Commentary Magazine


American Activities

Some fifteen years ago, I interviewed a director, Abraham Polonsky, whose first film, Force of Evil (he’d previously written Body and Soul), merits inclusion, I think, with Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon in any mention of the handful of most remarkable directorial debuts in American movies. But compared with Polonsky’s subsequent career, even such familiar horror stories as those of Orson Welles versus the studio chiefs read like an exemplary tale of unfettered artistic freedom. For Polonsky’s second film came twenty years after his first; in the interim, he was blacklisted.

I think the subject of blacklisting is worth approaching in this way because the traditional plague-on-both-their-houses view of the blacklisters and the blacklistees has usually been that not only was the work of the blacklisted film-makers (contrary to the contentions of their congressional investigators) ludicrously devoid of any “subversive” content, but that (contrary to the claims of their supporters) the blacklisted “artists” were, in their “art” if not their politics, all indistinguishable from any run-of-the-mill Hollywood hack. By and large (though even Hollywood hacks may be entitled to their civil liberties), there is some truth to both assertions, and I think one could easily maintain that, had both John Howard Lawson and Dalton Trumbo (the best-known members of the “Hollywood Ten”) never written a word for the screen, our movies wouldn’t be poorer for the loss by a single one of their memorable moments. On the other hand, an Edward Dmytryk (a director of decidedly less than first rank, but one once capable not only of such skillful melodramas as Crossfire and Murder, My Sweet but of Till the End of Time, which covered much the same ground as The Best Years of Our Lives in a less compromised fashion), one of the Hollywood Ten who later recanted and named names, gets it coming and going, Right and Left, joining a talented director and “friendly witness” such as Sam Wood (Our Town, The Devil and Miss Jones, Saratoga Trunk) in becoming a non-person. And then, even if an Abraham Polonsky was the exception which proved the rule, there was still Abraham Polonsky.

And so one can add the twenty-year interval in the career of an Abraham Polonsky to the interrupted or wrecked careers, the heart attacks, divorces, suicides, and the rest of what passes, in journalistic parlance, for the blacklist’s “tragedy”—except that, in Polonsky’s case, the loss is not just his but ours. Polonsky didn’t dwell on this side of the blacklist when I interviewed him. Instead he passed quickly to the comic aspects of a situation in which some blacklisted writers, working mainly for television through “fronts,” ended up restaging such things as the death of Socrates (on TV’s You Are There) for all America at the very height of the political turmoil. But he also mentioned what one might call the black-or-tragicomic twist to this situation. The necessity for fronts to be not just pseudonyms but real people led, in some cases, to identity crises and even crack-ups in which those passing off the work of others as their own eventually came to believe they actually were writers and then disastrously undertook to produce work on their own. And so the blacklist spawned yet another tier of human wreckage.

The Front opts for the second of these three concentric circles: the comic one. And the fact that this first extended treatment of the blacklistings to reach our movie screens (excepting, that is, the subject’s brief employment for soap opera in The Way We Were, and its handling in Fear on Trial, the story of John Henry Faulk, on television) should emerge as this lightweight, ramshackle little farce seems to have pleased almost no one. Had The Front, in fact, been widely praised for being that slashingly bold and angry work its director, Martin Ritt, evidently takes it to be, I’d probably be here attacking, if not the film itself, at least such an account of it. (Ritt who’s never made a comedy before, may well not recognize a comedy even having made one.) But though the film’s writer, Walter Bernstein (who reportedly drew for his material on his joint experiences as a blacklisted writer with Polonsky and one other person), seems willing to take credit for bravery when someone’s handing it out, he seems, at other moments, to have a more modest and accurate sense of what he’s accomplished. And given a director as weak as Ritt, all of whose films can be regarded as their writers’ movies, I think it’s no distortion to treat The Front as Walter Bernstein’s movie, and it’s that movie I want to say a good word for.

____________

 

At the least, I want to say that The Front isn’t Scoundrel Time or Hollywood on Trial, and, if we’re going to refight the cold war about such things, we’d do well to distinguish among them. The Front’s protagonist is Howard Prince, a cashier in a restaurant and smalltime bookie who, “functionally illiterate” by his own description, is nevertheless recruited to be a front by an old high-school friend who’s been blacklisted in his career as a writer for television. (Howard is played by Woody Allen in what is probably the most successfully fleshed-out version of his typical nebbish; and given that the casting of Woody Allen in this role has been criticized as a concession to the box office, it’s interesting to note that Bernstein, to judge from several photographs of him I’ve seen, is, rather strikingly, a Woody Allen look-alike.) As the blacklist spreads, and more and more writers are included under Howard’s umbrella, he becomes not only the hottest but also virtually the last, the one and only, “safe” writer of “serious” dramas for television—and the toast of the industry. That is, until the House Committee gets around to calling him, and he finds himself faced with a situation.

A few things (besides the plain fact that much of it is very funny) are worth mentioning about all this, not least the film’s surprisingly steady and gentle good humor. Though the gentleness can sometimes be deceptive: the idea of Howard Prince as putative standard-bearer of the Golden Age of television drama—and the few glimpses we see of what that Golden Age consisted of—does, for example, as thorough a job on the mediocrity of television with a few deft jabs as Network does with all its flailing bludgeons. Indeed, it’s probably the setting of the story in television, where the notion of the “artist” practicing anything, no less subversion, is even less tenable than with the movies, that enables the film to work as farce.

More important, and contrary to some charges leveled against it, the film doesn’t hedge on the fact that some of the blacklistees were Communists and others Communist sympathizers—the writers for whom Howard fronts openly admit to being such. That the film doesn’t take up the questions of Communism, Stalinism, and the culpabilities of the Left is true enough—and, I think, immaterial. The film does focus selectively on the blacklist, and, given that it doesn’t dissemble on the “innocence” of the blacklistees, I think it’s under no more compunction to declare itself on the related complexities of the 20th century than is every anti-Stalinist utterance subject to a demand that it be accompanied by the statement of a position on HUAC. And the blacklisting issue itself is, it seems to me, both morally simple and morally separable from everything one may find repugnant in the politics of those blacklisted: the blacklistees may not have any privileged right to hold high-paying jobs and enjoy the other accessories of the successful Hollywood-television hack, but I think they had as much right as any other hack not to be deprived of such things, in the absence of any legally defined crime, because of their political affiliations per se. Whatever there may be that’s abhorrent in the politics of some of the blacklistees doesn’t diminish the abhorrence of the blacklist—or of blacklisting generally—by a shred.

The film does fudge (though in the interests, it would seem, of engendering an apolitical pathos) on the Zero Mostel character, Hecky Brown, one of television’s biggest stars, who pleads to the Red Channels types that he’d involved himself in leftist causes solely to get girls. One would have liked to know, and never does, if this is true, and whether his eventual suicide is attributable more to his loss of livelihood or to his self-disgust at having allowed the blacklisters to get him to spy on Howard. (Though the suicide scene itself is handled with some delicacy, the rest of the stuff with Mostel is the worst thing in the movie, in no way helped by another of Mostel’s latter-day exhibitions of excess, with the actor advancing on the camera each time he appears, as though about to swallow it.)

But apart from this, and unlike Fear on Trial, there’s no suggestion in The Front of the principals’ being victims of mistaken identities or falsely accused. Even the “hero” that The Front invents to confront the congressional investigators isn’t quite the simple innocent some have made him out to be: he is, after all, a knowing front for Communists and their sympathizers. And far from being a disinterested party, Howard is profiting from the blacklist, which has catapulted him to a wealth and celebrity (and a girlfriend) that would never otherwise be his. And though he’s got too firm a grip on sanity ever to believe he is what others take him to be, he eventually settles into his role of entrepreneur as though to the manner born, rejecting scripts that don’t meet the standards his name has come to stand for in the industry, and declaring of potential recruits to his stable, “Blacklisted isn’t enough.” Howard goes before the Committee fully determined not to relinquish any of the advantages the blacklist has bestowed on him. He steps down having told the Committee members what they can do to themselves.

That moment in which he tells the Committee off provides as richly satisfying a climax to the film as any one might wish for, but it is, without a doubt, pure fantasy: staircase wit—with the movie granting everyone who ever muffed the opportunity a second chance to say what (legal niceties aside) “I-should-have-said.” Yet the movie pulls itself back to reality with a snap, as we see Howard (whose act of “heroism” remains an inextricable mix of his desire to impress his girlfriend, an impulsive resistance to bullying, illusions about his invulnerability, and the like) being carted off to prison for contempt of Congress as the usual crowd of placard-carriers hail him as a heroic martyr. In a sense, the film is saying that the congressional investigators, and the blacklisters who followed in their wake, were, in human terms, so contemptible that even a nebbish like Howard Prince—a politically primitive, blacklisting profiteer—would have had to tell them where they could stick it. But what the film is also saying is that only a Howard Prince, someone politically born yesterday, could have told them that, since everyone else came before them hauling his bundle of dirty laundry. And what the film also knows full well is that there never was a Howard Prince to stick it to them, and, if there were, prison is where you’d subsequently find him—and then on the blacklist.

____________

 

Hollywood on Trial, a new documentary study of the heroic martyrdom of the Hollywood Ten, is everything The Front isn’t. Even Dalton Trumbo concurred in the opinion that the time of the HUAC hearings and subsequent blacklistings was one in which there were no heroes or villains, only victims—the spectacle of the Committee and its witnesses was one from which no one emerged looking good—though I think the case for some villains can indeed be made. But the makers of Hollywood on Trial, its director, David Helpern, Jr., and writer, Arnie Reisman, want heroes, and so, borne aloft by the sonorous narrating voice of John Huston, we’re invited to fill ourselves with righteous indignation at the clash between the supposed proponents of freedom of speech and their inquisitors. Indignation is certainly one possible response to the spectacle of the HUAC hearings (though, as The Front wisely knows, it’s not the stuff of which a lively film will be made). But I doubt if the credentials of many of the principals involved entitled them to righteousness.

Yet for heroism, at least in Hollywood on Trial‘s view, blacklisted is enough, and so the film’s logic-chopping whereby, once the HUAC hearings are seen as the antecedent and prelude to Vietnam and Watergate, everyone dragged before the congressional investigators can be seen as a forebear of the radical resisters and protesters of the 60′s, and all retroactively vindicated by the fall of Nixon. And with this vindication comes the film’s rehabilitation of 30′s-fellow traveling in toto, as all its familiar icons are once again wheeled out before us: Pete Seeger on the soundtrack, and the stock footage of Harlan County, Republic Steel, the Lincoln Brigade, etc. (Added testimony to the renewed glamor attached to such things is the family history—his father hounded by McCarthyism into suicide—given, for no discernible purpose other than a kind of chic, to Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man: my nominee for the most loathsome film I’ve seen since Seven Beauties.)

One might be inclined charitably to attribute such things to the youthful naiveté of the film’s makers, had they not already demonstrated, in a discussion following the world premiere of their film at the San Francisco Film Festival, so mature a mastery of working McCarthyism themselves, accusing those critics who disliked their film (and The Front) of hiding skeletons in their closets and trying to defend their own cowardice in the 50′s. To be sure, despite its tendentiousness, Hollywood on Trial does have some indestructible interest as a record on film of at least the 1947 hearings (motion-picture footage of subsequent hearings was unavailable, and so the film’s later sections are reduced, with much less effect, to the use of still photographs). And it does make the point that the Hollywood Ten expected to win their case (on the First Amendment; the common use of the Fifth Amendment came later) on appeal to the Supreme Court, and very well might have done so had not several deaths altered the composition of the Court by the time the case reached it—not a new point, but one worth recalling, and one which, for me, does no discredit to the “martyrdom” of the defendants involved. But this is the meager yield of what amounts to just one more simplistic attempt to tailor the past to fit the fashions of the moment: just one more travelogue-level survey of the battlefield on which was enacted some of our most tumultuous recent history, resulting in only another unrevealing view of our still-unburied dead.

____________

 

Just how pedestrian a piece of documentary film-making Hollywood on Trial is can be seen by comparing it with The California Reich, Walter Parkes’s and Keith Critchlow’s study of some present-day, indigenously American, self-proclaimed Nazis. I assumed, when I first heard of the film, that we were in for a Mondo Cane-style tour of yet another Southern California lunatic fringe; I was wrong. The California Reich is set largely in San Francisco, where Allen Vincent, the soft-spoken leader of the local unit, describes himself as a “victim of loneliness” (twenty of his forty years have been spent in correctional institutions) and speaks of “our world of the future” as one in which there will be no more lonely people, a world of “harmonious, compatible relationships, where no loneliness is possible.” Clad in Nazi uniform, he goes, with several of his followers, to accept a speaking invitation at San Francisco State University, and is forced to flee by a mob of angry students shouting, “Death to the Fascists!”

If this makes The California Reich sound like a sympathetic portrait of Allen Vincent and his followers, I hasten to add it is not, except insofar as it declines simply to adopt the lynch-mob mentality of the campus protesters, and tries instead to see what makes them tick. While never pretending to share the Nazis’ views, the film’s makers, after expending considerable effort in merely locating their subjects, were able finally to convince them that they would be depicted objectively, and shown as they are. And as they are is how we see them: at home, with the Super Bowl on TV and a helmeted skull on an end table, as they down Olympia beers, feed the baby, and show off the five-year-old’s prowess at karate and mastery of his catechism (“Who don’t we like?”—“Jews! Niggers!”); decorating Christmas trees with swastikas in preparation for an armband-wearing Santa Claus; passing the helmet at what might well be a PTA meeting were it not for the uniforms and the speaker’s jocular remarks on the resemblances between Negroes and apes. (Blacks are, in fact, the chief demons in these people’s world; and despite the comment of one member—a staff sergeant at Fort Ord—that, though the Holocaust didn’t happen, he wished it had and he’d like to “roll in the dust” at Auschwitz, the hatred for Jews, though real, seems more a paying of lip service to old pieties. And apart from their affecting the regalia of German Nazism, their own “Nazism”—they call themselves the National Socialist White People’s party—seems to consist solely of a febrile and virulent racism.)

Yet these familial and domestic scenes are not so much another demonstration of the “banality of evil” as of something like the reverse: these people, after all, aren’t the exterminators of millions who see themselves as clerks, but the clerks who dream of being murderers. So far, to be sure, their chief victims have been their children; it’s the scenes with the children that are the most horrifying; and one feels that no amount of socialization will ever succeed in eradicating what’s been instilled in them. And perhaps—for an Allen Vincent, anyway, if not for some of the others—the genocidal rhetoric is understood to be only that—rhetoric. Indeed, apart from such rhetorical flights and the attachment to the Hitlerian paraphernalia, the truly frightening thing about these people is how much of what they feel and say could be felt and said—is felt and said—by countless others who wouldn’t dream of identifying themselves with a Nazi movement: other job-holding, church-going, family members and “victims of loneliness,” who, baffled and frustrated by the social maze in which they find themselves, cling to the conviction that, no matter how far they may fall short of their society’s images of success, they can never be stripped of their “natural” superiority to some others around them. What’s even more frightening is when one hears one of them saying something—such as that every time a governmental edict sees to it that a black is promoted over a white worker with seniority, the government has succeeded in building another racist—with which (however different their inferences) one can oneself agree.

In any event, what the Nazis say is what we hear: in the manner of the documentary films of Frederick Wiseman, The California Reich has no voice-over narration, no Hollywood on Trial-style guides to moral certitude. No one tells us that these people are monsters, nor, despite the film’s streak of caustic humor, are we ever encouraged simply to dismiss them with our ridicule. At times, the lack of guide-posts can be unsettling: I think of one brief sequence, a fragment really, in which Allen Vincent discourses like an abstracted anthropologist on the uniqueness of Hitler’s face—his remarks are allowed just to trail off—that’s as elusively ambiguous in its mood, and as texturally dense, as something from an Antonioni film. In the way that we usually think of things “making a point” in documentary or even fiction films, the sequence seems to go nowhere. And yet the sense of rootless anomie that it communicates is shattering.

But, of course, one never really has any doubt as to where the filmmakers “stand” with respect to the beliefs espoused by their subjects: one hardly needs to be told what to feel about such things; the subjects’ words are self-convicting. And though there’s no real attempt to assert that the Nazis constitute anything of importance, let alone a threat, numerically, there’s still something chilling in hearing one of them end a forecast of apocalyptic race war with the declaration that, “There’s nobody to stop us. We’re growing. The public don’t see it. They’ll wake up one day, and there we’ll be.” (An outgrowth of George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi party, but less preoccupied than was Rockwell with making shows of military force, the present group is estimated to have a membership of only some 2,000 in twenty-five cities nationwide, but membership in the San Francisco area grew tenfold during the time the film was being made.) And though it’s probably half as a gesture to those who might still accuse the film of a failure to take sides that it closes with a quotation from a 1923 editorial in the New York Times—“The federal officers estimate the strength of [Hitler's] forces at not over 1,000 and describe them as boy scouts having an outing, playing at war . . . persons better fitted for the comic opera stage than for a serious attempt to overthrow the government”—this, too, hits one with some impact. In a calmer mood, one might reflect that the people we see are not about to rival Hitler in spellbinding oratory, and that this, after all, is a lot bigger country than Germany, and anyway, when it comes to fringe groups preparing themselves to assume custodianship when America collapses, the Nazis will have to wait their turn in line. Yet one doesn’t have to subscribe to an alarmist view to feel that the Nazis are worth looking at: that they say something, in however distorted a form, about the society from which they emerged. If nothing else, contemplating them (and those clamoring for their death at San Francisco State) serves as a reminder that there are those among us harboring a vision of America in which the least we’d have to fear is being asked, in the presence of an attorney and with constitutional safeguards, “Are you now or have you ever been. . . ?”

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.