September 2018, arsenal cinema

Hollywood Blacklist

THE SEA WOLF, 1941

What do you think of communism? All US artists and intellectuals were expected to have an opinion on this issue in the 1930s. In the second half of the following decade, this was no longer necessary. All possible sympathies for socialist ideas were branded “un-American”. The Cold War had begun. Reactionary forces, which had long been bothered by what they considered decadence and leftist tendencies in Hollywood, used the chance to portray the film industry as being infiltrated by communists. In October 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) started conducting hearings in Washington. Of dozens subpoenaed to answer questions, 11 – Alvah Bessie, Herbert J. Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo and Bertolt Brecht – were branded “unfriendly witnesses”. With the exception of Brecht, who left for Europe shortly afterwards, they all refused to answer the question: “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” A month later, the “Hollywood Ten” were sentenced to imprisonment. The studios succumbed to the pressure of the anti-communist witch-hunters and the Hollywood blacklist was born. There were further HUAC hearings after 1951 and conservative publications also started publishing lists of “suspects”. In the following years, hundreds in the film industry lost their livelihoods. Many were not able to find work in the entertainment industry until the 1960s, if at all. This retrospective curated by Hannes Brühwiler pays tribute to those affected by the blacklist and features a selection of their films. All 24, including several which have rarely been screened, explore the filmmakers’ key concerns: fascism (THE MAN I MARRIED), exploitation (GIVE US THIS DAY / SALT AND THE DEVIL), racism (CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY), feminism (I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE), the greed of capitalism (FORCE OF EVIL) and more than once the despair of the worker-class (THE SOUND OF FURY). In sum, a left-wing vision of the US, which is rarely utopian but always exact and analytical, emerges. It is a cinema of “clairvoyant pessimism” (Noël Burch) that is as pertinent today as it was then. Most of the films were made before the blacklist was compiled. They shed light on the liberties the filmmakers were able to take within Hollywood’s narrow confines and reveal the conflicts that arose. They also underline the fact that there was a significant creative bloodletting (contrary to popular belief). This retrospective explicitly opposes Billy Wilder’s malicious comment: "Of the ten, two had talent, and the rest were just unfriendly.” JOHNNY GUITAR and RED HOLLYWOOD are two films which comment on the blacklist in different ways. 35mm prints of all the features will be shown; many of them have been restored. NB: The names of those affected by the blacklist are in bold.

THE SOUND OF FURY (aka TRY AND GET ME!) (Cy Endfield, USA 1951, 1. & 21.9.) The despair of the lower middle-class: A family man ashamed of being unemployed allows himself to be convinced by a gangster to take part in a kidnapping. The police arrests them both and the anger of the small town’s population is unforgiving. THE SOUND OF FURY is a dark crime movie that builds up to an apocalyptic storm, but never loses sight of social realities, thus telling a lot about the daily despair of the working-class. A masterpiece, it was Cy Endfield’s last film before he felt compelled to move to Britain. It will be preceded by the short documentary THE HOLLYWOOD TEN (John Berry, USA 1950).

MARKED WOMAN (Lloyd Bacon, USA 1937, 2. & 7.9.) Loosely based on the Lucky Luciano trial, the film depicts the life of a group of hostesses. The law takes an interest in their club when a gangster takes it over. In the conflict between the district attorney (Humphrey Bogart) and the netherworld, the film takes sides with the women, making clear that any criminal conviction will be at their expense. Screenwriter Robert Rossen maintains his solidarity with the women and continues to highlight the unfair class divide till the end: “The refusal to not found a family for once is what makes MARKED WOMAN an absolutely unforgettable film, a film that has the courage of its convictions.” (Noël Burch)

THE MAN I MARRIED (Irving Pichel, USA 1940, 3. & 29.9.) The American art critic Carol Hoffman (Joan Bennett) visits Nazi Germany in 1938 with her German-American husband Eric (Francis Lederer) and his son. While she is shocked by the leadership, her husband turns out to be a fervent admirer of Hitler (also because of an affair with his childhood sweetheart). For a long time, Hollywood refrained from explicit criticism of Nazi Germany, but not Irving Pichel. His masterpiece was one of the first films to warn of the dangers of National Socialism, using haunting images. Germany is a police state, in which dissidents are sent to concentration camps and all criticism is perilous.

BACK DOOR TO HEAVEN (William K. Howard, USA 1939, 5.9.) Inspired by their memories of a friend from their youth, William K. Howard and his screenwriter John Bright explore how social inequality can lead to crime in this independent production. Frankie (Wallace Ford) grows up in poverty and contrary to his affluent classmates he has no luck from the start. Largely forgotten today, Howard was one of the most important directors of the 1930s and 40s. His film is “a brutal attack on the capitalist system and its way of dispensing “justice”. Frankie is a pawn to be sacrificed.” (James Robert Parish/Michael R. Pitts)

FROM THIS DAY FORWARD (John Berry, USA 1946, 6.9.) John Berry made six films before he was forced to emigrate to France because of the blacklist. In his second film, he looks back on moments in the life of the married couple Bill and Susan Cummings (Mark Stevens, Joan Fontaine). The central motif is Bill’s ongoing unemployment and his profound shame about it. This is an unusual portrait of a working-class family, which eschews melodramatic effects. In 1946, there were still traces of optimism. Five years later, when Berry made his last film in the US - HE RAN ALL THE WAY - it was gone.

THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR (Joseph Losey, USA 1948, 7. & 13.9.) is arguably the strangest film of the retrospective: When Peter (Dean Stockwell) finds out that he is a war orphan, he dyes his hair and has a vision, in which other war orphans call on him to raise his voice against war. Joseph Loseys Technicolor feature film debut is a central work of Cold War cinema. “Allegorical fantasy film with an unusual charm, which addresses itself both to the wave of paranoia that accompanied the Cold War and to everyday racism. When the little orphan must submit to having his peculiar green hair shaven, it evokes the “degradation rituals” inflicted by the HUAC.“ (Thom Andersen, Noël Burch)

The main feature will be preceded by THE HOUSE I LIVE IN (Mervyn LeRoy, USA 1945), in which Frank Sinatra sings against anti-Semitism.

THE SEA WOLF (Michael Curtiz, USA 1941, 8. & 24.9.) Jack London’s 1904 novel “The Sea Wolf” has been adapted many times but never so well as by Michael Curtiz. The Ghost’s captain Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) terrorizes his team on the basis of the “survival of the fittest” theory. Robert Rossen’s screenplay also reflected the contemporary situation. Apart from the book’s nominal hero - the writer Alexander Koch - two other characters are explicitly highlighted as having a working-class background, the prostitute Ruth (Ida Lupino) and the angry drifter George (John Garfield). For his part, the villain Larsen is the product of a merciless economic system (he also symbolizes the Nazis). Ruth and George represent the victims of capitalism. After the shoot, Ida Lupino said that the movie “could pass as current history.”

HE RAN ALL THE WAY (John Berry, USA 1951, 8.9.) offered Hollywood’s last working-class hero John Garfield a last great role, playing a small time criminal named Nick: As he’s trying to escape after a holdup goes wrong, he shoots a policeman. He barricades himself in an apartment, taking the family that lives there hostage. This is a key work of blacklist cinema, which also marks the end of an era. Garfield died a year later of a heart attack, aged only 39. John Berry escaped out of a window when FBI agents came to his apartment to subpoena him, and emigrated to Paris. “I didn’t want to speak English anymore” he later said.

GIVE US THIS DAY / SALT AND THE DEVIL (Edward Dmytryk, GB 1949, 9. & 28.9.) Before Edward Dmytryk was forced to serve time as one of the “Hollywood Ten”, he made the extraordinarily moving GIVE US THIS DAYin Britain. Based on Pietro di Donato’s novel “Christ in Concrete”, it is about a group of bricklayers who struggle to keep themselves and their families above water during the Depression. For the film scholar Peter Bondanella, it was “one of the first Hollywood representations of Italian Americans that reflects the influence of Italian cinema - specifically, the post-war neo-realist era.“ A central work of blacklist era cinema and almost forgotten today, it is one of the retrospective’s great discoveries.

GUN CRAZY (Joseph H. Lewis, USA 1950, 10. & 21.9., Introduction: Lukas Foerster) On the whole, Bart (John Dall) is a peaceful guy. But since his childhood he has loved firearms and felt drawn to them as if by magic. When he meets the attractive sharpshooter Annie (Peggy Cummings), he falls head over heels in love. The two reinvent themselves as a Bonnie and Clyde-esque couple, going where the firearms lead. Written by Dalton Trumboand directed by B-movie king Joseph H. Lewis, GUN CRAZY is a complicated and captivating masterpiece about the fascination of violence. The sequence of a bank robbery shot in one single take from the backseat of a car is legendary.

I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE (Michael Gordon, USA 1951, 11. & 18.9.) Susan Hayward played in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947) and I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE, two important films which questioned the stereotypical role of women in the cinema. The latter is set in the New York fashion world. Sick of her job as a model, Harriet Boyd (Susan Hayward) works her way up to become a celebrated fashion designer, irritating her male colleagues who are used to given orders to women. The film vibrates with life: The beautiful shots of the streets of New York, Abraham Polonsky’s fast-paced screenplay (Adaptation: Vera Caspary) and Susan Hayward who “moves like she knows she’s beautiful, she smiles like she knows what she’s gonna get, she snaps her lines like she knows what’s working against her.“ (Farran Smith Nehme)

THIEVES’ HIGHWAY (Jules Dassin, USA 1949, 12.9.) When the HUAC set its sights on Jules Dassin at the end of the 40s, he was at the pinnacle of his US career. Apart from Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) THIEVES’ HIGHWAY stands out in particular. It is one of the best film noirs of its time, set in California’s glittering sunlight by day and the pitch-black night of the road. Dassin masterfully weaves two narrative strands together: a son’s desire to solve the mystery of his father’s accident and take revenge and the exploitation of truck-drivers at the mercy of the capitalist system.

NATIVE LAND (Leo T. Hurwitz, Paul Strand, USA 1942, 13.9.) This film gives an impression of the brutal violence that trade unions faced in the first half of the 20th century. We see pictures of the American Civil War, the Statue of Liberty, documentary footage of people going to work, as well as staged reenactments of thugs murdering upstanding farmers and of spies. NATIVE LAND succeeds in masterfully combining radical political ideas with an advanced aesthetic concept: “The function of this technique was to place seemingly unrelated events and motifs in their real common context and to reveal their secret causes and inconsistencies.”(Leo T. Hurwitz)

FORCE OF EVIL (Abraham Polonsky, USA 1948, 15.9., Introduction: Gina Telaroli & 25.9.) This is the most famous work of blacklist cinema and was a guiding star for other productions. Abraham Polonskys directorial debut is one of the angriest indictments of capitalism to emerge from US cinema. Polonsky goes a step further: He compares capitalism to criminality and depicts the two as mutually dependent forces. The ambitious Wall St lawyer Joe Morse (John Garfield) works for a gangster who wants to control New York’s numbers racket. Joe’s career skyrockets, while the existence of his brother (Thomas Gomez) who is also involved in the numbers racket, becomes increasingly precarious. Polonsky made his second film Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here 21 years later, in the early days of the New Hollywood era.

JOHNNY GUITAR (Nicholas Ray, USA 1954, 15.9.) That western as a genre seemed particularly suited to denouncing anti-communist mass hysteria is clear from High Noon (1952), Silver Lode (1954) and Terror in a Texas Town (1958). But none are a patch on Nicholas Ray’s masterpiece, with its extravaganza of colors and intensity. Vienna (Joan Crawford) has to defend herself against a lynch mob goaded by her rival. “A surreal passion play raised to Olympus by the wild colors of the short-lived Trucolor process. Vienna sits at the piano, dressed entirely in white against a glistening red backdrop of rocks, when a heaving black pack storms in and sets her saloon on fire.” (Christoph Huber)

SALT OF THE EARTH (Herbert J. Biberman, USA 1954, 16.9.) Spearheaded by a group of blacklisted filmmakers (Herbert J. Biberman, Paul Jarrico and Michael Wilson) and supported by many amateur actors, this film was made in Mexico in 1953. It is about a miners’ strike but focuses particularly on the strikers’ wives. With its attention on trade unions and the women’s rights struggle, it was only a matter of time before conservative opponents emerged. But despite all the obstacles - local bands of thugs, smear campaigns in the press, FBI spies and even the deportation of the main Mexican actress - this unusual film was completed.

CRAIG’S WIFE (Dorothy Arzner, USA 1936, 17.9., Introduction: Gina Telaroli) Harriet Craig (Rosalind Russell) has planned everything to the letter. She considers her house, her life, even her husband (John Boles) as objects to be managed. She has little esteem for romance and love. When her husband is suspected of murder, she fears her own reputation will be jeopardized. Dorothy Arzner was the only female director to be able to make films regularly in Hollywood and CRAIG’S WIFE is one of her greatest. “A terrible, unutterably brutal work despite all the lightness and wit, about the value of goods and questions of class, i.e. about what really can be bought in life. Having said that, Arzner’s film in terms of social analysis and also character depiction is much more subversive and varied than the play it was based on: capitalist society here is depicted like a brothel, a place of transit where many borders are grayed.” (Rui Hortênsio da Silva e Costa)

CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY (Zoltan Korda, GB 1951, 19.9.) In 1943, Zoltan Korda and John Howard Lawson made a war film - Sahara - which spoke up for an international community - from the roof of a tank. Their second co-production - CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY - was set in South Africa at the beginning of the Apartheid era. This story of two fathers - one who is a black priest, the other who is a white farmer - whose paths cross, takes a sober look at racial segregation and its impact. “This English-produced film about South African apartheid stands in remarkable contrast to the contemporaneous Hollywood films about race relations in the U.S. No fantasies of amelioration or reconciliation are indulged.” (Thom Andersen, Noël Burch

RUTHLESS (Edgar G. Ulmer, USA 1948, 20.9., Introduction: Chris Fujiwara & 28.9.) Edgar G. Ulmer was a star director on Poverty Row, making B-movie masterpieces with limited funds. The independent production RUTHLESS was a very special highlight of his career. We follow the rise of a ruthless man (Zachary Scott) who goes from poor orphan to rich Wall Street magnate. Two of the key communist activists in Hollywood - Alvah Bessie and Gordon Kahn- co-wrote the screenplay, delivering their version of the American dream. Or to quote Ulmer: “A very bad indictment against 100 percent Americanism.” The inevitable self-destruction and the masterful staging of flashbacks makes RUTHLESS the Citizen Kane of B-movies.

M (Joseph Losey, USA 1951, 22.9., Introduction: Chris Fujiwara & 29.9.) In this remake of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) Berlin of the nervous inter-war years is replaced by Los Angeles during the Cold War. At first glance, Losey sticks surprisingly close to the original’s plot. However, the child murderer who is hunted by the police and the underworld is portrayed much more like an individual who is part of society. Overall, it is a film that seeks contact with the outer world. While Lang’s film was an elaborate studio production, Losey went out into Los Angeles with his camera: In the streets, alleys and parking lots an impression of what American neorealism could resemble emerges. A masterpiece.

THE BREAKING POINT (Michael Curtiz, USA 1950, 22.9.) Howard Hawks adapted Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not as a dark and glistening film noir starring Bogart and Bacall in 1944. Six years later, Michael Curtiz also adapted the novel. The story of Captain Henry Morgan (John Garfield), who finds himself pushed into criminal scheming because of dire financial straits making one compromise after the next until very little of his dignity remains, is told here as the outright epic tragedy of a worker. The dense and atmospheric direction, a faithful adaptation of the novel and the acting ensemble around Garfield make THE BREAKING POINT perhaps Curtiz’s most beautiful film.

CROSSFIRE (Edward Dmytryk, USA 1947, 23.9.) Three soldiers (Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Robert Young) go home after the war. Seeking new enemies, one of them kills a Jewish man. While the police investigates, the other two try to help their comrade who is a prime suspect. CROSSFIRE is a detective story and explicit indictment of anti-Semitism. Edward Dmytryk and the producer Adrian Scott made several films for RKO, including the classic Murder, My Sweet (1944). The Oscar-nominated CROSSFIRE was their biggest and last joint success. Both men were part of the “Hollywood Ten” who received jail sentences in 1947.

RED HOLLYWOOD (Thom Andersen, Noël Burch, USA 1996/2013, 26.9.) This documentary is the result of research that went on for several years. It is a revisionist take on Hollywood’s history. Using keywords (myth, hate, war, class, violence, gender, death), interviews and film excerpts, the filmmakers show the contribution that communist filmmakers in Hollywood made and the conflicts that arose in the process.

THE YOUNG ONE / LA JOVEN (Luis Buñuel, Mexico/USA 1960, 30.9.) THE YOUNG ONE, one of Buñuels favorite own films, remains a well-kept secret in film history. Written by Hugo Butler,  it is a masterful satire about sexual and racial prejudice: a black jazz musician accused of raping a white woman escapes to an island where he befriends a minor whose guardian desires her. In its uniqueness, comedy and basic weirdness, it is as if the film is from another planet but in the system of morality that it attacks it is a downright precise reflection of its time. (hb)

Funding from the Capital Cultural Fund enabled the retrospective.

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