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.