Fighter refused to play Hollywood's shame game

A Very Dangerous Citizen
March 22, 2002

"I want to be a fighter," Charley, the aspiring boxer, informs his mother in Body and Soul (1947). "So fight for something," she replies, and that is precisely what the film's scriptwriter, Abraham Lincoln Polonsky (1911-99), did throughout his career. His reputation as a film writer and director hangs largely on two masterpieces, Body and Soul and Force of Evil (1948), the latter scripted and directed by him. Both films reflect in their political and social awareness the kind of uncompromising attitudes that would eventually turn their creator into one of Hollywood's political outcasts. The protagonists of these films - in Body and Soul a boxer, in Force of Evil a lawyer, both played by John Garfield - tussle with inner demons as well as with corrupt opponents in contests that eventually compromise their self-belief, leading them to moral and existential anomie. In both, though, the failures of these American Dream casualties are surrounded by a rhetoric of defiance that explains human behaviour through social as well as psychological conditioning.

Polonsky's hard-hitting leftist themes and creative handling of genre-film formulas are complementary. Hollywood conventions are transformed into the canvas for a dark, poetic landscape where the jaded ideals of defective characters reflect the extent of a nation's social and political betrayals.

This critical biography chronicles the life of an artist whose unwillingness to compromise or betray his friends led to years as a Hollywood pariah, branded by one of his inquisitors from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) as a "very dangerous citizen". The most effective passages relate Polonsky's life and career to the history of the left, especially the Jewish left in the America of the 1940s, 1950s and beyond. It highlights the influence on Polonsky of Yiddish literature and drama, as well as more mainstream traditions of American literature and thought, preparing him for a role as cultural outsider. Joining the Communist party in 1932 was a logical move for Polonsky, but one that, for all the subtlety of his strategies of camouflage, eventually led in Hollywood to difficulties in the cold war years. The conservatism of the studios needs no further gloss here, but this book persuasively argues that despite the industry's ingrained reactionary attitudes, socially conscious films did get made. Leftist or communist creative personnel - especially scriptwriters - were in abundance. Despite the self-censoring mechanisms, the denials to directors of rights to final cuts in their films, and the many other emasculating regulations to which directors and scriptwriters had to submit, films with radical themes were produced. For instance, films that were anti-war ( They Gave Him a Gun , 1937), in support of feminism ( Alice Adams , 1935), or that exposed political corruption ( Mr Smith Goes to Washington , 1939). Not all the dissidents could be silenced all the time. The HUAC was right: there were Marxists and Communists in Hollywood, and many of them were working on some of the best 1940s and 1950s films - films such as This Gun for Hire (1942), Murder My Sweet (1944), Crossfire (1947), Raw Deal (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and even on Casablanca (1942) and The Robe (1953). Polonsky's films belong in this list, and his work as a righteous man asking awkward questions deserves the detailed treatment given in this welcome volume.

Peter W. Evans teaches at Queen Mary, University of London.

A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left

Author - Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner
ISBN - 0 520 22383 7
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 5

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