Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Two Films by Abraham Polonsky

Abraham Polonsky was one of the many talented screenwriters and directors who were blacklisted during the McCarthyite witchhunts for suspected "un-American activities" in the fifties. Anthology Film Archives has been celebrating his brief career the last couple of weeks. I saw Force of Evil at the anthology which was both written and directed by him and then saw Body and Soul on dvd which was made a couple of years earlier and to which he contributed only as a screenwriter. Village Voice and Slant have detailed reports about the retrospective. I will just add my two cents here.

Body and Soul
follows the career of young boxer played by John Garfield who rises from his jewish ghetto background to become a prizefighter and a money machine. If you are familiar with those boxing movies, you already know the deal. The mobsters and match-fixers soon come in, the hero starts making one moral compromise after another until it is already too late, or may be there is still some chance left to redeem oneself in one last climactic fight.

It is brutal and bleak, even though it has a (kind-of) happy ending. The story is structured in a very innovative manner. Garfield just before his final fight in which he has agreed to take a fall in return of money goes into a reverie and starts reminiscing his past and the entire film is told in flashback. It makes the similar scene in Pulp Fiction with Bruce Willis waking from his dream look like a homage to this film. Elsewhere, Martin Scorsese has named this film as one of the influences on his own classic of Boxing film Raging Bull too. It has similar boxing scenes, though less sophisticated, full of point of view shots, camera in between the boxers fighting in the ring. (Scene from Raging Bull here, not for the faint-hearted.) It is certainly a great classic of the Boxing movie genre. Another excellent film, equally brutal and bleak, though not that well known is The Set-up directed by Robert Wise. It is another favourite of Martin Scorsese.

Force of Evil

Film-noirs are in general extremely pessimistic about human nature but they are always too sophisticated to indulge into "good and evil," "hero and villain" variety of moral essentialism. Nobody is essentially good and nobody is likewise essentially evil. What they lack is not goodness but agency and freedom. The people in noirs have to make tough choices and they are almost never strong enough to do that.

Joe is a typical noir hero in that sense. He works as a lawyer for lottery racket kingpin. They together hatch a plan to defraud smaller lottery companies and establish a monopoly and make quick bucks in the process. The problem is that Joe's elder brother, who sacrificed his life so that he could get a good education, runs one of those smaller business. He and the people he employs in his illegal company (including the girl Joe falls in love with and who tries to save him) are shown to be good-hearted guys who were forced to make morally compromised choices because of the circumstances. Joe asks him to take the money and get out of the business but he refuses. Family melodrama and tragedy soon ensue. In the end Joe realises the moral gutter that he has found himself in but then it is already too late.

The only complaint I had with the film, and it is true for many of the Hollywood films of that era, is that it is too short. It is not even eighty minutes long! Specially when you have such poetic and biting dialogues in almost every single scene you are left hungry for more in the end. In one of the scenes Joe painfully protests after his brother has refused his offer, "To reach out, to take it, that's human, that's natural. But to get your pleasure from not taking. From cheating yourself deliberately like my brother did today, from not getting, from not taking. Don't you see what a black thing that is for a man to do? How it is to hate yourself, your brother, to make him feel that he's guilty, that I'm guilty. Just to live and be guilty." And also in Body and Soul after the gangster threatens the hero, he replies in resignation, "What you gonna do? Kill me? Everybody dies!" A good article about the film here. A profile of Polonsky from Senses of Cinema here.

Also related the HUAC and blacklisting there is a fantastic overview of the controversy surrounding the awarding of life time achievement Oscar to Elia Kazan. It is quite long, part two and three are also there on the same site, scroll down for the link. Polonsky could have had a career like Kazan too, had he agreed to name names for the committee like Kazan did. Instead he agreed to let them curtail his highly promising career. On the evidence of these two films, there is absolutely no doubt that he was a man of uncommon talents and it was a great loss for Hollywood. Jim Hoberman's commentary on the Kazan controversy is also worth reading and so is his essay on On the Waterfront. Interestingly these two films anticipated a lot, in everything subject, characters or style, of On the Waterfront which came only after five-six years.

9 comments:

puccinio said...

I'm glad you took my advice and finally came to Abe Polonsky. Though personally he was lucky to have the great John Garfield for that film.

One thing to note is that Polonsky was a Marxist film-maker(indeed perhaps the only purely Marxist of the Golden Age) and ''Force of Evil'' was his idea of capitalism. An inferno where every circle of hell intersect and dissect each other. And people have no choice but to betray and rat each other out. In fact many Films Noir and for that matter gangster films are looked at like that.

Especially ''The Roaring Twenties'' and of course Scorsese's ''Casino'' which is about the Rise of Neo-Conservatism only if you realize that Casino is a metaphor for Stock Market.

Bert Brecht's favourite film was Howard Hawks' ''Scarface''(not the Al Pacino remake) for very obvious reasons.

Concerning length, well I didn't get that. One thing Hollywood could and should learn from their illustrious past is the importance of economy. The idea of expressing your ideas in a an economic runtime. Today practically every gangster film has to be 3hrs long or so,(leave aside the true great epic gangsters like the Two Godfathers, Scorsese's trilogy and Sergio Leone's last film) and basically spell out each and every detail to the audience, instead of having them think. Polonsky was smart enough to know that.

Pity he only made two more films. Other blacklisted directors like Jules Dassin, Cy Endfield and Joseph Losey made good careers in Europe and as difficult that often was it was at least luckier than what Polonsky went through.

Even more luckier was Nicholas Ray who was at the very least a communist sympathizer but never had to name names and sat out of the Red Scare because the very right-wing Howard Hughes protected him during that witch hunt and Hughes knew that Ray was a commie. One of Hollywood's great mysteries.

I'd like to talk about Kazan vs. Polonsky but i'd use another dialog box.

puccinio said...

The Kazan debate is a lot more complicated than the J. Hoberman article you linked. Kazan was a communist during the 30's but like many communist artists, he grew disillusioned with the way the party was running around the Stalin Show Trials and as excerpted there that he was disgruntled when they told him how to direct his plays.

Kazan didn't like naming those names but as he clarified many times it wouldn't make much difference since the HUAC would have blacklisted them anyway but he did it to clear them away from his tracks. It's not moral in anyway but then at that time the important thing for those guys was to survive what was and will always be a betrayal of democracy.

Some of them revolted like Herbert Biberman who directed ''Salt of the Earth'' the most openly communist American film(and also a favourite of Chomsky's) but that tanked and the entire cast was blacklisted.

It would only be until Kirk Douglas' ''Spartacus'' written by Trumbo directed by Anthony Mann(uncredited early footage) and Stanley Kubrick that Hollywood would break the blacklist.

Alok said...

That complaint about the running time was not really a complaint. It just felt too condensed. You want to look at the frames, the lighting, the expressions on the actors' faces and body movements and most of all you want to listen to the biting, crackling dialogues all at the same time! Perhaps that just means one viewing surely isn't enough...

I wanted to highlight that Marxist critique of capitalism in force of evil too -- not just in the way it shows how easy it is to manipulate the system and establish monopoly but rather at a deeper human level-- how working alienates people from their own selves. The character of the girl and the pitiable accountant, they are people with conscience but still can't resist the "force of evil" -- the money, the organization of commerce. It is true for many noir and crime films of that period too. Crime is not seen as a result of man's inner propensity to do evil but rather a response to alienating city and industrial life. In this sense they offer a biting critique of modern industrial societies.

I didn't know that about Nicholas Ray or that Spartacus was written by a blacklisted writer. Thanks as always for adding such well informed comments.

Alok said...

I liked this comment in Hoberman's essay. May be this is the original reason why Hollywood lost its political bite. Even the so-called new-hollywood films (if you leave out a few classics such as Taxi Driver) were quite tame in comparison to the films made in the 40s, from which they actually drew their inspiration from.

Kazan was only a featured player in the destruction of an American left that— despite the monumental crimes of Soviet Stalinism— was itself, throughout the 1930s and '40s, a powerful catalyst for social reform and political change. Had it not been for this wider blacklist, the subsequent development of American trade unionism, civil rights, and foreign policy might have been quite different. Perhaps some day Hollywood will make a movie about that.

puccinio said...

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May be this is the original reason why Hollywood lost its political bite.
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No that's Hoberman being pseudo-rhetorical. You can always tell a man in love with his own words and of course neglecting reality.

The point that Kazan and many others were pointing out is that the socialists and the communists who were running the show had lost all sense of direction by the time the HUAC came for them. And many of them weren't communists anymore.

The HUAC were filled with reactionaries of the worst sort and the early Cold War years were filled with paranoia. Very few names on the blacklist were card carrying communists.

As Bogart said, ''They went after everyone who scratched his ass during the national anthem''.

The HUAC was part of the political machinery to establish conservatives in power. They figured that going after Hollywood would be easier. Big public institution, would send out a message - Not even they were above the law. It's plain schoolyard bullying.

The HUAC would never have been able to do much if the studio bossess didn't agree to blacklist their stars and directors. If they had taken solidarity against the blacklist things could have been different but then they ratted their charges out as well, sold out all the guys who made some of their greatest films. So why should Kazan be held as Judas for all this? Even moreso the public didn't stand up for this plain betrayal of democracy either.

McCarthy and Hoover would have been unable to do it if there was strong public opposition.

The point which Hoberman misses is who betrayed who? The studios, the people, the media...their betrayal seems to be immeasurably greater than Kazan ratting out names the HUAC already knew.

Polonsky who called for Kazan to be shot should have taken his own film's message to heart. Since ''Force of Evil'' is very much about that. And by the way, ''Spartacus'' since that's about revolt against oppression, struggling for freedom.

puccinio said...

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Even the so-called new-hollywood films (if you leave out a few classics such as Taxi Driver) were quite tame in comparison to the films made in the 40s, from which they actually drew their inspiration from.
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The remarkable quality of the 70's(a one-of-a-kind period in American Cinema) wasn't that ''Taxi Driver'' was made but rather films like ''Taxi Driver'', ''Chinatown'', ''Mean Streets'', ''Godfather - I&II'', ''Apocalypse Now'', ''The Conversation'' and numerous others were financed by major studios.

For the very first time, the studios embraced films with strong political conscience accepting and embracing them and because of this many of these were hits. Even something like ''Chinatown'', which is practically anti-American. As well as Sam Peckinpah's films from this period.

That's an achievement that shouldn't be set aside. It proved beyond all doubts that there was and will always be an audience for serious films and studios underestimating Public Intelligence and making crap is based on their own fear and not on real hard facts.

It isn't fair to compare them to the Golden Age guys since they worked in different conditions and had to work within conventions. You know the happy ending or bad-guy-getting-punished(a surprising exception is ''It's A Wonderful Life''), re-inforcement of public morality(which was hypocritical).

Within this they made remarkable films and indeed many films which were ahead of their time in terms of political vision and philosophy. The new generation never had to go through that and they were smart enough to understand that they aren't replacements. They're the next generation and at the very least should do things different from their predecessors.

Alok said...

I agree with you what you are saying. There is no point in making personal accusations against Kazan. But in general the Hollywood blacklisting deserves to be seen as an important landmark in modern American intellectual history. Hollywood might have been a soft target as you say but one can't deny the far-reaching effects of systematic marginalisation of socially and politically committed progressive intellectuals and artists. Numerous cold war texts have drawn attention to the dire states of intellectual life in the communist countries but intellectual and artistic life suffered in America too because of it. Hoberman's essay was just trying to raise this.

I am just trying to think of reasons behind subsequent infantilisation and decline of Hollywood, despite a remarkable resurgence in the 70s, again may be because of Vietnam, counter culture and anti-establishment political movements etc.

puccinio said...

Well the word ''intellectual'' doesn't have the same currency it does everywhere. American culture has always been anti-intellectual and to a certain degree that's true even among the artists and intellectuals who didn't want to be put on a pedestal because their voice is being heard.

The HUAC definitely did serious damage to Hollywood, I'm not denying that and it is and will always be a landmark.

In any case this infantilization is basically been the 80's mentality triggered ironically by Hollywood's rise to presidency. The whole stock-market craze of the last twenty-seven years has negated public morality to the point that people go to movies they genuinely know are bad but don't care in the least, it's become another product to be consumed. The funny thing is how it happened simulatenously both in America and the UK. The UK had Maggie Thatcher, the Americans Reagan. The UK had even more radical changes than in America but they regressed fabulously, collapsing on themselves.

But then I don't think it's hopeless. I think eventually things will become better, both for cinema and society, just not in the immediate future.

Alok said...

I can only say Amen to your last line. I am only getting acquainted with the hollywood history in detail but still it pains me to see such decline.