30 Days of Noir #16: I Was A Communist For The FBI (dir by Gordon Douglas)


The 1951 noir, I Was A Communist For The FBI, tells the story of Matt Cvetic (Frank Lovejoy).  The film could just as easily be called I Hate Matt.

Seriously, from the minute we first see Matt, he’s got people hating on him.  When he goes to visit his mother, his three brothers all make it clear that he’s not welcome in their house.  When he goes to the local high school to find out why his son has been getting into fights, the principal is cold and rude to him.  Even worse, his son announces that it’s all Matt’s fault!  When Matt goes to his job at a Pittsburgh steel mill, the other members of his union view him with a mix of suspicion and resentment.  When Matt attempts to give his neighbor’s son some batting tips, the boy’s father tells Matt to get away from his child and adds, “Baseball is an American game!”

As you may have guessed from the film’s title, Matt is a communist.  He’s been a member of the Communist Party for nine years and, during that time, he’s seen a lot of bad things.  He’s met wth the shady spies who secretly deliver Russian orders to their comrades in the U.S.  He’s watched as communist leader Jim Blandon (James Millican) has plotted to sow discord among otherwise loyal Americans.  He’s watched as unions have been taken over and money has been raised on the backs of the workers.  If there’s anything that Matt understands about communism, it’s that the majority of its leaders care little about the people that they claim to represent.

Because Matt’s a communist, he basically can’t go anywhere without someone calling him “a dirty red” or a traitor to his country.  However, it quickly becomes apparent that not even his fellow communists trust him.  When Matt leaves one clandestine meeting, he’s followed until he reaches home.  In order to test Matt’s ideological purity, Jim Blandon orders a school teacher named Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart) to get to know him.  We’re told that Eve is one of many communists who have managed to land a job teaching the children of America.

As you’ve probably once again guessed just by looking at the film’s title, the communists have good reason to be suspicious of Matt.  For 9 years, Matt has been working undercover.  As much as it tears him up that he can’t even tell his family the truth, Matt is determined to do what he has to do to keep America safe.  Sadly, that means that Matt has to be a pariah.  He has to deal with his “comrades” showing up at his own mother’s funeral and sarcastically mocking her religious faith.  When his own brother punches him, he has to accept it and lie about  being “a communist and proud of it!”  As he explains it, the fact that his son hates his “communist” father just makes Matt love his son all the more….

I Was A Communist For The FBI is an interesting film.  On the one hand, it’s a very easy film to criticize.  Yes, it’s totally heavy-handed, to the extent that the film even ends with the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background.  Yes, Frank Lovejoy is a bit on the bland side in the lead role.  Yes, the film does seem to be making the argument that some people are more deserving of civil liberties than others.  As someone who believes in individual freedom above all else, it’s hard for me not to take issue with the way the film glorifies not only the FBI but also government overreach in general.

And yet, it’s a very well-made film.  Director Gordon Douglas hits all the right noir notes, from the shadowy streets to the pervasive sense of unease and paranoia.  James Millican is wonderfully villainous as Jim Blandon and Dorothy Hart also gives a good performance as Eve.  The film itself portrays the communist leadership as being more concerned with profit than ideology.  At one meeting, they brag about how much money they’ve made by infiltrating the unions.  In another meeting, Blandon orders one of his stooges to start promoting fascism, the idea being to divide Americans into two extremist camps and then wait for them destroy themselves.  When the communists start a riot during a labor strike, they attempt to blame it on a Jewish newspaper.  When they’re not fanning the flames of antisemitism, they’re causally using the “n-word.”  Again, it’s all very heavy-handed but, at the same time, it’s also a reminder that there will always be grifters who will attach themselves to any ideological movement, hoping to enrich themselves off of the idealism of others.  In our current hyperpolitical climate, that’s an important lesson to remember.

Finally, if nothing else, I Was A Communist For The FBI is very much a document of its time.  It was based on a true story, though how close it sticks to the actual facts of the case I won’t venture to guess.  Oddly enough, it received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, even though it’s clearly not a documentary.  Don’t ask me how to explain that one.  It’s a strange world.

30 Days of Noir #12: The Hitch-Hiker (dir by Ida Lupino)


The intense 1953 film noir, The Hitch-Hiker, begins with news of a murderer at large.

His name is Emmett Myers (William Talman).  He’s the rough-looking man who you might occasionally see standing by the side of the road, asking for a ride with his thumb outstretched.  For me, it only takes one look at Myers’s unfriendly face and his shifty eyes to know that I would never slow down to give him a ride.  However, The Hitch-Hiker takes place in a more innocent era, at a time when everyone wanted to be of help.  Anyone who gives Emmett a ride ends up dead.  He steals their cars and then drives across country, abandoning the car only when he learns that his previous murder has been discovered.  Emmett has hitchhiked from Illinois to Southern California and he’s left a trail of dead bodies behind him.

Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) don’t know who Emmett is.  They’ve missed all of the reports about Emmett’s killing spree.  They haven’t read the newspapers, all of which feature a picture of Emmett on the front page and a warning to never pick him up.  Roy and Gilbert have been too busy getting ready for a long-planned fishing trip in Baja California.  When they see Emmett hitchhiking in Mexico, they pull over and offer him a ride.

Unlike other movie hitchhikers, Emmett doesn’t waste any time before revealing who he is.  As soon as he gets in the car, he pulls a gun and tells the two men that they’re going to drive him deeper into Baja California.  He’s got a boat to catch and he says that all the two men have to do is follow orders.  Of course, both Roy and Gilbert know better.  They know that Emmett’s planning on killing them as soon as they arrive at their destination.  In fact, if Emmett learns that the police are looking for the two men, he’ll kill them sooner.  Roy and Gilbert not only have to keep Emmett from flying off the handle but they also have to keep him from discovering that both of them have been reported as being missing.

As the three men drive across California, Emmett continues to taunt his prisoners.  Repeatedly, he points out that the only reason they’re in this situation is because of their loyalty to each other.  As Emmett explains it, if the two men tried to run in opposite directions, Emmett would probably only be able to kill one of them.  If the two men both attacked him, Emmett would again probably only have time to kill one before the survivor subdued him.  Will Roy and Gilbert remains loyal to each other or will they finally embrace Emmett’s philosophy of every man for himself?

Oh, how you’ll hate Emmett Myers!  As played by William Talman, Emmett is not just a criminal but a bully as well.  The enjoyment that he gets out of taunting Roy and Gilbert will make your skin crawl.  Emmett is hardly the type of witty or charming master criminal who often shows up in movies today.  Instead, The Hitch-Hiker emphasizes that Emmett’s an idiot but, because he has the gun, he has the power.  Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are also well-cast as the two friends who are forced to choose between survival and loyalty.

The Hitch-Hiker was one of the few films to be directed by a woman in the 1950s.  (It’s generally considered to be the only film noir to have been directed by a woman.)  Ida Lupino was not only an actress but also the only female director in the old Hollywood system and she made several hard-hitting films, the majority of which dealt with the type of issues that mainstream Hollywood was still too scared to handle.  With The Hitch-Hiker, Lupino emphasizes not only Emmett’s cruelty but also the bonds of friendship between Emmett’s two hostages.  Visually, she makes the wide open desert appears as menacing and as dangerous as any shadowy city street.  If urban noirs often suggested that threats could be hiding anywhere, The Hitch-Hiker takes the opposite approach.  The threat is in the back seat of the car and there’s literally no place to hide.

The Hitch-Hiker is an intense film that holds up well today.  Watch it below and never again make the mistake of helping out a stranger.

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux


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Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:

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PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  

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THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an…

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