In October 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities held its first hearings into alleged Communist subversion in Hollywood. This kicked off one of the darkest eras in the history of the American film industry. For years, Hollywood was thrown into turmoil as investigations were held in Congress and on the front pages of newspapers all across America. Careers were ruined, friendships betrayed, and an entire generation of filmmakers and filmgoers came of age in a postwar environment boiling with suspicion and fear.
Perhaps, then, it’s not entirely incidental that film noir entered its golden years in 1947. A genre defined by guilt and paranoia, in some respects noir could only have flowered the way it did in tumultuous Hollywood of the late forties and early fifties.
During this period a “blacklist” went into effect—a systematic process of denying employment not only to avowed Communists and those at least marginally sympathetic to the Party, but denying employment to those suspected of being sympathetic. It didn’t take a lot to get into trouble during this period. Being present at a meeting twenty years before was enough, certainly, but having someone say that you were present at a meeting twenty years before was also enough.
Interestingly enough, film noir was one of the most heavily impacted genres during the Red Scare. This might owe something to the fact that noir is a deeply subversive cinematic form. That’s not to say that musicals and Westerns weren’t affected by the HUAC witch hunt, but the ranks of those filmmakers who created and shaped classic noir were especially full of committed leftists, or idealistic freethinkers, or surly contrarians who looked on American culture and politics with a skeptical eye. In other words, these were the kind of people who made easy fodder for belligerent congressional hearings.
The blacklist intensified as the forties gave way to the fifties. By the mid-fifties, the town had Red fever and dozens of actors, writers, producers, and directors were either openly barred from work or quietly shown the door. Finally, the blacklist was broken in 1960 when Kirk Douglas, at the height of his fame and influence, openly hired the blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo.
There’s no way to know what the industry would have looked like if the blacklist had never happened. There’s no way to know what film noir would have looked like if the blacklist had never happened. In some ways, ironically, it helped create noir by adding to a general sense of unease and dissatisfaction in Hollywood and in the culture. It inspired some great movies (Pickup On South Street), some goofy but fun movies (The Woman On Pier 13, AKA I Married A Communist) and some wretched pieces of trash (I Was A Communist For The FBI).
Mostly though, it can be judged by the way it affected the lives of people. Take John Garfield. What HUAC really wanted was someone big. That meant a bona fide movie star, and they zeroed in on Garfield, one of the great leading men of film noir (Body and Soul, The Breaking Point). Dragged before the Committee, he denied knowing anything about Communism. He denied having ever met a single Communist. These were blatant lies (his wife had been a party member), but Garfield himself had never been a party member, and he had no desire to put the finger on his friends just to save his career. The Committee asked him about his friends, some of whom had fled the country. Garfield said nothing. The Committee hounded him about an issue of The Daily Worker that he admitted to once having read, pressed him on the difference between being a liberal and being a pink-o. Mostly, though, they wanted names. It was all the Committee ever seemed to want: just give us the names of some of your friends, and we’ll let you go. When Garfield refused to turn rat, HUAC gave his testimony to the FBI and asked them to build a perjury case. The studios stopped hiring him. The FBI started tailing him, eventually compiling a thousand page file on the comings and goings of an out-of-work actor. Panicked, Garfield wrote an article for Look magazine called “I Was A Sucker For A Left Hook” in which he denounced Communism and said he’d been duped into supporting various leftist causes. It read like a pathetic plea for absolution, and the magazine refused to publish it. “I’ll act anywhere,” he told a columnist in late 1951. But his career was over. In May of 1952, he died of a heart attack.
The great screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was probably the most prominent writer ensnared by the blacklist. He was one of the original Hollywood Ten, the first members of the entertainment industry to be hauled in front Congress. When he refused to testify, he was held in contempt and sentenced to eleven months in prison in Kentucky. For the better part of five years, he didn’t work. Then he came back to the movie business working under “fronts” who took credit for his work. During this period, his contributions to noir could scarcely be more impressive. He wrote two masterpieces (Gun Crazy and The Prowler) and other excellent pictures like He Ran All The Way and The Boss. His life is being adapted into a film that will star Bryan Cranston in his first big post-Breaking Bad role.
Some other film noir notables impacted by the Red Scare:
John Berry: Director of He Ran All The Way (starring John Garfield) and the great Audrey Totter femme fatale picture Tension, Berry was a theater disciple of Orson Welles and shadowed Billy Wilder on the set of Double Indemnity. He made a documentary defending the Hollywood Ten that got him in hot water with HUAC, because of…
Edward Dmytryk: (Murder My Sweet, The Sniper) After serving time for refusing to cooperate with HUAC, he flipped and gave the Committee Berry’s name. When the FBI showed up at Berry's door to serve him with a subpoena, Berry climbed out his back window and fled the country. Dmytryk was released from jail and went back to making films.
Abraham Polonsky: Writer and director of Force Of Evil (starring John Garfield) and uncredited writer on Odds Against Tomorrow. Blacklisted. Went into exile in Europe.
Guy Endore: Writer of Tomorrow Is Another Day and Whirlpool. Blacklisted.
Hugo Butler: Writer of World For Ransom and The Big Night. Blacklisted. Went into exile in Europe.
Joseph Losey: Director of The Big Night, M, The Prowler. Blacklisted. Went into exile in Europe.
Selena Royle: Actress in He Ran All The Way, Moonrise, The Damned Don’t Cry. Blacklisted. Went into exile in Mexico.
Sterling Hayden: Another of noir’s great leading men, Hayden starred in masterpieces like The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing and Crime Wave. He’d been a Communist for a short time in the thirties, but when HUAC cornered him, he flipped and gave up names. The betrayal tormented him for the rest of his life. Years later, he told a reporter, “It’s the only thing in my life that I’m genuinely ashamed of. It still haunts me. Because I was a rat. I was weak. I have no excuse.”
Marc Lawrence: Actor in too many crime pictures to name, Lawrence always played oily scumbags. He was no one’s idea of an idealist. Called to testify in front of Congress, he provided the single greatest line in the hearings. When asked why he’d attended Communist meetings in the thirties, he answered bluntly, “I went there to meet broads.”
Read more from our Film Noir Collection.