Introduction — Many Are McCarthyist

In the course of the research for my doctoral thesis, The Hollywood Left and McCarthyism: The Political and Aesthetic Legacy of the Red Scare, in February of 2010 I was kindly granted interviews with three leading authorities on this vast topic: Jon Lewis of Oregon State University, Dennis Broe of Long Island University, Brooklyn, and Brian Neve of Bath University, England. All three authors offered their own rich and insightful perspectives on the political and aesthetic challenges faced by both the old and new Hollywood. While the global convulsions of the past four years, most sharply manifested in the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), have significantly shifted the ideological goalposts from where they stood at the time of the interviews, the insights shared by Lewis, Broe and Neve seem even more pertinent today.

One of the interviewees, Jon Lewis, recently wrote that “[t]eaching American film history requires a full-stop at the blacklist” because “the medium changed suddenly and significantly in 1947 when the Hollywood 10 were hauled in to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.” [1] For Lewis, that was “the historic moment when all the rules changed”; the blacklist offered the studios a “convenient way out” of perennial labour troubles. [2] The title of a chapter in Lewis’ Hollywood v. Hard Core (2000), “How the Hollywood Blacklist Saved Hollywood”, sums up the economic rationalist standpoint of the old moguls. However, as it panned out, the historic defeat of radical Hollywood talent proved to be a pyrrhic victory for studio bosses: yes, the studios were purged of troublesome reds, but their Wall Street backers went much further and completely reorganized their businesses, guided by the 1948 Paramount Decision which ruled that the integrated levels of production, distribution, and exhibition held by the studios constituted a monopoly. The studios were ordered to divest themselves of their distribution and exhibition arms.

William Wilkerson, writing in the Hollywood Review in 1947, saw the Waldorf Declaration — a pledge by the studio bosses not to employ communists or their sympathisers — as reflecting the “sudden desire to ‘clean house’ and to purge the industry of the so-called ‘realists.’ He looked forward to a new order, offering ‘pictures that tell of happiness, contentment and promise.’” [3] But Jon Lewis uncovers a more pragmatic rationale for this house clean-up. He reveals the elemental material interests that fuelled the studios’ and the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA’s) instinctive anticommunism. In stressing that the Red Scare “did not mark the beginning of increased Federal regulation of Hollywood,” following the Paramount Decision of 1948, Lewis captures the essence of the lesson learned by these film capitalists: the blacklist “taught the studio membership of the MPAA that when they worked together they could turn a sow’s ear — how else can one describe the HUAC hearings — into a silk purse.” [4] In other words, the ideological capitalist imperative went hand-in-hand with its profit motive.

In the context of the sharpening crisis of both the economy and the ideological underpinnings of post-war capitalism in America and internationally, Washington recognised the far-reaching implications of the unchecked artistic strivings of the ‘Communist-liberal-New Deal movement of the ’30s,’ which increasingly took the form of open criticism of capitalist relations in America. Post-war crime and urban dramas which gradually mutated into bleak, noir-ish portrayals of the inhumane aspects of the American Dream, offered perfect generic disguises for this kind of social critique.

It is one minor but critical strand of the three interviews that some of the blacklisted films speak very eloquently to the current context of a post-GFC world. (And we can leave to one side the fact of Jules Dassin’s having fetched up in Greece, the country currently being seen as the great challenge to the future of European economic stability, the stability of European banks, and the future of the Euro!) [5]

It is more a kind of occasional wondering aloud, in conversations with Lewis, Broe and Neve, about which of the many film noir and films gris under consideration speak most strongly to our contemporary post-GFC cultural economic context. And if they can be said to do this, are they doing it in a way that is more compelling than such contemporary fiction films as Up in the Air (Jason Reitman, 2009), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (Oliver Stone, 2010), and Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009)?

Given that the interviews were conducted in a contemporary dark time of perhaps the most spectacular instance of “casino capitalism” we have ever witnessed (and whose effects continue to play out now beyond the US and the UK and into Europe) it was inevitable that I came to wonder about the place some of the classical noir films occupied in relation to our contemporary global economic events. [6] The world of Ira Wolfert and Raymond Chandler occasionally seemed not at all far away.

Since “[l]ying and cheating are the salt and pepper of noir,” as Jack Shafer so aptly put it, elements of the classical Hollywood noir films lose none of their cultural relevance today — one need not strain one’s imagination to fit classical noir villains into today’s big business and mass media structures. Shafer does precisely that in his recent commentary in The Slant magazine, likening the recent News of the World’s phone hacking scandal to the intricate web of intrigue and back-stabbing in Howard Hawks’ classic The Big Sleep (1946). He concludes wryly that if “only we could persuade the 80-year-old Murdoch to wheeze about like The Big Sleep ’s Gen. Sternwood, get chief executive of Murdoch’s News International Rebekah Brooks to vamp it up like Vivian Rutledge, order The Guardian’s Nick Davies to do a hero turn as Philip Marlowe, and find a stronger sex angle, then only pre-production tasks remaining would be to wet London’s asphalt and secure sufficient black-and-white stock. Hell, Murdoch’s 20th Century Fox could produce and distribute it! Call it The Big Phone Hacker.” [7] The interviews give a strong sense that the most significant loss to American film art from the Red Scare was the consequence of a gradual displacement of precisely such classical noir villains from key structures of American capitalism on screen.

Before the “historic moment” in 1947 when “everything changed,” wresting control from corporations was seen as a prerequisite for Abraham Polonsky’s and John Garfield’s more ambitious artistic objective: to perform, in Polonsky’s words, “an autopsy on capitalism.” [8] In our current time, Mike Moore’s gimmicks in Capitalism: A Love Story, such as encircling Wall Street banks with crime-scene tape, while amusing, merely highlight the most visible aspects of contemporary capitalist crimes. These comedic devices are no substitute for a creatively worked out, synthesized aesthetics that could reveal the extent of invisible “psychological injuries of class,” to borrow Thom Andersen’s phrase. Abraham Polonsky is regarded as one of the main casualties of the blacklist, and this sense of loss of a possible cinematic direction is only reinforced by a real life crime-business thriller — the GFC — now playing out before global audiences, but without a contemporary Polonskian creative mind available to dramatise social devastation of this “giant ponzi scheme.”

This was the immediate context of the three interviews. And as I watched and re-watched many of the films discussed, I was struck by how timely to this moment of financial and political crisis so many of them seemed. So, Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947) and Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948) seemed even more contemporary now than at the period of their release in the late 1940s. One measure of what was lost artistically and politically to McCarthyism is the absence in contemporary Hollywood of film artists comparable to Polonsky, artists not only willing but able to perform, in his words, an “autopsy on capitalism.” This artistic vacuum is particularly pronounced in the period of a re-emergence of new forms of McCarthyism.

Part of this introduction’s subtitle is a variation on the title of Ellen Schrecker’s Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, in which she gives a detailed account of the impact of McCarthyism on all spheres of cultural, political and economic life in America. It was published in 1998, at roughly the half-way point of a historical epoch, both ends of which were marked by “dangerous” men: Dr Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 and the persecuted editor of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange in 2010-11 (not to mention the “treasonous”Edward Snowden). In the light of the contemporary “historical moment when all the rules have changed,” Schrecker’s historical document seems more a product of the broader US post-9/11 narrative than of the time of its publication. Indeed, numerous studies have drawn historical parallels between the classical and new McCarthyism. One such analysis, Jonathan R. Cole’s “The New McCarthyism,” focuses on the intellectual climate at universities in the US, where a “rising tide of anti-intellectualism and intolerance of university research and teaching that offends ideologues and today’s ruling princes is putting academic freedom … under more sustained and subtle attack than at any time since the dark days of McCarthyism in the 1950s.” [9]

There is nothing subtle about the attacks on WikiLeaks and its editor Julian Assange and the former NSA analyst Edward Snowden, orchestrated from the highest levels of the American state, and characterised by open repudiation of the First Amendment Freedom of Speech rights. But in 1971, such core democratic rights were successfully defended by the liberals of The New York Times in their legal battle for their First Amendment right to publish the Pentagon Papers. Back then, Dr Daniel Ellsberg was declared “the most dangerous man in America” by Henry Kissinger, as documented in the recent documentary by that title, The Most Dangerous Man in America (Judith Ehlrich & Rick Goldsmith, 2009). And John Pilger’s recent documentary, The War You Don’t See (2010) powerfully expresses a growing sense of mass radicalisation.

If Hollywood, in the aftermath of the McCarthyist purges, is aesthetically less equipped to dramatise “the psychological injuries of class,” then it is not only the Marxist purists who will feel short-changed by the loss of the blacklisted generation. Following the crash of 2008, when more people than ever in living memory are vulnerable to these psychological injuries, filmmakers who are incapable of grasping the true nature of the class system will also prove incapable of anchoring this objective reality in their genres and characters. Unless the lessons of McCarthyism are assimilated by contemporary filmmakers, they run a real risk of disenfranchising their mass audience, who themselves are subjected to the irrational and berserk gyrations of the capitalist market. In times of an increasingly bizarre and frightening everyday reality, the dramatic limits of conventional fiction are ever more pronounced. In that sense a brief detour into Lewis’s and Broe’s insights into two seminal pre-blacklist noirs, Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) and Jules Dassin’s Naked City (1948), is instructive. Before Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) and Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth (1954), discussed in more depth with Neve, became symbols of two antagonistic camps in the war on communism, Crossfire and Naked City similarly came to represent polar opposites in the political spectrum of pre-HUAC liberalism.

Crossfire “proved to be the film that most interested” HUAC, according to Lewis, because it was a “provocative and political movie.” [10] However, for all its political sophistication, Crossfire’s documentary-style rendition of a police procedural was too narrow an aesthetic platform for the artistic aspirations of film gris practitioners who aimed for higher social and psychological realism. Yet, “Crossfire became the film”, comments Dennis Broe, because it reflected “industry politics and economics” while introducing “social content.” To Broe, this key film pointed to a way forward, offering a kind of “blueprint for a different kind of cinema … a kind of American Open City (Roma, città aperta, Roberto Rossellini, 1945)” [11]

At the other end of the social realist spectrum, Naked City, according to Broe, demonstrated a “regressive bringing in of the neo-realist tropes” without engaging in deep social explorations. Robert Rossen’s first draft screenplay stressed class and social issues in New York, but by the time of the working script, cops and surveillance dominate, watching over the very issues Dassin sought to explore — reportedly, he was disgusted by the final draft. According to Broe, the blacklist “removed the ideas of working-class mentality.” This “no longer is a working-class culture,” but “just an effect,” concludes Broe. [12] In other words, the ground-breaking police procedural Naked City abandoned the working-class ethos and compensated by offering a heightened realism in style.

This charge could be levelled against another seminal work of American social realism, On the Waterfront, which was assessed as a counterpoint to Salt of the Earth in all three interviews, particularly in that with Neve. As was noted there of these two US cinema labour classics, both films are among the best exponents of American neorealism at the time, but Kazan’s film is, in the words of Neve, more “Hollywoodish”, concerned with the “autonomy of the individual,” and concentrating blame on the union apparatus. That separates Waterfront “from the ethos of the Party.” [13] In Salt, on the other hand, the realism of the working-class culture enhances the ethos of the Party and the entire union movement. Such an ethos, a remnant of the 1930s Popular Front idealism of the Hollywood Left, was directly proportional to the level of “proletarianisation” of American culture.

In the relative absence of such “proletarianisation” today, I wish to conclude with David Thompson’s sober assessment of the blacklist: “[T]here were many forces in America, business and political, that felt the danger of too many open, critical movies. We have not yet reversed that trend.” [14] It has to be noted that the legacy of McCarthyism on film art, in America and internationally, will persist until the artist can, as Polonsky put it, “have his way,” [15] especially if he/she seeks to challenge the capitalist status quo. This applies most forcefully to the “most dangerous men of America,” Assange and Snowden, to apply Kissinger’s characterisation of Dr Ellsberg in 1971. As long as these men cannot “have their way” while exercising their First Amendment rights, then David Thompson’s assessment of the original blacklist could apply now with even greater force. Just as the big studios in the 1940s fell in line once their bankers warned them of the consequences of not cooperating with HUAC, today the voice of American liberalism, The New York Times, seems to be succumbing to the same kind of pressure exerted on the Fourth Estate by The Bank of America and other financial institutions. Justifying their measures against Wikileaks, its 2010 Christmas Day editorial, “Banks and Wikileaks,” states:

The Federal Reserve, the banking regulator, allows this. Like other companies, banks can choose whom they do business with. Refusing to open an account for some undesirable entity is seen as reasonable risk management. The government even requires banks to keep an eye out for some shady businesses — like drug dealing and money laundering — and refuse to do business with those who engage in them. [16]

The next, unstated, logical step could be a reconstitution of a loyalty oath. It is in just such a convulsive period that Polonsky’s cinematic “autopsy on capitalism” could assume an even greater objective significance than at the time of his films’ releases in the late 1940s.

This is despite a qualitative shift to the right in our contemporary culture, which in itself is a by-product of a protracted process that led to a conglomeratised and vertically integrated movie industry, run under the dictates of global financial capital. It may appear utopian to imagine a new renaissance of film art in America based on an honest and uncompromising portrayal of its working classes, coupled with aesthetic breakthroughs that would illuminate the class nature of its society, of the kind pioneered by the artists discussed in the interviews, Joseph Losey, Abraham Polonsky, Bertolt Brecht and other artistic dialecticians. While socialist-minded filmmakers comparable to these figures are nowhere on the Hollywood horizon, the emergence of, and the hunger for, the dangerous alternatives to the official media indicate the tectonic shifts deep in contemporary mass consciousness. Coupled with the coming of the second Depression, as forecast by many economists, these tectonic shifts deep below the surface might cause an eruption of working-class creativity of a kind which has not been seen since the 1930s. However, and more importantly, the next wave of radicalised truth-seekers in film art will not be compelled to grapple with what Robert Warshow called the “central task of the American intellectual in the 1930s,” Stalinism. [17] Or, to adapt Warshow’s critique of Stalinism to the present situation: the new American film artist will of necessity face a completely different central task to that of his/her 1930s Popular Front-era counterpart, without the impediments of Stalinism, and with the other pillar of that cultural front, American capitalism, resting on shaky ground.

If or when this powerful new mass movement to the Left eventuates, could it herald the beginning of a new, “proletarianised,” cultural front? Or, perhaps indicate a context from which a new American film art might emerge? Only time will tell, and depending on the outcome of the new period of class reawakening in America, one ought to be able to give a more definitive answer to the question of whether or not the legacy of McCarthyism finally has been reversed. I hope the conversations with Lewis, Broe and Neve will help illuminate an answer.


[1] Jon Lewis, “High Noon by Phillip Drummond [book review].” Cinema Journal 48.2 (Winter, 2009), 163-165.
[2] Interview with Lewis, 9 February 2010.
[3] Cited in Brian Neve, ‘HUAC, The Blacklist, and the Decline of Social Cinema’, in Peter Lev (ed.), The Fifties: Transforming the Screen, 1950-1959 (Berkley: University of California Press, 2003), 78.
[4] Lewis, 2009. ‘High Noon by Phillip Drummond [book review].’ Cinema Journal 48.2 (Winter): 163-165.
[5] For a very insightful commentary see Jonathan Lanchester’s recent column that focuses specifically on Greece: ‘Once Greece Goes…: Any Hope for the Euro?’ London Review of Books, 33.4. (July 14, 2011), 3-7.
[6] Arthur Kopkind uses the term “casino capitalism” in the context of his 1993 discussion of Richard Linklater’s film Slacker, and Douglas Coupland’s book Generation X, among other texts: “The domestic and economic relationships that have created the new consciousness are not likely to improve in the few years left in this century, or in the years of the next, when the young slackers will be middle-aged. The choices for young people will be increasingly constricted.  In a few years, a steady job at a mall outlet or a fast food chain may be all that’s left for the majority of college graduates. Life is more and more like a lottery – is a lottery – with nothing but the luck of the draw determining whether you can get a recording contract, get your screenplay produced, or get a job with your M.B.A. Slacking is thus a rational respone to casino capitalism, the randomization of success, and the utter arbitrariness of power.” (Andrew Kopkind, ‘Slacking Toward Bethlehem,’ Grand Street 44 [1993]: 177-188; cited on p. 187)
[7] Jack Shafer, ‘Rupert Murdoch, Film Noir Hero and Nick Davies as the hard-boiled hero in The Big Phone Hacker,’ The Slant, July 6, 2011.
[8] Thom Anderson, ‘Red Hollywood’, in Frank Krutnik, Steve Neale, Briane Neve, & Peter Stanfield (eds.), ‘Un-American’ Hollywod: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era (New Brunswick, N.J. & London: Rutgers University Press, 2007) 259.
[9] J. R. Cole, ‘The New McCarthyism.’ Chronicle of Higher Education 52.3 (2005), 7-8.
[10] Interview with Lewis, Feb 9, 2010
[11] Interview with Dennis Broe, Feb 12, 2010
[12] Interview with Dennis Broe, Feb 12, 2010.
[13] Interview with Brian Neve, Feb 19, 20103
[14] David Thompson, The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 274.
[15] Abraham Polonsky (1974). Seminar With Polonsky held on 13 Nov 1974. Film History Programm, Center for Advanced Film Studies. Beverly Hills, American Film Institute.
[16] Editorial, ‘Banks and Wikileaks.’ The New York Times (2010)Dec 25.
[17] Robert Warshow, ‘The Legacy of the 30s’, in The Immediate Experience : Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (New York, Atheneum, 1971), 35.

About the Author

Mile Klindo

About the Author

Mile Klindo

Born in Sydney, Australia, in 1970, by Yugoslavian parents, Mile Klindo completed his primary and secondary schooling in his parents' homeland before returning to his country of birth. Life on both sides of the 'Iron Curtain' lent Mile a unique perspective to his subsequent research culminating in the doctoral thesis entitled "The Hollywood Left and McCarthyism: the political and aesthetic legacy of the Red Scare," published in 2013. The three interviews on the legacy of McCarthyism provided critical insights that significantly strengthened this work, both in a political and aesthetic sense, in terms of clarifying the distinct strands of 'proletarianised' left culture manifested in classical Hollywood. Between 2005 and 2013, Mile also taught and lectured on both classical and contemporary Hollywood as well as contemporary world cinemas and aesthetics at Macquarie University, where he gained his PhD, as well as at the University of New South Wales in 2011 and 2012. Since 2014 Mile has been living in Brunei with his family.View all posts by Mile Klindo →