If the artist’s worst fear is to be denied the right to create, then the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s lavished the ultimate punishment on Abraham Polonsky. At the height of his talents, after the acclaimed directorial debut of Force of Evil in 1948, the fiercely Marxist dramaturg was blacklisted by the HUAC and effectively shunned from Hollywood filmmaking for the next two decades. While fellow red-stamped pariahs Joseph Losey and Dalton Trumbo survived by working abroad or writing under pseudonyms, Polonsky was involved in virtually no projects until the late 1960s, when a prominent writing credit for Madigan and the belated sophomore effort of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here promised a comeback that never took place.
What so incensed McCarthy? The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, Polonsky (1910 - 1999) worked in law, theater and radio before entering Hollywood as a screenwriter and becoming a card-carrying member of the chip-on-your-shoulder New York City scene. Envisioning a world full of systematic injustice and moral dilemmas, Polonsky’s work in both his screenplays and directed movies amount to an obsessive takedown of the very basis of capitalism; the “force of evil” is money, manipulating and corrupting his characters. In Force of Evil, John Garfield, the eternally tense prole, is the filmmaker’s muse: “I’m not a nickel, I don’t spend my life in a telephone,” he protests, pushing against the system that’s swallowing him.
This struggle is detailed in “Unamerican Activities: The Films of Abraham Polonsky” (September 13 - September 18), an Anthology Film Archives retrospective that honors both his work as writer and director and also offers an in-depth look at the impact of blacklisted artists in Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s 1995 documentary Red Hollywood. Appropriately, Force of Evil is given centerpiece status in the program: Polonsky’s first film as a director is an impressively anguished account of sullied ethics and fraternal betrayal that, under the Hopper lighting and blank-verse line readings, feels like the most despairing of noirs. Garfield plays an underworld lawyer growing aware of his inescapable role in a corrupt order and in the scheme that claims the life of his small-time numbers-runner brother (Thomas Gomez); Andrew Sarris is not alone in thinking that the relationship between Garfield and Thomas runs deeper than the one between Brando and Steiger in On the Waterfront (by Polonsky-nemesis Elia Kazan), and the hero’s long, metaphorical descent into hell at the banks of the East River still packs a punch.
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, his 1969 return to directing following a forced hiatus, could pass as one of those trendy late-’60s liberal westerns full of nobly suffering Native Americans and white guilt, if not for the palpable rage of the titular renegade native (played by Robert Blake). The open vistas may appear the opposite of the Wall Street pillars from Force of Evil, but the characters’ sense of entrapment has scarcely mellowed in the years since. Romance of a Horse Thief, Polonsky’s third and final film as a director, is an obscure 1971 account of Jewish oppression in early 1900s Poland; thoroughly personal and Marxist down to its fingertips, it also has unexpected moments of lyricism (including the boldly unsubtle allegorical white horse stolen by the hero) to balance out the despair.
Possibly even more rewarding is the retrospective’s inclusion of the films Polonsky worked on as a screenwriter. I wonder if Polonsky himself could detect his contribution to Golden Earrings, Mitchell Leisen’s kitschy 1947 drama featuring Marlene Dietrich under dusky gypsy makeup, though his angry motifs are all over Body and Soul, Robert Rossen’s muckraking exposé of the boxing business; starring Garfield as an ambitious youngster trying to hang on to his soul while making his way through the ring, it is, despite an abrupt happy ending, a work of toughness and ghetto prose to shame Golden Boy’s platitudes. The screenplays for Michael Gordon’s I Can Get It for You Wholesale and Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow are no less angry views of the human toll of malignant profit and racial tension, yet it is in Don Siegel’s superb 1968 policier Madigan that Polonsky’s voice rings strongest. The wealth of complex characters in the film’s jumpy Manhattan is characteristic of Siegel’s first-rate crime dramas, but the thorny moral issues raised in the relationship between detective Richard Widmark and wife Inger Stevens, or in the marvelously ambivalent moral exchanges between police veterans Henry Fonda and James Whitmore, are all unmistakably part of the man who knew all too well about the urge (and the consequences) of questioning the status quo.