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Stylishly directed by Gordon Douglas, and with more than a few Film Noir-inspired action set pieces to commend it, Warner Bros' I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. (1951) is still a thudding, simplistic piece of anti-Communist propaganda which gleefully engages in the sort of reckless finger-pointing that the McCarthy era is known for. The story is purportedly true, and is (according to the opening credits) "based on the experiences of Matt Cvetic as told to Pete Martin and published in The Saturday Evening Post."
Synopsis: Pittsburgh steelworker Matt Cvetic (Frank Lovejoy) has spent the past nine years working undercover for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He poses as a member of the Communist Party, and has risen up in the ranks of the local command structure. He has confided the truth only to his priest (Roy Roberts), and his affiliation has caused great strain within his large Slovenian family; his brothers detest him, his son (Ron Hagerthy) gets beat up at school trying to defend his name, and his elderly mother (Kasia Orzazewski) loves him but is confused by his actions. The F.B.I. trails top Communist Gerhardt Eisler (Konstantin Shayne) to Pittsburgh, where he meets with local Party bosses Jim Blandon (James Millican) and Harmon (Eddie Norris). Cvetic is present as the Commies eat caviar and plan to weaken the heart of America's industrial might by placing more Communists in the steel industry and by causing race riots and violent labor strikes in the city. Matt is visited by his son's teacher Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart), who reveals that she too is a Communist Party member, sent by the higher-ups to spy on Cvetic. Eve is quickly becoming disillusioned with the Party's methods, but Cvetic must keep his cover in an effort to get enough information to the F.B.I. for their federal probe of the Red Menace.
Produced by Bryan Foy for the Warner Bros. B-unit, I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. appears to have existed mainly to glorify efforts to root out the Communist Threat wherever it may (or may not have) existed, and to placate the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which in 1947 had investigated Hollywood involvement by Communists and Communist sympathizers. The screenplay (by veteran crime and prison-movie scribe Crane Wilbur) would have you believe that, at that moment in time, Communists were infiltrating the public schools as teachers, that they instigated race riots, and that they were systematically attempting to take over the industrial sector of the United States from the inside, one worker at a time. (Party members working at Cvetic's steel factory sabotage the production line to injure non-members so that Communists can move up in the rank-and-file). Most alarmingly, Wilbur depicts teachers, union members, and civil rights workers as Red Dupes, unwittingly helping the Communist cause with only minor prodding from the Party machine; clearly, reformers, free-thinkers, and intellectuals were not to be trusted with America's freedoms in the world that I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. presents. Wilbur's screenplay also presents an odd view of the Communists working in the U.S. As depicted in the film, they are simultaneously high-living elitists as well as common thugs, able to enjoy champagne and caviar with Soviet leaders in one moment, but handy with a lead pipe (wrapped provocatively with a Jewish newspaper) in the next.
Square-jawed Frank Lovejoy brings his usual no-nonsense approach to the lead role as undercover man; he would go on to portray a variety of cops, detectives and military men during his career. As played by Lovejoy, Matt Cvetic is determined to do what it takes to remain undercover and expose the Commie threat, but it is clearly painful to subject himself to the disdain of the community and, in particular, his family. Lovejoy is convincing as a hardliner in this conflicted situation and his performance manages to elicit sympathy, no matter what the politics involved.
Writing in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther pegs I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. as "a hissing and horrendous spy film" and points out the recklessness of the filmmakers, saying "[the movie] tosses off dangerous innuendos and creates some ugly bugaboos in the process of sifting the details of how the Communists bore from within. For instance, in glibly detailing how the Communists foment racial hate and labor unrest in this country, it colors its scenes so luridly that the susceptible in the audience might catch a hint that most Negroes and most laborers are 'pinks.' It raises suspicion of school teachers by introducing one as a diligent 'party member' at the outset, [and] ...it drops suggestions always from the villains' oily tongues that people who embrace liberal causes... are Communist dupes."
The writer for Variety sidesteps the politics of the film and justly notes that the "direction of Gordon Douglas plays up suspense and pace strongly." The critic for Time magazine writes that "I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. falls into a crude pattern, both as melodrama and propaganda. Its exposition of the Communist conspiracy... is as oversimplified, mechanical, and unconvincing as the anti-capitalist preachments of left-wing Broadway plays in the '30s. For the benefit of the audience, the movie's Communists are forever reciting to each other, as if for the first time, the ABC's of party tactics." Further, this astute critic notes that the film presents a simplistic view of Communists "...as simple gangsters, cynically out for a fast buck and the ultimate spoils of power. Real-life Communists are not so simple... their cynical opportunism is rooted in a warped but zealous idealism, which makes them more formidable foes and better material for dramatic treatment."
In Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, Robert Porfirio writes that I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. "...demonstrates how easily the conventions of noir thrillers could be used for these propaganda pieces, which were produced by the motion picture studios for more political reasons than for commercial value. Of all of them, including The Red Menace, Iron Curtain, I Married a Communist, and The Whip Hand, I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. is the most visually noir."
Director Gordon Douglas would use a similar docu-noir style a few years later for the very influential Warner Bros. science fiction movie Them! (1954), probably his best-regarded film today. Following the fall from public favor that McCarthyism experienced in the mid-1950s, I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. was largely forgotten, although its sensationalistic title was appropriated, in tongue-in-cheek manner, for two monster thrillers by American International Pictures, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (both 1957).
Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: Gordon Douglas
Screenplay: Crane Wilbur
Cinematography: Edwin DuPar
Art Direction: Leo K. Kuter
Music: Max Steiner (uncredited)
Film Editing: Folmar Blangsted
Cast: Frank Lovejoy (Matt Cvetic), Dorothy Hart (Eve Merrick), Philip Carey (Mason), James Millican (Jim Blandon), Richard Webb (Ken Crowley - FBI chief), Konstantin Shayne (Gerhardt Eisler), Paul Picerni (Joe Cvetic), Eddie Norris (Harmon), Ron Hagerthy (Dick Cvetic), Hugh Sanders (Clyde Garson), Hope Kramer (Ruth Cvetic)
by John M. Miller