As the conflagration in Europe finally came to an end, only to be replaced by the Cold War, the rug was yanked out from under the burgeoning domestic communist movement by men such as Rankin, anxious to combat any threat (real or imagined) to the sanctity of the American way of life. The American Communist Party, which had previously been a refuge for certain naïve intellectuals and politicos in the movie industry, quickly became the focus of the greatest paranoid witch hunt of modern age. Writers, stars, moguls, and other assorted Hollywood players traveled east to testify before congress. Some named names and some refused--but everyone got hurt. The Hollywood Ten went to prison, Edward G. Robinson became “number one on the sucker list,” Bogart took his hat in hand, and John Garfield was destroyed. Hundreds more had their careers disrupted, some for more than a decade (and some forever).
Throughout the years of HUAC and the Blacklist, the film industry was placed squarely on the defensive, saddled with the massive public relations task of restoring faith in the movie business. In addition to shunning those tainted by the witch hunt, the studios began cranking out dozens of anti-communism pictures. Possibly the foremost example of these films is 1951’s I Was A Communist for the F.B.I.
The real-life inspiration for the film was Pittsburgh steelworker Matt Cvetic. When the war broke out, Cvetic was deemed too short for military service and sent home. He subsequently decided to serve his country by becoming an informant for the F.B.I., and spent the next nine years posing as a communist party member in the western Pennsylvania steel mills, giving the Feds all the dirt he could churn up. According to most news sources of the day, Cvetic’s dedication and sacrifice was truly heroic: he had to live his cover day and night, lest he be found out. In addition to his reputation, it cost him almost every relationship in his life, including those with his wife and children. His only confidants were his priest and the G-Men to whom he reported.
In the end, Cvetic went public to HUAC and became an overnight celebrity. Magazine articles, books, a radio show starring Dana Andrews, and the Saturday Evening Post all told his story. Like so many others unprepared for sudden notoriety, Cvetic handled things poorly. He failed to salvage a life with his family, slipped into alcoholism, and died at the young age of 52. The precise details of his recruitment by the F.B.I. and the extent of his contribution are the subject of much debate, and seemingly lost to history--though if nothing else his exploits provided the fodder for I Was A Communist for the F.B.I., a film so important to the Hollywood film collective that it was nominated for the 1952 Academy Awards in the Best Documentary Feature category, though it’s about as much a documentary as On the Waterfront.
Though Pittsburgh’s place in the hierarchy of American urban centers has waned over the decades, in the mid-20th century its position as the focal point of the nation’s industrial might is inarguable. According to the film, our reliance on coal and steel made Pittsburgh the ideal place for the communist party to gain a foothold from which to “weaken America’s industrial heart.” The movie covers the last few months of Cvetic’s nine years “in the red,” as he progresses from resolutely shouldering his burden to finally restoring his name at HUAC hearings in New York. Most of the scenes are episodic, intended to shine a light on the subtle ways in which communists operate. It’s impressive how well (and ironically, how subtly) the exposé-style propaganda elements are inserted into an otherwise entertaining and suspenseful narrative.
Despite the far more important political and historical underpinnings, I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. is stylistically a film noir. Matt Cvetic, played by Frank Lovejoy, has much in common with the typical noir anti-hero. He leads a double life that is entirely defined by his alienation from the rest of society. He’s a natural loner, possessing some force of will enabling him to endure extreme hardship and isolation from everyone else--even contempt from those he loves.
Some attempt is made to give the movie a femme fatale in the form of high school teacher Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart), but it doesn’t last. Merrick, secretly a communist, is ordered by her masters to romance Cvetic and find out if he is for real--all important party officials must be watched. Instead, she turns in her fatale identity for that of a damsel in distress after witnessing a brutal beating and attempting to flee the party. When the red gangsters send goons to keep her quiet, Cvetic is forced to blow his cover in order to save her.
Films such as I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. are obviously products of their special moment in time, yet the mid-century period is one of the most fascinating and disturbing in our history--for reasons more substantial and deeply felt than the infiltration of subversives in Hollywood. This fact is not lost on screenwriter Crane Wilbur, who uses one of the film’s episodes to remind the moviegoing public that racial tension was an equally distressing issue in 1951--though it could be argued that by placing communists behind racial violence he blurs the issue for the benefit of the movie industry and consequently does more harm than good. The scene shows party organizers inciting black factory workers to riot, in hopes of getting fat on the millions to be had from a sham legal defense fund. What’s disturbing and ironic is that after the communist blowhard makes his pitch to the assembly, only one black man questions his motives--and he’s quickly shouted down by his friends. (Evocative of 1947’s Violence, and in some ways also 1950’s The Underworld Story.) The film not only frighteningly suggests that these workers really are as gullible as the communists believe, it then disingenuously corroborates its position by crediting the 1943 race riots in Harlem and Detroit to communist agitators using the same methods.
Although I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. is in many ways a problematic film, everything that makes it problematic today contributed to its success with audiences in 1951--and therefore the hard-to-find film remains a provocative document of a troubled time.
EDITOR's NOTE: Glenn Erickson provides more background details (including several that Mark Fertig thought were "lost to history") regarding this film in his DVD review (the film was actually released by the Warner Archive in 2009, meaning that it was not nearly so hard-to-find as Mark thought)...
...and Bosley Crowther (of all people) pushes hard against the film in his 1951 review for the New York Times:
Twelve years ago, Warner Brothers let loose a hot and lurid blast at Nazi agents in this country with their "Confessions of a Nazi Spy." Now they are blasting Communist agents with equal fervor and alarm in a hissing and horrendous spy film called "I Was a Communist for the F. B. I." Based on the magazine memoirs of Matt Cvetic, a Pittsburgh steel worker who actually did some sleuthing for the Federal bureau as a "plant" in a Communist cell, this film is an erratic amalgam of exciting journalistic report, conventional "chase" melodrama, patriotic chest-thumping and reckless "red" smears. Riding a wave of public interest, it opened at the Strand yesterday.
In many respects, this heated item bears comparison to the hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee--which, incidentally, it extols. For in telling its story of a valiant patriot who silently endures the contempt of his son, his brothers and his neighbors while he poses as a loyal Communist, it tosses off dangerous innuendos and creates some ugly bugaboos in the process of sifting the details of how the Communists bore from within.
For instance, in glibly detailing how the Communists foment racial hate and labor unrest in this country, it colors its scenes so luridly that the susceptible in the audience might catch a hint that most Negroes and most laborers are "pinks." It raises suspicion of school teachers by introducing one as a diligent "party member" at the outset. (After she meets the hero and falls for him, she breaks away.) And, all the way through, it drops suggestions--always from the villains' oily tongues--that people who embrace liberal causes, such as the Scottsboro trial defense, are Communist dupes.
It is true that the writing, the acting and the direction of this film are in a taut style of "thriller" fiction that the perceptive will recognize. The villains are absolute rascals, so slyly and sneeringly played by James Millican, Eddie Norris and others that you wonder how they'd fool anyone. The first time we see them, they are guzzling champagne and eating caviar at a reception for Gerhardt Eisler in a fancy suite in a Pittsburgh hotel. In reply to the surprised observation of the fellow who turns out to be from the F. B. I., a comrade, far in his cups, proclaims lightly, "This is the way we're all going to live when we take over the country!" That gives you an idea of the menacing sort they are.
Likewise, Frank Lovejoy, who muscularly plays the title role, is a model of tight and efficient resolution, ingenuity and spunk. He is in easy contrast to the handsome, serious and infallible young men of the F. B. I. Dorothy Hart is pretty and conventional as the decent American school teacher who has swallowed the Communist line but who makes her escape, with the hero's assistance, when the comrades get wise to them. Roy Roberts is familiarly four-square as a wise and compassionate Catholic priest. Paul Picerni is tense as the hero's brother and Ron Hagerthy is mawkish as his son.
All of these "good ones" fit neatly the standard patterns of loyalty, and the film itself glows with patriotism. But it plays a bit recklessly with fire.
Personally, I think it would be rather instructive to program a "red menace" festival, including some films from that time frame that are more "in the closet" regarding their stance...and it might be interesting to include films from other genres as part of it all. At this point in time, however, it would likely be limited to a screening room-sized theatre--though we can hope that Eddie M., often taken after by a portion of his noir audience for having a bit too much red in his neckware, might decide to revisit this territory in theatres, even if it were limited to, say, a single day of "red menace."