May 26, 2009

I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE FBI (1951)




In 1945 John E. Rankin, the long serving, bombastic, and racist congressman from Mississippi stated “one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this government has its headquarters in Hollywood … the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States.” As the conflagration in Europe finally came to an end, only to be replaced by the Cold War, the rug was yanked out from under the burgeoning domestic communist movement by men such as Rankin, anxious to combat any threat (real or not so much) to the sanctity of the American way of life. The American Communist Party, which had previously been a refuge for certain naïve intellectuals and politicos in the movie industry quickly became the focus of the greatest paranoid witch hunt of modern age. Writers, stars, moguls, and other assorted Hollywood players traveled east to testify before congress. Some named names and some refused — but everyone got hurt. The Hollywood Ten went to prison, Edward G. Robinson became “number one on the sucker list,” Bogart took his hat in hand, and the extraordinary John Garfield was destroyed.

Throughout the years of HUAC and the Blacklist, the film industry was placed squarely on the defensive, saddled with the massive public relations task of restoring faith in the movie business. In addition to shunning those tainted by the witch hunt, the studios began cranking out dozens of anti-communism pictures. Possibly the foremost example of these films is 1951’s I Was A Communist for the F.B.I.

The real-life inspiration for the film was Pittsburgh steelworker Matt Cvetic. When the war broke out Cvetic was deemed too short for military service and sent home. He subsequently decided to serve his country by becoming an informant for the F.B.I., and spent the next nine years posing as a communist party member in the western Pennsylvania steel mills, giving the Feds all the dirt he could churn up. According to most news sources of the day, Cvetic’s dedication and sacrifice was truly heroic: he had to live his cover day and night, lest he be found out. In addition to his reputation, it cost him almost every relationship in his life, including those with his wife and children. His only confidants were his priest and the G-Men to whom he reported.

In the end, Cvetic went public to HUAC and became an overnight celebrity. Magazine articles, books, a radio show starring Dana Andrews, and the Saturday Evening Post all told his story. Like so many others unprepared for sudden notoriety, Cvetic handled things poorly. He failed to salvage a life with his family, slipped into alcoholism, and died at the young age of 52. The precise details his recruitment by the F.B.I. and the extent of his contribution are the subject of much debate, and seemingly lost to history — though if nothing else his exploits provided the fodder for I Was A Communist for the F.B.I., a film so important to the Hollywood film collective that it was nominated for the 1952 Academy Awards in the Best Documentary Feature category, though it’s about as much a documentary as On the Waterfront.

Though Pittsburgh’s place in the hierarchy of American urban centers has waned over the decades, in the mid-20th century its position as the focal point of the nation’s industrial might is inarguable. According to the film, our reliance on coal and steel made Pittsburgh the ideal place for the communist party to gain a foothold from which to “weaken America’s industrial heart.” The movie covers the last few months of Cvetic’s nine years “in the red,” as he progresses from resolutely shouldering his burden to finally restoring his name at HUAC hearings in New York. Most of the scenes are episodic, intended to shine a light on the subtle ways in which communists operate. It’s impressive how well (and ironically, how subtly) the exposé-style propaganda elements are inserted into an otherwise entertaining and suspenseful narrative.

Despite the far more important political and historical underpinnings, I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. is stylistically a film noir. Matt Cvetic, played by Frank Lovejoy, has much in common with the typical noir anti-hero. He leads a double life that is entirely defined by his alienation from the rest of society. He’s a natural loner, possessing some force of will enabling him to endure extreme hardship and isolation from everyone else — even contempt from those he loves. Some attempt is made to give the movie a femme fatale in the form of high school teacher Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart), but it doesn’t last. Merrick, secretly a communist, is ordered by her masters to romance Cvetic and find out if he is for real — all important party officials must be watched. Instead, she turns in her fatale identity for that of a damsel in distress after witnessing a brutal beating and attempting to flee the party. When the red gangsters send goons to keep her quiet, Cvetic is forced to blow his cover in order to save her.

Films such as I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. are obviously products of their special moment in time, yet the mid-century period is one of the most fascinating and disturbing in our history — for reasons more substantial and deeply felt than the infiltration of subversives in Hollywood. A fact not lost on screenwriter Crane Wilbur, who uses one of the film’s episodes to remind the moviegoing public that racial tension was an equally distressing issue in 1951 —though it could be argued that by placing communists behind racial violence he blurs the issue for the benefit of the movie industry and consequently does more harm than good. The scene shows party organizers inciting black factory workers to riot, in hopes of getting fat on the millions to be had from a sham legal defense fund. What’s disturbing and ironic is that after the communist blowhard makes his pitch to the assembly, only one black man questions his motives — and he’s quickly shouted down by his friends. (Evocative of 1947’s Violence, and in some ways also 1950’s The Underworld Story) The film not only frighteningly suggests that these workers really are as gullible as the communists believe, it then corroborates its position by crediting the 1943 race riots in Harlem and Detroit to communist agitators using the same methods.

Although I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. is in many ways a problematic film, everything that makes it problematic today contributed to its success with audiences in 1951 — and therefore the hard-to-find film remains a provocative document of a troubled time.


I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951)

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Director: Gordon Douglas
Cinematographer: Edwin DuPar
Writer: Crane Wilbur
Starring: Frank Lovejoy and Dorothy Hart
Distributed by: Warner Brothers
Running time: 83 minutes

10 comments:

  1. Excellent post. I have not seen I Was a Communist before but after reading your analysis, it is on my "to see" list. Sounds very relevent to its time.

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  2. Mark: Just wanted to drop you a line to say I love the new layout. Very sharp! -- Mykal

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  3. Thanks Mykal, I appreciate it! I hope you are enjoying the new films!

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  4. Hi

    I'm desperately looking for the subtitles or, even better the whole script, of I Was a Communist for the FBI...so I was wondering whether you could help me. This is for my thesis and I've already searched in all and every possible sites and places, it would be very helpful.

    Thanks a lot

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  5. Do you know where I can SEE this film? Netflix doesn't have it and I've been unable to find it otherwise. I enjoyed reading your post!

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  6. Hi Rebecca -- you are in luck! This is airing Wednesday January 27 at 10:15 PM on Turner Classic Movies.

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  7. Having been a McCarthyist since I was a child, thanks to that magnificent television show, "I Led 3 Lives", I have seen "I Was A Communist For The FBI" in its entirety eons of times!! Recently, I have noticed that "I Was A Communist For The FBI" has been taken off the Internet. Why? Be advised, BOTH Herbert Arthur Philbrick AND Matt Cvetic have become bona-fide, dyed-in-the-wool heroes of mine!! Now that we have the Internet, "I Was A Communist For The FBI", and all the other fine Anti-Communist propaganda movies we produced, are far more available to us than they ever were!! Even in the Twenty-first Century, all of us Americans need to assess just how much of a threat the Communist Party still is!! Maybe once we Americans take full advantage of these fine films, maybe Joe McCarthy's tarnished reputation will be restored, once we realize ALL the good he did!! HUAC was disbanded in 1975. Maybe, once we realize ALL the good they did, maybe we will realize that we STILL need them!! GOD BLESS AMERICA!!!

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  8. I Was a Communist has recently been released via the Warner Archives collection, which may account for its disappearance from some web sources. However, it does often air on TCM.

    I think I have to disagree with your position on McCarthy, however, and I'm sure his reputation is not likely to undergo any historical revision. While you may agree with some of McCarthy's goals, certainly you don't believe that the way to get ahead in politics is to make unfounded inflammatory accusations against your political rivals. It was these behaviors that led McCarthy to be censured by his colleagues in the US Senate, and to his eventual political ruin. McCarthy himself agreed that he allowed himself to get out of control, with the publicity that came via television.

    Also, don't forget that as a member of the senate, McCarthy had nothing to do with HUAC.

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  9. Witch hunts are as American as apple pie... imagine if there had been movie cameras in the days of Salem infamy. In the mid to late 50s, TV programming in many areas of the country was somewhat thin so daytime shows were often reruns of sitcoms and old movies. And they repeated and repeated the old films, many of which are now rarely seen.

    I recall several of the the anti-commie films as repeats, as well as, many other films with racist or propaganda overtones (Chinese peasants were always good, Japanese were sneaky and blood thirsty) ... these were shown after school and before dinner. The TV stations in my home town loved to show the pseudo documentaries but to me, as a kid, they seemed stilted and the same as comic books.

    It still baffles me, the most powerful country in the world has more fears, mostly imagined, than you would think possible.

    I betcha J. Edgar loved this film!

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    1. Agreed on all counts, Bill. Great stuff.

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