly lead to a congressional subpoena, attacks from the press, and long-term unemployment?

Typical of his generation of Jews who personally endured (and saw in their extended families' lives) far worse than loss of profession and artistic expression, Polonsky shrugged when asked about this decision. The United States, even in bad times, could hardly avoid the status of chosen country for someone whose first two names were Abraham Lincoln. He was not about to be run out, not by the Dixiecrats and anti-Semites who ran the House Committee on Un-American Activities and not by sophisticated liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who congratulated the studios for the blacklist. True, the Left had been reduced to shambles and Hollywood would lose much of its creativity for the foreseeable future, ruling out the kind of art films that Polonsky most desired to make. But someone has to fight the losing battles. Entirely aside from his standing as an artist and an intellectual and his willingness to run to the sound of the guns, Polonsky also represented a collective artistic-political past both older and greater than his own.

The real-life antagonists had already made their stage entrances when Polonsky reappeared in 1950, larger in life and far more interesting than in Guilty By Suspicion. In the film, actor Sam Wanamaker (exiled to London in real life, and the driving force behind the rebuilding of Shakespeare's Globe Theater) plays the sleazy Hollywood lawyer who unsuccessfully works on De Niro to collaborate with the FBI. The hapless director refuses and the FBI pursues him across the rest of the film. Martin Gang, the Hollywood personality who successfully wheedled confessions from others, never would have bothered trying to cadge the real Polonsky. The alternative story line, revealed only with the release of FBI documents in the 1990s, topped that one by a mile.

Several years earlier, Los Angeles Bureau Special Agent R. B. Hood had identified Polonsky as a "dangerous" filmmaker. Hood himself had taken the time to write a careful thematic analysis of Force of Evil, textually supported by phone wiretaps made expressly for Chief J. Edgar Hoover. The Hon. Harold Velde of Illinois, a conservative Republican who chaired the House Committee on Un-American Activities, had concluded for other reasons that the writer-director threatened the national security.

On his return from France, Polonsky (not unlike De Niro in this case) immediately focused on his own professional concerns. He had already signed to write and direct a film for Darryl Zanuck, one of the most skilled and independent-minded producers in Hollywood. Zanuck quickly learned, however, that he could not continue to protect anyone who had not been "cleared." With Hollywood's rumor mill reporting that Polonsky was about to be named as a Communist, Zanuck advised him to work at home and keep a low profile. But when future Rockford Files scripter Meta Reis Rosenberg (who knew Polonsky well), mildly talented screenwriter Richard Collins (who barely knew him), and handsome actor Sterling Hayden (who knew him not in the least) all named Polonsky on cue from the committee, an early subpoena became inevitable. For a few weeks before his committee appearance , the studio faithfully kept Polonsky on the payroll. Then, without ceremony, they dropped him. Fifteen years passed before he was allowed again to work under his own name in Hollywood.

In most respects, Polonsky's actual appearance before the committee on April 25, 1951, proved totally predictable. Using his Fifth Amendment privilege, he refused to cooperate when asked about himself and his associates, and he was dismissed after relatively brief questioning. Neither side had anticipated anything different. But in one important respect, Polonsky was different. His service in the Office of Strategic Services hinted at possible intelligence knowledge, perhaps even espionage. As the questioning commenced, an unidentified figure (presumably from the United States intelligence services) approached Velde and whispered something to him. A few moments later, Velde dubbed the witness "a very dangerous citizen." Asked by friends about this characterization, the wry Sylvia Polonsky quipped, "Only to himself!" It must have been hard to laugh, however, at a moment when Congressman Richard Nixon could describe the "Pumpkin Papers" (later the damning microfilm proved to be merely Bureau of Standards data, readily available in public libraries) as evidence of a Soviet spy ring turning over vital secrets to the enemy and when deportations, jailings, and the firings of thousands of public employees took place amid similarly wild accusations.[Note 11]

Moving from life to art, Polonsky's original script for Guilty by Suspicion had foregrounded the moment of confrontation{--}in which a brave if rather confused De Niro also refuses to testify{--}to the very beginning of the film, an approach that French Director Bertrand Tavernier rejected early on as making the rest of the story anticlimactic. Perhaps an even more personal approach, again with the bizarre elements of literal McCarthyism, might have been perfect. The notion that his past as an admired antifascist radio dramatist in the OSS had led Polonsky into some conspiracy of almost unimaginable magnitude was extravagant, to put it mildly. From another angle, however, the charges might be seen as a measure of the high regard for Polonsky among his enemies in Hollywood and the intelligence community. Apart from scientists working on the Manhattan Project and high-ranking New Deal administrators, scarcely anyone, certainly no one in the entertainment world, earned such careful attention. Among the tens of thousands of pages of FBI files on Hollywoodites surveilled or otherwise investigated and released on microfilm in 1991, the tap on Polonsky's phone and transcriptions of selected conversations are unique, suggesting the special attention he received.

The FBI's interest in Polonsky began with scattered references in the year or two after the war and ultimately developed into a rapt attention bordering on obsession. Perhaps his station as secretary of a Hollywood Writers' Mobilization subgroup that agitated against restricted-covenant housing in Los Angeles caught Hoover's imagination. The FBI director was compulsively interested in all movements of "Negro Equality," the specter of which disturbed him more continuously than either organized crime or communism.[Note 12] At any rate, by 1947{-}49 Polonsky's profile had sharpened astonishingly. An informer's report characterized him as "one of the really brilliant men in the [Left] movement," full of "brilliant ideas," and evidently "headed for a very successful future as a screen writer and possibly as a director." Another report, describing him from the standpoint of certain studio executives, went on to call him an "arrogant, difficult man who is disliked by many people in the motion picture industry. According to T-1, POLONSKY feels that capitalism and the capitalistic system is the thing that killed his father who was a small druggist who died at an early age."[Note 13]

Asked about these allegations a half-century later, Polonsky nodded, "About right!"{--}especially in contrast to the frightened (or paid) informers' usual misjudgments about purported conspiracies of left-wing activities and the political logic of Communist-written films.

One unusually astute FBI report focused on the single issue that might credibly have made Polonsky "a very dangerous citizen," at least for those rare FBI staffers who believed in the creative power of nonpropagandistic art. The long struggle of screenwriters and directors to acquire artistic autonomy from studio dictates had become Polonsky's particular story. Special Agent Hood grew increasingly less preoccupied with Polonsky's labor activities or his participation in subversive campus or public organizations. The danger lay rather in Polonsky's abilities as a filmmaker and equally in his influence on other filmmakers.

Hood evidently had been trying for years to alarm Washington about the subtle influence of movies that questioned the morality of American capitalism. Now he apparently was convinced that he had hit pay dirt. Photostats of the transcribed phone conversations between Polonsky and Ira Wolfert (the author of the novel Tucker's People, upon which the film Force of Evil was based) highlighted Polonsky's remarks about passing over MGM. "We had a bad reaction [from MGM] to the script on the grounds that, 'What are you trying to do, overturn the system?' So we dropped them like a hot potato."[Note 14]

As a casual remark, this sounds innocuous enough, but not to those who feared that left-wingers and Jews' iconoclastic and accusatory films had begun to exert wide influence over the popular mind. Emerging from the war stronger than before, these dissidents had gained the self-confidence, and perhaps the clout, to proceed with an openly anticapitalist program. Hood noted that Polonsky's previous film, Body and Soul, made between three and four million dollars and had stirred great interest among the major studios. Enterprise, the independent studio that produced Body and Soul and gave Polonsky a flattering if nominal vice presidency, had even surmounted opposition from Hollywood's internal censor, the Breen Office, and thereby had begun to chip away at the system protecting public decency. Who knew what they could or would do next?

The sad irony of Guilty By Suspicion (which did not prevent the acute Roger Ebert from praising it as "one of the best Hollywood movies I've seen"[Note 15] ) lay in its treatment of the De Niro character's artistic aspirations. If he ever had any, they were lost in the victimization narrative. Agent Hood may well have been going out on a limb, although in those days no accusation was too far-fetched for serious consideration. Hollywood left-wingers had certainly made films far more didactic than Polonsky's, especially on the acceptable themes of war, fascism, and anti-Semitism. But Body and Soul, Force of Evil, and even I Can Get It for You Wholesale (the last scripted by Polonsky but produced without giving him any creative control) were far subtler, a different kind of art film as well as a different kind of political film. Polonsky, the most intense of the FBI informers suggested, could be described as the coming figure within the Hollywood Left, a model for the future radical filmmaker. Agent Hood was not so wrong after all: from the Greek theater to Shakespeare to modern film, effective and popular art was always the real danger. And always would be.


[Note 1] Roger Greenspun, "Screen: Willie Boy Is Here Opens," New York Times, Dec. 19, 1969. Greenspun added, "the intervening 20 years [since Polonsky's blacklisting]{...}have invested Polonsky with considerable exemplary glamour and saddled him with a reputation no director of a second film should have to justify."

[Note 2] Martin Scorsese Presents Force of Evil (1996).

[Note 3] See "Abraham Polonsky," in Robert Siegel, ed., The NPR Interviews (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 62{-}67; and Stephen Holden, "An Actor's Portrait, in Noir and White," New York Times, Aug. 9, 1996, about Polonsky's lecture on his own films during a Garfield film festival at Lincoln Center. Polonsky also appeared at the Lincoln Center for the showing of several You Are There television episodes and again for the showing of Odds Against Tomorrow. He continued to appear at regional film festivals until his death.

[Note 4] "Voters Pick the 100 Best American Movies," New York Times, June 17, 1998. Lyricist E. Y. Harburg arguably restyled The Wizard of Oz and established its plot for production, making six of the first thirteen; adding On the Waterfront, already in conceptualization when Elia Kazan appeared before the committee, would indeed make a majority of the first thirteen. Likewise, including Charles Chaplin as an escapee who only managed to evade the blacklist would raise the number (excluding Kazan) to sixteen of the first hundred. Those sixteen are: Casablanca (#2, coscript by Howard Koch), Lawrence of Arabia (#5, script by Michael Wilson), The Wizard of Oz (#6, lyrics by E. Y. Harburg), It's a Wonderful Life (#11, script contribution Dalton Trumbo), Bridge on the River Kwai (#13, script by Michael Wilson), Maltese Falcon (#23, based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (#29, coscript by Sidney Buchman), High Noon (#33, script by Carl Foreman), Midnight Cowboy (#36, script by Waldo Salt), The Philadelphia Story (#51, script by Donald Ogden Stewart), All Quiet on the Western Front (#54, script contribution by Gordon Kahn), Gold Rush (#74, script and direction, Charles Chaplin), City Lights (#76, script and direction, Charles Chaplin), Modern Times (#81, script and direction, Charles Chaplin), Frankenstein (#87, coscript by Francis Faragoh), and A Place in the Sun (#92, script by Michael Wilson).

[Note 5] Victor S. Navasky's Naming Names (New York: Viking, 1980), remains the definitive treatment of the blacklisting process and its complications. Polonsky is cited frequently as a sage voice in complex matters.

[Note 6] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (London: Verso, 1996). In several sections of this fine volume, Denning casually mentions many other details of film, but he nowhere offers a sustained critique of the industry or its left-wing artists.

[Note 7] Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood (New York: Anchor Press, 1980), 426{-}29.

[Note 8] Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle, Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (New York: St. Martin's, 1997).

[Note 9] Dorothy B. Jones, "Communism and the Movies: A Study of Film Comment," in Report on Blacklisting, vol. 1, ed. John Cogley (Washington: The Fund for the Republic, Inc., 1956), 197.

[Note 10] See Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock'n'Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), which despite its title is a study in disillusionment, with ungrounded personalities unable to sustain their early promise.

[Note 11] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who insists in Secrecy: The American Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998) that Communist spies were rife, makes the point that their passage of low-level scientific data to the Soviet Union could have had little effect on the course of the cold war. Perhaps it should be added that even at the height of the wild charges, no one ever suggested any particular Hollywood radical was directly involved in espionage. They were guilty, at most, of belonging to a proscribed political organization and holding unpopular views. See Kenneth Lloyd Billingsley, Hollywood Party: The Untold Story of How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the Thirties and Forties (Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing, 1998); Billingsley's is the latest and in some ways the most sophisticated version of this charge, although he scrupulously avoids serious analysis of the artistic content of films either written or directed by Communists and makes a large and unintentionally hilarious series of factual errors along the way.

[Note 12] The rest of the antidiscrimination committee included Howard Koch, who coscripted Casablanca; Professor Franklin Fearing from UCLA; and master animationist Chuck Jones, creator of the Road Runner. A most dangerous crowd!

[Note 13] FBI Document #100{-}138754{-}0297. See chapter three for details. A microfilm collection of these documents, Communist Activity in the Entertainment Industry: FBI Surveillance Files on Hollywood, 1942{-}1958, is now housed at Brandeis University. The guide to the collection, under the same title, was prepared by Daniel J. Leab (Bethesda: University Publications of America, 1991).

[Note 14] FBI Document #100{-}138754{-}469; a section of this is reprinted in the appendix.

[Note 15] Roger Ebert, "Guilty by Suspicion," Roger Ebert's Video Companion, 14th ed. (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1996), 297.

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